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Friday, 5 November 2010

The Dirt of the Victorian Railway Industry - The Platelayers

The railways were one of the few organisations in the Victorian period where someone from a lowly background could rise up to better their ‘lot’ in life. For many, these opportunities were small, but for the industrious they definitely existed. However, excluding women, who could not advance for obvious reasons, one group of railway employees had almost no opportunities to advance beyond their station. These were the platelayers. In correspondence with author Frank McKenna, Will Thorne, a Victorian platelayer himself, stated that the platelayer was the ‘most neglected man in the service.’ [1]

By 1860, W.M. Mills stated that on Britain’s 8863 miles of railway there were 8598 platelayers. Gangs of platelayers were marshalled under a foreman or ganger, and were allocated a section of line to look after. This had to be inspected twice a day and any faults in the track’s gauge, level and superelevation were to be mended by using their picks, shovels, hammers, wrenches and track gauges. They also had to maintain line side fences and keep the culverts clear,[2] as well as retrieve any item that may have fallen from a train.[3] All these tasks were to be done in all weathers.

Further, to this, platelayer’s working conditions were the poorest of any railway employees. For six days a week they had to be on duty between 6am and 6pm, and at the end of the day they had to make sure that the line was clear and in good working order. Naturally, if the work had not been completed by 6pm, they had to stay until it was done so. Pay was probably the worst of any railway employees, apart from women, and the hard graft was rewarded with a measly 17 to 21 shillings per week. Indeed, sickness on a Sunday would mean that a platelayer would forfeit his Monday pay.

Promotional prospects to improve their pay were also non-existent. Where some of the weekly paid staff, through industrious working, could jump onto the clerical promotional trees that could take them to management (a rare, but recorded occurrence), platelayers could not do this because they were outside the main framework of railway life given their working location away from stations. They could rise within their own limited hierarchy, from platelayer, to ganger, to sub-inspector and lastly to inspector. But, because of the small ratio of gangers and inspectors to platelayers, promotion was highly unlikely.[4] This lack of promotional opportunities to any ‘higher and more remunerative’ grades was confirmed by Will Thorne.[5]

Further, platelayers’ poor working conditions, promotional prospects and pay were not their only hardships. They also had a bad image, and they were not the sort of individuals that railway managers wished to have around their pristine stations. On the Lynton and Barnstaple railway, just before the First World War, playelayers were issued with an edict that they were not allowed on the platform at Lynton. Rather, they were instructed to ‘slink by on the track,’ lest they be seen by passengers.[6]

Thus, platelayers had the hardest life of any railway employees in the Victorian railway and were destined to remain in their position, treated like dirt, for their entire working lives.

[1] McKenna, The Railway Workers, p.35-36

[2] Ransom, P.J.G. ‘Platelayers,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (London, 1997), p.381

[3] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers, (London, 1976), p.35

[4] Kingsford, P.W., Victorian Railwaymen, (London, 1970), p.138

[5] McKenna, The Railway Workers, p.36

[6] McKenna, The Railway Workers, p.36


  1. Thank you for this information, it is really useful. One of my ancestors was a platelayer.

  2. V Interesting. My Great Grandfather was a railway Plate layer on Stainmore. He and his family lived in Summit cottages right on the top of the Pennines. Must have been a hard job.

  3. My greatgrandfather was a platelayer near Stoke. Later he saw the potential of the railway for moving fish inland from the ports and became a wholesale and retail fishmonger. He did well at that but still died in the workhouse- albeit at an advanced age.

  4. My great-grandfather was a platelayer in London in the 1860s. I now know why he lived in Kensal Town, one of the poorest areas


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