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Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Hours Victorian Railway Clerks Worked - 1856

Being employed on the Victorian railway would always mean long hours, as with most other jobs of the period. Kingsford argued that ‘in the early years [of the railways] hours of work were extremely long and left a bare minimum for sleep. There was no regular provision for Sunday relief or for holidays and the working week was normally a seven day one.’[1] Amongst the railway staff records on, I came across a file that provided insight into clerks and station master’s working day on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway in 1856. This contained questionnaires where they were asked a range of questions, including how long in each day they toiled.[2]

Kingsford commented on this file in passing (although he said erroneously that all the returns were filled in by Station Masters), and argued that the seventy-six individuals in it worked an average of fourteen hours a day.[3] I have not sampled every man’s hours of work, and have only surveyed the first  twenty-five returns, but I can confidently say that this is a generalisation that hides considerable nuance and variance in each individual’s employment circumstances. Nevertheless, the average number of hours worked by the men in my sample came out at thirteen hours, thirty-five minutes; close to Kingsford’s calculation.

The individual who worked the shortest hours was Mr Brabrook, a clerk at New Cross Station, who most days worked a mere eight and a half hours. However, he did work for ten hours forty-five minutes some weeks. The individual who had the longest working day was Mr Beacon, a clerk at Bridlington Station, who reported that he was at the station for sixteen hours, twenty-five minutes per day - from 7.30am to 11.55pm. Thus, if I estimate he daily had thirty minutes off for lunch, this would mean his working week was 112 hours, 25 minutes long.

While Kingsford worked out the number of hours the men were on duty was fourteen hours, it seems that the length of time people were on duty varied considerably amongst the twenty-five men I looked at. The results are as follows:

Clearly, the majority of those in the sample were working between fourteen and fifteen hours. Yet, nine were working less than that amount, while eight were working more. There are two possible explanations for this variation. Firstly, it is quite conceivable that people worked more hours because they were higher in the organisation, and, therefore, had greater responsibility. Alternatively, because some individuals were at remote locations, they may have had fewer colleagues to cover them and allow them time off.

Firstly, I decided to examine the theory that those who were higher in the organisation worked longer hours. Broadly speaking there were three ‘ranks’ of employees represented amongst the twenty-five, junior managers (superintendents), supervisory posts (Station Masters or Foremen) and General Clerks (including one junior). The average number of hours worked for each group of employees was as follows:-

While the sample size is small, and we have to be wary about making any firm conclusions from these figures, what this table would suggest is that individuals’ working hours were on average shorter before they went into supervisory posts. Yet, on being promoted to a junior managerial position their hours improved.

But what about the idea that those individuals employed in the country worked longer days? Indeed, this was postulated by Kingsford. The results were that the thirteen country workers in the sample were on duty for an average of 14.01 hours per day, whereas for the twelve in the town it was 12.96 hours. Therefore, this tentatively confirms the theory. Lastly, I wanted to look at the two sets of statistics in combination, to see whether all ranks worked more hours at country stations.

The results really show why I need to expand the sample size to all seventy-six individuals in the file. However, while no firm conclusions can be made regarding the supervisors or Junior Managers, clearly, general clerks in the country worked more hours than their counterparts in the town.

Overall, while there are problems with this brief survey given my sample size, it has presented some interesting questions to be tackled in the future.


[1] Kingsford, P.W., Victorian Railwaymen, (London, 1970), p.115
[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 414/767, Traffic staff histories based on questionnaire and relating to staff appointed 1836-1854
[3] Kingsford, Victorian Railwaymen, p.117

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