Friday 15 February 2019

Women and the Railways in World War 2: an interview by Fay Bound Alberti

Susan Major, pictured at York Railway Station
For this week’s blog I talked to Dr Susan Major, who has written a fabulous book about women working on the railways during World War 2. This book is important because although we know that women took on many traditional men’s roles during the war, very little has been published on women in the railways. Railways were a reserved occupation, so in theory men continued to work on the railways while their counterparts in other industries were sent off to war. In reality, the men working on the railways were often old and disabled. The issues confronted by women workers were those that existed in other activities:  economic, sexual, social and temporal, their lives being changed by the new habits and relationships brought by the war, as well as its ending. Susan’s book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the lives of working women in the Second World War, as well as its gender politics. 

About Susan Major
Susan Major completed a PhD with the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History at the University of York in 2012. Drawing upon material from the National Railway Museum and the British Library, she focused on early railway excursions. Her book based on this research, Early Victorian Railway Excursions, was shortlisted for the Railways and Canal Historical Society Book of the Year Awards 2017. Her latest book, Female Railway Workers in World War II, was published by Pen & Sword in 2018. Susan was a programme consultant for the BBC series Railways: the Making of a Nation, taking part in the episode on leisure. She is retired and lives in York.

Fay: “So Susan, what drew you to the subject of women on the railways?” 

Susan: “Well I completed my doctorate, which later became a book, on Victorian railway excursions. Later, when doing some research about railway voices I discovered the National Archive of Railway Oral History at the Railway Museum, which contains many different  interviews with  people working on and associated with the railways. Quite a lot of this material has been digitised and indexed and transcribed. Among all the men recorded, there were some women and I realised that their voices had not really been listened to. And there were enough women talking about the wartime period, and about working in what were commonly perceived as ‘men’s jobs’, to form the basis of a book. And remember that even so-called ‘women’s’ jobs in those days, like working as a clerk, had been men’s jobs when in the railway context. And I wanted to know not only what everyday life was life for those women, but also how they were looked at by other people, by the companies who were employing the women as well as commentators in newspapers of the time.” 

Fay: “ Are there any particular women that stand out for you?Any stories that were especially memorable?” 

Susan: “There was a female porter at York station, when it was bombed in 1942. A train was also bombed on its way into the station, and these were terrible conditions to work in. The social conditions could be difficult too; she tells a story of a parcel foreman that the female workers had problems with and they sorted him out by giving him some chocolate, which happened to be laxative chocolate.”

(Pause for laughter!)

Fay: “What can you tell us about the kind of women in these roles, their age or class for instance?”

Susan: “Well it’s a very select sample, dependent on who was chosen to interview. And these women would all have been young at the time, because the older women would have died by the time the stories were recorded. And they described liking the companionship of other women, the responsibility, and, unlike factory, work the variable and different activities involved.”

Fay: “Were the women all unmarried? I’m thinking about other roles of the time, which had very strict union rules”.  

Susan: “Yes. If you got married you had to leave. Most of these women were aged between 16 and 22 and often they met a railway man and got married and that was the last we hear of them. By contrast the newspaper reports were keen to tell readers about those women who might have 12 children and still carried out a role. And there was a sense that a woman wasn’t quite acceptable in publicity unless she had some link to a railway man. Women were not treated as individuals in their own right.” 

Fay: “Were most of these women working class women?”

Susan: “not necessarily. Many were working class though there were also reports of quite posh women working on the railways. The ones that were interviewed were mainly ordinary women, who had a clear sense of their roles and their relationships with other women and you get a real sense of the culture of the workplace through the stories that they tell. Compared to other work, like factory work, the duties could be varied and interesting”.

Fay: “What do these interviews say about how it was to be a woman in a traditionally male environment?”

Susan: “There is some discussion about workplace harassment, much of which was taken for granted. For instance one of the accounts describes the experience of a typistThey had to go down and check their work with one of the men in the office. She said “And there were never enough chairs. So we used to share a chair with a man. And I think the feminists these days would be horrified. They'd probably be having all the men done for harassment. But we used to call it fun”

Fay: “Ah. So these women would have to sit on their boss's lap.” 

Susan: “Yes, or share the chair. And there are a lot of examples of that. And women would talk about how they worked all day while their male supervisors stood around talking about sport. And at the end of the working day the women would get ready to go home and the men would say “overtime now”. And the men got paid more for the overtime, while the women had often families to get home to.There was also this concept of the “railway family”, which other historians have written about. Employees were encouraged to think of the railway as a family, and there were magazines prompting this image. And there was a sense that you could only get a job in the railways if your father put you forward, for instance, and while that wasn’t necessarily so in practice, it was how people thought about the railways as paternalistic employers”. 

Fay: “After the war did these women get sent away from the jobs, as they did in other industries?” 

Susan: “They were dispensed with, yes. Although I’ve focused on women working, the last chapter of my book is called: “and then the men came back”, which draws attention to the way women workers were dismissed. One woman, a guard, was sent a letter thanking her for her service. Only it wasn’t sent to her but to her boss. She had to travel a long way on the train to get to his office after a long shift, where she was shown this piece of paper, which he then kept, before trekking all the way home again”. 

Fay: “Thank you for a fascinating introduction to the book, which one of our lucky readers will win”. 

Prize Question: 

What TWO jobs were women railway workers NOT allowed to undertake during World War Two?
  1. Engine drivers 
  2. Porters 
  3. Switchboard operators
  4. Firemen
  5. Parcel workers 
  6. Signal operators 
  7. Manual labourers 

Please answer in the comments below. The lucky winner will be drawn at random. 

UPDATE: Competition results 

Thank you to all who entered the competition. 

The answer to the above question is: 1 Engine drivers and 4. Firemen. The winner drawn from a hat was Susan Price, who also happened to be the first person to answer the question. Congratulations, Susan. Please email me with your full name and address at: and I will send the book to you. 

Since Susan was a founding member of the award-winning Clements Hall Local History Group in York, and remains very active in the local community, I couldn’t let her go before asking her about her book on Bishy Road, a bank of independent shops whose success has caught the eye of The Guardian and other national publications. 

Fay: “Before we finish I wonder if you could say something about your work on Bishy Road, which is another subject you have written about?” 

Susan: “When I started looking at the shops for a local history project, I was surprised that nobody had looked at their history. So I started with local directories, census records, and oral history accounts to build up a picture of their development over 150 years. And though the name “Bishy Road” is quite controversial for some people, who think it is disrespectful to the name “Bishopthorpe Road, the local shops, which are still mostly independent, are regarded quite affectionately by the people who live and work there.”

I particularly enjoyed the way Susan records the social history of York through the shops that populated Bishy Road. From Chinese laundries to Teddy Boy tailors, the history of the shops is a history of social, political and economic change of the country as a whole. Which is the best kind of local history!

Bishy Road 2018: A Shopping Street in Time is available at Waterstones


Susan Price said...

My guess is: engine driver and fireman.

abigail brieson said...

Porter, I feel rather confident. My next guess is signals? Unless 'switchboard' is not working the telephone, but the actual railway turnouts.

Ruan Peat said...

My Guess would be Switchboard operators and Manual labourers as the others seem to be listed somewhere as done by women in ww2 but these are not. Not sure how a manual labourer was different from the land army etc! Switchboard seems to be a US thing and only started in the 1970s just as it was changing and going automatic, I remember party lines, and ringing for the operator to put you through! :-)

AnnP said...

I'm going to go for Engine Drivers and Firemen. My uncle was an engine driver during and after the war and I'm sure I remember being told that that was why he wasn't called up. It was such a prestigious job that women wouldn't have been allowed to do it.

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, I'd guess engine drivers and firemen.