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Early Women on the Railway

As part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Canadian Pacific Project, we are researching and exploring the social history of the railway covering a wide range of topics. We will be sharing such stories that focus on the human side of the railway and locomotive. This fascinating piece from Dr Becky Peacock, the Project’s Outreach and Interpretation Officer, has been timed to coincide with International Women’s Day. .  We are looking at female roles in the railway, as Canadian Pacific was built in 1941 by a workforce that would have included many women.  In this post however, we are looking further back in time...

Women working on the railways has a long history, dating back to the 1800's. There is an acceptance of women's roles on the railways during WWII, although still rarely expressed within literature. However, women were also widely employed in this industry during WWI and earlier. These early women pioneered the acceptance of women on the railways within Britain. They faced prejudice, fear, prosecution and resentment. These earlier pioneers showed railway companies, their male colleagues, railway unions and Britain that they could succeed in this 'male' world.

The earliest accounts of women working on the railway appear as early as the 1800's. Three women were documented as 'railway labourers' working on the construction of the South Eastern Railway: Mary Smith (aged 40); Elizabeth Taylor (aged 20); and Elizabeth Waters (aged 21) in 1851. These were likely to be itinerant workers like the men working on the railway. However, their role is unclear and they could have been nothing more than male workers wives. These early records show how difficult it is to prove that these women were actually working on the railways and the roles that they played in the labour force. This is not uncommon with most early railway records or census' especially pertaining to women.

The Female Naavie

The only woman who definitely laboured on the railway as a naavie was Elizabeth Ann Holman. She worked on the Great Western Railway for 14s a week in the 1850's. The only way she managed to obtain the job was by masquerading as a man. This was not the only case of a woman pretending to be a man. There are a number of cases and many had been doing this from an early age. The majority were eventually found out and prosecuted for the deception.

In the Victorian era railways routinely allocated women to the lowest status jobs. Women were employed mostly to do tasks that were menial or similar to domestic work such as cleaning. Even these roles were restricted to male and female proportions of the job, e.g. women could only clean carriages at the station. The jobs available for women at this time were limited and mainly classed as 'female' work such as; cleaners, ladies attendants, laudresses, catering workers, sewing machinists, upholsterers, blind-dryers, and polishing. However, there were two roles which could be filled by men or women; crossing keepers or Station Masters/Mistresses. These roles were only given to women if no men could be found to fill the positions and they were situated in a rural location. A large number of rural crossings were attended by women and this was favoured by the railway companies. Men received higher wages than women even if those men in these positions were disabled. Therefore, putting women in charge of smaller crossings cut costs down for the railway companies.

Mary Ann Rogers and the SS Stella

Mary Ann Rogers worked for the LSWR on the SS Stella, which operated between Southampton and Guernsey. On 30th March 1899 the SS Stella was wrecked after hitting some rocks in thick fog. On 10th April an unattributed, third hand account of the sacrifice of Mary Ann Rogers appeared in The Times. Seizing upon this, women's rights campaigner Frances Power Cobbe wrote a letter to the editor for publication, eulogising Mrs Rogers, and offered £25 towards a memorial fund. Annie Bryans founded one and a canopied drinking fountain was built and unveiled in 1901 opposite Southampton Pier. The inscription was written by Frances Power Cobbe:

'In memory of the heroic death of Mary Ann Rogers, Stewardess of the 'Stella', who on the night of the 30 March, 1899 amid the terror of shipwreck aided all the women under her charge to quit the vessel in safety, giving up her own life-belt to one who was unprotected. Urged by the sailors to make sure her escape she refused lest she might endanger the heavily-laden boat. Cheering the departing crew with the friendly cry of 'good-by, good-bye'. She was seen a few moments later as the 'Stella' went down lifting her arms upwards with the prayer 'Lord have me' then sank in the waters with the sinking ship'

In 1900, when the Memorial of Heroic Deeds was opened in Postman's Park in London to commemorate people whose selfless actions saved the lives of others, it incorporated a tablet inscribed to Mrs Rogers, In 1908, the committee of the new Liverpool Anglican Cathedral included her in a group of 21 notable women depicted in the staircase window in the Lady Chapel. Mary Ann Rogers lost her life in the course of her duty, however, her last moments are likely to be embroidered.

The outbreak of WWI in 1914 saw the loss of men from many industries as they signed up for the forces. Women were the only available workforce to replace those men who had left. In the railways there was much objection to women in all roles on the railway. This centered on a number of reasons; 1) women were deemed to be mentally and physically incapable of undertaking the types of work found on the railway. 2) women had been forced to accept lower wages than men for years. Now women became men's competition for jobs and if they continued to be paid lower wages women would be hired over men. However, it was never suggested that women should be given equal pay as they could not do the job as efficiently and therefore should not be paid the same. 3) There was worry for railwaymen who had joined the forces not having jobs on returning from the war. This caused the unions to make the railway companies agree that women in male jobs were only temporary and they would give up the job when the war ended.

The bar against women being appointed to male roles was lifted in 1915. Women were employed in a variety of jobs on the railways during WWI that included both 'female' and 'male' work. These roles were ticket collectors, carriage cleaners, engine cleaners, goods handlers, guards, porters, police, workshop workers, clerical, catering, shipping staff, gatewomen, communications, signalwomen, crossing keepers, ladies attendants and Station Mistresses.

Fashion on the Railway

Before the war women had never worn trousers in public. Even carriage cleaners were expected to wear long skirts and corsets. This made the job very dangerous as they were expected to climb ladders. Women at Wimbledon Park, on the LSWR were the first carriage cleaners to tackle this issue. They loosened their corsets and shortened their skirts and eventually donned male breeches. This quickly became widespread across the railways and was soon officially approved. In every role on the railway women were expected to keep to the female dress code and soon women were adapting their clothing for their new jobs.

Women during WWI proved themselves and to others that they were capable of performing 'men's work'. Railway companies were impressed by women's success in their roles. By mid-1918 65,887 women were employed on the railway. Women had accumulated specialised knowledge and experience by the end of the war. Their way of thinking had changed and the pre-war life held little charm for most. However, they were expected to surrender their jobs to the men they had replaced and then to any returning serviceman. Many returned to traditional female jobs, while those who stayed on in the railways experienced increased hostility. Many women were made unemployed based only on them being women. In many cases these women had dependents and no longer had a male breadwinner.

This is a brief overview of a large period of history and does not go into detail about all the struggles faced by women working on the railways in this period. These women proved that they were just as capable as men to work on the railways. Many women at the end of the war stayed working on the railways but they were restricted to 'female' roles except for those working as crossing-keepers. The barriers that these women had broken down during WWI meant that at the outbreak of WWII railway companies had less objections to women taking up male roles. Many of the working conditions had been improved for women, and restrictions on their working lives were a little less strict.

Please help us complete the overhaul of Canadian Pacific by donating - click here to support our work.  If you or your family have any experience of females working on railways, please email outreach.mhr@hotmail.com to share them with us.  Additionally, if you would like to assist our research into female roles on railways, please contact us.

Thanks for reading!

Note - picture above is taken from Women's War Work, Anonymous, Great Britain. War Office. Bibliolife.

Photo gallery

  • Volunteer Lisa working on Canadian Pacific

  • Image Copyright Jarrold Publishing

  • Getting Bittern ready for the Autumn Steam Gala 2015

  • Mary Ann Rogers Memorial

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