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Women are needed again: the Second World War

In the Second World War the railway didn’t cease to function as it had at the beginning of the First World War. The government took over the railways quickly and women were employed as soon as railwayman started to leave to fight. 98,000 railwaymen left to join the forces and by 1943 there were 88,464 women working on the railways. This was made possible because of the groundwork made by women in the First World War who had fought against prejudice and showed that women could complete jobs previously considered only fit for men. During the Second World War a wider range of jobs became available for women including previously male-only roles such as ticket collector, guard and porter (Mid Hants Railway Staff lists; Wyeth, 2017). In addition, some of the roles that had been available in the First World War started to expand: female police officers were now able to arrest women – a small but significant step. For the first time women were employed in track maintenance and by 1944 over two thousand women were employed in this role furthering the challenge that women in the First World War had made to the idea that women were mentally and physically incapable of the more physical types of railway work. Women could also now be wheel tappers, fog signallers, perform shunter duties, be number takers, operate cranes and be gas fitters, all roles unavailable to women before the Second World War. For the first time, women were trained in signalling, and to the railway company’s surprise they excelled at the role (Mid Hants Railway staff photograph, 1946). In fact, women turned out to be so good at signalling that the Southern Railway built three colleges to train women for the role. It took between 2-4 months to train a signalwoman and up to six months to train a signalman. The railways were beginning to realise that women could not only match, but surpass railwaymen when it came to certain roles.

One area that saw an increase in female workers in the early 1940s was in the railway workshops such as Eastleigh Works in Hampshire. Women had long been employed in the railway workshops but largely in female roles as discussed above. Eastleigh Works was built in 1891 when the London and South Western Railway needed to find a more suitable location than Nine Elms in London for their railway works (Robertson, 1992). Eastleigh was considered a better location as it ‘was a green field site lying in the shadow of its more important neighbour, Bishopstoke’ (Robertson, 1992:9). The new location would allow the railway works more room for expansion, which was not possible at Nine Elms. From 1891, Eastleigh became the home of the London and South Western Railway Carriage and Wagon Workshops and 1910 saw the move of the Locomotive Workshops to Eastleigh too (Legg, 2012). In 1923, London and South Western Railway became the Southern Railway and the workshops carried on being used under that title (Maggs, 2012, p 31–2).

During the Second World War, Eastleigh Works was the main Locomotive, and Carriage and Wagon Works for the Southern Railway, but it was also used to build tailplanes for Horsa gliders[5] (see Figure 5), ammunition, Matilda tanks, bomb trolleys and landing craft (see Figure 6) as part of the war effort (Wragg, 2006, p 121).

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of a woman working on the construction of an aircraft

Constructing tailplanes for Horsa gliders, Eastleigh Works

Figure 6

Black and white photograph of a large warehouse with two partially constructed boats

Building of landing craft in Eastleigh Works

In most areas of the railway, men and women were separated but this was not the case in Eastleigh because the women employed were family members of railwaymen (see Figure 7). Many railwaymen pressurised their female family members to work for the railway during the war to ensure that their daughters and wives were not conscripted for war work elsewhere in the country and families could keep an eye on them. But working together created its own tensions as fraternisation with these women was extremely frowned upon. In fact, levels of fraternisation at Eastleigh Works were the lowest compared to anywhere else on the railway, although there were instances of it still occurring (Canadian Pacific Project Oral History). In many jobs away from the Works, men and women were separated to make sure fraternisation didn’t occur but there were some other roles where men and women had to work in close proximity. One of these roles was signalling and, in many cases male signal workers had never worked with women and were uneasy with this new workforce (Railway Review 21 May 1915, Wojtczak, 2005, p 180).

Figure 7

Black and white photograph of a man and a woman painting a railway carriage

Men and women working together to paint wagons, Eastleigh Works

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181010/004