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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

It's Who Knows You - Promotion Amongst Victorian Railway Clerks

Britain’s railways have two stories that run like a thread through them. On the one hand, there were the events that took place in the head offices and amongst senior managers that shaped what actually happened on the railways. On the other, there were the myriad of stories that played out at stations, yards and on trains around the network amongst railway employees. Therefore, the role of the railway historian is to either choose to focus on one aspect of these tales, or, to look at their interaction.

This fact was brought to mind when, on visiting the National Railway Museum’s (NRM) archive on Monday, I looked at a book by W. Buckmaster called Railway Reminiscences. Produced after his retirement in 1937, this small pamphlet detailed his career as a member of the clerical staff of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) and his subsequent rise into management. Indeed, it was his management activities that consistently brought to my mind the diary of another L&SWR clerk, Sam Fay (Shown), which I have in my possession. What was interesting was that Buckmaster showed how senior managers approached the promotion of clerks within the company, while Fay’s diary starkly detailed the strains, pressures and hopes that clerks had while trying to gain these promotions. Thus, what I have now is a view of promotion amongst the L&SWR’s clerical staff from those being promoted and those doing promoting.

Buckmaster started his L&SWR career in 1875 when he became a clerk in the company’s Goods Department. After spending seven years at what he called his ‘home station,’ he then became a clerk at a ‘busy goods depot’ for another seven. He then spent three years as a relief clerk, was posted at the Superintendent of the Line’s office in around 1892 and was appointed ‘Chief of the Traffic Department Staff’ a few years later.

Thus, for the five years that Buckmaster was in this post he was the man who best understood the Traffic Department’s staff from a management perspective, gaining ‘a thorough insight’ into the staff’s ‘character, temperament, disposition etc.’ Thus, with such knowledge he was seemingly the one who had control over clerks’ career paths as it enabled him to ‘form an opinion as to their fitness and ability to undertake other and more responsible duties as and when vacancies occurred.’ Subsequently, he controlled ‘to a great extent their destinies.’[1] This suggests that single senior managers had the most say in who was promoted within the Traffic Department. Furthermore, the recommendations that these managers made as to who should be promoted were simply based on their subjective opinions of individuals’ suitability to fill vacancies.

But what about the process clerks went through in applying for jobs? While some were clearly approached directly to fill positions within the Traffic department by senior management, as Buckmaster himself was,[2] evidence from Sam Fay’s diary, written during his time as a clerk in Kingston, shows how the L&SWR’s clerical staff went about applying for positions (If you would like to know more about Fay’s life at the time see HERE.)

Firstly, within the company there was seemingly a network whereby individuals would acquire knowledge about vacancies, whether it were through letters, news stories or through word of mouth. Thus, on the 25th February 1878 Fay, who was looking to advance his career at this point, ‘asked Mr Pettit [the station master] on Friday if he had any objection to my applying for Queen's Road as I heard the Chief Clark was about to leave.’[3] Additionally, in April 1879 F. Mears, Agent at Bournemouth died. Such was the dissemination of this knowledge that Fay reported that there was ‘over 100 applications for the latter job.’[4] Of course, occasionally information regarding potential opportunities was received too late for vacancies to be applied for. When in November 1879 a vacancy came up at Reading, Fay applied. However, a Mr Goffe in the General Manager’s office replied to Fay’s application stating that ‘Stacey late agent at Midhurst had been appointed there.’[5]

However, what is evident from diary is that while there was an internal labour market, whereby individuals applied for jobs en masse and competed for vacant positions, a clerk’s chances were more likely to be shaped by the knowledge that those above them in the management hierarchy had. Indeed, this confirms Buckmaster’s assertion that senior managers were key to clerks’ promotional prospects. In October 1878 Fay ‘asked the governor his opinion about applying for vacancies caused by the opening of Holsworthy line.’ However, because Petit was ‘strongly against [him] applying,’ he gave up the idea.[6] Indeed, there is evidence that Station Agents had some sway over who left their stations and on the 25th February 1878 Fay ‘asked Mr Pettit on Friday if he had any objection to my applying for Queen's Road as I heard the Chief Clark was about to leave.’[7] Lastly, in August 1879 Fay himself went up to see the company’s General Manager, Archibald Scott, about a vacancy at Andover if ‘Lawrence goes to Midhurst.’[8]

Thus, Fay’s superiors, from his direct line manager, Petit, to the General Manager of the company, Scott, all played a part in advancing or holding his back is career. Therefore, within the late Victorian railway company, while competition for posts clearly existed, career advancement was more dependent on how superiors thought of individuals, how aware they were of them within the organisation, and their subjective opinion of their abilities. Indeed, this puts a ‘human’ element into the studies of social mobility within the Victorian railway, which have seemingly only seen career advancement as a logical outcome of good education and start-of-life opportunities. Indeed, this small study has shown that it wasn’t always what you knew or who you knew that got you advanced, rather, it was who knew you that sometimes did the trick.

[1] Buckmaster, W. Railway Reminiscences, (London, 1937), p.7
[2] Buckmaster, Railway Reminiscences, p.4
[3] William Fay Collection [WFC], Sam Fay's Diary, Monday, 25th February 1878
[4] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Tuesday, 22nd April 1879
[5] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Tuesday, 28th November 1879
[6] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Wednesday, 16th October 1878
[7] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Wednesday, 16th October 1878
[8] WFC, Sam Fay's Diary, Monday, 25th February 1878

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