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Drunkenness and work on the railways: a potentially catastrophic combination.

I recently had the pleasure of cataloguing the archive of the Railway Mission, a collection of documents which has revealed a lot about social aspects of railway history. What can the collection tell us about changing attitudes to work and temperance?

The Railway Mission was founded in 1881 to improve the spiritual and physical well-being of railway workers. It soon joined in the national battle against alcohol, the temperance movement. Anyone who watched ITV’s ‘Jericho’ will have witnessed the widespread drunkenness of navvies and the awful consequences of mixing drunkenness with the operation of heavy machinery. Imagine what could and did happen when drink was mixed with the work of railwaymen.

MISS/1/10/10 - Railway Mission Total Abstinence Association Member's Card.
MISS/1/10/10 – Railway Mission Total Abstinence Association Member’s Card.

Drink was seen as a moral and social problem afflicting the working class, and drunkenness among railwaymen was of major concern. Stories of accidents, such as a fatal collision in 1870 at Carlisle caused by an intoxicated driver going through a signal, added fuel to the movement. The Railway Mission adopted many novel ideas to combat the prevalence of drunkenness among railway workers, including the establishment of coffee houses near to railway stations in an effort to prevent railwaymen from going to public houses during their free time.

MISS/1/8/1/3 Page from The Railway Signal Railway Signal Volume 3 (1885).
MISS/1/8/1/3 Page from The Railway Signal Railway Signal Volume 3 (1885).

Next to these they built their Mission Halls where prayer meetings, bible classes, evening lectures, vocational training and entertainments were held. In its heyday the Railway Mission had about 250 Mission Halls in railway communities around the United Kingdom and missions were established around the world in countries as far away as South Africa, Australia and Japan.

MISS/2/6/2 - Watford Railway Mission Plans and Specifications.
MISS/2/6/2 – Watford Railway Mission Plans and Specifications.

While many members were supported in their abstinence through these meetings and lectures some were encouraged to sign Abstinence Pledge Books to demonstrate their commitment to the temperance movement to fellow workers and certificates of abstinence were also distributed.

MISS/1/10/1 Railway Mission Total Abstinence Pledge Book
MISS/1/10/1 Railway Mission Total Abstinence Pledge Book

The records reveal the fascinating little known story of the fight against drunkenness on the railways and the methods used to promote temperance, something which thankfully we take for granted today!

The collection provides insight into a charitable religious organisation which has worked alongside railway companies and workers for the past 135 years, adding to the social history of the railway and revealing a lot of information about the life of those working on them. The Railway Mission archive held in Search Engine can be accessed by appointment in Search Engine. and the current archive list can be found on this page.

You can find out more about the Railway Mission at next month’s Institute of Railway Studies seminar where Anne Mallory will be talking about her research into the Mission.


3 comments on “Temperance on the rails – The Railway Mission Archive

  1. Do you have any information on;
    A Henry Hill ; associated with the Railway Mission in 1886?

  2. Do you have any information on the Botley Oxford Railway Mission Hall particularly photos built 1903-1904

  3. Any information about a medal from the United kingdom railway temperance union, Industrial exhibition, May 1906.

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