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Friday, 8 July 2011

The Loneliest Man on the Railway - The Victorian Signalman

‘Trains thundering by; nine bells dinning in the signal-box, one against another; a score of telegraph indicators before his eyes; three telephones behind him; and under his sure an powerful hands a row of levers, keys of life and death. I am to write the praise of the railway signalman.’[1]
The signalmen, the individuals who were the overseers of railway safety, were the loneliest employees in the Victorian railway industry. While those stationed in major signal boxes at large stations or yards would be in contact with many human beings, the majority of signalmen sat alone atop mountains, in cuttings and at junctions. Indeed, the signalmen were unique in the Victorian railways as being some of the only solo workers in an industry where human contact and interactions were common place.
This had always been the case from the earliest days of the railways. Stationed next to the primitive signals, the early signalmen inhabited boxes that were modelled on army sentry huts. Indeed, many were pivoted at the base so they could be turned against the elements. However, the standard signal box, that we would readily identify today, developed quickly complete with windows, stoves and occasionally cats.[2]
Most Victorian signalmen would start their careers by entering the company’s service at the age of 14 as either a porter (then being promoted to porter-signalmen) or as a signal learner. They would have to undergo a strict eye test and then would shadow the work of a permanent signalman until they were proficient. Subsequently, once qualified they would be placed in an unimportant or branch-line signal box. Career advancement would occur through the movement to signal boxes of greater importance, with the rare possibility that they would eventually end up in charge of a major box on the main line.
The pay of signalmen was quite low and dependent on the company may have been anywhere between 12s and 30s per week. However, the general rate was around 16s or 17s.[3] While a children’s publication, The Big Budget, would write in 1899 that ‘an ordinary signalman does not have a very great deal of actual hard work to do,’ it was the duration of the work and the lack of pay that was the real issue for these men.[4] A letter to the editor of the Railway Service Gazette in 1872 detailed the long hours of service of signalmen:
‘I myself am a signalman and have been in the employ of the London, Chatham and Dover Company for eleven years next June, during which time I have averaged eighty-four hours per week. As there are only two of us, we relieve each other on a Sunday morning at 8.30 am to change over from night to day. We remain on duty till 7.30 the following Monday so as to enable us to have twenty-three hours off duty once a fortnight…and to make things worse, if we are fortunate to get a week’s leave of absence (say once in two years) they do not fail to stop our pay.’[5]
Indeed, while testifying to the Parliamentary Select Committee of 1890, James Thomas, a Cambrian Railway signalmen, stated that the hours of work that he had been expected to work were unlimited, there was no Sunday pay, and on occasion he had worked eighteen consecutive hours. Furthermore, he only time and a quarter for those hours worked after the twelfth.[6]
While the hours and pay of the signalmen were improved over the late-Victorian period, usually by union activity, the one problem they were unable to solve was that of their isolation. The signalmen themselves tried to mitigate this problem by keeping their boxes in pristine condition, through cleaning the instruments, making sure the paint work was fresh and the flower boxes, for which there were competitions, were well-tended. Indeed, the signal box was the man inside’s territory, and no one entered without his say-so. Furthermore, signalmen would keep in contact through a series of bells with their colleagues on the line. Yet, these relationships were ones in which they never saw each other. Yet, the tedium of isolation still remained, and the adage developed that ‘if you are unmarried when you take over a box, chances are you will never marry.’[7]
It was this isolation that Charles Dickens used to great effect in his 1866 short ghost story The Signalman. The narrator visits a signalman at an isolated signal box in a cutting, only to find him haunted by a spectre that was appearing in association with two tragedies. Pertinently, on the narrator’s second visit to the box, the signalman sees the spectre again and believes may be warning of a third accident. However, the narrator cannot see it and, thus, one of the suggestions for this is that the signalman had suffered mentally from his isolation. When the narrator visits for a third time, he has found that signalman was been killed by a train while looking at something at the tunnel mouth. Whether the spectre had been warning the signalman of his impending doom during the last conversation is left for the reader to decide.
Thus, the isolation was the key to making The Signalman work as a story. In 1882 a lighter side to the isolation of the signalman was published in Fun. Thus, the publication’s whimsical poem, The Neglected Signalman, can be found below.[8]
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[1] Snowden, Keighley, ‘The Man Who Works the Points,’ The Pall Mall Magazine, Vol. 39 No. 166 (Feb 1907) p.169
[2] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, (London, 1980) p.67
[3] McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.67
[4] The Big Budget, ‘The Road to Take: Or What a Boy Can Become,’ Saturday, July 15th 1899, Issue 109, p.79
[5] Letter to the Editor, Railway Service Gazette, 3rd February 1872, p.7, quoted in, McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.67-68
[6] McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.70
[7] McKenna, The Railway Workers 1830-1970, p.75
[8] ‘The Neglected Signalman,’ Fun, Vol.35 No.872 (Jan 25th 1882) p.41

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