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Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Eras of Early Railway Managers

I have been writing my Podcast script and I have to say that it is going well. I suppose the natural upshot of thinking about my work so often is that I do develop new theories and ideas about it. At the end of the day this makes it all my blogging work worthwhile. My first Podcast will be on senior railway managers of the British railway industry between 1825 and 1870. A useful by-product of this work is that it led me to think about how who was a senior manager changed.

Now, I have talked in my blog before about how very early senior managers joined the railways after careers in three main areas of employment, the military, transport and engineering. Yet, what has struck me is that there were different periods when these types of managers occupied the most senior positions within companies. Engineers occupied the majority of senior posts when the industry was emerging. However, by the late 1840s they were then followed by the ex-military and pre-railway era transport men (such as canal managers and stagecoach proprietors) who took the positions over and rose in the hierarchy. Further, this ‘mixed-bag’ of managers was in turn usurped as ‘career managers’ came to the fore in the 1850s and 60s, most of whom started as clerks.

At the outset of the railways, engineers were the railway companies’ logical choices for the most senior managerial posts. They were educated, on-site and knew how to manage large numbers of men. However, as the railways moved away from requiring technical management, they turned increasingly to individuals who had experience of moving goods and supplies, and hence why those who had been in military or transport careers were employed.

However, this change was not principally because the services of engineers were no longer required. Many senior engineers stayed on in the railways to manage Engineering or Locomotive departments and developed long careers in the railways. The driving force behind the rise of senior managers who had had transport or military careers was the rise of the Traffic Departments themselves, which they administered. As the railway lines were completed attention turned increasingly to the operation of the line. Subsequently, this centralised the role of the movement of goods and passengers within railway company operations.

As such, this change meant that the needs of Traffic Departments increasingly determined the actions of the Locomotive and Engineering Departments. After all, if a Traffic Department need more locomotives its head would turn to the Locomotive Superintendent to remedy the situation. If the Traffic Department needed more sidings or an extra crane, the Traffic Superintendent would ask the Chief Engineer to oblige. Therefore, the Traffic Managers became central to company policy and the way that the strategic thinking developed (while of course under the gaze of the directors).

Subsequently, it is unsurprising that that in the 1840s and 50s the engineers, men with specialist skills, became increasingly restricted to careers within Engineering and Locomotive departments. However, it was the ex-military and pre-railway era transport men that benefitted, becoming senior managers within the industry in large numbers. Yet, these men were essentially usurped from this position by another unique group of individuals in the labour market, the clerks. This group had, by the end of the century, generated most of the country’s senior railway managers.

In the early days of the railway industry, clerks had never really been posted to any positions higher than ‘station clerks’ (early station masters) or to regular clerical posts. However, this move created an educated group of individuals, within all departments, that were all the time gathering experience of railway operations. Thus, as the companies grew they found that they had larger and larger numbers of individuals working for them that had experience of traffic management. This was something that none of their predecessors possessed, they having only had ‘transferrable skills’ from the military or the pre-railway transport industry. Thus, the companies increasingly did not look to external sources for managers. The result was that by the late 1850s and early 1860s internal labour markets fed more and more clerks up the company hierarchy. Subsequently, senior railway managers very rarely came from external sources, and almost certainly had begun their careers as lowly clerks. This was, in reality, a take-over by stealth.

This is only a brief survey of the ideas banging about my head, but suffice to say that they will be developed soon. I should also point out that while I have talked in absolutist terms in this post about the different eras, many of the lines between the groups of managers were very blurred in the Victorian period. More research needs to be done on this topic to really define more closley the changes in railway senior management.

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