Go back to article: Uncovering the secrets of Canadian Pacific

The early railways

The railway has always been viewed as a very male-centred industry. Today women play a more active role in the running of the railway but for many the railway in the past was filled with men, and it was perceived at the time as an environment where women did not belong. In many ways this misconception is understandable, and surviving photographs reinforce the idea.

Figure 2

Black and white photograph of a number of male railway workers taking a rest

Inside Eastleigh Works, 1913

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of two railway engineers standing next to a steam train

Eastleigh Yard, 1913

However, these images only tell one side of the story. Many people are unaware that women worked on the railways as early as 1850. In the 1851 census, for example, there are fifty railwaywomen cited, and by 1901 this had grown to 1,633 railwaywomen (Wojtczak, 2005:5). About a third of these women would have worked in the hotel industry as cooks, chambermaids, kitchen assistants, cleaners, laundresses and waitresses, with the highest grades in this area being housekeeper and tea room manageress. It seems surprising nowadays that a woman could be described as a ‘railwaywoman’ while working in the hotel industry, but it is important to note that at this time the railway owned a great deal of infrastructure and real-estate including hotels and taverns that people frequented on their journeys. Many railways also owned docks (for example, London and South Western Railway owned Southampton Docks), and even steam ships: the steam ships travelling to Jersey and Guernsey from Southampton Docks were owned by London and South Western Railway.

The hotel industry was not the only work available to women on the railway in 1901 but it is certainly true that other roles available were very limited. The highest rank a woman could achieve on the railways themselves was that of an Inspectress. This job consisted of checking that ladies’ accommodation was up to standard and involved managing female staff (women never managed men on the railway). Women could also be crossing keepers. This job was usually offered to a disabled railwayman, since it was light work that could easily be performed by a person with limited mobility and strength and it could be offered to a woman on a man’s refusal or absence. This job was sought after as it came with a house, and in many cases it ended up being passed between female family members. These crossings were small with little traffic and so were deemed easy enough for women to manage. Those women who took up the position were paid a lower rate of pay compared to male crossing keepers and were expected to work the same hours; however, many women enjoyed the job as it allowed them the flexibility to raise a family while working. Another job available to women was carriage cleaning. Again, this was offered with some restrictions, with women only allowed to clean carriages in the station as the yard was considered the domain of men.

Women were employed as early as 1840 in the railway workshops such as Nine Elms in London, but there were still restrictions for women. In the railway workshops women were employed in what might be considered typically female roles: upholstering, painting, cleaning and catering, to name a few (see Figure 4). London and South Western Railway employed women actively and had a policy of hiring women who were widowed by accidents on the railway. They were always in female roles but the work did enable them to support themselves and their dependents. This is a very different view of the railway from the male-centred and harsh world that has been portrayed in books such as Bonavia’s The History of the Southern Railway (1987).

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of a number of women standing with their tea trollies

Tea trolleys

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181010/002