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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Discovering Britain's first Railwaywomen (1840s and 1850s) - Part 2

My last post discussed the research I have done on some of Britain’s earliest railwaywomen. They were employed by four companies in the 1840s and 1850s and I looked at the positions they worked in and how they came to be appointed. In this post I will look at their wages, length of employment and how they left the service.

The wages the women received were highly variable within companies, between companies and even amongst individuals doing the same jobs. Out of the sixty women, Ann Berry, an office cleaner at Atherton on the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR), had the sad distinction of being the lowest paid, earning only 1 shilling a week (£2 12s per year)[1]. Interestingly, another office cleaner,  Ann Cavanagh who was based at the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway’s Manchester offices, was the highest paid, receiving £1 1s a week (£52 12s per year).[2] However, despite Ann being the highest paid woman, in comparison with her male colleagues it was still a low amount.

Thus, women’s starting wages on the early railways were meagre. The poorest wages were given to the gatekeepers, and from a sample size of 22 the average wage was 3 shillings 3 pence per week (£6 10s per year). However, this figure is forced up by the fact that there were a number of gatekeepers earning much higher amounts than the rest. Eliza Prince, based at the Saltney gate on the Great Western Railway (GWR) was earning 7 shillings per week (£18 4s per year).[3] However, this average is also skewed by the fact that seventeen of the gatekeepers worked for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) and fifteen of these were receiving what was clearly a standard rate of 2s 6d per week (£6 10s per year). Gatekeepers’ low wages reflected the fact that many of them were given a house as part of their work and had husbands who were also employed by the railway as platelayers or signalmen. Thus, the company did not feel the need to pay these women a higher wage.

The highest wage earners were the waiting room attendants, who on average earned 10 shillings 9 pence per week (£27 17s 2d per year). However, seven of the eight, working for the L&NWR and LB&SCR, all earned 10 shillings a week (£26 per year). Whereas, Francis Fuller, who worked as a ‘servant’ for the LB&SCR, was earning 15 shillings per week (£39 per year).[4] Possibly, the higher wages reflected the fact that attendants usually had had husbands killed on the railways, but also that these men had been in important positions, such as clerks or engine drivers.

While there are only four clerks in the sample, their wage average was 7 shillings 11 pence per week (£20 9s 6d per year). There are seemingly no patterns in their wages, possibly indicating that as the employment of women in such positions was rare, the companies decided what they were paid on a case by case basis. Lastly, cleaners earned on average 5 shillings 2 pence per week (£13 9s 3d per year). Yet, while most of these women were at the lower end of the wage spectrum, amongst the twenty-one individuals doing this job eleven different rates were paid and the only pattern that can be discerned is that the higher paid office cleaners were usually working in stations of note. For example, Ann Trant, who worked at London Bridge Station (LB&SCR), was earning 7 shillings a week (£18 4s per year)[5]. This said, some low paid cleaners at large stations have also been found, suggesting that those who were paid more were possibly in supervisory roles.

Once assigned to their posts forty-one of the women did not receive any wage increases, and for the nineteen women that did the extra income was minimal. Indeed, it was more likely that they would leave the service before they would receive a raise. The details of how twenty of the women left the service have been found. One, Jane Beattie who was an office cleaner at Sheffield on the (MS&LR), died. This was in 1877 after twenty-seven years in the service.[6] Ten resigned and given that four were in their late teens and two were in their mid-20s when they left, it suggests they did so to get married. (The ages when three left are unknown)
Nine of the women were dismissed and the reasons stated for this clearly show that the companies saw women’s labour as being far more dispensable than men’s. Indeed, the phrase ‘services dispensed with,’ or words to that effect, appear in eight of the nine cases, suggesting they were simply fired when no longer required.  The case of Esther Pearce, a gatekeeper at Berwick on the LB&SCR, is particularly interesting as the staff record clearly shows why she lost her job. After thirteen years of service she was discharged on the basis that the company appointed a man.[7] Additionally, long service did not seem to grant the women any immunity from being dispensed with when their post was no longer required. Only Elizabeth Boyd, who was a Charwoman on the MS&LR at Hull, was dismissed for any form of malpractice as she had been inattentive to her duties.[8]

Overall, a number of themes can be drawn from this information. Firstly, the wages women received were, overall, very low compared with those of their male colleagues, even in the cases of the female clerks who were the only women doing a job that men also held. Secondly, there were a considerable number of women who went into railway work before marriage. Lastly, the railway companies saw women were a source of cheap and dispensable labour.


[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 410/1858, Staff register including station agents, guards, porters, ticket collectors, gangers, ladies attendants, night watchmen, police constables, bellmen, lamplighters, engine drivers, firemen, labourers, stokers, signalmen, warehousemen etc., p.258
[2] TNA, RAIL 463/305, Staff register 1, p.441
[3] TNA, RAIL 264/349, Register of uniformed staff No.1 O & P, p.252
[4] TNA, RAIL 414/569, Returns of staff employed in all departments of the company, p.438
[5] TNA, RAIL 414/770, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.4
[6] TNA, RAIL 463/305, Staff register 1, p.189
[7] TNA, RAIL 414/770, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.119
[8] TNA, RAIL 463/305, Staff register 1, p.392

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