England Occupations Railway Employees (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Railways[edit | edit source]

History of the Railways[edit | edit source]

The first evidence of railways in Britain are the stoneways on Dartmoor, with points (switches), for carts taking stone from quarries. All-wooden railways were in use by 1690, and by the 18th century horse-drawn carts with flanged wheels which ran on rails had been developed. Steam was introduced in the 1790s. The early history of railway development is summarized by Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History), and he gives further references. Railways only start to become important after 1829 when Stephenson’s Rocket enabled passengers to be pulled quickly by steam locomotive. The subsequent railway mania of the late1830s and 1840s facilitated inexpensive movement of both goods and people. Nearly all of the main English lines had been completed or at least authorized by 1852, the last (London to Sheffield) in 1896, with progress in Wales, Scotland and Ireland being slower.

The first London Underground (the tube) was opened in 1863. It is worth noting the construction dates of relevant rail lines, given in Richardson (The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia) and other references, to give pointers to possible ancestral areas of townspeople when the trail grows cold.

Smaller communities were linked by rail to the main lines before 1914 and this date marks the end of the period of greatest prosperity for the railways, stage coaches having died out, the canals largely bought out by the railway companies, and cars and buses not yet firmly established. There had been a plethora of companies, (almost 1,000), each sponsoring its own line(s) but the strains of transporting troops and munitions during the First World War almost bankrupted many. In 1923 the majority were amalgamated into four large companies:

  • Great Western Railway (GWR)
  • London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)
  • London and Northeastern Railway (LNER)
  • Southern Railway (SR)

In 1933 the London railways were amalgamated as the London Passenger Transport Board now London Transport.

There was now increasing competition from coaches (long distance buses) and lorries (trucks), and the Second World War brought intense strain on an aging rolling stock and of-course serious bomb damage to lines and buildings.

So, in turn the Big Four and the 48 others still surviving were nationalized in 1948 as British Railways with six regions:

  • Eastern Region.
  • London Midland Region.
  • North Eastern Region.
  • Scottish Region.
  • Southern Region.
  • Western Region.

Much modernization occurred during the 1950s and 1960s including introduction of diesels and electrification, and pruning of about a third of the network, mostly unprofitable rural lines.

Many early Victorians were opposed to the development of this vast communications network, including the Duke of Wellington who said, “Progress be damned. It will just enable the lower classes to move about and become discontented” (Richards). During the Victorian and Edwardian eras the railways expanded the horizons of ordinary people in Britain by allowing:

  • Long distance migration.
  • Long daily commutes to work, allowing the development of city suburbs.
  • Taking holidays far away, which enabled the development of seaside resorts like Blackpool in Lancashire, Scarborough in Yorkshire and Southend in Essex within reach of London’s East End.
  • Suburban middle-class residents to patronize the new city department stores.
  • Development in and communication with rural areas.
  • Cheap goods to be brought from far away.
  • New opportunities for the secure employment of hundreds of thousands of men and women.
  • Employment abroad building and running railways in the Empire and elsewhere. Many thousands of families experienced life all around the globe courtesy of railway company contracts; some came back but many emigrated.

Railway Employees[edit | edit source]

The explosion of railway building in the early Victorian period came in the wake of agricultural mechanization and the Swing riots in southern England, when vast numbers of labourers were thrown out of work. Thousands of labourers imported from rural areas of England, and from Ireland, became railway navigators (navvies) or excavators building the permanent way. The lowest paid workers were earning one-third more than an agricultural labourer (Jerome). Thousands more built the locomotives and rolling stock in centres like Swindon, Wiltshire, Wolverton, Buckinghamshire and Crewe, Cheshire and more thousands actually ran the railways once they were built. The railways rapidly became one of the largest employers in the United Kingdom, and May 2000 provides an introduction to the many kinds of occupational categories, with plentiful illustrations. Railway employment can certainly explain many sudden appearances and disappearances of relatives during the mid-19th century.

What kinds of employment could be found with the railways? There were two worlds - the managers, clerks and other salaried white-collar workers, and the weekly wage-earning manual workers (operatives). Amongst the latter, the engine driver of a crack passenger train such as the Flying Scotsman was at the top of the heap and he would have worked his way up slowly from perhaps a cleaner in the sheds or works, to fireman, then to driver. The train crew (driver, fireman and guard) practiced double-homing, that is, they split their time between a normal home with their family at one end of the line they worked on, and a second home in lodgings at the other end (Jerome).

Wages were generally low, but the employers were amongst the first to provide benefits such as pensions, sick pay, convalescent homes, staff housing, community facilities and social activities. Staff were of high calibre compared to outside the industry, were loyal to their companies and took pride in their work. The days of many personnel, such as rural station masters, ticket clerks and porters, were not filled and there was a chance to develop hobbies such as gardening and reading. Signalmen were rather well known for their literacy as well as their industrial militancy (Fowler 2002). Apprenticeships and technical training were provided, as were other needed skills like accountancy and safety procedures. At first large numbers of women found work in station restaurants and bars, and in laundries. When the men went off to two world wars women undertook clerical tasks and were suddenly found to be capable of a lot more, from running lost luggage offices to cleaning engines and becoming railway police!


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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