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Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Female L&SWR Clerk - Part 1

The history of the female railway worker has been shrouded by the fact that railway employment has always been dominated by men. Therefore, this has been reflected in the scholarship on labour relations. A look at the index of David Howell's book on railway trade unionism, Respectable Radicals, has little mention of railwaywomen. Indeed this problem is exacerbated when studying female labour on the railways before 1914, as the proportion of women employees in the industry was small. On 31st December 1913 British railway companies employed 643,135 persons, however in July 1914 there were only 13,046 (2.02%) female railway workers (Wojtczak, 2005, 38).

Therefore, this puts historians who are researching railwaywomen before 1914 at an obvious disadvantage. Invariably research into male railway labour, especially before 1914, is much easier than that for women. Male labour can be analysed easily, for example by occupation type, wages, length of service, grade of employment and geographical location, and therefore conclusions can be reached as to employment experiences and labour relations without significant trouble. However the male domination of the industry before 1914, combined with the short-term, temporary and uncodified nature of the early female railway employment, means that the historian must look for the 'women' before looking for the 'worker,' because of the 'needle in a haystack' nature of the task. For this reason Helena Wojtczak's excellent book Railwaywomen, Rosa Matheson's thesis, Women and The Great Western Railway: With Special Reference to the Swindon Works, as well as her book, The Fair Sex: Women and the Great Western Railway, only document the experiences of railwaywomen before 1914 in minimal detail because of the limited available information. Therefore, it is the challenge for those researching railwaywomen in this period to build up the fullest picture possible, so that in the long run more detailed analysis can take place once that picture has been formed.

In this and the next Blog entry, I therefore hope to add to the existing literature on railwaywomen by presenting the history of the female clerical staff of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) between the 1870s and 1914. The L&SWR had employed women since 1850 when platelayer's wives were employed as gatekeepers on the new Dorchester line. However, in the 21 years after female employment had been restricted to the wives and widows of existing company employees, the latter employed benevolently by the company to support the deceased worker's family.

By the 1870s the L&SWR railway clerk was special kind of employee. This was reflected in the nature of the application process, which, while including nepotism, was tougher than for most railway employees, such as porters or engine drivers. The initial stage of the process was that the applicant, who had to be between the ages of 15 and 19, had to be nominated by a family member or family friend who had connections with the company, either through a board member or member of senior management. Their name would then be placed in a book, from which the directors would choose in turn applicants to go forward to the testing phase of the process. This test would be in 'literacy, arithmetic up to vulgar and decimal fractions' to see if the individual met the educational and intellectual standards for the work. Lastly, they had to be observed for three months by a senior manager, to see if they were suitable to be a clerk. Once a boy was confirmed in post, clerical employment did, however, have its rewards. Clerical staff had the greatest job security of any L&SWR employees, they had respectability within the company, and lastly they were the only ones who realistically had any opportunity to be promoted into senior management. Therefore, when assessing early female clerks within the L&SWR, the highly established nature of male clerical employment is important, as any attempt by women to access clerical positions would invariably be within, and reflect, this established framework and its development.

Between the years 1870 and 1914, I have discovered only nineteen female clerks employed by the L&SWR. The first known case was that of Miss Fifield. Her father was agent (Station Master) at Oakley station, and in November 1871 he applied for his daughter to be employed as a telegraphist there. The Traffic Committee, to whom he applied, passed the issue to board of directors. Unfortunately the board minute is missing to see how they reacted. There is however a good chance that the board employed Miss Fifield and at the same time instituted a new policy. In July of 1872, Mr Vermer, agent at Dean Station, requested that a telegraph instrument be placed there. The Traffic Committee, without passing it to the board, recommended that his daughter be taught how to operate it. This suggests that when the Fifield case was brought up at the board meeting they agreed that she could be employed a telegraphist and, at the same time, laid down some form of rule for the future regarding the employment of female telegraph clerks.

However, it seems that despite breaking into the ranks of the clerical staff in a very small way, the L&SWR still barred women from becoming full administrative clerks, which was still the preserve of men. In March 1874 Mr McLees, Agent at Honiton, successfully requested that his daughter, Bertha, become a Telegraphist at the Station. However a year later when he applied for his eldest daughter to be appointed as a Booking Clerk there, this request was declined. Her younger sister, Flora, was however appointed as a Telegraphist. In fact until 1881 the L&SWR only employed women as telegraphists, and other cases of this type of employment have been found in 1877, 1879 and 1881. All of these appointments were to the weekly paid staff and not the salaried staff, to which most clerks belonged, and were the result of a father applying directly to the Traffic Committee for the appointment.

What the evidence suggests is that the L&SWR's policy, that is suspected to have been instituted in 1871, restricted the employment of women to the post of telegraph clerk. In the context of L&SWR clerical history it is important to note that the L&SWR had merged the posts of Junior and Telegraph Clerks in 1868, essentially abolishing the latter, and placing all junior clerks on one promotional tree. This meant that while junior clerks were now also obliged to also cover telegraph work at stations and depots, the clerical work must have taken precedence after the merger of the position. This was because the duties of the telegraph clerks were not skills that juniors clerks would have to carried over when they were promoted to senior clerkships. Therefore it is quite possible that the company was using cheap female labour to fill the gaps in staffing that had been caused by the removal of dedicated telegraph clerks.

In addition it is obvious that these vacancies were filled by nepotism, but of a unique kind. As stated, the normal route for boys wishing to obtain a situation was for the directors to choose nominated applicants from a book, after which they would go forward to the testing phase of the recruitment procedure. However, the appointment of the female telegraphists was through their fathers directly approaching the Traffic Committee. In the Victorian society, where there were clearly defined spheres of what women and men's work were, this direct approach to the Traffic Committee was meant to bypass the established clerical recruitment process, which the women almost certainly would not have been allowed to enter into. Further, the applications of fathers for women to take up positions were sporadic and not seemingly at a set time or over a period. Thus, there seems to be no systematic effort by the company to recruit women into the company's clerical ranks before 1914. Overall these pieces of evidence suggest that it was the impetus and determination of these women that forced, or persuaded, their fathers to make the applications, through an alternative, more direct, application process. Therefore, the early female telegraphists on the L&SWR were women fighting against an employment system that told them they could not be anything more than housewife and mother.

In the second part I will look at how women's clerical roles did extend to administrative clerical work and how the L&SWR eventually introduced, just prior to the war, full female clerks.

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