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Thursday, 11 August 2011

Discovering More About Britain's First Fifteen Female Railway Clerks - Part 1

I recently wrote about the first fifteen female clerks appointed by the London and North Western Railway’s (L&NWR) at its Curzon Street Goods Offices in Birmingham in the mid-1870s (Here). Dubbed an 'experiment' on the press, their employment was the initiative of the District Goods Superintendent, Mr W.J. Nichols, and was the first time on Britain's railways that women had been employedto perform functions that were at the time ordinarily undertaken by male employees.[1] However, having limited resources my post was informed by newspapers from the period. I knew nothing of the women’s names, ages or careers. I just dubbed them the ‘Birmingham Fifteen.’

But then I was pleasantly surprised. As I related in my last post (Here), The National Archives (via has in the last fortnight made available on-line the staff records from some of Britain’s major railway companies from the 19th and 20th century. Therefore, after purchasing a subscription the first thing I did was to look for the ‘Birmingham Fifteen.’ Firstly, I found one clerks' name on the 1881 census, the only census which has been transcribed with individuals’ occupations, and then searched the staff records. The result was that I found more information than I could handle and I have, therefore, decided to dedicate two posts to my findings. The first post will look at when the women were appointed, their ages on appointment, the management structure of the office and their starting wages. The second will look at their careers, their wages after appointment, how they left the service and the effects of Mr Nichols’ initiative on clerical employment for women in the L&NWR generally.
I’ll start this post logically, at the beginning. The first women appointed as clerks at the Curzon Street offices were J.M.A. Heywood, J.M. Matthews and Emma Eliza Beard on the 1st June 1874. These were soon followed by others. However, there is a bit of confusion as to how many women were actually appointed. Indeed, it shows that 19th century newspapers were not always reliable. The Englishwoman’s Review of February 1878 stated that at that point there were 15 women working in the office.[2] Up to June 1876 it seems that only fourteen women had been appointed. Yet, the appointment of Martha E. Hughes and Louisa J. Hands in early 1877 made the total number up to sixteen.[3] The answer to this conundrum, I think, is that Beard, was significantly older and paid more than the others, suggesting that she was the ‘matron.’ Thus, it can be surmised that the Review did not count her in the fifteen as she was their line manager. The number of women in the office only remained at sixteen until the 1st May 1878, when A.J. Stoker transferred to the company’s Wolverhampton offices.[4]
The ages of the women varied, however, all would have been unmarried and possibly the daughters of railway workers. The Englishwoman’s Review of 1878 stated that the majority of the women were ‘young persons,’ [6] and this is confirmed by the evidence. The youngest clerk appointed was L.M. Matthews who was only fifteen years and six months old. It is presumably for this reason that she was listed as a ‘female apprentice.’ [5] As shown below, of the thirteen women employed under the age of twenty, five of the clerks (31.25%) were employed at the age of 15, with the rest being engaged between the ages of 16 and 19.

Only 3 of the women were over the age of 20. As stated, the oldest woman in the office was Beard, who was thirty-two years old and five months. However, Stoker was twenty-six years and eleven months old and Mary Butler was twenty-seven months and eleven months old. Indeed, it is suspected that because of her age and her wages (see below) that Butler was the Assistant Matron. 
Interestingly, their starting wages compared very favourably with those of male clerks, who usually also began their L&NWR careers between 14 and 19 years old. Eleven of the thirteen (84.61%) women entering the service below the age of 20 received £26.00 per annum, or 10s per week (which concurs with the Review article). This was £1 higher than the starting rate for most male apprentices (based on records observed). Thus, the initial claims of the press that the employment of women would reduce railway company costs seems to have been their opinion rather than based on any evidence. Furthermore, 18 year old M.E. Harris and the 26 year old A.J. Stoker both received £31 per annum (or 11s 11d per week). Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that in these two cases the L&NWR was rewarding prior experience of clerical work, especially as Harris was under the age of 20 but receiving more than her similarly aged counterparts. Naturally, the managers of the office received more than the others. Beard received £65 per annum (24s per week) and Butler received £39 per annum (15s per week).[7]
What has been shown is that from the outset the office of ‘Birmingham Fifteen’ was initially identical to those elsewhere in the company. There was a hierarchy, transfers, apprentices, comparable pay with male clerks and variance in wages based on experience. Indeed, this is interesting when juxtaposed against of the initial views of the press that perceived the employment of women clerks as abnormal, using words like 'experiment,' and claiming that their engagement would reduce railway company costs. However, as will be shown in part 2, the options open to the ‘Birmingham Fifteen’ were actually very limited, with the heights they could reach in pay and positions capped. 
[1] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 410/1837, Register of salaried permanent officers in the Goods Department including clerks, goods managers, inspectors, superintendents, time keepers, accountants, foremen, agents, canvassers and collectors, p.929
[2] The Englishwoman’s Review, Friday, February 15th 1878, p.77
[3] TNA, RAIL 410/1837, Register of salaried permanent officers in the Goods Department including clerks, goods managers, inspectors, superintendents, time keepers, accountants, foremen, agents, canvassers and collectors, p.1207
[4] TNA, RAIL 410/1842, Salaried Staff Register [No 1, pages 581-1087] - Goods Department. Includes station masters and clerks, p.167
[5] The Englishwoman’s Review, Friday, February 15th 1878, p.77
[6] TNA, RAIL 410/1837, p.1207
[7] TNA, RAIL 410/1842, p.913

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