In the mid-1890s at the London School of Economics (LSE), William Acworth, a noted commentator on railway issues, gave a series of lectures to Great Western (GWR) and Great Eastern Railway (GER) clerks on railway management. After this, the idea of a department being established there to teach railway employees on aspects of railway management began to develop. Subsequently, in 1903 seven major railway companies (GWR, GER, London and South Western Railway, Great Central Railway, Great Northern Railway and London and North Western Railway) paid for more detailed courses to be established at the university. The clerks of these companies were not forced to attend the courses, as they took place on their own time, yet they were encouraged to do so as it would help their careers.
In the first term (1903-04) the courses available were 'The Economics of Rapid Transport,' 'The Law Relating to Railway Companies,' 'Economic Factors in Railway Administration,' 'Railway Statistics in England and Foreign Countries' and 'The Law of Carriage by Railway.' All initially ran for 3 to 12 lectures, and a student’s performance was measured by either an essay or exam. The number of courses made available by the Railway Department soon expanded, and by the First World War topics included railway engineering and locomotive operation. Further, courses were also offered on subjects not directly related to railway management or more general topics, such as economics, business and accountancy skills. Ultimately, students who attended over many years could obtain a degree with honours in transportation.
Over this period, the number of female clerks working within British railway companies had grown significantly. By July 1914, out of 13,046 female railway workers across the network, 2,341 were working in clerical grades. With the coming of the war this number increased. Thus, by 1918 Britain’s railways employed 13,655 women as clerks.
Throughout the war the Railway Department at the LSE continued to teach London-based clerks and many female clerks took the opportunity to attend. In total, over the period 1914 to 1920, there were 126 occasions of female clerks attending the Railway Department for a term. In contrast there were 1419 occasions of male clerks attending for a term, meaning that over the period women made up 8.16% of the student body.
The evidence shows that the attendance of female clerks was shaped by women’s wartime employment patterns. Thus, in the 1914-15 term there were no female students (out of 267), as the proportion of women within the railways’ clerical workforce was still insignificant. It was in the 1915-16 that the first female clerks attended the LSE, one coming from the Metropolitan Railway and four from the Great Western Railway. From this small start, and with the massive increase in the female clerical staff generally, the number attending the LSE grew after 1916. This growth is tabulated below:-
What is also interesting is that female clerks working on the different railway companies attended the classes in different proportions relative to the number of overall attendees that their company sent. The table below shows the number of clerks that attended according to the railway company with which they were employed between 1914 and 1920:-
Evidence suggests that the enthusiasm with which female clerks from the different companies attended the LSE may have been influenced by the companies’ pre-war enthusiasm for employing women in clerical positions generally. Therefore, the Great Western Railway, who supplied the greatest number of female clerks relative to their entire contribution to the student body, was one of the first companies to employ women as clerks in 1906. Yet, one of the railways from which the fewest numbers of female clerks went to the LSE, the London and South Western Railway, only began to employ female clerks in March 1914. A caveat should be stated, in that these figures will be affected by the fact that the LSE classes were only attended by clerks that worked in the London area. So, for example, the worst performer in the table, the Great Northern Railway, served mainly areas in the north of the country and may have had few London-based female clerical staff, which would have affected their returns.
Yet, despite this consideration, the evidence suggests that the different companies’ pre-war mind-sets towards female labour and employment may have affected the encouragement that they gave to their female clerks to attend. Indeed, if senior managers within some companies had only begrudgingly allowed women to become clerks in the first place, it is quite possible that they did not make them aware of the courses at the LSE or put up barriers to them attendening. Indeed, the L&SWR employed over 400 female clerks during wartime, yet only 2 attended the Railway Department, suggesting that something restricted their attendance.
Clearly, this story shows that the attitudes of higher education institutions to the education and admission of women was changing. But more importantly, it indicates that once given the opportunity to attend these institutions, women did so with enthusiasm.