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Women at work in the First World War: Central to the railway and the war effort

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We have recently started a project to enhance the National Railway Museum’s list of railwaymen who died in the First World War. We are regularly adding information to the list of 20,000 men and will keep you up to date on the project with blogs and regular updates to the list as we find new information.

We have started by looking at the Great Central Railway (GCR), specifically their journals that were printed during the period of the conflict. In the course of our research we have found some wonderful information about the work of the women of the GCR during the war.

The 1916-1917 volume of the journal, which is available on the open shelves of Search Engine, contains an article where Lady Eugenia Doughty looks at the war work of women for the Great Central Railway. Her July article discusses women based in Grimsby, where there was a steady stream of them poured into the vacant job posts left by the men that went to fight, as was seen in other locations in the UK.

GCRJ June 1916

There were cynical gentleman that believed that women could not fulfil the jobs left by their predecessors. Yet, the chiefs of various departments for the GCR repeatedly said that the women were not only proving capable of completing men’s work but in many instances – although “naturally” not all – were completing the work at a better level than those they substituted.

The women stationed in the offices were said to have worked in silence, focused on the tasks at hand such as summarising accounts and correspondence, which meant no time for ‘gossiping’ and only time for deep concentration. The office clerks were all well-educated, could type-write, use shorthand and pick up various roles with “quickness.”

GCRJ August 1916 Pg 39

Such abilities led their chief to say that all the girls had surpassed his earlier expectations. Unlike the women in the offices however, those that worked outdoors required health, strength, quickness of hand and fleetness of foot to be successful. These qualities allowed the women to trundle burrows, discharge cases and burrows, and load trucks with “cheerful agility.

GCRJ September1915 Pg 74

 

GCRJ August 1916 Pg 39

Elsie Bridham, a railway porter from Meadow Hall Station in Sheffield was featured in the 1915-1916 volume of the GCR journal. Miss Bridham was included in the District News section as she was thought to be a wonderful example of the great women that worked on railways.

She was said to have climbed signal posts and take her turn in shunting if permitted, and would even have joined the army if she had been born of the opposite sex. She was never happier than when she proved that her strength was equal to that of the male employees at Meadow Hall.

GCRJ August 1915 Pg 47

An administrator for various branches within the GCR called a Mr F. Patman found that the women and girls of Grimsby and other areas around Lincolnshire and Derbyshire were indeed equal to men in every task and worthy of any responsibility given. He even hinted  employing women in every department of the company, as he had already established female porters (like Elsie Bridham) in multiple docks, girl ticket-collectors and cleaners.

An image of a London based carriage cleaner for the GCR is available here which also shows the many roles that women undertook in wartime, both for the railway and other job sectors.

Lady Doughty’s findings from her tour of Grimsby and Cleethorpes railways shows the importance of women in the war effort, especially in the railway industry, with the transportation of men and goods to the Western Front and the moving of the injured for treatment. Her work was a step in the right direction for the rightful recognition of the hard work completed by women for their country and its transportation services.

Find more images, blog posts and further reading on Railways and the First World War.

Written by Harriet Steers

  1. Rob Langham

    If you’re not already i’m sure you’ll soon find out that the North Eastern Railway Magazines of the period have excellent images as well as information regarding the women workers on the NER too. There’s already a copy of my book ‘The North Eastern Railway in the First World War’ in the NRM Library but if a .pdf copy which is more easily searchable would be of use, please let me know and i’ll e-mail one over

    Thanks, Rob

    1. Alison Kay

      Thanks Rob – yes we have a wealth of staff magazines in our library that cover the war period. The NER mags have some wonderful information. We have copies and PDFs of your book here, you can see Rob’s book and our staff Magazines in Search Engine, our library and archive centre.

      http://www.nrm.org.uk/ResearchAndArchive/about.aspx

  2. Rowena Chantler

    Hi, I am looking for information on railway men from the Penistone Line who will have served their country. Could you suggest anywhere specifically that I need to look?
    Thanks
    Rowena
    Penistone Line Partnership

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