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Sunday, 29 September 2013

"One broad principal of economy"; One female booking clerk in 1903

Whenever a railway company decided to employ a woman as a clerk before 1914, the newspapers always described the event as an ‘experiment’ or an ‘innovation.’ The Caledonian Railway took such a step 1903 when it decided to hire an unnamed woman as booking clerk at Perth Station. ‘RAILWAY INNOVATION AT PERTH’ was the title of The Evening Post’s report.[1]

In reality this was not an innovation. The Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee Railway, which later became part of the North British Railway, had employed a woman as a booking clerk a Perth Station in 1858.[2] Other British railway companies were also employing large numbers of women in similar positions on their networks by 1903. The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that ‘the female booking clerk is no new thing in Glasgow; there have been girl booking clerks in the West of Scotland for ten years.’[3] The Evening Post itself acknowledged how the Caledonian’s new policy was not unique, ‘In the ticket office she may be something of a novelty in the North, but not so further South. The London and North-Western was already ahead in its employment of ladies on the ticket staffs.’[4]

In fact, the Caledonian’s appointment of 1903 was only a unique because it was the first time it had dabbled with such an ‘experiment.’ The plan was, it seems, to expand the number of female booking clerks on the company’s network. In one officials’ view the ‘lady clerk was here to stay,’ with ‘female labour in the service of the pen…rapidly widening.[5]

As with all instances of women being employed as clerks there was a large degree of doubt as to whether they had the skills or aptitude to perform their roles adequately. A Caledonian official thought that ‘it was not imperative that she should run up columns of figures or juggle with statistical puzzles of periodical survey. Her usefulness could be exploited without any apprehension of accounting difficulties.’[6] The Yorkshire Evening Post went one further affirming that there were just some things that female booking clerks were incapable of doing; ‘her sex unfits her for the country station, where the booking clerk adds to his duties those of ticket collector.’[7] Whether this was the view of railway companies’ managements is unclear.

If there was doubt amongst Caledonian officials that women could perform the role of booking clerk adequately, why then did they proceed with the 'experiment'? Let us not presume it was because a railway manager had a particularly progressive or feminist outlook and wished to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. Between 1897 and 1901 the Caledonian’s operating ratio – its operating expenditure expressed as a proportion of revenue – rose from 50.4% to 56.4%.[8] Such an increase in operating costs, principally because of higher coal prices, affected most British railways in this period and, like most companies, it is presumed that the Caledonian enacted an immediate economy drive in response.

The employment of female booking clerks was therefore likely part of this quest to reduce costs. The ‘official’ highlighted that they were paid less than their male counterparts: ‘the salary for mere ticket-selling would be somewhat under that of the regular male ticket clerk. She was a commodity of cheapness and so long as she went into the clerical market so long would she prove a mercantile rival on the railway as on any other railway.’ He foresaw that the female booking clerk was a permanent fixture ‘so long as one broad principal of economy rules the railway organisations of today.’[9] Another benefit for the railway of employing female booking clerks was that they were never moved from their position or were promoted. ‘The male booking clerk,’ The Yorkshire Evening Post contended, ‘is a restless animal with a keen eye on promotion, and the only way to keep him in the service is to change him from station to station…the girl clerk does not leave her post until she marries.’ Because the women were never given the opportunity to move from the position in which they were initially employed, this reduced the cost for the railway company of finding and training a constant stream of new male booking clerks.[10]

Overall, the Caledonian’s example has shown how important it is to place the growing number of women employed on Britain’s railways after 1900 in context. In 1901 1,633 were working on Britain’s railways; by 1914 this number had risen to 13,046.[10] I would say that to a large extent this growth was driven by British railway companies’ desire to cut costs, and not principally because individuals in authoritative positions in the industry that had progressive outlooks.

[1] Evening Post, 6 October 1903, p.2
[2] Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (Hastings, 2006), p.27
[3] Yorkshire Evening Post , 12 October 1903, p.4
[4] Evening Post, 6 October 1903, p.2
[5] Evening Post, 6 October 1903, p.2
[6] Evening Post, 6 October 1903, p.2
[7] Yorkshire Evening Post , 12 October 1903, p.4
[8] Board of Trade, Railway Returns, 1897 and 1901
[9] Evening Post, 6 October 1903, p.2
[10] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.4 – The first figure is from the 1901 census returns and could be open to change. I feel personally that it is a little low.
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