Uncover your railway worker ancestors
Did your ancestors work on the railways? Anthony Burton shows you how to track down vital records both online and in the archives to uncover their life and times
Although the first recorded trial of a railway locomotive took place in 1804, when Richard Trevithick’s engine slowly puffed its way down the Penydarren Tramway in South Wales, development was slow. Even the famous Stockton & Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825, still used horses to haul passengers in what was in effect a stagecoach with flanged wheels. That all changed in 1830 with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first inter-city line and one in which both goods and passenger traffic was steam- hauled by a new generation of faster, more powerful engines.
Its success brought about a huge burst of construction on the railways. In 1840, there was approximately 2,000 miles of track in Britain, but by 1900 that had risen to 20,000 miles.
The railways also employed a vast workforce. Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, but by the beginning of the 20th century, it is thought that the various railway unions had more than 200,000 members between them.
In this feature we show you how to research the people employed in the day-to-day
By the beginning of the 20th century, it is thought that the various railway unions had more than 200,000 members between them
running of the system, rather than those who built the rail network and its rolling stock.
Did you have an ancestor who helped to man a station or company office or did they work on the trains themselves?
By the end of the 19th century, the rail network was immense and complex: there were more than 100 different companies, each running their own section of the network and between them they managed more than 10,000 stations.
Following the Railways Act in 1921, 123 of these smaller companies were grouped into ‘ The Big Four’ – The Great Western Railway (GWR); London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS); London and North Eastern Railway (LNER); and Southern Railway (SR).
As a result of the Transport Act 1947, the railways were nationalised and became British Rail, only for it to be privatised in 1993.
At the turn of the last century, even quite modest stations would employ a large number of staff, headed by the stationmaster, who often had a company house on site. For example, there are 12 staff
posing for a photo at Colwyn Bay in the 1920s, and official documents from 1904 show that as well as serving passengers, they were expected to deal with “goods, parcels, furniture vans, livestock, horseboxes and personal carriages”.
Today we think of stations as exclusively concerned with passenger trains, but a century ago nearly every station had its own goods yard as well.
Dealing with freight was complex: customers might use their own private wagons or bring goods along to be loaded into company vans and trucks.
A train would have to be made up in the right order, so that Mr Smith’s wagon finished up at Station A, while Mr Brown’s trundled on to Station B.
As well as workers based in the stations, there were signalmen working along the line. The first mechanical signals were introduced in 1840, and the early signalmen worked from open platforms, exposed to the weather.
Later the familiar signal box was introduced, and safety was greatly improved by the arrival of the telegraph. This meant signalmen were no longer working alone, but were able to exchange information with their colleagues along the line. Theirs was a very responsible job and in 1844 the block signalling system was introduced, which meant that no train could enter a particular section or box, until the previous train had cleared it.
The footplate crew were considered the elite – although the authorities decided that the way to ensure they concentrated on the job in hand and didn’t get too comfortable was to have them stand out in the open, without shelter.
Training to become a driver was a long, slow process. Men started out in the engine sheds cleaning the locomotives and polishing the brasses, later moving up to become firemen. They worked with their driver as
a team and learned as they went along. If they were considered good enough, they were promoted to driver.
An idea of just how complex the work was can be gauged by looking at a manual for drivers, published in 1877 – it is 250 pages long. Unlike other railway workers, footplate crews would be based near the locomotives sheds, where the working day started.
The guard had just as uncomfortable a life as the footplate crew in the early days, and usually perched high up on a seat at the back of the carriage. He was responsible for watching out for signals, and the driver always had to obey his instructions. Later, he would have a more comfortable life in his own van.
Railways were complex organisations and these are just some of the more visible jobs that were involved. Behind the scenes was an army of clerks that sorted out such matters as allocating the share of the ticket price that had to go to each company whose line the passenger travelled on during long journey.
For the family historian, there is a great deal of information available about the larger companies, but often very little about small concerns. The starting point for any search is to find out where a railway ancestor lived or worked and then to check, using one of the several historic railway atlases available through your library (for example, Complete British Railways Maps and Gazetteer from 1830-1981 by CJ Wignall) to see which company was responsible for that place’s station(s). If
youry ancestor lived in a city, there may well be several stations, worked by different lines and you may need to check them all.
The majority of railway company records are held at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, covering the period from 1825 to 1947,, but not all of them have surviving wage books and staff lists. This is the biggest set of railway records in the country and should be the first port of call.
A search using TNA’s Discovery catalogue can help you locate records for any particular company held there or in local and county archives across the UK. Ancestry has digitised much of TNA’s railway staff records.
Many of the larger rail companies produced staff magazines, which contain a great deal of information. Earlier this year TheGenealogist released a comprehensive collection of staff magazines, which is a boon to family history researchers with rail workers on their tree. Here you’ll find Great Western Railway Magazine and the Southern Railway Magazine among others.
Not knowing the location where your ancestor worked does not make your search impossible. By the latter part of the 19th century, the vast majority of railway workers had joined a trade union and many of their records are held in the Modern Records Centre in the library at Warwick University.
Britain’s rail system was complex and employed huge numbers of workers. Therefore it is hardly surprising that many of us find ancestors among their ranks.
The London, Brighton & South Coast signal box at Victoria Station in Pimlico, London, at the end of the 19th century
Staff at Colwyn Bay’s railway station pictured in the 1920s
A passenger guard waves off a train at the station, c1907