Writing women: World War 2 and the Railways

I haven’t posted for a while. I have been busy with writing and thinking and funding bids. Time has lost its regularity and its meaning as I play the waiting game. So I did what I do when I struggle for inspiration - talk to other writing women about what inspires them. This blog will feature on the History Girls website, for which I write on the 15th of each month.

For today’s blog I spoke to Susan Major, who has written a fabulous book about women working on the railways during World War 2. This book is important because although we know that women took on many traditional men’s roles during the war, very little has been published on women in the railways. Railways were a reserved occupation, so in theory men continued to work on the railways while their counterparts in other industries were sent off to war. In reality, the men working on the railways were often old and disabled. The issues confronted by women workers were those that existed in other activities:  economic, sexual, social and temporal, their lives being changed by the new habits and relationships brought by the war, as well as its ending. Susan’s book is a welcome addition to our understanding of the lives of working women in the Second World War, as well as its gender politics. 

Susan Major completed a PhD with the Institute of Railway Studies & Transport History at the University of York in 2012. Drawing upon material from the National Railway Museum and the British Library, she focused on early railway excursions. Her book based on this research, Early Victorian Railway Excursions, was shortlisted for the Railways and Canal Historical Society Book of the Year Awards 2017. Her latest book, Female Railway Workers in World War II, was published by Pen & Sword in 2018. Susan was a programme consultant for the BBC series Railways: the Making of a Nation, taking part in the episode on leisure. She is retired and lives in York.

Fay: “So Susan, what drew you to the subject of women on the railways?” 

Susan: “Well I completed my doctorate, which later became a book, on Victorian railway excursions. Later, when doing some research about railway voices I discovered the National Archive of Railway Oral History at the Railway Museum, which contains many different  interviews with  people working on and associated with the railways. Quite a lot of this material has been digitised and indexed and transcribed. Among all the men recorded, there were some women and I realised that their voices had not really been listened to. And there were enough women talking about the wartime period, and about working in what were commonly perceived as ‘men’s jobs’, to form the basis of a book. And remember that even so-called ‘women’s’ jobs in those days, like working as a clerk, had been men’s jobs when in the railway context. And I wanted to know not only what everyday life was life for those women, but also how they were looked at by other people, by the companies who were employing the women as well as commentators in newspapers of the time.” 

Fay: “ Are there any particular women that stand out for you?Any stories that were especially memorable?” 

Susan: “There was a female porter at York station, when it was bombed in 1942. A train was also bombed on its way into the station, and these were terrible conditions to work in. The social conditions could be difficult too; she tells a story of a parcel foreman that the female workers had problems with and they sorted him out by giving him some chocolate, which happened to be laxative chocolate.”

Fay: “What can you tell us about the kind of women in these roles, their age or class for instance?”

Susan: “Well it’s a very select sample, dependent on who was chosen to interview. And these women would all have been young at the time, because the older women would have died by the time the stories were recorded. And they described liking the companionship of other women, the responsibility, and, unlike factory, work the variable and different activities involved.”

Fay: “Were the women all unmarried? I’m thinking about other roles of the time, which had very strict union rules”.  

Susan: “Yes. If you got married you had to leave. Most of these women were aged between 16 and 22 and often they met a railway man and got married and that was the last we hear of them. By contrast the newspaper reports were keen to tell readers about those women who might have 12 children and still carried out a role. And there was a sense that a woman wasn’t quite acceptable in publicity unless she had some link to a railway man. Women were not treated as individuals in their own right.” 

Fay: “Were most of these women working class women?”

Susan: “Not necessarily. Many were working class though there were also reports of quite posh women working on the railways. The ones that were interviewed were mainly ordinary women, who had a clear sense of their roles and their relationships with other women and you get a real sense of the culture of the workplace through the stories that they tell. Compared to other work, like factory work, the duties could be varied and interesting”.

Fay: “What do these interviews say about how it was to be a woman in a traditionally male environment?”

Susan: “There is some discussion about workplace harassment, much of which was taken for granted. For instance one of the accounts describes the experience of a typistThey had to go down and check their work with one of the men in the office. She said “And there were never enough chairs. So we used to share a chair with a man. And I think the feminists these days would be horrified. They'd probably be having all the men done for harassment. But we used to call it fun”

[Pause for reflection and a little teeth-gnashing]

Fay: “So these women would have to sit on their boss's lap.” 

Susan: “Yes, or share the chair. And there are a lot of examples of that. And women would talk about how they worked all day while their male supervisors stood around talking about sport. And at the end of the working day the women would get ready to go home and the men would say “overtime now”. And the men got paid more for the overtime, while the women had often families to get home to.There was also this concept of the “railway family”, which other historians have written about. Employees were encouraged to think of the railway as a family, and there were magazines prompting this image. And there was a sense that you could only get a job in the railways if your father put you forward, for instance, and while that wasn’t necessarily so in practice, it was how people thought about the railways as paternalistic employers”. 

Fay: “After the war did these women get sent away from the jobs, as they did in other industries?” 

Susan: “They were dispensed with, yes. Although I’ve focused on women working, the last chapter of my book is called: “and then the men came back”, which draws attention to the way women workers were dismissed. One woman, a guard, was sent a letter thanking her for her service. Only it wasn’t sent to her but to her boss. She had to travel a long way on the train to get to his office after a long shift, where she was shown this piece of paper, which he then kept, before trekking all the way home again”. 

Fay: “Thank you for a fascinating introduction to the book”

If you want to win a copy of Susan’s book, then check out the History Girls website on 15 February, when I will be running a competition for readers.

Railway women. To find out more  click here

Railway women. To find out more click here