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Monday, 20 May 2013

Teacher, Tram Manager and Entrepreneur: The Remarkable Life of Euphemia Penman

Euphemia Penman was a remarkable woman who rose to become one of the most respected managers in the emergent tram systems of late-Victorian London. In the period, given the social conventions of the time, this was without a doubt a significant achievment.

For those of you that have followed TurnipRail for some time I can happily report that my thesis on the management of the London and South Western Railway is nearly at an end. What I have not divulged before is that after it is dispensed with I am hoping to start exciting new work on the management history of trams and trolleybuses. It was while doing some preliminary work for this new project that I came across ‘Miss Penman.’

But first, I feel a bit of background is required. In the 1870s numerous tram systems had been established in London under the Tramways Act 1870. One part of this legislation specified that local authorities were able to acquire these companies, much to their annoyance, after they had been operating for twenty-one years. In 1898 the London County Council (LCC), who always seemed to work in the interest of those it served, decided to take advantage of this clause and started the processes of acquiring the London Tramways Company (LTC).  

It was on a list of senior LTC officials the LCC was going to re-engage after the take-over that I first found Euphemia. Within the new organisational structure she was to take up the important position of ‘Superintendent of conductors and of checking staff at chief and cash offices,’ and her proposed salary was an impressive £350 per annum with ‘house, coal and light.’[1] (this later increased to £400).[2] Given this level of seniority and pay was very unusual for a woman in late-Victorian businesses, I resolved to find out more about Penman’s life and career.

She was born to David and Rachel Penman in Breath, Scotland, in 1852 and in that year she had three older brothers, James, William and Harry. Beyond this very little has been found about her early life. By 1870 she was teaching a ‘Sabbath evening class’ in Dysart (near Kirkcaldy) and in March that year, because of the high esteem in which she was held by her students, they presented her with pew bible in which was inscribed the following: ‘Presented to Miss Euphemia Penman as a token of respect, by her Sunday Scholars. – Dysart March 28 1870.’ She would never be aware of it, but this was not the last ‘token of respect’ Euphemia would receive in Dysart.

Euphemia’s first position in the tramway industry was as a simple checker of tickets on the Glasgow Tramway and Omnibus Company (GTOC). [3] She seemingly rose through the ranks quickly and by 1879 she was forewoman of the female staff employed at the company’s central offices. Clearly she made an impression on the GTOC’s senior management. When Mr Smart, its most senior official, gained the same post within the LTC in 1879 [4] she followed him south, becoming head of its women checkers’ department.

At the same time many other GTOC staff followed Smart to the LTC.[5]  This is very interesting, as the movement of so many officials from an established tram system (the GTOC being formed in 1871) to a newer one evidences that within the early tram industry there was a dearth of knowledge on how to administer and operate these new transportation systems. The LTS was therefore astute in recruiting officials that at that point would have been considered experts in tram management.

Between 1879 and 1898 Euphemia’s status rose within the company and indicative of this by 1890 she was living in a house provided by the LTC at its headquarters on the Camberwell New Road.[6] The organisation grew, and in 1894[7]  she was given the huge responsibility of overseeing the company’s 560 conductors.[8] Her duties were to receive reports daily as to their work, engage and, if necessary, dismiss any, and she also oversaw the distribution of tickets.[9]

In the 1890s for a woman to possess such authority within business was exceptional. The Sunderland Daily Echo stated she was the ‘only woman in England who occupies the very unique position of superintendent of tramway conductors.’ Like in her days as a Sunday school teacher she was respected by those beneath her, the paper reporting ‘that she has won the respect and confidence of the men is shown by the fact that there is not one who has a word to say against her encroachment into what one would ordinarily regard as the special preserve of man.’ The men apparently spoke highly of her fairness, her strict regard for discipline and business abilities.[10]

Indeed, it was Euphemia’s business abilities that make the last part of her story even more fascinating than it already is. She was not only a woman with decision-making responsibility within a major company, but she was also a businessperson outside it. In late-May 1899 she and her partner Robert Lindsay, who was changing professions, dissolved their business as cab proprietors operating out of Oak Tree-place St. John’s Road, London.[11] Little is known about this concern, although it was not small. As a result of it shutting down in early-May Lindsay was advertising the sale of twenty-five horses, twelve ‘hansom cabs’, twelve cab harnesses, a chaff machine, a platform weighing machine and ‘usual sundries.’[12]

The extent of Euphemia’s involvement in this firm has not been determined; yet, given the cabs traded under R. Lindsay’s name, and taking into account her responsibilities within the LTS, it is more likely she was a silent partner. Irrespective of this, this activity demonstrates that she actively sought commercial opportunities for herself beyond her employment.

In March 1899, only months after transferring to the LCC’s employ, Euphemia fell ill; another likely reason by the cab business was dissolved. No reports detail what she was suffering from, however, she underwent an operation that unfortunately did not rectify the problem and on Tuesday 9 July she died suddenly while recovering in Margate. [13] She was buried two days later in Glasgow.[14] Reflecting her successful life, her will left the considerable sum of £624 14s 2d to three individuals; Thomas Gibson, a watchmaker, Joshua Kidd Bruce, a veterinary surgeon, and Thomas Davies.[15]

Euphemia was greatly mourned after her death and, as a testament to the high regard in which she was held, the LTC’ directors and employees raised funds for a memorial to commemorate her life. Designed by D Carnegie and Son of Dundee, in January 1900 a granite monument was erected in Dysart; the same place where her Sunday school students had presented her with a bible thirty years before.[16]

I have only briefly touched on the life of Euphemia Penman in this short biography, yet there is clearly much more to be discovered about her. What has however been demonstrated is that she was a remarkable individual within the late-Victorian period; not simply because she defied social conventions that said that only men were to rise high in business, but because of the clear talent she brought to her work, the entrepreneurial spirit she had and the high esteem in which she was held by those employed under her.


[1] London Metropolitan Archives [LMA], LCC Min 6719, Highways Committee Minute Book, 10 November 1898, p.70
[2] LMA, LCC Min 6720, Highways Committee Minute Book, 23 March 1899, p.346
[3] Hull Daily Mail, Thursday, 18 August 1898
[4] Evening Telegraph, Thursday, 13 July 1899
[5] Hull Daily Mail, Thursday, 18 August 1898
[6] Retrieved from Ancestry – Electoral register, Camberwell, 1890, p.188
[7] Evening Telegraph, Thursday, 13 July 1899
[8] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Saturday 26 November 1898, p.5
[9] Evening Telegraph, Thursday, 13 July 1899
[10] Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, Saturday 26 November 1898, p.5
[11] The London Gazette, 16 June 1899
[12] The Standard, Monday, 1 May 1899, p. 12
[13] Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Saturday 22 July 1899
[14] North Wales Chronicle, Saturday, 15 July 15 1899
[15] Recovered from Ancestry.
[16] The Courier and Argus, Tuesday, 16 January 16, 1900, p. 6
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