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Uncovering the secrets of Canadian Pacific

Last November we were excited to find that our article ‘Uncovering the secrets of Canadian Pacific’ had been published in the Science Museum Group Journal. Issue 10 turned the spotlight on women scientists with a mini-collection of special papers.


Railways have long been the domain of men. There is an understanding among historians that women only trespassed into this domain in the early twentieth century with the onset of war. While this may be true to a point, women have had a history of working on the railways from as early as 1850. Certainly, the relationship between women and railways changed dramatically with the onset of the First World War: from 1914 women started to invade a predominately male industry, taking up what had previously been male-only roles. The influx of women onto the railways was frowned upon by railwaymen, but this early pioneering in the railway by women laid the foundation for an even greater contribution during the Second World War which saw women working on the railways in far greater numbers and taking up a greater variety of roles. One job which has long been disputed is the role of women in the construction of locomotives. Through Canadian Pacific’s survival and preservation, its identity stands as a powerful symbol of the work carried out by women in the Second World War.
In order to better understand how women came to be involved in the construction of Canadian Pacific in 1941, we must understand the longer history of women on the railways, which is discussed below.

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.

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.

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. 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).

Change is coming: The First World War

The railways underwent a dramatic change with the start of the First World War in 1914. Large numbers of men left the railways to join the forces, even though railway work was a protected profession. The government decided to step in and take charge of the situation, pushing aside the railway companies and taking control through the Railway Executive Committee. Precedent had already been set in industries such as manufacturing where women had replaced men and the government proposed that women should replace those railwaymen that had left to fight. Unfortunately, this didn’t go down well with the unions or the railwaymen left behind. The railwaymen had three broad objections to women working on the railways, particularly in male grades (Railway Review 1915, National Union of Railwaymen). For many of the men, women working on the railways as part of the war effort were not really part of the railway, just a nuisance to be tolerated.

Jobs which women had held before the war started to change. Other new jobs were becoming available to women because of the war. Women were now allowed to work in male grades performing such jobs as ticket collector, guard, and goods porter. For the first-time women were allowed to work as police officers in what would become the British Transport Police. Female police officers were not allowed to arrest or even caution a man. On some railways (for example the Caledonian Railway) female police officers had no power of arrest and in Piccadilly Circus they only dealt with women. Despite the restrictions and reluctance to accept women workers, railwaywomen in the First World War quickly proved that they were capable of all types of railway work. With the end of the First World War in 1918, the railway returned to its pre-1914 structure. Railwaywomen were quickly dismissed from the railway and many women faced hostility if they tried to stay. Those women that did stay were forced back into female roles.

Women are needed again: The Second World War

In the Second 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 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.

A secret uncovered: Canadian Pacific

Eastleigh Works in the Second World War employed women who worked on the carriages, wagons and locomotives (Boocock and Stanton, 2006:51; Eastleigh Works Appointments book 1936–1943; Asprey, 2017). Women now worked in the dining hall, paint shop, sawmill, body shop, forge, erecting shop, and the machine shop (Eastleigh Works Appointments book 1936–1943). One area in the Works where women took over to a very great extent was the machine shop, and in fact by 1940 the only railwayman left in the machine shop was the Assistant Machine Shop Foreman, Mr Asprey (Asprey, 2017).

In 1938 Chief Mechanical Engineer, Oliver Bulleid decided to build ten new locomotives for the Southern Railway (Haresnape, 1985, p 18). Thus, the women employed in Eastleigh Works from 1939 helped in building the first ten Merchant Navy class locomotives, including Canadian Pacific.

Research conducted as part of the Canadian Pacific Project looked more closely at women’s roles in the Eastleigh Workshops during the Second World War. From the appointments books and testimony, we can safely say that women were actively involved in the maintenance and building of steam locomotives (Asprey, 2017). During the time when Canadian Pacific and the other Merchant Navy class locomotives were being built large numbers of women were working within Eastleigh Works, up to 1,500 at any one time. Moreover, the records show that women were working within crucial areas of the Works that would have been heavily involved in the construction of Canadian Pacific. These included the machine shop, wheel shop, fitting shop, sawmill, offices, wagon shop, paint shop, lining room, finishing shop, brake shop, copper shop, electric shop and brick shop in Eastleigh Works, all of which contributed to the construction of Canadian Pacific and the other Merchant Navy class locomotives. The involvement of these women in the building of locomotives is an important and under-appreciated part of Canadian Pacific’s story. Nowadays, the Merchant Navy locomotives are remembered largely for their performance and design, but the involvement of women in their construction is absent from their history. Canadian Pacific is one of the first ten Merchant Navy locomotives built in Eastleigh Works and the oldest surviving member of the class. But it is not just important for its age: on 15 May 1965, Canadian Pacific travelled 105 mph down Winchester bank (Wilson, 2014). Thus, it is both the oldest and fastest surviving Merchant Navy locomotive in preservation, but more than that it is a testament to the women who were involved in the construction of locomotives in the Second World War and a true example of female engineering. It should make the women involved in its construction proud.


Canadian Pacific stands as a powerful symbol of the work carried out by women in the Second World War. However, without the struggles of women on the early railways and the major changes carved out by women in the First World War this would not have been possible. Canadian Pacific, although in its third overhaul in preservation and much changed from its original design in 1941, is still a powerful symbol of the work carried out by women during the Second World War. We are lucky that some of the original locomotive survives and although the current work to restore her will further reduce its ‘originality’, it is an exemplar and surviving symbol of the work of women on the railways during this time.

To read the full article click here.

Thank you for reading,

Becky (Project Supervisor)


References: Asprey, C, 2017, Oral history recording, held by the Mid Hants Railway; Bonavia, M R, 1987, The History of the Southern Railway (London: Unwin Hymen); Boocock, C and Stanton, P, 2006, An Illustrated History of Eastleigh Locomotive Works (Surrey: Oxford Publishing Co. Ian Allan Publishing Ltd); Eastleigh Works, 1936–1943, Appointments book 1936–1943. Held by Hampshire Records Office, Winchester; Haresnape, B, 1985, Bulleid Locomotives (Shepperton: Ian Allan Publishing Limited); Mid Hants Railway, WWII staff lists, part of the Mid Hants Railway Archive; Wojtczak, H, 2005, Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace (Hastings: The Hastings Press); Wyeth, G, 2017, Oral history recording, held by Mid Hants Railway.

Photo gallery

  • The railways have always been viewed as male dominated (Dennis Holdaway)

  • Typically female job handing out refreshments to workers (Dennis Holdaway)

  • Alresford Station, 1946

  • Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway, Oliver Bulleid

  • In WWII women took over the work in the Machine Shop at Eastleigh Works (Dennis Holdaway)

  • Women in WWII were involved in various different jobs in Eastleigh Works (Dennis Holdaway)

  • Canadian Pacific running along the Watercress Line. (Matt Allen)

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