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Saturday, 12 May 2012

A Brief History of the Female Railway Clerk 1830-1914

While I have written frequently about female clerks on Britain’s railways before 1914, I have never penned a complete history. Therefore, this post will provide a broad survey of the changes in women’s clerical employment on the railways between 1830 and 1914.

Initially it may be useful to specify who I am talking about. Women were employed in three clerical positions on the Victorian railway. Firstly, there were the booking clerks; who sold tickets to passengers and registered their luggage. Secondly, women were engaged as administrative clerks, to fill in returns, conduct correspondence, and deal with the day-to-day station administration. Lastly there were telegraph clerks, who sent and received telegraph messages. It would be interesting to talk about these types of clerks separately. Yet, that would take some time and I have decided to just do a general history of all female clerical workers.

When the first female clerks were engaged on Britain’s railways is uncertain. However, the earliest I have found was Margaret Savage, who was appointed as a Telegraph Clerk at the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s (LBSCR) Three Bridges Station in August 1855. Two years later Margaret’s sister, Harriet, was also employed there as a Booking Clerk. Clearly, both Margaret and Harriett only got their jobs because their father, Thomas, was the Station Master there.[1] The same occurred in the case of Elizabeth Spearpoint, who was appointed as Telegraph Clerk at the LBSCR’s West Croydon Station in October 1857 because  her father, Robert, was in charge of that station.[2] Interestingly, what these and other appointments by the LBSCR suggest is that in the 1850s it was the first company to adopt a coherent policy regarding female clerical staff, which was simply to appoint station masters’ daughters in clerical positions.

It is not clear to what extent similar opportunities were available for women on other railways. Yet, a letter to The Times reported in 1858 that:

“In taking a ticket the other day at the Edinburgh station of the Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee Railway, we were pleasantly surprised on being waited upon by a blooming and bonnie lassie, who, along with an activity quite equal to, exhibited a politeness very rare in railway clerks of the literally ruder sex. We observed that the department was entirely occupied by women, there being another giving out tickets, and a third telegraphing.” [3]

Nevertheless, the evidence suggests before 1870 different railways adopted different policies regarding female clerks, and many, such as the London and South Western, Great Western, Metropolitan and London and North Western Railways, did not employ any. Thus, the first reference to a female clerk in the London and South Western Railway’s files, of which I have done an extensive survey, was in 1871, as follows:

Mr Fifields Daughter – Read letter from Mr Fifield Agent at Oakley Station requesting that his daughter may be appointed as Telegraphist at that Station at a pay of 7/- per week
   Recommend this to the Board[4]

Indeed, the fact that this matter had to be submitted to the board suggests that this was the first case the company had considered. Thereafter, the LSWR employed some female clerks, but these were in isolated cases and there was no set policy.

The first case of a railway company employing a large group of female clerks at one time was the London and North Western Railway between late 1874 and 1876. The women were working in the Birmingham Curzon Street Station Goods Department and their role was to make 'abstracts from invoices for the ledger accounts of credit customers and for forwarding to the Railway Clearing House.’[5] Following this, the company began employing large numbers of female clerks around the its network, at locations including Camden, Shrewsbury, Bolton, Manchester and Wolverhampton.[6]

The success of this ‘experiment’ (a word used frequently) meant that other companies began investigating the possibility of engaging women for clerical work. Most notably, the Great Western Railway investigated it thoroughly for about six months in 1876. On the 30 August its board minuted that:

‘…female clerks might be employed with advantage, but their work should be confined to offices (such as Goods or Abstract Offices) where they could be employed separately from the men clerks, except when the member of a station master’s family may be employed at the same station himself.’[7]

This was a promising start, and a later letter by a senior management endorsed these views. Indeed, on 24 November a meeting of goods managers authorised a trial of clerks at Birmingham, Bristol and Plymouth Goods Stations. For some unknown reason the trial was not proceeded with, and it was not until 1905 that the matter was considered again by the company.[8]

Nevertheless, despite the LNWR’s ‘experiment’ being successful,  it would not be until after 1900 that the cases of women being engaged in clerical positions on the railways became common. In March that year twelve were employed at Kings Cross Station by the Great Northern Railway, with the North British Railway engaged forty as telegraph clerks at Edinburgh Waverly Station. In 1901 the North Eastern Railway employed six women as telegraphists at York, with an undetermined number of female clerks being appointed there in the Traffic Statistics office the following year.[9] In 1906 the Great Western Railway employed a number of women in clerical positions at the Paddington Goods Department, followed by female telegraphists and tracers in 1908 and 1910 respectively.[10] One of the last places to engage female clerks was the Railway Clearing House, which in 1912 appointed twenty-seven who were related to men working there. This number had increased to 180 two years later.[11] Thus, by July 1914 there were 2,341 female clerical staff working on Britain’s railways.[12]

The LSWR's 'Conditions of Service' for female clerks.
However, not all companies were quick to appoint women in clerical capacities, and it was only in March 1914 that the London and South Western Railway drew up formal 'conditions of employment'.'[13] Indeed, by the coming of war, the company had only employed six female clerks.[14]

Overall, how should we think about the increase in the number female clerks within British railways after 1900? It would be easy for me to simply claim this change occurred because it became more socially acceptable for women to take up such positions. Yet, I cannot help think that there was an economic rationale involved on the railway companies’ part. Between 1870 and 1900 the profitability of British railway companies declined, with the industry’s operating costs increasing from fifty-one to sixty –two per cent of revenue over the period. Indeed, the most significant rise in companies’ expenses occurred in the late 1890s.[15] Consequently, the railway companies began looking at many ways to economise from around 1900.

Indeed, given that female clerks were paid less than their male colleagues, this raises an interesting question; to what extent was the expansion of women’s clerical employment on railways after 1900 advanced by changes in society, or changes in the nature of the railways’ business? My impression is that alterations in society's attitudes made the employment of female clerks more acceptable. Yet, because the cases of their employment on the railways grew rapidly after 1900, with little progress directly before it, I would also suggest that the industry's weakened financial circumstances stimulated managers into taking advantage of changing attitudes by employing more women in clerical positions, thus reducing railways' wage bills. Indeed, when the London Underground was considering engaging women as clerks in 1907, the Railway Gazette stated the following: ‘such an innovation has obviously only one raison d’être, that of economy…’[16]

Of course, I may be wrong in this assessment, which is based on the information I have to hand. Therefore, I am open to other perspectives and suggestions.


[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 414/770, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.62
[2] TNA, RAIL 414/771, Traffic staff: register of appointments Indexed, p.77
[3] The Times, quoted in Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (Hastings, 2005), p.27
[4] TNA, RAIL 411/241, Traffic Committee Minute Book, Minute 575, 30 November 1871
[5] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, 15 February 15th, 1878
[6] TNA, RAIL RAIL 410/1837 to RAIL 410/1842, Salaried Staff Registers.
[7] GWR Board Minute, 30 August 1876, quoted in, Matheson, Rosa, The Fair Sex: Women and the Great Western Railway, (Stroud, 2007), p.50
[8] Matheson, The Fair Sex, p.51
[9] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29-31
[10] Matheson, The Fair Sex, p.52-54
[11] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
[12] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.38
[13] TNA, RAIL 411/275, Traffic Officers’ Conference, March 1914, Appendix 1
[14] TNA, RAIL 411/506, Clerical register - Female staff, Various Staff Records
[15] Gourvish, T.R., Railways and the British Economy: 1830-1914, (London, 1980), p.42
[16] Railway Gazette, quoted in Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.27


  1. Dr Rlosa Matheson14 May 2013 at 12:28

    Hello David, have just found your website in researching for my next book.....have to say have wasted some of my precious time by having to read several posts which were too interesting not too!
    Was delighted to find that you have quoted from my 'The Fair Sex'
    glad you didn't give it up...will now be a 'follower'
    Dr Rosa Matheson

  2. Nice Post! This is a lovely post. I like this topic.This site has lots of advantage.I found many interesting things from this site. It helps me in many ways.Thanks for posting this again. Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work Thank yo so much for sharing this kind of info- Clerk of Work London

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. That was me who posted the comment above. For some reason it called me "unknown". Helena

    1. Margaret Savage was born in April 1842 and thus was only 13 and four months when engaged by her father as telegraph clerk in August 1855. She resigned in 1859 and appears to have left home before 1861 and gone to work up north. She married in Buxton in 1867, to a man of 70. Here he is

    2. She married JP and MP George Julius Poulett Scrope FRS (10 March 1797 – 19 January 1876) an English geologist and political economist as well as a magistrate for Stroud in Gloucestershire. His brother was Lord Sydenham.


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