Railwaymen

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Railwaymen‘We only suffer, to ride on a buffer…..’. Just one of the lines that cost W. S. Gilbert his knighthood, but here, in Maisie Robson’s reworking of Edwardian sources, we meet those who suffered for real to run the nation’s transport network. For those readers who are mystified by the term ‘bar-boy’, let it be known that these young unfortunates, whose duties comprised the cleaning and de-clinkering of locomotive fireboxes, had a task roughly equivalent to those children who climbed chimneys for sweeps, only hotter. Parliament may have abolished slavery, but parliamentary trains kept the reality of slave labour very close to home.

‘Railwaymen’ is in essence both a comprehensive series of job descriptions, and a description of the running of the British railway network at a time when no delay or excuse was reason enough for traffic not to travel and arrive. Described are the essence and tools of management, in an era when the telephone was a new fangled and untrusted replacement for the telegraph; division of tasks, the co-ordination of widely flung and competing companies under the rules of the Railway Clearing House, the smooth passage of goods and passengers through the hands of scores of companies and thousands of employees, all are diligently explained. Here also we see that the electrical engineer is a new face; the railways had run for seventy years with no more need for electricity than the current in the telegraph wires; electric lights are new; gas incandescent mantles ‘modern’. Only oil lamps are old.

The real worth of this work, though, is the images it conjures. An immaculately painted and polished engine and carriages clattering across a countryside on an unbelievably tidy, litter-free permanent way between neatly mown grass banks and trim fences; well dressed passengers reclining on clean, soft cushions; stations brightly painted, with smart uniformed porters lined up to assist the traveller, all supervised by a stationmaster in top hat. Civil engineering and architectural marvels without compare (and without a hint of rust or neglect); the organised bustle of the goods yard, full of horses, wagons and goods being manhandled in sacks and barrels, or with the assistance of a handworked crane. Hardworking, respectful and diligent staff devoted to the service of the company

The railways of Britain a hundred years ago were the last word in transport; no other rail network offered the level of speed, comfort and convenience that the top twenty five British railway companies set before first class passengers. On such comfortable thoughts (and equally comfortable dividends) did the managers and directors, on the whole, recline. That the railway companies were complacent in the utter absence of substantive competition is well illustrated here. ‘Railwaymen’ is written from the company perspective rather than the employee, whose duties are described from the carriage rather than the coaling stage. That perspective is rose-tinted to a degree difficult to fully comprehend today. Our forefathers expected a life of labour, during which time it was part of your lot to work in all kinds of poor weather without shelter, wearing out the body in as little as thirty or forty years. Dirt, dust, and hot and dangerous working conditions were just part of life’s rich pageant.

Portrayed also are the wide range of ancillary services the railways offered or had to supply themselves to meet their own need; lodging houses for employees away from home, hotels for the professional and social traveller (who no longer needed the wayside inns of the turnpike roads), steamships, housing for employees, factories to build their own locomotives, wagons and carriages, a rail rolling plant even, and their own police forces. We see the extracts from the census for 1901 and learn that for every mile of railway in Britain there were no fewer than twenty two railwaymen, divided up into ninety three classes of employment. We learn too, that rates of pay on the railway are not princely, that ‘premium’ apprentices had to find the money to pay the company for the privilege of working, and that in exchange for long hours, poor conditions and, in many instances, considerable danger, the slightest misdemeanour could result in instant dismissal. Read further between the lines and the veneer of glamour is backed by the reality of economics; the companies made their profits on mineral workings (hauling coal, iron ore and limestone to the ports and furnaces of industrial Britain). Drivers of mineral trains earned more money than the passenger links because their job was more skilled. Firemen were too old at forty five to fire a locomotive out on the main line. Employment of women was minimal, with such endearing job titles as ‘Train Maid’.

So much of the incidentals of times past is laid bare, from the ‘malicious mutilation’ of carriage seat cushions to the different free luggage allowances for each class of passenger, and why you cannot take a ‘street piano’ free on a train. Lost property offices at least have changed little; their ability to accumulate spare crutches is clearly one of the founding rules of the physical universe. The prizes given by companies for the best maintained length of line are long gone, but yes, they really did exist, and if your lot in life was the ‘grooming’ (cleaning) of engines, then several hours labour would net you as much as 3s.8d. (18p), but only if the work was up to the foreman’s standards. If not, it was ‘do it again!’

‘Railwaymen’ is also surprisingly modern. Signalling principles set out for ‘absolute block’ working of trains are still in use. Levers frames and mechanical interlocking can still be found in many places across Britain, and the mechanical principles of interlocking are applied electronically today in much the same way as a century ago. Signalmen, we learn ‘never work more than a twelve hour day’ for their twenty five shillings a week, and five pound yearly bonus for ‘correct working’ (not causing a crash). One accident investigation is on record as having found the signalman ‘responsible’ to be on a twenty four hour shift!

Hiding in these pages too is just a touch of company sleight of hand or economy of truth. We are left to speculate as to how many locomotive stationary testing plants graced Edwardian England (the Great Western Railway machine at Swindon was the only one), and the ‘several’ railway companies reputed to own a dynamometer car actually boiled down to just three. While describing various methods of train heating, the company apologist omits to mention the fact that large numbers of carriages in Edwardian times had no installed heating at all, and that the ‘modern gas lighting’ would in just a few years cause major loss of life in a train fire. Such is the wisdom of hindsight.

Perhaps also there is the reader’s knowledge that this carefully constructed transport system was built on the shifting sands of energy costs. While coal ruled the industrial economy, the railways ruled land transport, making their profits from moving energy around. Take away this single underpinning and the house was palpably constructed of cards. Within fifty years, in less than a single lifetime, people who had witnessed the first train to their village station, were cheering off the last. In the certainties of Edwardian Britain, where the railway was a job for life and an axiomatic part of everyday existence, the seeds of destruction were sown, to grow and bear such bitter fruit so quickly, ending the careers of bar-boys, capstan men and tube cleaners alike.