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Saturday, 12 March 2011

Infringing The Rule Book - Causes of Dismissal on the Victorian Railway

In my PhD research I have focussed on how individuals’ became London and South Western Railway (L&SWR) clerks through the sitting of an exam and a period of probation. This is important to my PhD because if they passed these they could, if they wished, follow a career path into management. What I have never looked at, because it is irrelevant to my study, is how individuals left the service.

For my own personal interest I have investigated how 300 clerks and salaried staff members left the L&SWR’s employment between 1860 and 1914. Although, given the staff records I have images of, the majority of the cases occurred between 1860 and 1885. For the most part what I have found isn’t blog material, being quite dull. Out of 300 L&SWR staff records covering surnames beginning A to C (roughly), 69 died on the job (23.00%), 97 resigned (32.33%), 51 were superannuated (25.33%) 2 had unknown exits (0.66%) and 10 lost their jobs for unknown reasons or just incompetence (3.33%). However, what are very juicy are the 46 (15.33%) clerks and salaried staff members that went astray or were dismissed for either an infringement against the rule book or, as in a few cases, criminal activity.

The 1884 L&SWR rule book made the consequences of infringements against its contents very clear; ‘The company reserve the right to punish and servant, by immediate dismissal, fine, or suspension from duty, for intoxication, disobedience of orders, negligence, or misconduct, or for being absent from duty without leave; they also reserve the right to deduct from the pay of their servants, and retain the sums which may be imposed as fines, and to withhold their wages during the time of their suspension, or absence from duty from any cause.’[1] Thus, 46 clerks and salaried staff members fell foul of the rule book.

The greatest sin that an individual could commit against the company involved the money clerks handled daily. 16 of the 46 (34.78%) of the offenders were either ‘deficient in accounts’ or ‘short in their cash.’ Consider the case of S. Bedford. He had joined the company as a telegraph clerk in 1867 at the tender age of 16. He had started at Salisbury Station, however, in October 1879 he was working in the booking office at Waterloo on £90 a year. For some reason, Bedford was found to be ‘short in his cash’ by £6. Whether this was because of simple error or the fact that he had been surreptitiously stealing from the company is unknown, however, I would suggest that the former was the case. In many of the dismissal cases where the clerk was at fault, rather than engaging in knowing criminal activity, the individual would be ‘called upon to resign.’ This would allow the company to punish the individual, but also would allow him to avoid having a black mark on his character. In a way, it was an honourable dismissal, borne of the fact that the company recognised the individuals, who in many cases had provided good service in the past, had simply made a costly mistake. Therefore, that fact that this happened in Bedford’s case suggests that he had got his monies out of order, rather than he was stealing from the L&SWR.[2]

But, there were other cases of monetary irregularities that were more serious than simple errors, and 13 other individuals were (28.26%) dismissed for such reasons. Well, I say dismissed, as two, J.G. Batchelor at Portsmouth,[3] and William Clement, who was working in the Steam Packet Department at Southampton,[4] both absconded in 1870 and 1867 respectively. It is highly likely that they stole some money as their records did not say ‘absent without leave.’

The case of E. Agnew is one where his dismissal was almost certainly the result of his criminal activity. Agnew had been working for the company since October 1874, when he had started at the age of 16 ½ at Bournemouth Station as a Junior Clerk. His record shows that he was habitually in trouble, and between January 1876 and April 1884 he was fined on 6 separate occasions. For example: April 1876, fined 2/6 for inattention to telegrams; Oct 1878, fined 5/-+ cautioned for re-issuing tickets improperly; Jan 1884, fined £1 for attempting to retain a sovereign which he picked up from the floor belonging to another clerk’s cash. Things reached crescendo when in April 1886, while working at Waterloo, he was dismissed for embezzling £28 15/- from the company.[5] This was an ignominious end to a bad career.

However, the money stolen by Agnew pales in comparison with that lost by F. Benning who had had on the surface of things a successful career. Starting as an Apprentice Clerk at Southampton in 1862, he had moved up the ranks and pay-scales rapidly. After a spell at the Nine Elms Goods Department, had returned to Southampton to the Dock Office in 1873, and in 1877 was on the large salary of £175 per year. Yet, in December of 1878 it was found that he was ‘short in his cash’ by an impressive £520. Indeed, such was the debt that I suspect that he had kept many accounting errors hidden for years. [6]

Overall, given the nature of the clerks’ work, it is unsurprising that the majority of infringements against the rule book, just under two thirds (28 out of 46), were to do with money. Yet, this does leave 18 other cases. Some are quite boring. Four individuals were ‘absent without leave’ (8.70%) and 2 (4.35%) were dismissed for ‘neglect of duty.’ This said, the remainder are quite interesting.

One of the most serious infringements that any railway employee could committee against the rule book was drinking on duty, and 4 (8.70%) clerks and salaried staff members were dismissed for this reason. E. Brown had joined the L&SWR in 1855 at the age of 32 as a signalman at Clapham Common Station (no longer open). He had been made the Agent at Sutton Bingham Station in June 1860 and was moved to Whimple Station in 1874 on £90 a year. It seems that Brown’s life, for some reason, must have taken a turn for the worse. Between late 1874 and April 1876 he was fined 4 times by the company for being ‘absent without leave,’ (20/-) ‘carelessness’ (20/-), allowing passengers to travel without tickets (20/-) and for holding the last train to Portsmouth (5/-). Finally, in 1876 was found drunk at Sidmouth Station and was dismissed shortly after.[7] The latest dismissal case I saw was that of A. Bowron. Bowron had joined the company at the age of 16 ½ in May 1875 as a Junior Clerk at Twickenham. Yet, after 38 years of unimpressive, but relatively trouble-free service, he was ‘called upon to resign’ for ‘intemperate habits’ in May 1913 at the age of 54 ½.[8]

The remaining cases of dismissal are probably the most interesting. J. Bailey, the station agent at Wareham of 6 years, was dismissed in June 1865 for ‘sending false telegrams.’ What was in these telegrams is unknown, but it suggests some sort of fraud was going on.[9] In April 1873 a new Junior Clerk at Clapham Junction who had only been in the job a month, A.E. Bothams, was reported for ‘using improper language to a passenger.’ Thus, this was the quickest exit from L&SWR employment in my study. [10] My favourite cause of dismissal was that of A.J. Calcott. In 1872 he had joined the company at Netley Station, and by 1881 he was working at Waterloo. On June 22 he was reported for ‘having females in his office and incivility to passengers.’ How he sneaked these ‘females’ into the office at such a busy station is unknown. However, it is interesting that the L&SWR authorities on his record stated that they were ‘females’ rather than just strangers, revealing that the management’s patriarchal view of the workplace. [11]

Over the entire sample there were only 8 cases (17.39%) where the dismissal was for causes that I would classify as ‘criminal.’ They were as follows:-

1. H. Coward - Dec 1865 -Registration Examiners Office, Waterloo - Absent without leave, monies not accounted for (£1.17s.6d). [12]
2. R. Blake - March 1866 - Audit Office, Southampton - Charged out monies on goods in excess of what had been actually paid out by him.[13]
3. J.F. Blann - Oct 1872 - Tisbury Station - Defficient in cash and made overcharges on parcels and kept the money.[14]
4. G.T. Cooksey - Dec 1876 - Surbiton Station - Improperly cashed cheques for a party having no business in connection with the company.[15]
5. J. Brownston - June 1878 - Aldershot Goods Station - Concerned with the destruction of books.[16]
6. F. Burt - Aug 1880 - Walton Station - Short in Cash and Absconded (to be prosecuted when captured.).[17]
7. J. Benbow - Aug 1881 - Timber Yard, Nine Elms - Irregularities in reciept from timber contractors.[18]
8. E. Agnew - April 1886 - Waterloo Station - Embezzlement (£28.15s.0d).[19]

What is interesting is that in only one case, that of F.Burt, was there any mention of criminal proceedings being brought against an ex-clerk. Furthermore, if I take into consideration the 38 other cases of dismissal, this remains the only one where the possibility of criminal proceedings was mentioned, even when the sums of money lost through error was huge. Of course, I have no evidence that in criminal action wasn't brought on these occasions, and that might just be an omission from the staff record books. However, although more study needs to be done, the fact that it is rarely mentioned does (tentatively) suggest that the company very much saw discipline as an internal matter and not concerning outside authorities except in exceptional circumstances.

Indeed, given the prestige attached to clerical work on the railways, the potential benefits that a career could bring, the sense of railway employment making you part of a unique 'family' and the fact that dismissal could mean destitution for many, it is highly possible that by the 1860s there was a sense that the L&SWR punished their own in the ways they saw fit and that its systems of punishment were all that was required in the majority of cases. Additionally, this would juxtapose well against the fact that the L&SWR (as well as other companies) in this period were also looking after their staff in increasingly diverse ways through the introduction of pension schemes, health checks and staff training. Thus, framed in these terms, there is the possibility that from the 1860s the railways may have been developing into self-contained communities that had their own social rules and where, increasingly, paternalism over and punishment of employees was seen as primarily the job of the company and not the state. Yet, to confirm this theory will require more research.

I would love to do more work on the topic of railway company discipline. However, I do not have the time. Yet from this evidence it is clear that most of 46 clerical or salaried staff members were simply dismissed for infringing the very strict rules of the Victorian railway workplace, whereas those who were dismissed because they knowingly wanted to steal from the railway was small. Hopefully, if I do get the time, I can expand my sample to include all the L&SWR clerks, but that would be a massive task.
[1] South Western Circle Collection [SWC], 1884 L&SWR Rule Book, Rule 15, Page 10
[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.773
[3] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.49
[4] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.83
[5] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.906
[6] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.54
[7] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.31
[8] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.965
[9] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.39
[10] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.688
[11] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.129
[12] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.101
[13] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.46
[14] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.588
[15] TNA, RAIL 411/491, Clerical staff character book No. 1, 1838 - 1877, p.57
[16] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.964
[17] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.876
[18] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.818
[19] TNA, RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838 – 1919, p.906

1 comment:

  1. Hello David,

    These are interesting insights into railway life.
    Steam Tube ( has a monthly online newsletter and features magazine("On Shed"), and the subjects you cover would look very well there.

    Perhaps you would consider joining as member, or perhaps allowing us to make use- with appropriate credits and links in place - of your material, from time to time.

    Kind regards,

    Peter S. Lewis


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