It was around five years ago that I first discovered the collection of interviews with railway workers carried out by the Friends of the National Railway Museum some ten years earlier. Over 1,000 hours of recordings are stored in the museum’s Search Engine as the National Archive of Railway Oral History, a treasure trove of memories and viewpoints from a varied range of railway people across the country.
So, two years ago, when I was looking for ideas for a new book, I decided that some of these voices needed to reach a wider audience. My interest focused on the few women in the collection, recounting their experiences of work on the railways during the Second World War. There are of course books about women working in wartime industry, in the Land Army and joining the military services, but little to date capturing the experiences of women railway workers doing a vital job.
My book, Female Railway Workers in World War II, published by Pen & Sword in August 2018, features these voices, women working across Britain, who were mostly in their late 70s when they were interviewed. They had taken on railway roles in wartime which were completely new to females, working as porters and guards, on the permanent way, and in maintenance and workshop operations. Others were taken on as clerks, surprisingly usually a male role at this time.
Many were working in ‘men’s jobs’, or working with men for the first time, and these interviews offer tantalising glimpses of conditions, sometimes under great danger. What was it about railway work that attracted them? It’s fascinating to contrast their voices with the way they were portrayed in official publicity campaigns and in the light of attitudes to women working in the 1940s.
These women talk about their difficulties in a workplace not designed for women—no toilets for example, the attitudes of their families, what they thought about American GIs and Italian POWs, how they coped with swearing and troublesome colleagues, rules about stockings. They describe devastating air raids and being thrust into tough responsibilities for the first time.
Betty Chalmers was working on the switchboard at LNER York Station. When the station was bombed in 1942 she had to move to a replacement switchboard in a corridor under the bar walls, in hot, unventilated conditions, while colleagues at the station were clearing out broken glass and sorting wet tickets. Gladys Garlick talked about her training as an LNER guard at Hatfield: ‘There was a bit of a bad feeling by some of the guards cos they thought it made their job look cheap. Well, I suppose in a way it’s like my husband working to be a driver. You don’t jump straight into it, do you? You have to work your way up to get to be a guard. And they were, some of them were a bit resentful of that. But on the whole they were all very good.’
Nellie Nelson joined LNER York as a porter in 1940. She tells us how they helped to get injured passengers off the bombed train in 1942 and how her bike was destroyed. She also worked as a blackout attendant on the trains, going up and down to Darlington to check that the blinds were kept down.
Joan Richards was a GWR parcels clerk at Hartlebury in Worcestershire, who related how her father warned her of bad language from male colleagues and of the difficulties of doing overnight relief at Kidderminster Fire Station as well as her day job. Joan Cox was helping to run a mobile canteen caravan for SR railwaymen at Redhill, and talked about her encounters with Italian prisoners of war.
Vera Jones was an apprentice fitter with LMS at Crewe, fitting handrails on locomotives and later working on fire-box lagging plates for the new 2-8-0 locomotives. Marjorie Pateman was a lathe operator at LMS Wolverton, very disappointed to be moved into the frame shop, where they had to work on the rivet carrier in extremely hot and noisy conditions.
Personal accounts of railway work by women in wartime offer valuable insights into the perceptions and concerns of these young women. For most it was a hugely enjoyable experience, meeting a variety of people, proving themselves, appreciating fresh air and good company and discovering surprising capabilities. As generations die out and families lose a direct connection, it becomes more important to be able to share their voices with a wider audience.
Susan Major completed a PhD in Railway Studies at York in 2012, Her book, based on her research into early Victorian railway excursions, explodes a few myths about these in traditional railway histories.