Watercress Line

Women on the Railway in WWII

At the outbreak of World War Two, the position of women on the railways immediately altered. In Britain, the railways swiftly employed thousands of women to counteract huge labour shortages, resulting from male workers being conscripted to fight on the front line. As female workers challenged patriarchal expectations and crucially helped Britain to win the war, this sparked a positive change in attitudes towards women. Success on the railway was no longer exclusive to men.

It was during World War One that women on the railway had achieved their biggest breakthrough. Pioneering figures became employed in a variety of roles previously dominated by men. However, as men returned from war, they were re-instated in their jobs, meaning women were forced to return to the home.

World War Two gave a new generation of women another chance to “break away from traditional notions of female weakness, and the idea women could not somehow cope with machinery”. As the workload trebled during the war, thousands of women were urgently employed by the railways on a temporary basis. They undertook strenuous manual tasks for the first time in addition to administration and clerical jobs. At the beginning of World War Two, 635 women had roles in railway workshops but by the end of the war, 10,899 women worked as welders, mechanics, fitters, blacksmiths and steam hammer operators. These women had a key role in building locomotives, carriages and wagons. For many women working on the railway offered an opportunity for advancement. Fathers encouraged daughters to join the railway rather than risk them being conscripted and sent away from home. As a result, on the Southern Railway 8,000 women took the place of 9,000 men during the war.

Women embraced some of the most physical jobs on the line during World War Two. Women were also trusted with high concentration work. They operated cranes 40ft above the ground and used precise judgement to release enormous containers between trains and lorries.  Furthermore, railwaywomen found themselves quickly adapting their newly learned skills to unfamiliar equipment.  Oliver Bulleid, Southern Railway’s Chief Mechanical Engineer introduced his famous ‘air-smoothed’ Pacific's during World War Two. The first 10 of these were built between 1941 and 1942 at Eastleigh Works. Here women were involved in the building of these locomotives including 21C5 Canadian Pacific, our very own flagship steam locomotive. Colin Asprey recalls his father an Assistant Foreman in the machine shop coming home and talking about the ‘hard working girls’ in the works.

Even the Mid Hants Railway employed female staff to replace those men who joined the forces. Women were employed as porters, signalwomen and guards across the railway and two of these can be seen in the photograph taken at Alresford station in May 1946. Gerald Wyeth recalls ‘on the M7 type of engines, quite often in the war, there were female guards and gentleman drivers and they were quite fond of each other because for some reason you would find that the female guard was actually in the M7 with the driver’.

As well as being dedicated workers, women showed themselves to be as courageous in the war effort as men. Additionally, some women began to work in higher grades, such as guards and signalmen. This was soon seen in other areas on the railway such as workshops and shipping.

The Southern Railway suffered the most bombing incidents in the war, railwaywomen had to deal with considerable stress and crisis situations. Between July 1940 and September 1943, their routes were affected by 58 bombing attacks. Porter Violet Wisdom demonstrated extreme bravery and quick thinking when a train travelling from Guildford to Horsham was bombed in December 1942. She ran onto the railway track to find the driver and guard dead and other passengers dying or injured. Both she and the fireman William Fairey rescued passengers and were awarded certificates for their response, with Violet being commended for showing ‘great courage and resource directly the bombs had fallen.’ However, in Bernard Darwin’s account in War on the Line, 1946, he states that Fairey “single-handedly attended the injured” and was “unaided in his rescue work”.

Notably, the role of women on the railways only progressed to a certain extent during World War Two. A clear labour hierarchy remained, with many of the most prestigious jobs like locomotive and line superintendents being occupied by male workers only. As a result of their crucial role in helping Britain to win the war, women began to see changes in attitudes towards their value in wider society. Women remained marginalised on the railways largely because they were often seen as a threat by railwaymen. Notably, due to women accepting less pay than men for similar work, meaning they were a source of cheaper labour.

To conclude, World War Two gave women on the railways the chance to excel and assert their value in a traditionally male sphere. By carrying out strenuous, physical, detailed and courageous work on the line, these women defied expectations and proved themselves to be as capable as men. As a result, these women made strides in redefining their identity on the railway, as they gained in confidence and skills and built on the progress made by women during World War One. Whilst women returned to the home after the war, it was no longer certain they would stay there.

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Thank you to Isabella Chalmers-Arnold who researched and put this blog together, and Gerald Wyeth and Colin Asprey who shared their memories with us.


Thanks for reading!


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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