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Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Emergence of Company Loyalty Amongst Victorian Railway Workers

Company loyalty on the Victorian railways was something that outsiders took for granted. Indeed, railway workers were perceived to be the most loyal employees within British industry. Frank McKenna argued that within the early railway companies ‘a specific loyalty was born, flourished and was difficult to irradiate.’[1]

Two notable studies touched on the origins of company loyalty, focussing on what the railway workers’ jobs were and the space in which they worked. George Revill, in his thesis on the Midland Railway’s Derby headquarters, argued that railway workers’ loyalty was the result of two main factors. On the one hand, railway workers perceived themselves as being important to the ‘growth and stability of the state.’ They were servants of the railway company, which in turn was serving the nation and the public.[2]

On the other hand, because railway employees worked at a distance from headquarters and had to gather information and take decisions themselves, this resulted in employees engaging in what Revill called ‘space management.’ Firstly, railway employment meant that the average railway worker had unique opportunities for promotion and social climbing compared with non-railway employees, and thus, his ‘concept of respectability’ rested with such prospects. Therefore, within his space in the company the individual had the chance to give ‘meaning to his life’ through the creation of a career. This instigated loyalty into him.[3] I would, however, suggest that because different groups of railway employees had better chance than others to advance up the promotional ladder, for example the clerks’ unique opportunities to become managers, that this was a variable factor in workers’ loyalty.

Also, Revill argued that as railway employees had clear limits of their own responsibility, within which they had to manage the work and their physical actions, this gave them a heightened sense of skill and a ‘distinct sense’ of the role they were playing as an important cog in the company machine.[4] This subsequently gave further ‘meaning to their lives.’

Yet, because of this, employees’ began to feel that they owned their particular working area or workplace, which re-enforced loyalty. Indeed, McKenna stated that railway workers could stamp their own mark over a certain ‘area or stretch of ground,’ resulting in what he called the ‘railway bailiwick.’ Railway employees became very protective over ‘my engine,’ ‘my signal box’ or ‘my yard,’ which fostered loyalty to a workplace. Furthermore, both Revill and McKenna argued that once immersed in railway work, the employees also became loyal to social networks within the company. McKenna concluded that what was created was ‘a new form of industrial anthropology, a tribalistic grouping of men based on an elaborate division of labour.’[5] This fostered loyalties to emerge amongst the different classes of employees, for example platelayers, clerks or drivers, but which again were perceived by them collectively as being vital to the working of the whole company.

Further Revill’s argued that the loyalty to the railway company was re-enforced by the interaction with the public. Firstly, because entry into railway work was restricted, through exams and entry qualifications, railway workers came to think of themselves as the ‘chosen few’ with special status'. Secondly, they were providing a service to the public who were dependent on them, whether they were customers or shareholders, and this was perceived as something to be proud of. Lastly, like many railway workers came to see their company as a vital to state's well-being, they also saw the railway company as a microsomal nation in its own right, in which they identified that their department was special to its working.[6]

Thus, these two Historians have developed theories as to factors that played a role in company loyalty in the Victorian period. The space in which railway workers operated and how they came to think about their role within the company, re-enforced company loyalty.

[1] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers, 1840-1970, (London, 1980) p.41

[2] Revill, George Edwin, ‘Paternalism, Community and Corporate Culture: A Study of the derby Headquarters of the Midland Railway Company and its Workforce, 1840-1900,’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis. Loughborough University, 1989), pp.344

[3] Revill, ‘Paternalism, Community and Corporate Culture, pp.344

[4] Revill, ‘Paternalism, Community and Corporate Culture, pp.344

[5] McKenna, The Railway Workers, p.40-41

[6] Revill, ‘Paternalism, Community and Corporate Culture, pp.344-5

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