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Female Railway Workers in World War Two

Susan Major
Pen and Sword 2018 ISBN 9781526703088 £19.99

The Friends of the National Railway Museum created the National Archive of Railway Oral History by carrying out a series of interviews between 2000 - 2003. Those interviewed had worked in the railway industry in the period from the 1940s to the end of the century. Most of the interviewees were men but Dr Susan Major has selected the testimonies of twenty-eight women for this study. Many of these women answered Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin’s 1941 appeal to women to enrol for war work voluntarily, reinforced later that year by compulsory conscription.

There is evidence of railway companies employing women as early as the 1851 census and during the first world war women appeared in public roles as porters and ticket collectors, as well as behind the scenes as carriage or engine cleaners or clerks. The National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) took the view that women were not suitable to carry out the task of cleaning engines perhaps because this was seen as a route to the role of engine driver. By the peak of 1944, ninety-three thousand women were employed by the big four railway companies and London Transport in a wide range of roles, many physically or technically challenging.

We are not surprised to hear the often very young women describe incidences of discrimination, harassment, unequal pay and the ultimate disappointment of surrendering the jobs they had carried out so efficiently to the men returning from war or because they had to choose between marriage or employment. Susan Major has exercised a light touch in organising the narrative into themes, allowing the voices of the women to tell their own stories. She uses contemporary press reports to highlight attitudes to women workers. These both exasperate and entertain with their references to ‘Amazons’ or ‘feminine charms' or ‘willing adaptability’. One of the more unusual jobs was featured in an article headlined, ‘They Travel and Knit - and Detect’. Two young female detectives exercised their ‘feminine shrewdness’ - and knitting skills - as they travelled between Manchester Victoria and Chester stations inconspicuously blending into the crowd whilst looking out for wrong doing.

A well-chosen selection of photographs of women undertaking the full range of tasks enhances the stories. The women were elderly when interviewed, remembering back over fifty years. Time changes perspective but in their voices, we still hear their enthusiasm, the sense of satisfaction at their achievements and the wit that they used in their negotiations with over protective fathers or difficult bosses and work mates. This is a very satisfactory use of an important oral history resource.

Paula Moorhouse