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Monday, 1 August 2011

Opportunity and Exploitation – The First Female Clerks on Britain’s Railways - 1875

Before 1870 most women working on the railway received their jobs as an act of charity from the railway companies on the death or injury of their husbands. After being on a waiting list, they could be appointed as refreshment room attendants, carriage lining sewers, ticket sorters or gatekeepers. Unsurprisingly, these jobs were low paid, took place in poor conditions and had long hours. Yet, being appointed to such a post was far better that the alternatives of poverty or possible confinement to the workhouse. Indeed, as I have written before (here), the lives of railwaymen’s widows was hard and destitution was always possible.[1]

In 1875 the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR), Britain’s second largest railway company, altered the nature of women’s employment within railway companies by appointing 15 women to clerical roles at the company’s Birmingham Goods Department. This was on the initiative of a ‘Mr Nichols,’ who was the traffic manager at the Curzon Street Station. Strictly speaking, this was not the first time women had been given office-based employment by the railways, and on rare occasions the daughters of stationmasters had been engaged as telegraphists. Yet, the 1875 appointments signalled a change in women’s opportunities on the railways as it was first occasion when clerical positions had been created specifically for women, rather than their circumstances or any charitable intent.

This could possibly linked to the improved education in the period. The 1870 Education Act had extended education (somewhat unevenly) to all children between the ages of 5 and 12. Given that most of the women employed by the L&NWR were ‘young women,’ it could be argued that the expansion of national education facilitated their employment. Indeed, a few years later the women were all described as being ‘fairly educated.’ [2] Yet, while these were progressive steps for womens' employment in the railway industry, overall, railway companies were comparatively slow in appointing women to clerical positions. As an example, the Post Office was employing 3,500 female clerical staff
by 1887.[3]

The work and conditions of the fifteen women employed by the L&NWR were described in a number of publications.
In 1878 The Englishwomen’s Review (hereon known as 'The Review') stated that the women's work was principally to make 'abstracts from invoices for the ledger accounts of credit customers and for forwarding to the Railway Clearing House.’[4] This work was described by The Review as being ‘not difficult,’ but required ‘care and accuracy.’ Like most clerical jobs in the period, this would have been highly repetitive and dull.

The conditions of the work were not that distinct from those of the male clerks, although Myra’s Journal in 1889 stated that the women worked separately from them and were placed under a matron's charge.[5] Unlike other women performing jobs on the railway network, their hours were relatively tame, and they worked between 9 am and 5 pm. However, as with most clerical work in the period, the reality was that they would have gone home when they finished their assigned work, whether that be at 5, 6, 7 or 8 pm. The pay was pitiful compared with their male colleagues, ranging from 10s to 17s per week (£26 to £44 4s per year). Indeed, most junior clerks on the London and South Western Railway started on £30 per year, but their wages could reach the £100s throughout their career (See here). [6] However, even amongst female clerical workers these wages were poor and Myra’s Journal stated that they were ‘less than those paid by the Prudential Assurance Company.’[7] Furthermore, these women would have had no promotional prospects and presumably they left the company on marriage.

Nevertheless, in comparison with other employment opportunities for young women, working for the L&NWR was deemed better given the office environment. The Review stated that ‘the work affords excellent employment for fairly educated girls whose parents do not wish to send them into shops and factories.’[8] Therefore, in contemporaneous eyes, the avoidance of manual work made up for the fact that the women were poorly paid.

With these appointments being novelties in the railway industry at the time, it is not surprising that they drew criticism. Firstly, some argued that by appointing women to such roles it would threaten men’s jobs. In July 1876 the periodical Judy observed that because of the success of the women at Birmingham and the expansion of the ‘experiment,’ ‘Female engine-drivers and stokers will be the next step of course.’[9] Thus, while Judy was comic publication, this clearly expressed the threat some men felt from women being employed en masse within the railway industry.

Furthermore, in February 1887 The Review noted that a correspondent from the Railway Shareholder had argued that ‘though paid less…,[women] are totally unable to perform the whole of the arduous and multifarious duties of a corresponding number of male clerks owing to their “want of knowledge of the general routine of work”’ The Review retorted that if there really was a problem it ‘might be easily remedied by more regular training; but we are well disposed to think that the experience of the North Western Company…is conclusive, and that women clerks are up to their work.’[10] Thus, the women were attacked along lines which historically womens’ employment always
has been; the taking of men’s jobs and the perceived inability of women to perform their duties adequately.

However, the L&NWR's management were very pleased with the ‘experiment,’ and The Review stated that ‘it is found that the work is done much more accurately than by male clerks, to say nothing of the neatness which is also displayed.’[11] Furthermore, The Cheshire Observer stated that because of this ‘the directors have been induced to try the experiment in other large centres of traffic…we believe the interesting experiment is being tried at Chester Station.’[12] Consequently, by the 1890s the L&NWR had recruited around 180 women for clerical posts,[13] at Camden, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds Chester and Wolverhampton.[14] But the success of the ‘Birmingham fifteen’ had wider implications within the industry. In 1877 The Leeds Mercury reported that other railways were considering employing ‘respectable women’ at stations.[15] Thus, by 1911 Britain’s railways employed 1,120 women in clerical positions (as opposed to 84,802 male clerks.)[16]

It should, however, be remembered that the true purpose of the L&NWR's appointments in 1875 was not through any urge to reform employment practices for women or to open up their opportunities. Rather, the L&NWR saw them as a source of cheap labour in a time when the railway industry's profitability was declining. The Cheshire Observer stated that for all railway companies the employment of the women in clerical positions ‘would be of great consideration in these times of railway competition.’[17] The Leeds Mercury stated that ‘the arrangement is economical, and ought to result in lessening railway expenditure, which has grown unduly in late years, especially in the wages department, and brought about a lamentable reduction in the rate of dividends.’[18]

Thus, the appointment of the 15 clerks at Birmingham was a significant event in the history of women’s employment on the railway, opening up clerical roles for women within the L&NWR and other companies. Nevertheless, the reality was that these women were exploited to improve company profitability. Indeed, this was story repeated in the other railway companies, and in other industries, when they took similar steps.

EXTRA, 11/08/2011: I have since written another blog on this subject to be found HERE


[1] Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (Hastings, 2005), p.1-41
[2] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[3] The Englishwomen’s Review, Tuesday, February 15th, 1887, p.78
[4] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[5] Myra’s Journal, Monday, Aril 1st 1889, p.185
[6] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[7] Myra’s Journal, Monday, Aril 1st 1889, p.185
[8] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[9] Judy, July 19th 1876, p. 141-142
[10] The Englishwomen’s Review, Tuesday, February 15th, 1887, p.78
[11] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[12] Cheshire Observer, Saturday, July 15th 1876, p.6
[13] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
[14] Myra’s Journal, Monday, Aril 1st 1889, p.185
[15] The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, June 25th, 1877
[16] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
[17] Cheshire Observer, Saturday, July 15th 1876, p.6
[18] The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, June 25th, 1877

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