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Thursday, 18 February 2010

What a clerk said...The editors of the South Western Gazette

I'm currently ploughing my way through writing an article on the early years of the South Western Gazette (SWG). This was a company magazine established by London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) employees in June 1881 and has the unique distinction of being the first railway company magazine in the country. As a source of basic information company magazines excel in comparison with the wearisome 'official' files of railways such as minute books and letters because they give the historian a chance to view the 'human' side of the railways. The pages are filled with stories and tales of a social culture, bounded by the company's organisational borders, that has long since past. For this reason I always wished the SWG had started earlier because the history of the people behind railway operations never really moves beyond very dry statistical studies.

When analysing the SWG or any company magazine it should be kept in mind that they weren't just some benign form of community notice board. Dig a bit deeper and it is clear that the content was influenced by a number of factors. Mike Esbester (University of Reading) in his work on the Great Western Railway Magazine (GWRM), and I in the case of the SWG, have separately found that the background and career histories of editors was a highly important in shaping their publications.

In the case of the GWRM Esbester speculated that because the editor from 1919, Hadley, was working in the General Manager's office and therefore was close to the administrative centre of the company, it was highly likely that he would have had ideals aligned with those of management. These ideals therefore came through in the GWRM's coverage of and role in the GWR's Safety Campaign, as Hadley would have shared conceptions of safety with the management.

In the case of the SWG's early history it is evident that its editors would also have identified with the ideals of the management, even though the publication was essentially independent from them. Firstly two of the founders, Goffe and Dyer, worked in the General Manager's office (which only had one other staff member) placing them at the administrative centre of the company. Secondly the entire editorial and management team were clerks in the Traffic Department, and as has been stated in a previous post all managers in the department had been part clerical staff, creating a promotional and career link between the clerical staff and management. Therefore with these factors in mind it is highly likely that the editors would have shared a view of company operations similar or identical to those of management.

These shared views therefore became manifest in the Gazette's early editions. Firstly while the publication was written 'by South Western men, for South Western men', any competing narratives of company performance were prohibited. In the first issue it was stated that the editor (Dyer) did not 'think it wise' to allow articles which were 'tending to a criticism of the South Western Company's policy, or the action of the company's Officials.' This clearly aligned the Gazette's content with the goals and thought of management, something that was re-enforced by some of its early features. While much of the content focussed on the company's social culture such as smoking concerts, fairs, promotions, long-standing employees and staff funerals, the was significant coverage of the 'business' side of company activities. Therefore early issues carried revenue tables, traffic information and reports of the half-yearly accounts, which was more likely the concern of management and those aspiring to be managers, rather than non-clerical staff such as porters and ticket inspectors.

Overall while essentially the SWG featured news of the L&SWR's social culture in its formative years, it did have a links to the views of management of which glimpses can be seen. Subsequently analysis of company magazines should always look beyond the pages into the background.

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