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Saturday, 5 March 2011

Victorian Railway Employees Complaining About Victorian Railway Employees

Having been employed in a number of different workplaces over the years, the one constant that I have encountered is that those individuals that I work with will, invariably, talk about their colleagues. This is part of the natural ebb and flow of the office, factory or anywhere else where Homo sapiens toil. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the Victorian railway employer did the same, complaining about other employees’ behind their backs. Evidence of this day to day activity is hard to find, however, the diary of Sam Fay (shown), which records his life as a clerk on the London and South Western Railway at Kingston Station between 1878 and 1881, details the many occasions when railway workers got irritated by their co-workers. Furthermore, on reviewing the diary, it has brought home to me that in some respects that the people of the 19th century were just like us.
While I presume complaints were made by railway employees against their direct superiors, the senior management seem to come in for a rough time in the diary. On the 5th of April 1878 Fay took a stroll to Teddington Station to see the staff there.[1] Shortly before changes had occurred in the Telegraph Department and it's head, Mr Blake, had been replaced by a newcomer Mr Goldstone. Clearly, Blake had run his department in quite a relaxed manner. On arrival Fay had a ‘jaw’ with Goddard, a fellow clerk who was of a similar seniority to him having been with the company the same amount of time.[2] Goddard stated that the clerks were giving Mr Goldstone a bad name. Apparently, he was ‘too sharp to please them and has no favourites like old Blake had.’ Yet, even though Fay had heard the complaints of Goddard, Fay’s assessment of the situation was that Goldstone was the ‘right man in the right place.’[3] Clearly, he did not agree with his colleague’s assessment.

Indeed, at the same point Fay’s career was advancing and was becoming General Manager of the North and South West Junction Railway, in 1892,[4] Goddard was still at Teddington, and was reprimanded for being ‘short in his cash’ to the tune of £36 4s 2d. As a result, he was moved from the station to the Nine Elms Goods Depot.[5] Perhaps, Goddard’s issue in 1878 was that he was no longer the favourite of his superior, an arrangement which previously had hid his own mediocre performance under Blake. Indeed, this factor may have held his career back in later years as Fay’s advanced.
Mr Jacomb had been the L&SWR’s Chief Resident Engineer since 1870, and his remit covered the maintenance of the line and buildings.[6] But, working in a different department to the Kingston Station staff, who were in the Traffic Department, he would have had his own agenda regarding just when and where repairs and alterations were required. Thus, when the Station Agent at Kingston, Petit, stopped Jacomb’s men doing what Fay (and presumably Petit) thought was ‘a lot of unnecessary work,’ the Chief Engineer complained about him. The result was an inter-departmental controversy, for which Fay had to write ‘down three sheets of foolscap to Mr Scott about the affair.’[7] Clearly, inter-departmental resentment and complaining was alive and well.
Yet, it wasn’t only superiors that were in the firing line, and Fay had a run in with one of his colleagues in May 1878. The W.H. Smith bookstall at Kingston was staffed by a man named Compton. Whether this meant that he was employed by the L&SWR or Smiths is unknown. Presumably to save on his own costs, on the 6th of May, Compton travelled with four persons from Waterloo to Kingston using used tickets he had obtained from the Kingston booking office.[8] Fay, and a fellow Clerk, Osborne, who has been working at the station since 1875,[9] reported this to Mr Pettit. Petit, naturally took action and forced Compton to pay the fares. Fay recorded that Compton thought ‘it a very shabby action on our part, he has circulated a yarn of his own about the town saying nothing of the crew and tickets he had with him, we shall not, I presume, be on speaking terms for some time over it.’[10] Of course, I am only getting Fay’s side of the story on this. However, it is unlikely that this would be the sort of thing that he would make up.
Also, there is a case of Fay simply not liking someone. On Monday 17th January 1881 he wrote in his diary that he had heard that Wright, who was based at Fulwell, was about to be dismissed. Presumably through nosiness, Fay wrote to the General Manager’s office to ascertain if this was true.[11] Goffe, one of the General Manager’s clerks,[12] wrote back stating that this was not the case. Fay for some reason thought this was unfortunate. The reason he disliked Wright is unknown. However, given that it is known that Fay was a stickler for good management and efficiency, I suspect it was because he perceived Wright to be inefficient.
While Fay did, on occasion, praise his colleagues, the majority of the comments on the quality of others’ work were negative. Thus, these case studies show that while the setting is very different to any modern workplace, the Victorian railway worker had the same complaints about the actions and efficiency of fellow workers as many of us do today.
[1] Bill Fay Collection [BFC], Sam Fay’s Diary, 5th April 1878.
[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.254
[3] BFC, Sam Fay’s Diary, 5th April 1878.
[4] TNA, ZPER 11/22, South Western Gazette, March 1905, p.9
[5] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.254
[6] TNA, ZPER 11/6, South Western Gazette, June 1887, p.90-91
[7] BFC, Sam Fay’s Diary, 28th May 1878
[8] BFC, Sam Fay’s Diary, 6th May 1878.
[9] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.456
[10] BFC, Sam Fay’s Diary, 6th May 1878.
[11] BFC, Sam Fay’s Diary, 17th January 1881
[12] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.234


  1. This is fascinating. Is Fay's diary available in published form? If not, why not?

  2. Unfortunately, the Sam Fay diary is in the possession of Bill, his grandson. It isn't actually that long, covering the period 28th January 1878 to 12th July 1881, and is only 47 pages in length. Thus, it isn't really of a publishable size. Also, I have been given permission by Bill to use it, but he is, understandably, quite protective of it generally.

  3. Thats a shame, but obviously its understandable that Bill is protective of it- I'm not sure I would want people to read the innermost thoughts of my dad or grandad (if they had left a diary this fascinating).

  4. I don't think he's worried about the 'inner-most' thoughts particularly, as there is nothing that is that racy or inflammatory, and if there was I'm sure he would have taken them out. I get the feeling, he just wants it used responsibly and by people who don't want to just exploit it. As I said, he is OK with me using it, and I think this is because I am a railway historian.


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