REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN

Goods porters





Goods Porter Dorothy Walmsley

I was a porteress during the 1939 war, along with five other ladies on the London North Eastern Railway at Ipswich.

It was quite hard work. We had to load and unload heavy sacks of parcel post, milk churns, and boxes of fish etc. etc. from the guards van, as nearly all goods were transported by rail in those days. As well as looking after the passengers, we also had to take turns travelling to Yarmouth when we were on late shift in the winter months to see the blinds were always closed during the blackout. We had lots of troops travelling on the trains during the five years I worked at Ipswich. I met my husband during that time, he was a corporal in the Army, as a Royal Corp of Signals. His job was to train pigeons for the war and I used to put them on the train for their destination.

Now at the present time I have a granddaughter who drives a train on the Northern Lines between Manchester Piccadilly and Sheffield. She enjoys her work and is now starting her third year.


Goods Porter Mrs. Maudie Brown

I am 80 years young now an I worked on the Railways in the Old Kent Road London ( some time during the war times. We did a 10 at nights until 6 in the morning. I used to enjoy my job really as we worked alongside some of the older chaps (Regulars) and they were a lovely crew. We used to go into the canteen before we went on duty. Have a cuppa and chat, made some good friends, and then we would get out onto the platforms to await the first train in from Paris (I think) or Jersey to unload the lovely flowers and fruit then I would help driver to load onto his van and driver to Covent Garden to deliver.

My driver would take me into the early morning pub, I think it opened to the night workers about 4 o'clock (mornings) and we would enjoy a smashing cuppa or a hot drink of kinds. There were all sorts of people at the Covent Garden different businesses at that time in the mornings. Busy bustling bodies doing all sorts of different jobs and you think you are in another world. They were so very friendly too, oh for the good old days I say. The friendship and willingness of those people. To think you could have a good old laugh at that time 4 a.m.


Goods Porter Kathleen Hadfield

I worked as a railway worker in 1946 app. The station was Warrington, Lancs Bank Railway LMS (London Midland Scottish).

Two of us started work together we had to wait about a month before we got our uniforms so just wore our oldest clothes until then.

It was hard work and quite dirty at times. We worked 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. one week and then 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. the next. The wages were just under £4 for the early shift and just a couple of shillings extra for the late shift and it was a 48 hour week. In the mornings it was loading parcels in the guards van and also mail bags and unloading any for Warrington and nearby places. The trolley we used were very heavy to push and very few had breaks on. We had to back them I the lift and then push or pull them up a slope to the parcels office. The waiting rooms also had to be cleaned and fires lighted.

The afternoon and evening shift was harder, we had a it of ail bags with parcels in and had to sort the into various regions I the booking hall. They had to be loaded on the trolleys with great care and piled about ten layers high because if it was not firmly built up they fell off in the mud, ran down the slope to the lift. It frightened me to death those first few weeks thinking the trolley would run over me, but we became very expert at it.

There were about six of us girls altogether and we never had a wrong word between us and we helped each other. We enjoyed it really and had some good laughs and tears especially when I dropped an iron bar on my big toe and had a shoe full of blood. That toe has never been right since.

We had lots of American soldiers who used to come and collect their canteen rations. They had lovely food such as pumpkin and peach pies. If they dropped a box of pies and broke any they gave them us to share.

We also were allowed two free railway passes to anywhere in England and Scotland and also a quarter fares at other times. I used to save my passes for when my husband came on leave. He was attached to the 8th Canadian Army I France and Holland.

There were a few men working with us but we could do anything they could and more. They were good at vanishing when there was anything they didn't want to do.

After about two years we were made redundant as some of the men were being demobbed. I will always remember those days with much pleasure. After I left I went to work for the GPO as a post woman, it was not half as much fun as working on the railway.


Goods Porter Mabel Watkinson

I worked for the LMS in Leeds as a goods porter, I was called up at age 19 and was demobbed at 23. I was directed by the Labour Exchange, I had no choice. The conscription age for the railways was 21, but at the time of my call up the railway was priority, so they asked me if I would give it a try.. I remember the day I started - 5th February 1943 - as my father died the previous year on the same date, leaving my mother with nine children; me being the eldest, and the youngest eighteen months old!

I was sent to the local goods yard (Armley) which dealt with heavy material such as pig iron, shell cases ammunition boxes, brass ingots and asbestos. The goods yard ran behind the factories and the asbestos factory was on the opposite side of the road, and all these factories were working to full capacity night and day! Leeds was a big industrial town, every firm and factory were working to full capacity, mostly manned by women!

We worked from 7.30 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Monday to Friday and Saturdays from 7.30 to 12.30. We unloaded the raw materials from the wagons on to horse and drays, which were delivered to the appropriate factory and eventually they came back made up as bombs, shells or whatever and reloaded to be sent to the Forces or ammunition dumps, but of course we never knew the location. I might add I hated it at first, but knowing I was there for the duration of the war and everyone else had to do war work I buckled down to it. It took me about three months to settle in.

We did exactly the same work as men, in fact there was an acute shortage of men, and as I remarked before, the ones that we worked with were ready for retiring or had stayed on to help the work situation. I found it very hard at first, a little bit different from handling bread and groceries, to 10 stone sacks of flour, wheat, sheaves of leather crates and barrels.

There were no covered areas, it was a very large siding to serve the local factories, so we worked outside at all times. We had a mess room to go in to eat our sandwiches, on the side of the lines. I was at this goods depot for about one year, and then I was moved to the largest in Leeds, Hunslet Lane Goods Yard and marshalling yard about half a mile from the city centre. There were about 110 women employed here, very few men, mostly men who should have retired, but had stayed on to ease the work situation. This was a covered in station although we still did a lot of work in wagons down the lines. It had hoists from the platform up to a three floor warehouse which was rented by local traders. We stored barrels of wine and cases of wine sherry for a local wine merchant. Raw leather for the local tanneries and we also had a store of Canadian white flour, which was en route to the services. Hunslet was a massive area with a bonded warehouse on one side, the others were well known factories one was the Hunslet Engine Co which made railway locomotives also Fowlers who in the war were making tanks, each had its own private line, so they could be put straight on low loaders, and I can remember seeing Bren Gun Carriers and Tanks being loaded these were either driven on the by the Army or the employees of the factories.

We had a yard foreman called Mr. Peate who walked up and down all day in a navy raincoat and a bowler hat, if he thought we weren't moving the goods quick enough he would shout 'Come on get a move on' or 'haven't you finished that yet? I wouldn't pay you women in bloody washers!'

Of course I was like water off a duck's back - we didn't take any notice, but on days when we had a hold up with incoming goods he would come down the platform, shouting to us to get a brush and start sweeping the platforms, wagons, or clean up the horse muck. He hated to see us doing nothing.

I hated it at first especially my time at Armley it was so rough and after handling pig iron my hands and fingers were red raw and cut to shreds, even wearing gloves didn't help, however they did eventually harden up and felt like rhinoceros skin! As the years went by, things got easier, I found I got into the knack of lifting, and it was up to you to make the job easier for yourself. In summer we used to climb into empty wagons about five or six of us, roll up our overall legs and lay in the straw out of sight, sunbathing, we just had to be careful we didn't get shunted too far down the line. That was the advantage of the large goods yard it was quite easy to get lost for an hour or so without being missed and we all covered up for each other.

When we were busy, or work built up owing to air raids in London, Hull, Glasgow or any other cities, the wagons seemed to come in at once, the yards would be choc-a-bloc so our gang leader would phone the local Labour Exchange and we would be sent a contingent of Italian prisoners from the local POW camp but, I might add, they were not great workers and the women used to complain. The POWs said they only got a shilling a day so I suppose they didn't think it was worth putting effort into the job. I'm afraid we didn't mix very well, and we women played lots of tricks on them to get them to move some of the heavy stuff.

Although it was very hard work and not the most glamorous of jobs we did have our lighter moments, especially when Jimmy our Gang Leader wasn't about, he liked his drink and we had many extended dinner hours sat round his stove in his office talking until we heard the hoist chain rattle and we knew he was on his way up, so then it was a mad rush to grab our sack barrows and start moving around.

At Armley we had a mess room a few yards down the line with an old Yorkshire cast iron fireplace with oven, and the fire never went out, it was roaring up the chimney and on the trivet was the largest iron kettle I'd ever seen, of course, there was no shortage of coal, there was coal bunkers all around.

We stopped work at 12 noon and it was heaven to get in there to eat our sandwiches and make tea in our pint pots, lifting the kettle off the hob - feet apart and both hands it was so heavy.

Looking back over those four years which at first I didn't think I'd survive - it didn't do any harm in fact it put me in good stead.

We got on with the men very well, no problems, never experienced any resentment whatsoever we got along fine. As for flirtations, well they were all well passed by their sell by date.

At the end of the war I was dispensed with! Yes I think I was pleased to go and I think we understood it was our duty to make way for the returning Servicemen. I might have stayed if I could have had a lighter job but men were getting preference not only on the railways but every job.

By the way, can't remember much about the NUR but I remember wearing a badge on my jacket - the only indication that I worked for the railways, we didn't get any uniform of any sort (just navy blue denim overalls).

I went back to my job in a grocery store and I soon found out how much I hated that.

There was the manager, three assistants, and an errand boy and I missed being outside in the open air. I felt claustrophobic, miserable and bored and I missed the company of the railway women.

So I joined the West Yorkshire Road Car Co in February 1947, after sticking the shop job only a few months.

When the POWs came to help us occasionally the wagons were shunted into the sheds, we selected the ones we wanted to unload and skipped the ones which contained wet animal hides or servicemen's uniforms which came to a Leeds factory to be cleaned.

Opening the wagon doors, the just reeked of sweat - absolutely foul - so we skipped that, and left it to the POWs, but you can guess they soon got wise to us, especially as their English improved and they could read the consignment notes.

Of course we were not allowed to fraternise with them an only spoke to give orders - they came from a local POW Camp with guards.

The warehouse was three storeys high and on the top floor there were stacks flour, wheat, asbestos and barrel of caustic soda, in store for local firms and factories and all round the walls were red fire buckets filled with sand, and some with water, in case of incendiary bombs.

The toilets were on the platform, ground level, and we had to walk down fights to stone steps to get there, we had hoists for the goods, but often one couldn't wait for it to be emptied or filled.

I hadn't been there long when I noticed one woman lift down a fire bucket, disappear behind a pile of sacks, and return a minute later, and hang the bucket back on the hook. She had no intention of either using the hoist or walking down the steps. No problem.

Looking back and taking stock, on the whole I did enjoy my time with the LMS, it was a pity it was war time but once you have worked outside any length of time its very hard to settle to inside work again.

I think woman railway workers were not recognized for what they did in the war, you got on the tram coming or going to work in greasy dirty overalls - and I think people just took you for another factory worker, unless they had extra good eye sight and spotted your NUR badge.

I always felt sorry for the woman carriage cleaners, that was a filthy job too - no glamour attached to the job at all especially the goods side, it was a clogs and turban brigade for all of us and if I remember correctly my wage was two pounds per week or thereabouts.


Goods Porter Mrs. F. Spicer

I was 22 years of age when the war started. I lived in London then and I had to change my job. So I thought I would try to get a job for the railway, because I did not want to go into the forces.

So I applied for a job at an office in London, thinking I might get a job as a porter on a station. Unfortunately they were all gone. So I had to have two doctor's examinations and passed them. I got sent to the London North Eastern Railway as it was called then, and as sent to Cotton Street Poplar to work in the Docks. I worked on the Bankside where the lorries came into and load the goods that came in on the trains.

The goods carriages were not all big covered in ones, some were open and were covered by tarpaulin sheets and when we had snow in the winter we had to get the sheets off to get to whatever was in the trucks. So we played snowballs with the snow, and had a bit of fun sometimes and at times had to take shelter from the Doodle Bombs.

And sometimes I went home on the eventime to take my time fire watching on the street rota. We had a few weeks now and again at Tottenham Hale Station for arrest from the bombs.

When D Day came I went to Kings Cross lost property office to work for a couple of years, then I left to get married.

2nd letter

I was at the age of 22 in 1939 and single. Everyone in the British Isles at a certain age was being told that they had to help the war effort. Men were being sent to the Forces and also women, by the Government. I did not want to go into the Forces. It was a very serious time and I applied to The Head Office in London, because at that time I live din London.

It was not a station it was a depot.

The men were very nice to me. There was only one that did not like the women.

We had to do the same work as the men there. We worked in gangs of four. We got on lorries and put the Dog Hooks on bails of things and we made the best of it, although I was only 5ft 3in high. We worked cranes as well as pushing loaded barrows.

I did enjoy working at the depot, we used to work opposite the Graving Dock where the ships that were wrecked by the bombs came in to be repaired.

But as the war was ending I asked the Head Man at our depot to get me a job in the lost property office at Kings Cross, I did get one there. I left the Kings Cross Station when I got married.

Find out about the book "Railwaywomen"

Return to the wartime index


Home page