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Railway Women

The history of the railways is often seen as dominated by men, and it is true that women started to drive the trains only recently: the first female train driver was Karen Harrison in 1978. But there is a lot more to running the railways than just driving the trains, and women have participated in other areas of work since the beginning.

There are many jobs associated with the railways which have nothing to do with the trains themselves. Inside the train stations suitable jobs for women would be cleaner or waiting room attendant. Stations also had refreshment rooms, which could be managed and staffed by women. There might be lodging houses and later hotels for passengers needing overnight accommodation, and these too could be run by women.

The railway station at Abingdon. A sign on the building on the left promises “Refreshments”. Running refreshment rooms and accommodation was one area where women could find jobs with the railways from the start.

Then there was the whole administrative side of running the railways, where clerical staff like copyists and typists, or telegraph and telephone operators were often women. Then there were a lot of activities you wouldn’t necessarily think of when you think of the railways: the printing of posters and timetables; the stitching of upholstery and blinds for the carriages, and the sewing of the uniforms for railway staff. Refreshment rooms and dining cars needed their laundry done. The interior of the carriages needed to be cleaned and polished.

Along the railway lines women worked as crossing keepers. Occasionally they manned signal boxes, but that was more the exception than the rule. On the trains themselves they were employed as attendants for female only carriages. These are an interesting development and a reason why the rise of the railways gave women greater freedom to travel than before. No woman could travel on a coach without an escort, but the advent of ladies only carriages provided a safe and socially acceptable way for women to travel on their own. As far as work was concerned however, railway women of the time were confined to what was perceived as “women’s work”.

“The Traveling Companions”, painting by Augustus Leopold Egg, 1862. Women-only carriages made travel possible for women unaccompanied by men in the 19th century. (Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0)

In parallel with most industries however, the railways experienced two periods during which women took on work which was normally seen to be outside their sphere: the two World Wars.

At the start of the 20th century around 4,500 worked for the railways, but during World War 1, tens of thousands of women were newly engaged to fill the jobs vacated by men enlisting in the armed forces. These jobs now included being porters and ticket collectors, cleaning the engines, driving trucks and vans, and operating cranes and points.

The Network Rail website claims that many women retained their jobs when the war ended, but other researchers weaken this claim and say that while some women stayed on, the majority were dismissed when the war was over and the men returned from the front. The website for St Pancras Station, in a page about women and the railways, even says that “the women’s names were written in red ink in the [Railway Union]’s register of members to make it easier to identify who would later be struck off once they had finished war work.” It goes on to say that it was made clear from the start that the women’s jobs were only temporary and that they would last only as long as the war.

Nevertheless, between the wars the number of female railway employees increased to about 25,000, but they were no longer employed in roles that demanded strenuous physical labour.

Plate from the Refreshment Rooms at Abingdon Station, on display at the museum. Serving food in refreshment rooms has always been accepted as “women’s work”.

This changed again with the outbreak of World War 2, when women were needed to fill roles including physically demanding ones (such as engine cleaners) or more technical ones (such as signallers). At first these roles, like those in other industries, were filled with volunteers. But with more and more men away on frontline duty, so many workers were needed that Parliament passed the National Service Act, calling up all unmarried women between 20 and 30 for war service. They went into munitions factories, tank and aircraft production, nursing, and transport, including of course the railways. In parallel with what happened during World War 1, women were now given work which would have been reserved for men in peacetime. In addition to the jobs they had already done in 1914-1918, women were now employed as guards on the trains, as welders and electricians. Locally they included Maud Alfreda Jenkins, who worked as a porter at Radley Station, and Edwina Tubb, who did the same job in Abingdon.

Again, as after World War 1, only some of the women retained their jobs after the war. There was a shortage of workers, and more women were given employment on the railways this time to ease the pressure, but they were mostly limited to “women’s work”. It was a slow process for them to penetrate into the technical and manufacturing sectors. It was an equally slow progress towards equality, but in 1958 British Railways established equal pay for men and women, which actually predated the first governmental Equal Pay Act. According to a statistic provided by Network Rail, today women make up one-fifth of the workforce on the railways. There are more opportunities for women in a wider variety of work as the segregation between “men’s work” and “women’s work” fades away. This does not just go for technical and highly skilled jobs but even the higher echelons of management. Network Rail claims that 50% of the senior management team for the high speed line HSL1 is made up of women. Perhaps these days the railway really can be, as their website says, “a woman’s world”.

Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer

Featured image: Edwardian-era photograph of a woman and children, watching the train go past on the Abingdon Branch Line. I was hard pressed to find suitable illustrations for this post, and this photo does at least have a woman and a train in it.


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