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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.

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

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

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