Watercress Line

Women at work on the railway

The crossing keeper has a vital and highly responsible role on the railway, ensuring the gates are opened whenever a vehicle crosses the track. They signal to approaching trains with red and green flags, preventing accidents and enabling safe passage for the travelling public. Whilst there are few crossing keepers on network railways today, heritage railways still keep their story alive.

Female crossing keepers have successfully demonstrated their ability to thrive in this demanding and important role. However, compared to their male counterparts, they have experienced exploitation throughout their history on the railway, especially with regards to working conditions and pay.

Women began working as crossing keepers for the railways in Britain in 1850. Traditionally, experienced railwaymen with a disability or injury, making them unfit for duties requiring use of all limbs, were employed in this role. The railways could force the male crossing keepers to accept a low wage, as they were desperate to keep a job, and state benefits did not exist at the time. The role would otherwise be offered to the widow of the previous crossing keeper, as she would understand the role and have experience from helping her husband. In other cases, a railwayman’s wife or daughter took the job at an even lower rate of pay. The disparity in pay was shocking: in 1950, women worked between 8 – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for 27 shillings, and yet men received 80 shillings for a 48-hour week.

Even so, for some women, being a crossing keeper was a desirable and practical role. Although they had to work alone, often in rural isolated locations, the tenancy of a gatekeeper cottage came with the job. It was also convenient for the women as they could complete domestic duties and look after their children in between train crossings, whilst earning a small income. By 1856, Britain had 2,044 male or female crossing keepers and this number increased to 2,900 by 1950. The crossing gates could be opened 2 to 50 times a day, depending on local requirements. As a result, crossing keepers found they could be on duty for 24 hours each day, constantly remaining vigilant for signs of danger. The role of the crossing keeper became popular with women from the 1800s to 1945, but as job opportunities for women in society diversified, the demand to take this position decreased. 

The responsible role of a crossing keeper offered lots of positives for many women. These ladies came to establish themselves on the railways, retaining their role for very long terms of service. Railwaywomen often intended to pass their role on to a daughter or female relation to ensure women continued to have a prominent position on the tracks. Female crossing keepers were known in their community for acting just as quickly as their male counterparts to prevent serious accidents or hold ups. Despite demonstrating bravery and clear competency in an emergency, the railways showed a distinct lack of confidence in women.

In 1921, grades and pay were standardised, sparking an inadvertent positive change for female crossing keepers. The new conditions made male crossing keepers more expensive to employ, so the railway replaced them where possible. “In 1923, there were 1,417 gatewomen (129 on Southern Railways) and 1,568 gatemen. Four years later, women had gained 106 crossings and men had lost 97. By 1929, men had lost 81 posts through redundancy, while women had lost only 5.” In some instances, women defied traditional expectations by proving themselves to be more competent than the men. 

Unfortunately, female crossing keepers experienced significant issues with their working conditions and rights on the railway. They were ignored and viewed as ‘non-employees’ by the male dominated railway companies until the 1940s. The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) initially excluded railway women from joining their organisation, meaning agreements and decisions regarding the welfare and rights of workers were solely made by men for the benefit of men. The NUR’s General Secretary Mr Jimmy Thomas, excused this in 1919, by stating that “prior to the war, except in the railway shops and one isolated grade of carriage cleaner, practically no women were engaged upon the railways… [So] we as a Union did not cater for them.” This was incorrect. In 1914, over 400 women were working as crossing keepers. By ignoring the voice of women on the railway, the Union could exploitatively select these women for the lowest paid jobs with no opportunities for advancement, whilst the men could expect to rise through the ranks.

During the inter-war period, working conditions improved for the railwaymen. After a nine-day strike in 1919, the workers won the right to an eight-hour day. The NUR also fought for the standardisation of grades and rates of pay in 1921 but in both instances, female crossing keepers were excluded from negotiations and beneficial changes, despite performing identical work. The new conditions of service had a directly negative impact on the female crossing keepers. Standardising work hours, to ensure men had their legal entitlement of 12 hours of free time between shifts, meant their wives were forced to work 24 hours with very limited breaks. These female crossing keepers did not receive an enhancement of pay to match their greatly increased workload.

By the 1970s and 80s, the railways radically altered the management of crossing points. “Manually operated level crossings were either replaced by over bridges or de-staffed as a new type of automatic half-barrier crossing took their place”. Around 50% of the remaining manual crossings were staffed by female crossing keepers but residential crossings began to be phased out. Unfortunately, residential female crossing keepers did not benefit from radical changes in working conditions, as in 1992 they were excluded from yet another ruling. A maximum 72 hour working week was passed, but when Jean Richards retired in 1999, she was still working an unethical 24 hours a day. Jean was paid around £30 a week and was deducted £5 for the rent of the cottage.

To conclude, crossing keepers are a crucial and often underappreciated workforce on Britain’s railways. These hard-working and dedicated railwaymen and women have acted bravely to ensure the safety of movement since the railway began. By relentlessly seeking to achieve improvements in working conditions and pay, female crossing keepers have successfully defied expectations and proved themselves to be as capable as men. However, these women have remained on the margins of railway life as a result of patriarchal expectations that favour male over female workers. The Mid Hants Railway has a crossing keepers cabin at Ropley Station. It is thought that this renovated Southern building is one of very few (possibly) two of this design in existence.

Thank you to Isabella Chalmers-Arnold who researched and put this blog together.

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Books used:

Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace – Helena Wojtczak

War on the Line – Bernard Darwin

Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s Railways Won the War – Michael Williams

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