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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - An­thony Bur­ton is an au­thor who spe­cialises in in­dus­trial and trans­port his­tory

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”.

Freight ser­vice

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

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