This site is only being updated in part now. Existing full posts will still remain, but for new blogs and more information on me, please see my new website HERE

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Crime and Punishment on the Victorian Railway

The Victorian Railway was a harsh place to work. While death was an ever-present threat, there was also the danger that the slightest infraction of the company’s rules may result in disciplinary action. Discipline came in four main forms, fines, demotions, suspensions and dismissals. While the latter three forms of punishment were infrequently inflicted on individuals, fines were a regular occurrence. Between August 1862 and December 1863 the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway imposed 482 fines on its Traffic Department employees. The department only had 1800 men, indicating that it wasn’t difficult for employees to breach the company’s rules and regulations. The 482 fines were imposed for the following:-

Errors in work – 135

Late on Duty – 107

Neglect of Work – 105

Damage to Property – 73

Breach of Regulations – 31

Misconduct – 27

Insubordination - 4 [1]

While it would take some time to list every type of infraction that occurred on the Victorian railway network, in January 1874 the London and South Western Railway disciplined 35 individuals; amongst which was a guard who was ‘fined for neglecting to see the carriage doors properly fastened,’ a telegraphist who was cautioned for ‘being late on morning duty,’ a signalman who was ‘fined for letting a goods train out of the yard in front of an excursion train’ and four porters who were dismissed from the ‘service for intoxication’ (hopefully not at the same time). Indeed, in cases where individuals turned up to work intoxicated or were found asleep on duty, almost all were dismissed.

Offences were usually recorded in the railway companies’ ‘Black Book.’ However, to warn other staff against making infractions, the companies would list all of the previous month’s within the monthly Working Timetables, or would send round a circular to all staff. While the offending individuals were not named, the circulating to the staff a list of all cases of misconduct was clearly meant as a corrective, to diminish the number of infractions and to enforce the rules.

Fines on most railways were between 1 and 5 shillings, however, in the case of more serious offences being committed or repeat offending, fines could go as high as £1. Once again, like in the case of the death of railway employees, disciplinary actions disproportionately affected the lower paid employees of railway companies. Of the L&SWR’s 35 disciplinary cases in January 1874, only one employee punished, a station agent, was a member of the higher-paid grades. The remaining 34 individuals were in the low-paid grades, for example porters, gangers, enginemen, guards and telegraphists. Indeed, the same was the case on other railways, and on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway in August 1872, of 55 punishments given out, only 7 were to employees in higher grades.[2]

Therefore, the suspension, dismissal and fining of staff would have meant either temporary or permanent hardship for the railwayman’s families. Indeed, if a porter was paid £1 (20 shillings) a week, a fine of 5 shillings may have constituted a week in which the family would be forced to eat less. Further, larger fines for serious offences would have meant that some families may have gone without food for a week. Indeed, I don’t think I need to explain what effect suspension or dismissal of a railway employee would have had on his family if they were on a low income.

Therefore, the rules railway workers had to follow in the Victorian Period were harsh, but the consequences of an infraction may have been harsher.


[1] Kingsford, P.W., Victorian Railwaymen, (London, 1971) p.22

[2]Kingsford, P.W., Victorian Railwaymen, (London, 1971) p.27

Thursday, 28 October 2010

No Plan and lots of Groping - Rail Policy so far under the Coalition

So, at the moment the Department for Transport (DfT) isn’t really sure what it is doing with regard to investing in important rail projects. Well, that is my impression. On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, stood up in the House of Commons and outlined a many of the department’s plans regarding transport. The railways did not, sadly, receive top-billing. Indeed, the majority of the projects that were announced were concerning investment in the road network.

In four categories, Hammond outlined the level of commitment the government had to various projects. Firstly, those investments that were cast in stone were upgrades to sections of the M1, M60, M6 and M25, as well as 12 other road projects. Yet, languishing in the second tier of projects, which are subject to ‘a best and final submission,’ were the extension to Midland Metro and a new southern entrance to Leeds station. These were guaranteed provisionally, but not with certainty. In a third tier of works, were the Leeds Rail Growth Project, the Rochdale Interchange and new vehicles for Sheffield Supertram. These will have to fight out with other road projects for a share of a £600 million pot of money. Lastly, there were another group of projects that are in a ‘pre-evaluation’ group, such as the Croxly Rail Link (linking the Metropolitan line to Watford Junction). These will be subject to further review.

And everyone went “hmm,” stroked their chins and exclaimed “hang on a minute.” Many planned large railway projects, which did not get a mention in last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), were also absent from Hammond’s announcement. The CSR did vaguely outline some funding of big projects, such as Crossrail, the second High Speed Line and Network Rail’s Station Improvement program. However, in the CSR and Hammond’s announcement we did not hear a peep regarding the Intercity Express Programme (IEP), which was to deliver replacements for aging high speed rolling stock; nor was there a croak about the electrification of the Great Western and Midland Main Lines; neither was there any announcement regarding new rolling stock for Thameslink. This was like Hammond saying that everything was fine, when all the while everyone is looking at the house behind him that was on fire. We all could see as plain as day what he was leaving out. Indeed, all he did say about the IEP, in response to a question, was that it was under review.

What this all amounts to, is that investment in Britain’s railways under the coalition is still very uncertain. Firstly, while many projects were confirmed in the CSR, there is no way to know whether they will be developed in line with their planned formats as the announcement was vague. Additionally, this status can also be applied to Hammond’s second tier of project’s that are ‘subject to a best and final submission.’ Further, other large projects that were planned are nowhere to be seen. Lastly, there is no certainty regarding many smaller projects that will have to vie for money.

I would suggest this is because the DfT doesn’t know where they want to go with regard to railway infrastructure projects and investment. Take for example the IEP. This major investment has been mulled over since Sir Andrew Foster’s report on it in July. But, there is another factor that is in play. The progression of the IEP would be heavily dependent on the electrification of the Great Western and Midland Main Lines, and vice versa. This is because the new trains will have to run under the newly electrified lines. Therefore, to cancel one project would imperil the other because they are interlinked. As such, the DfT have to consider the two projects together; but this means that it will take longer to decide on whether they go ahead as planned or in an altered format. Additionally, consider the number of rail projects that are not confirmed, but are still in the ‘provisional’ categories listed above. This evidences a lack of conviction regarding rail investment within the Department, as they are still open to review. HS2 is also not a certainty, as technically we are still in the planning phase and the actual work on the line would not start until after the next election. Thus, as it stands, after 6 months the coalition still has no firm commitments to rail investment.

Overall, it strikes me that the DfT has very little direction regarding investment in major projects on the railways. But this is a severe problem. Railways are different from roads, in that they require vast amounts of planning to make investments because of the high capital costs and the technology involved. Thus, Hammond and the DfT quickly need to develop a plan for major capital projects on Britain’s railway network, that moves them beyond such vague terms as ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency.’ It needs to be long-term and must encompass the wants and desires of all those that demand a modern rail network. Without a plan, they will be groping their way forward for the next 5 years, making one ad hoc decision after the other. This has the potential to lead to erroneous investment, poor management decisions and ultimately higher costs for the taxpayer and the travelling public. This has been a problem for the railways in the past, and it can’t happen again.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Filming the railways - the Importance of

Irrespective of what period of history an individual studies, whether it is Renaissance Monarchy, Tudor Gentry, the Post Office or Railways, he or she will very quickly develop concerns regarding the preservation of archival material relating to his or her chosen topic. This stems from the fact that anything that is preserved could add to the quality of the research they produce, and to loose it anything may be a loss to their present or future output.

As a railway historian, I have talked on many occasions about my intense frustration with what I call the ‘draw effect.’ This is the idea that in draws, cupboards and lofts throughout the world, there are large numbers of potentially useful documents for historians which in many cases are in danger of one day finding their way into skips. Although, this said, much does get saved, and to look at the railway documents for sale on eBay is both reassuring, knowing the documents are safe, but also frustrating, given that I can’t buy everything. Therefore, my idea has always been that many documents in private hands could be preserved through an online database. Anyone could upload digital images to the database, and this would also increase the availability of documentary material for researchers. However, I was beaten to it, and an on-line archive does now exist in embryonic form at

However, while this site covers paper documents, historical artefacts do not only come in this form. From the moment that we could produce movies, people have produced movies of the railways. Thus, it concerned me for a long while that this material didn’t have an online home. Imagine my joy and surprise when I came across, which is gradually building up an online archive of railway films from the past and present. Naturally, as a railway historian I am engrossed in the historical content of the site, whether it be films of important events, or the railway companies’ own promotional material. Indeed, the site really brings railway history to life.

One of the problems with historical study is that sometimes using paper documents makes it hard to really imagine what events were like. Indeed, on many occasions it is even easy to forget that the events I study were real at all. But, by using archival footage of an event, the sense that history is in ones imagination fades away. Take for example the following footage of the aftermath of the Abermule crash in 1922. While I can get a report on the crash (found here), the video of it below shows me the true horror and devastation that was caused. What was only a previously a report to my mind, is now a much more real, terribly sad, event.

Further, consider my PhD studies on the London and South Western Railway. Within it I will be looking at the company’s construction of the Feltham Marshalling Yard. However, the most experience I have had of the yard was when I went running overgrown remains a few years back. There were no lines left, very little infrastructure and the wasteland was being used as a biker track. Therefore, imagine my joy when I came across it being used in this World War Two film which showed me it in action for the first time.

Lastly, of course, features many promotional videos and adverts which the railway companies of Britain have created over the years. Subsequently, the site gives the historian an insight into how the industry changed the way it projected itself to attract customers. So, on the site you can find videos of the London and North Eastern Railway’s highly promoted ‘Silver Link’ run in 1937, footage of when the London, Midland and Scottish Railway’s locomotive, ‘Royal Scott,’ visited the World Trade Fair in Chicago in 1933, and, lastly, there are also many of the adverts that British Rail produced in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. However, as an example I have chosen this somewhat disturbing advert from Southern made in 2008 (I think).

These are just a few of the 100s of films that are available on that show many aspects of railway history and operation. I feel that the site is an important step forward in making railway history accessible and interesting for all. Previously, many of the videos featured on the site would only have been available to a few people. But, because the site exists, it is helping diminish my 'draw effect,' allowing more individuals to experience railway history through the medium of film. Therefore, I implore you to take a look around the site, sign up as a member, upload videos and support it in any way you can, as this will help promote the sharing of railway history for the benefit and entertainment of all who are interested.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

'Killed or Injured from their own Misconduct or Want of Caution' - Death on the Mid-Victorian Railway

Between June 1854 and June 1860, 55 London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) employees were seriously injured, while another 40 were killed. Presumably, because of the high accident rate, fear of death or injury must have been an ever-present worry for railway employees by the mid-Victorian period. Indeed, these fears were also accompanied by the fact that that they knew their loved ones would receive little or no support from their employer if they were disabled or killed while at work.

This was because railway management and directors viewed accidents as usually being the result of employees’ 'own misconduct or want of caution.' Government returns from 1854 onwards show how prevalent this opinion was amongst L&SWR managers. Of the 55 fatalities and 40 injuries on the L&SWR mentioned, only 2 deaths and 2 injuries were attributed to ‘causes beyond [employees’] own control.’ This left 53 fatalities and 38 injuries that were classified as being a result of the individuals’ ‘own misconduct or want of caution.’

However, by detailing a few cases of accidents, it shows that management could have mitigated the number of fatalities and injuries through the implementation of better procedures and rules, and through investment in safety equipment. On the 19th May 1856 ‘Edward Bundy, breaksman, incautiously coupling a goods train at Ringwood Station was caught between the waggons and killed.’ On the 14th June 1858 ‘John Colbourne, platelayer, fell from a ballast waggon in motion near Eling Junction, and was run over and killed.’ And lastly, on the 7th October 1859 ‘William Scott, platelayer, (not on duty at the time), run over and killed in the Knowle cutting, near Fareham, from his own want of caution.’

Clearly, in each of these cases the LS&WR could have done more to protect these men. Yet, Railway Company managers felt that there was little or no need to put in place rigorous safety measures to avoid accidents, as it was widely accepted that the employee had to take, in most cases, responsibility for his own actions. However, because such a high proportion of employees were classified as being killed or injured because of their ’own misconduct or want of caution,’ it suggests that managers used this excuse to avoid making life-saving changes in an effort to save money. It was only years later that they were forced to do so by the Government.

More upsettingly, the effect of the death or disabling of a railway employee may have been that it reduced poor families to further poverty. The majority of those killed or injured on the railways were porters, platelayers, pointsmen, or labourers; all of which would have received the lowest pay within railway companies, and who may have been living in poor conditions anyway. But, on a railway employee’s death or injury there were few funds to support widows and orphans, and support from the company would be minimal. In the L&SWR management’s case, the most they would give to widows in this period was a £5 gratuity to cover funeral costs, or possibly a very low paid job as an office cleaner, carriage lining sewer, waiting room attendant or gatekeeper. Thus, when these unhappy events occurred, it may have meant further poverty, even destitution, for railway workers’ families.

Thus, the death or injury of a railway employee in the mid-Victorian period was something to be feared by vast swathes of people, both in and out of railway employment.

Friday, 22 October 2010

DB vs Eurostar - The New Railway Race

Everyone saw it on Tuesday; like a white slug, a Deutsche Bahn ICE3 train rolled into St Pancras, signalling the company’s long-planned intention to run services from London to destinations throughout Europe from 2013. This is just what I wanted to see; better use of the under-used channel tunnel. Yet, poor old DB had been clearly upstaged. Just 11 days before Eurostar, the current operator of trains between St Pancras and the continent, announced the purchase of ten new trains from Siemens that will run between Britain and European destinations, and which will be delivered in 2014. And so, with much fanfare, a mock-up of one of the trains’ new power cars was placed next to the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens.

In essence, these new trains evidence that a ‘race to Europe,’ a name with which I now dub DB and theirs burgeoning competition, is in the offing. Indeed, DB have stated that trains will be run to and from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne, whereas Eurostar haven’t specified yet exactly what their destinations will be; a move to probably keep their competitor guessing. So it is possible that Eurostar may run to those places also.

Races to places by train are always exciting. In the 1930s two railway companies, the London and North Eastern (LNER) and London Midland and Scottish Railways (LMS), poured millions of pounds into the second ‘race to the north.’ This was a competition between the two companies, who both served Scotland, to attract passenger traffic through the use of speed, style and comfort. Both companies subsequently developed streamlined locomotives to push the speed of their services up, as well as built some of the most luxurious coaches ever seen on the British railway network.

The problem with the whole enterprise was that the LNER and LMS didn’t really need to engage in this competition. Both had a monopoly on their particular routes, apart from when trains hit Scotland, and both companies did not derive most of their revenue from passenger traffic. Yet, freight revenue, which was their main earner, was suffering by the 1930s. Firstly, government regulation restricted what they could charge for goods haulage; but also, much of their goods business was being lost to road hauliers. Thus, both companies would have better served their interests by not investing the competition, and instead putting the majority of their developmental efforts into improving their goods services, both in cooperation with each other and individually.

Therefore, if we are going to experience a new railway race, if Europe is the place where this battle is to be made fought, then BD and Eurostar have to address beforehand the question as to whether they actually need to compete at all. There are enough attractive destinations in Europe which they could serve, and as such the companies could choose to run trains to different destinations. Of course, some might say that competition to destinations will be good for the customer, as prices will be driven down and the quality of travel will increase as the companies try and tempt passengers. But if all the London to Europe trains go to the same places it won’t be good for the British passenger, as the companies’ could have taken decisions that would have increased the destinations available. Therefore, it is in our interest as passengers that DB and Eurostar work together on destinations before they start to compete.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Railways and the Comprehensive Spending Review

This afternoon I listened to a Comprehensive Spending Review which I despised. Naturally, transport was the one area of government expenditure that I was keeping an eye out for. My honest opinion is that things could have been much worse for the railways. Just to clarify, I’m not saying that I liked what was announced, it was just that with all the hype that preceded the CSR I felt that transport, and more specifically the railways, were going to be clobbered to a much greater extent.

Firstly, some transport policies that I like, such as the building of Britain’s second high speed rail link, tube upgrades and the completion of Crossrail to improve London’s transport network, will go ahead. Indeed, after the Department of Defence, the Department for Transport has received the highest capital funding of £33 billion over the next three years. Although, we shouldn’t get too excited; the electrification of the Midland and Great Western main lines, and the replacement of Britain’s High Speed Trains through the Intercity Express Programme, were conspicuously not mentioned. Overall, we’ll all find out the details of the capital expenditure next week when the Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, will make announcements regarding where the investments will actually be. Subsequently, at this stage no planned investment can be guaranteed to progress as expected (if at all).

Yet, the most definite policy that was announced with regard to the railways was that from 2012 regulated fares, which include savers and season tickets, will rise for three years at the rate of RPI+3%, whereas currently they rise at a rate of RPI+1%. Richard Hebditch, the Campaign for Better Transport’s campaign director, estimated (via the medium of Twitter that based on the government’s own estimations of the level of RPI and inflation over the course of this parliament, the rise in fares would be 31% overall. This is horrible and will hit commuters hard, especially in areas where there aren’t good tube links. While many will be able to absorb the increased transport costs into their household budgets, a great number will not.

I am a firm believer in the concept of transport poverty; the idea that the prohibitive cost of rail travel limits job opportunities for many people, keeping the standards of living down for them and their families. If the cost of travelling to higher paid employment wipes out any potential increases in people’s pay packet, then they simply won’t apply for those jobs. Further, if people don’t use the railways to travel longer distances to work, their employment opportunities in an area are limited as car commutes are generally shorter than rail ones. Lastly, if the up-front costs of season tickets are too high, so as to wipe out a person’s salary for a month or two, this will also limit where individuals look for work as they will be unwilling to make the initial commitment of funds.

Thus, in terms of transport policy all this CSR will serve to do is further hurt the poorest in society by limiting their opportunities to travel to better paid employment. Further, it will solidify a divide between the ’transport rich’ and the ‘transport poor.’

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Lives of Late-Victorian Railway Clerks

Late-Victorian railway clerks were pen pushers, who at stations, yards and offices did a range boring and tedious jobs, such as filling out traffic returns, processing correspondence, handling money and ordering stores. Monotonous as these tasks sound, clerks’ career opportunities, high wages and job security made them a unique and fascinating group of railway employees.

By the 1870s railway companies were employing boys between the ages of 14 and 19 as junior clerks, usually appointing them to the traffic or the administrative departments. However, gaining a situation as a junior clerk was dependent on a number of factors. Firstly, before even setting foot in a railway office, prospective clerks would have been required to provide security and present testimonials written by respectable individuals who could attest to their good character. Secondly, the majority of railways expected these individuals to pass exams, which, in the case of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), included tests on 'writing, spelling, copying and common arithmetic.' Therefore, because of the necessary connections, money and education to become a junior clerk, it is clear that the majority would have had middle class backgrounds.

Once they had passed these rigorous entrance procedures they immediately received benefits, starting on higher salaries than other railway employees. In 1877 William Pratt, a new cleaner at the L&SWR’s Nine Elms engine shed, earned £15 12d per year, whereas in 1878 Henry Holmes (shown), a junior clerk at Lapford Station, began on £35 per year. Further, clerks’ wages were raised at a quicker rate than other staff, and in 1890 Pratt was on £93 12d per year, whereas by 1891 Holmes, now based at Superintendent of the Line’s Office, Waterloo, was on £125 per year. In addition to these benefits, the clerks, who were paid monthly, could boast of having higher job security than other staff, the majority of which were only paid weekly and could be dismissed easily.

Yet, despite the advantages over other staff in their pay packet, clerks’ work was long and arduous, and usually in poor conditions. A Chief Clerk on the North British Railway in 1863 recounted that while the working day may have officially been between 9.15 am and 6 pm, clerks in reality were expected to get through their assigned work whatever, forcing many stay in their offices until 7, 8, 9 or even 10 pm. Some even took their work home with them.

But efficiency and a high level of commitment could pay off, and industrious clerks were usually rewarded with advancement up the companies’ clerical promotional ladders. The natural course of advancement for junior clerks was to be confirmed as a full clerk after three to five years of training. Then, after variable periods of time depending on their aptitude, they may have become chief clerks, goods agents or station agents. Once reaching this level, they still may have been promoted further, moving to larger and larger offices, yards or stations. But, even greater rewards awaited these men if they continued to impress.

By the 1870s clerks were the only railway employees that in reality could be promoted into the ranks of management. Indeed, a small number rose to be General Managers. In the period 1870 to 1909, Gourvish showed that of 43 General Managers appointed within Britain’s fifteen largest railway companies, 40 had begun their careers in Traffic or Administrative departments. Indeed, the previously mentioned Henry Holmes eventually became the L&SWR’s Superintendent of the Line. Only in exceedingly rare cases did non-clerical staff get promoted to this level within railway companies.

Therefore, while undertaking the dullest and most boring work within the late-Victorian railways, I feel that the clerks were an interesting group of individuals, whose advantageous backgrounds ensured they had better jobs, good career prospects and a happier living.


Gourvish, T.R., 'A British Business Elite: The Chief Executive Managers of the Railway Industry, 1850-1922', Business History Review, Vol. 47, (Autumn, 1973)

Kingsford, P.W., Victorian Railwaymen, (London, 1970)

McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1840-1970, (London, 1980)

Friday, 15 October 2010

The View from the Inside Track

If I were a historian of World War Two I could walk into any bookstore and choose from a plethora of books that recounted the personal wartime experiences of soldiers, sailors and airpersons. These multitudes of texts are in existence because the conflict was an event in the authors' lives that was never to occur again. Thus, they wrote about their wartime experiences to pass on their unique perspectives, on a unique set of events. Yet, for the rest of us historians, who deal with what occurred in the lives of individuals on a day to day basis, personal accounts of their activities are rare, principally because they presumably didn’t feel the need to write books on their work, sleep and play. Therefore, as a historian of the pre-1914 railway industry, when I do come across the personal accounts of railway workers it is a special thing. Four such texts spring to mind.

1. Memoirs of Station Master by Ernest J. Simmons (1879) – Great Western Railway (GWR)

Ernest Simmons was a Station Master on the Great Western Railway when, in 1879, he published his book detailing his employment as a clerk on that railway in the 1850s and 1860s. Published under the pseudonym Ernest Struggles, it is a lively, humorous and entertaining retelling of the life of the GWR clerk, all the while improved by the fact that the author could write well. Beginning with his first post at Oxford station and following him through reassignments to number of other locations from Aynho to the Black Country, it takes a cynical, and at times disrespectful view of management, criticising some of the company’s more illustrious figures such as Daniel Gooch. Yet to guard against libel, he used fictitious names for locations, individuals and the company itself. Thus, the book itself is truly an insight into the lives and opinions of the mid-Victorian railway clerk.

2. Sam Fay’s Diary (January 1878- July 1881) – London and South Western Railway (L&SWR)

Sam Fay was one of Britain’s most illustrious railwaymen, becoming General Manager of the beleaguered Great Central Railway in 1902 and serving on the Railway Executive Committee during World War One. Fay had started as a clerk on the London and South Western Railway in 1872 and was moved to Kingston in 1876. It is during his time at Kingston that he kept a diary in two small notebooks. In these books many aspects of Fay’s social life were recorded, from his early liaisons with his future wife, his rowing exploits and also being caught without a ticket coming back from Kew. Yet, what is most interesting (to me at least) are the insights the diary gives into railway employment on the L&SWR. In the diary Fay recounted inter-departmental disputes, his applications for vacancies, his relations with Kingston’s station master, and the moment he formed the railway industry’s first employee magazine, the South Western Gazette. Of course, I can’t recount everything the diary contains, but the document is a mine of information on the lives of railway clerks. Indeed, in some respects the information in Fay’s diary is better than those in Simmons’ book, as it is a direct recording of events, rather than the documentation of memories.

N.B. The diary is in the possession of Sam Fay’s grandson, Bill.

3. The Working and Management of the English Railway, by George Fidlay, (1891) – London and North Western Railway (L&NWR).

George Findlay in 1891 published this book after a lifetime as a railway employee. Initially he had worked as an engineer with Thomas Brassey, the great railway contractor. However, in 1853 Brassey recommended he be appointed manager of the Shrewsbury and Hereford Railway, and when this line was jointly leased by the L&NWR and the GWR he was appointed as a goods manager within the former company, eventually becoming its General Manager in 1880. It is from this vantage point that he produced this book as a guide to how the L&NWR operated. In it he touched on almost all aspects of railway operation, such as management, staff, the permanent way, signals, telegraph operation, the working of trains, shunting and marshalling, rolling stock and railway law. Presumably his broad career, moving from engineering to management, meant that he could comment on all aspects of railway operation with the weight of experience. Thus, he gave us an insider’s view of the railways that was technically astute and from a management perspective.

4. Railway Reminiscences by George Neele (1904) – London and North Western Railway

While Fidlay gave an account of the operating procedures within the L&NWR at one point in its history, George Neele, the companies’ former Superintendent of the Line, released this book in 1904 recounting his experiences from an entire career within the industry. Starting as a clerk in 1847, his book charted the many changes within the industry towards the standardisation of many aspects of operation, for example brakes, locomotive headlamp codes, telegraphic codes and the important role of the Railway Clearing House. It also contained highlights such as his trip to the United States, as well as the many characters that were involved in railway operation on the L&NWR and elsewhere. In some ways, this book is the best personal recollection of Victorian railway employment available, as it detailed the development of an industry from the view of a manager who could see a bigger picture than individuals lower down the promotional ladder.

All of these texts were unique, in that the authors were all writing from different perspectives within the industry. Indeed, they all recount these individuals’ experiences at different points in their careers. There is, however, one similarity between these texts, in that they were all recollections from individuals who were salaried employees. The porters, carriage cleaners, drivers and other weekly paid staff do not seem to have left accounts of their railway employment. This said, I may be wrong and their stories are waiting to be found.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Commerce and Finance in Railway Promotion - To Bristol and Southampton we go!

The individuals behind the establishment of Britain’s railway companies have been inadequately studied. What we do know is that they came from a range of different backgrounds, for example traders, landowners, industrialists and gentry. However, which of these groups of individuals played the most important role in the new railway companies has always been vague. Usually, historians have always ascribing the most prominent roles to interested parties such as ‘businessmen’ or ‘merchants,’ without exploring in much more detail the ‘nuts and bolts’ of their involvement.

However, my recent research on the London and Southampton Railway (L&SR) (later to become the London and South Western Railway) and Geoffrey Channon’s on the Great Western Railway (GWR), has given more detail as to who the promoters and early directors of these railway companies were. Subsequently, as my research came after Channon’s, I have established a more nuanced story behind the promotion of Britain’s early railways.

The promoters of the GWR in 1835 were all related to the fact that Bristol, one of its termini, had been a trading port for centuries. Subsequently, Channon showed that 16 of the 30 directors that were involved in its promotion between 1833 and 1835, came from ‘commerce and finance.’ This reflected the high number of merchants that were based in London and Bristol that served to gain from the promotion of a railway through the expansion of trade.[1] Some of the notable individuals included William Tothill, a manufacturing chemist, Thomas Guppy, owner with his brother of Friars Sugar Refinery, and Nicholas Roach, Chairman of the Bristol Dock company, who was also an oil and leather manufacturer.

Further, many of Bristol’s commercial bodies, such as the Corporation, the Society of Merchant Ventures, the Bristol Dock Company and the Bristol Chamber of Commerce, also backed the plan.[2] Therefore, the established merchants and trade organisations of the city came together to promote the new railway and further increase their wealth and prosperity.

However, when I looked at the L&SR, I found a different story. This story principally hinged on the fact that the company’s destination town, Southampton, was not an established trading port like Bristol. G.A. Sekton, a biographer of the L&SWR, wrote that in Southampton before 1834 ‘there were no manufacturers… requiring access to the great mart [London] for their consumption; there was no trade, no commerce there.’[3] Indeed, the port could only charitably be described as a small fishing village. Thus, this meant that the individuals involved in the establishment of the L&SR’s project were different to those involved in the GWR.

Firstly, 10 of the 23 (43.47%) directors that joined the L&SWR board between 1834 and 1840 were categorised as being involved in ‘commerce and finance.’ Yet, unlike the case of GWR, further investigation shows that only three of these individuals were merchants. The seven remaining promoters and directors were actually working in banking and finance. These included Sir John Easthope, a former stockbroker, Edmund Jerningham, of the London Joint-stock bank and Robert Williams, of Williams, Williams & Williams bank, Bridehead.

The reason for the significant involvement of financial men seems to be because of the investment opportunities provided by developing a completely new port. While in the case of the GWR there was a pre-existing economy held in the grasp of merchants looking to expand Bristol’s trade, Southampton possibly could have been developed quickly, providing a lucrative investment opportunity for bankers to make large amounts of money quickly. Indeed, the L&S’s original name was the ‘London, Southampton, and Branch Railway and Dock Company,’evidencing the fact that its promoters saw the opportunities of developing a new railway with a new port at its terminus. Lastly, the involvement of bankers would have also allowed the embryonic company to access the capital on favourable terms, as large amounts would be required to develop the port. This said, the docks part of the plan was dropped early on.

Thus, comparing my research with Channon’s has shown that who the promoters and early directors of railway companies were, was dictated by where the lines were proposed to be built and the economies through which they passed.

[1] Channon, Geoffrey, Railways in Britain and the United States, 1830-1840, (Aldershot, 2001), p.184

[2] Channon, Railways in Britain and the United States, p.56-58

[3] Sekton, G.A., The London & South Western Railway: Half a Century of Railway Progress to 1896, (London, 1896, reprint 1989), p.2

[4] Fay, Sam, A Royal Road, (Kingston, 1881) p.5

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Some Rules for Station Masters

For much of British Railway history, the station master occupied a special place in the interweaving melee of railway company operations. They were responsible for the companies’ key units of operation, the station. It was to their stations that the traders came to send their wares, where holiday adventures began and to where people returned after an evening out, happy in the knowledge that they were near to home. Therefore, because they were central to the smooth operation of the railway industry, the activities that they were tasked with are worthy of study.

Of course, the duties of station masters changed through the years. What may have been of concern to station masters in 1840, may have been outside their remit in 1940. For this blog post I have decided to look at the duties of station masters in 1933, as in this year Britain’s railway companies produced a new rule book for the staff, the content of which all had agreed to through the Railway Clearing House. Therefore, the basic duties of a station master in Penzance on the Great Western Railway were very similar, if not identical, to those of his compatriot in Edinburgh on the London and North Eastern Railway. For this blog I will be using the London and North Eastern Railway’s rule book (although it wouldn’t really matter which one I used) to describe some of the key duties of the British station master in 1933. The numbers in brackets are the rule numbers from the book.

Naturally, station masters were to be responsible for everything that went on at the station. Interestingly, the first rule specifically directed at station masters specifies that the ‘security and protection of the buildings and property at the station’ were their concern (17i). Could it be that the authors of the rule book, buy putting this rule first, were subconsciously channelling their desire to protect the companies’ property and its revenue? Further, they were to undertake a daily inspection of the station to inspect its ‘cleanliness and neatness of all premises (including closets and urinals), signboards &c,’ such was the emphasis in this period on maintaining a good outwards appearance of the station (17vi).

But the property of the station wasn’t the only thing they had to look after, and the station master had to marshal all the employees at stations (18). Therefore, it was the station master’s duty to oversee that all operations, whether it be the sorting of wagons, the coupling of carriages, the painting the white line along the platform’s edge, or tending to the flower beds, were done in a safe and efficient manner by staff (17iii/19). Prevention of accidents was also achieved by making sure that all staff had the rule book on them at all times and that they were aware of any additional notices that may have altered its content (17iv). They were also responsible for curtailing wastage at the station, and all stores were to be ‘properly and economically used (17x). Lastly, the station masters were to ‘make himself acquainted’ with all the signal boxes and signalmen that he was in charge of, evidently to make sure they weren’t asleep (17v).

Safety was to be ensured in other ways. Because station masters must have seen a lot of rolling stock pass through their stations, they played a role in reporting any defects that they found within the trains. When a carriage or wagon examiner had to inspect a train for defects, the station master had to ensure that this work had been completed before the train was allowed to leave. (28a) However, if an examiner was not present, the station master, if his staff could not fix a defect, was to have the offending vehicle removed from a train, hopefully not with any passengers inside (28b). Further, if any signals, points or any other aspect of the line was found to be defective, these were to be reported as soon as was possible (61)

However, apart from these outdoor jobs, which could have been good or bad depending on the station at which he was posted, the station masters’ main duties were being chained to a desk doing paperwork. All new orders and instructions coming into the station, of which there were multitudes, were to be noted. Further, all books that recorded everything from passenger numbers, wages paid, wagons moved, gas consumption and most importantly, income, were to be written up and sent to the central headquarters (17vii). Indeed, a large part of the station master’s duties was not just ensuring the smooth flow of traffic, but also enduring the smooth flow of information up the organisation so that senior managers could analyse it.

Another large part of the station master’s day would be dealing the great unwashed. Naturally, they had to make sure that passengers were not unruly and that the Bylaws of the company were displayed clearly so that the customers knew what they could and couldn’t do. Further, they were to ensure that all the fares, notices, the Carrier’s Act and all other public declarations were clearly displayed (17viii). If, for whatever reason, the customers were unhappy, the station masters were to promptly send all complaints to head office (17ix).

Of course, these weren’t all the duties of the station masters on Britain’s railways in 1933, but it is the core selection. Clearly, this evidence shows that station masters had huge responsibilities and kept Britain’s railways running.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Forgotten National Railway Strike, 1911 - Part 3

With the strike over, railway workers all over the country went back to work with the promise of a Royal Commission to look into the working of the conciliation boards and the whole process of collective bargaining. The Royal Commission met in September and received evidence from all sides of the debate. The Railway managers approached the matter in different ways, from acceptance of the union position in the industry, like the case of the Sir George Gibb of the North Eastern Railway, to the obstinacy and inflexibility of Lord Claud Hamilton, Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway. These two individuals were, however, unique and most railway managers took the middle ground of not wanting to recognise the unions and trying to maintain direct communication between them and the workers in matters of discipline. The commission also received evidence from railway workers, who naturally complained about the conciliation boards, and argued for their dissolution with a formal recognition of the unions.[1]

The result of the Royal Commission was only a slightly revised conciliation and arbitration scheme. Firstly, it widened the number of topics that could be discussed. Whereas before, possible discussions were limited to hours of work and wages, the new scheme also allowed for matters of employment conditions to be tabled at the sectional boards. However, with an eye to protecting the companies’ right to discipline its own staff, the commission explicitly excluded these matters being brought up. The commission also allowed that the members of each of the board could elect a secretary from any source, even if the individual was a union official or not working within the company. This allowed the union to be involved with negotiations, but without them being formally being acknowledged by the companies.

Yet naturally, these changes did not go far enough for unions and they approached the companies’ management about altering the scheme further. Not surprisingly, the railway managers refused to see them. [2] In response the unions balloted their members about their opinion of the new conciliation scheme and the possibility of further strike action. Overwhelmingly, the railway workers of Britain voted against the royal commission’s revised conciliation scheme, and for further strike action. Faced with such opposition, and the threat of the country grinding to a halt again, the companies met union representatives in December and agreed a slightly revised plan. [3]

On top of the commission’s changes, the format of the forum for discussion was slightly changed. The 1907 scheme introduced sectional boards which contained elected representatives of both the staff and management from the relevant department. If a matter could not be decided at that level, it would go up to a general board, made up of equal numbers of staff and management, and if that did not succeed at hammering out a deal, the matter would be referred to arbitration. The altered scheme removed the general boards and moved the ‘impartial’ chairman to the sectional board. If the board could not decide on a decision, his word would be final and binding. Overall, the scheme was a quicker one, but as Pollins argued, it meant that the grades were more isolated, which in turn separated the unions.[4]

Naturally, the railway companies felt that they had given up a lot of ground. Indeed, they continued to oppose the scheme. Further, official recognition of the unions was a long way off, and the most that could be said is that Union officials could assist the workers in the capacity of secretary if they were elected. Thus, the union’s gains were small, and railwaymen remained disgruntled by their lack of bargaining power within the industry. As a result in 1913 the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) was formed by the amalgamation of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, the main protagonists in the strike action, the General Railway Workers Union and the United Pointsmen and Signalmen’s Society.

The formation of the NUR was a landmark in the history of industrial relations as it was the first union that was formed to represent all grades of an industry. Thus, its remit to represent all railway workers, irrespective of grade, and its large size, gave it greater strength at the bargaining table.[5] Thus, the NUR’s first proclamation was that it was their aim to end the conciliation scheme.[6] However, the two other railway unions, ASLEF and the Railway Clerks Association, did not partake in the merger.

The outcome of the 1911 strike was that the unions now had a place in the British railway industry. The unions had demonstrated the power of collective militancy and had forced some changes in the conciliation scheme. Wartime cut off any more progress in changing wages and working conditions and it would only be in 1919, when there was another national strike, that further concessions from the companies would be secured. However, after 1911 the unions were never ignored again.

I have heavily used to write these posts two books. David Howell's, 'Respectable Radicals: Studies in the Politics of Railway Trade Unionism,' is simply wonderful and is the comprehensive history of the Railway Unions. Harold Pollins', 'Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History,' is also good, but gives a shortened version of railway trade unionism up to the 1960s.

[1] Howell, David, Respectable Radicals: Studies in the Politics of Railway Trade Unionism, (Aldershot, 1999), p.14-21

[2] Pollins, Harold, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, (Newton Abbot, 1971), p. 138

[3] Howell, Respectable Radicals, p.124

[4] Pollins, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, p. 139

[5] Pollins, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, p. 139-140

[6] Howell, Respectable Radicals, p.217

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Forgotten National Railway Strike, 1911 - Part 2

In July and early August 1911, railway workers in various parts of the country, dissatisfied with the working of conciliation boards, unofficially went on strike. In the railway worker’s minds, the conciliation boards had been ineffective at raising wages and reducing hours, as the railway companies had found ways around the awards. Indeed, many of the railway workers had nicknamed them ‘confiscation boards.’ [1]Both Pollins and Howell argued that the root cause was because groups of railway employees, particularly in the North West, were inspired by two recent large and successful strikes that occurred amongst dock and shipping workers.[2] ‘As workers in other industries began to strike and to secure some advances, so railwaymen became even more impatient about the conciliation scheme.’[3]

Some of the first strikes were among Midland Railway workers who unofficially came out on in early August demanding increased pay and shorter hours. However, the action that had started in Liverpool soon spread to Manchester and other parts of the north and midlands, as well as other railway companies such as the London and North Western and Great Central railways. Indeed, Howell argued that the interaction between workers of different railway companies allowed these unofficial actions to spread.[4] Overall, while the precise number of workers who struck is unavailable, approximately 50,000 railway workers in Britain were on strike before union leaders got involved.[5]

On the 15th August in Liverpool, around which the storm was now blowing, between 40 and 50 delegates from four of the five railway unions met. The delegates came from the Association of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF), The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), the General Railway Workers Union (GRWU) and the United Pointsmen and Signalmen's Society (UPSS). Only missing, were representatives of the Railway Clerk’s Association (RCA). The first resolution they passed laid out their issues with the conciliation scheme: -

‘We hereby declare that this unfortunate condition of affairs has been created largely by the vexatious attitude of many of the railway companies towards the working of the scheme of conciliation and arbitration, agreed to in 1907 by the Board of Trade and the railway companies and this society (The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants).’

The delegates then issued an ultimatum, and agreed:

‘…to offer the railway companies twenty-four hours to decide whether they are prepared to immediately meet the representatives of these societies to negotiate a basis of settlement of the matters in dispute affecting the various grades.’[6]

Nervous about the country shutting down, and keen to avoid a strike, the government stepped in. Firstly, Asquith invited a number of railway managers to a meeting to discuss the issues, assuring them that they would be given all the support necessary to continue services as normal.[7] Indeed, Asquith declared that he would ‘use all the civil and military forces at his disposal’ to make this happen. [8] This was followed by a meeting between representatives of the Board of Trade and union officials, at which the latter laid out their grievances. Firstly, there was the long-standing complaint over the conciliation scheme, but they also demanded recognition by the railway companies. In essence, the unions had used the situation, which had not been created by them, to push this second agenda.[9]

The suggestion proffered by Asquith was the formation of a Royal Commission to investigate the workings of the conciliation scheme. The unions, worried about how long the commission would take to report and the fact that there was no guarantee that they would be recognised, rejected this offer. Thus, on the evening of the 17th August 1911, the government and railway management’s worst fears were realised. The Times reported that ‘last evening the unions issued telegrams to all their branches ordering the men to cease work immediately. The thousands of men on strike were promptly joined by many thousands more.’[10] In response, and with a view to keeping its promise, the government deployed 58,000 troops across the network at key points, such as junctions, stations and signal boxes. In the concise words of Bagwell, ‘the strike was effective.’[11]

The strike didn’t last long, and only about 200,000 of the country’s 600,000 railway workers struck.[12] Indeed, on the London and South Western Railway only two members of the staff went on strike,[13] highlighting the fact that in many cases strike action was about localised disputes, rather than nation-wide injustices in employee pay and conditions. Further, it emphasised that union leadership had, not unreasonably, hijacked the unofficial strikes to make a bid for recognition in the eyes of the railway company managers.

Recognition came, in a non-official sense, on the 19th August when for the first time the government brought together round the same table union officials and railway managers. Shortly after, the unions instructed their members and all others on strike, to return to work. The unions also accepted Asquith’s proposed Royal Commission to look at the conciliation scheme. In truth, nothing much had changed and the unions had basically accepted the scheme offered on the 17th August. Thus, this suggests that they wished to show the government and railway companies what they were capable of.

Therefore, the strike of 1911 was only a minor ‘blip’ in the smooth running of Britain’s railway network. However, it was vital in the step towards railway companies acknowledging the existence and place of the unions within the industry. In truth, nothing much had changed, however, the unions had demonstrated their strength to act and the railway companies and government could no longer just fob them off with ad hoc arrangements and a lack of recognition.

In part 3, I will look at the immediate aftermath of the strike, the revised conciliation scheme, and the creation of Britain's first all-grades union.

[1] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1840-1870, (London, 1980) p.58

[2] Pollins, Harold, Britain’s Railways: An Industrial History, (Newton Abbot, 1971), p. 137

[3] Howell, David, Respectable Radicals: Studies in the Politics of Railway Trade Unionism, (Aldershot, 1999), p.112

[4] Howell, Respectable Radicals, p.113

[5] Pollins, Britain’s Railways, p.137

[6] The Times, 16th August 1911, p.7

[7] Pollins, Britain’s Railways, p.137

[8] Bagwell, Philip, ‘Strikes,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.483

[9] Pollins, Britain’s Railways, p.137

[10] The Times, 18th August 1911, p.6

[11] Bagwell, ‘Strikes,’ p.483

[12] Pollins, Britain’s Railways, p.137

[13] The National Archives [TNA], ZPER 11/28, The South Western Gazette 1st September 1911, p.9

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...