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Monday, 29 August 2011

The Lives of Female waiting Room Attendants at London Bridge Station in the 1860s and 70s

Before the 1880s the number employment options for women on Britain's railways were small and they could become charwomen or office cleaners, waiting or refreshment room attendants, carriage lining sewers, polishers or gatekeepers. The limited number of positions available was because most railway companies only employed the wives of injured or deceased railwaymen as an act of charity. Indeed, very few jobs in this period were given to the daughters of railwaymen.

With this in mind, I tried to find the staff records of some female waiting room attendants to discover more about their lives and circumstances. Thus, in my search I came across thirteen that worked at the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway’s (LB&SCR) London Bridge Station in the 1860s and 1870s. It is not certain which waiting room they worked in, as 1872 it was noted that there was a separate ‘ladies waiting room.’ Thus, this implies that men and women were separated when waiting for trains.[1]

The thirteen women were appointed between 1861 and 1878. However, as attendants came and went it has been determined that anywhere between three and six were posted there at any one time. Pay was low and all earned between 10 shillings and £1. Yet, the majority received 18 shillings throughout their employment. This was not a terrible income, but would only have enabled them to have an acceptable, if frugal, standard of living.

From the records it is clear that that the historiography was correct in suggesting that the majority the attendants were the wives of deceased or injured railwaymen. Of the thirteen women, nine were widows. Four of these had been married to Station Masters, one to a head porter, another to a travelling ticket inspector, another to guard, and, lastly, one to a company policeman. The position of one of the widow's husbands is unknown. Only one attendant, Emma Hubbard, acquired her position due to her husband, a ticket inspector, being injured. He was in an accident at New Cross Station.

The positions the husbands held is important as they were seemingly a factor in their widows receiving employment as waiting room attendants. Firstly, all the husbands were working within the company’s Traffic Department, and as the waiting rooms were under its remit, it was only appointing its own employee's wives. Secondly, all the husbands' had high status jobs and suggests that the 'respectability' and 'trustworthiness' of a family was a factor in the women's employment. Widows whose husband's had jobs that were deemed of low respectability, such as porter, platelayer or gatekeeper, were seemingly missing from the list (and others seen in the files). Yet, given that London Bridge Station was one of the LB&SCR’s main stations it may have been that the company prioritised appointing individuals who had ‘respectable’ husbands there, and that elsewhere there was no such distinction. This requires more research

The ages of the attendants on appointment varied. The oldest appointee was Elizabeth Croft who was simply ‘recommended by Mr Hawkins,’ and was 56. The youngest were Ellen Membray, who was the widow of a guard, and Mary Ann Thompson, the widow of a policeman, who were both 28. Seven of the appointees were between the ages of 35 and 45. What this fact implies is uncertain. Were these women appointed to the London Bridge Waiting Rooms because their ages meant that they had more life experience making them more suitable for the work? Or perhaps the management did not employ younger women for fear of the male railway workers being distracted (a concern seen on another railway)? This may even suggest that railway workers were more likely to be killed or die in their middle ages. Ultimately, the answer is uncertain.

The attendants left employment a number of ways. Six resigned. The shortest career belonged to Sarah Ann Adams, the widow of a Station Master at Queen’s Road, who after being appointed in April 1877 resigned her post in November 1878. Indeed, this was after a promotion to Charwoman in May of that year. Three of the individuals, Elizabeth Lanfair, Rachel Vicary and Ellen Reece, all resigned their posts in 1900 and 1901 after twenty-five, twenty-two and twenty-four years respectively. While not having a pension, all received money from the company’s benevolent fund. Vicary's record shows that she received only a third of her working wages, her income dropping from 18 to 6 shillings per week. This equated to £15 12/- per year and was an amount that would have barely paid for her living.

What is striking is that five of the individuals left employment because they were incapacitated, usually after a short period employment. No details are given as to the cause of their ill-health so we can only speculate what occurred. Nevertheless, considering that the wages paid were low, the working hours were long and the fact that their employment periods were short, it may suggest that health issues like malnutrition and fatigue may have played a role. Indeed, the fact that such a high proportion of the women became ‘incapacitated’ shortly after engagement, does support the thesis that the nature of the work was taking its toll.

Lastly, only one individual, Emma Hubbard, was fired. In January 1875 after two and a half years of employment she was discharged for losing £595 from the waiting room.
 
Thus, this small survey reveals that the women of the LB&SCR’s London Bridge Waiting Room staff were typically widowed, had had husbands who were in ‘respectable’ posts, received low wages, had poor working conditions and were very likely to suffer from health problems as a result of their employment. However, the very sad fact is that in a world where men were expected to be the breadwinners, that this employment, which was given merely as charity, was better than the women's alternatives of destitution or even the workhouse.
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[1] The Lancaster Gazette, and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, Yorkshire, &c., Saturday, August 17, 1872, pg. 7
[2] All information taken from: The National Archives, RAIL 414/764-779, London Brighton and South Coast Staff Records, 1861-1901

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