REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN
Parcel Porter Mrs. Rose Eastwood
I worked on the railway during the war years for a brief spell of four years often on hard and hazardous tours of duty, however I was very fortunate I meeting all kids of people and experiencing some very funny situations.
I worked on Edgeley Station in Stockport a relative distance from my home, as a lady porter along with some very nice women, Doris, one of whom I recall, had during night tour duty had to enter a guards van which had parcels of newspapers for distribution, unfortunately in trying to get down to the platform, slipped and fell between the platform and the coach and suffered the loss of both legs and was rushed to the local infirmary where she passed away during an emergency operation, this incident really shook me up.
Working as a lady porter, our tasks and duties were just the same as the men one morning I had to bring a tethered goat from out of the guards room and transfer it to the far side of the station, when suddenly, as I as gong through the subway, a railway engine blew his whistle, this immediately caused the goat to panic and made off like a greyhound dragging me along with it, I dare not have let go even though I as frantic however, after some pulling and shoving, I did manage to finally get the goat into the parcels office much to my relief, and was more than happy to hand over the said animal to another person - but it did remind me of a saying that is prominent amongst porters such as "Stop that dog it's a parcel".
Sometimes when helping passengers with their luggage etc., we did get some sort of remuneration for our help, a practice which I now fear has no place I this modern day and age. On one occasion I remember helping a farmer with some young calves on a truck, they were only a few days old and needed some milk, I took the little dears to the "Forces Canteen" where the ladies of the WVS gave them milk from the milk churns, for this good turn the farmer gave me two dead rabbits which came in handy with the meagre meat ration I had at home.
I am now 70 years of age and have been married 51 years. On looking back, I enjoyed it all, the job was satisfying and rewarding, looking at railway stations these days, one can see there are not so many helping hands as there used to be in the past.
My father, who at the time worked at Heaton Norris Goods Depot, and who had worked on the railway for a continuous period of 50 years starting at 4 a.m. each working day, thought that the work would interest me and instructed me to go and see the station master at Edgeley station, and so after a brief interview, and being given a summary of what duties I would have to carry out, I was taken on as a lady porter alongside some other females on the afternoon shift a few days hence.
There were 3 shifts allocated, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. then 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and finally 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Edgeley station is fairly large comprising four lengthy platforms, and two small bays, and is the main junction for trains to Manchester and also trains for the North, North East and Scottish areas. During the hours of darkness the station itself was very dimly lit, I accordance with the rules which prevailed at the time, and to stand on the platform whilst passenger and troop trains already lacked out made their way out of the enveloping darkness, alongside the allotted platform gave one an eerie feeling.
Underneath the station itself was a long broad subway which one had to traverse when going from one platform to another, in the subway itself, were two large antiquated hoists worked by water pressure, and each hoist was capable of holding only one large four wheeled parcel truck, and of course the person who operated the hoist. As you may well imagine, with such a full load of parcels and very little room to move about in, one felt completely hemmed in and claustrophobic, not content with this, the walls f the hoists were tiled and constantly running with water, but we managed under often difficult circumstances.
Our duties were varied and included making sure that all doors were closed and secure before any train left the station. The men had the duties of sorting out the various parcels and other goods for the numerous destinations they were labelled, it was our job to help in loading the parcels truck and trundling he said vehicle to the platform and train where we had to load the guards van, of course the men were very helpful to us when it came to heavy and bulky parcels, you might say that the spirit of friendliness was very spontaneous.
We had to bring coal from a nearby bunker and attend to the fires in the various rest and duty rooms. In the porter's rest room there was always a very large old iron kettle kept at the boil, in order that train crews could brew their cans of tea.
We were provided with a uniform consisting of tunic, skirt, trousers and peak cap and it was compulsory to carry a gas mask and steel helmet, the choice of what to wear, was left to the individual concerned, in my case, I did feel smarter when wearing a skirt, but on night duty I did wear trousers as I felt it was right and proper.
There were other jobs offered to us like passenger guards, travelling ticket collectors or working in a one man signal box which were very often in some outlying, remote and lonely area, proving very scary indeed for a woman on her own, such a job didn't appeal to me, however, I did work as a travelling ticket collector on a number of trains for a short time as a relief when the regular personas off sick etc., I found this duty quite enjoyable at the time.
You ask if flirtation took place and I feel that one would have to be quite na´ve to give a negative answer to that. One must remember there was a war on and many thousands of people were separated from their loved one's, of course it was carried out in a complete spirit of joy and friendship, and one must always remember that a lovely and beautiful young lady desires to be flirtatious.
The rate of pay for women on the railway was somewhat slightly less than male personnel because women's equal rights was not in force until after the war so we just grinned and carried out our work without recourse to thoughts of discontent etc.
I suppose I could have kept my job but I chose to stay at home, anyway it was at this period that hostilities were coming to an end, and the railway authorities were now gradually getting rid of the girls in order that returning personnel could have their jobs back, which was the right and proper thing to do.
Parcel Porter Nancy Walters
I was called up and put onto the railways, as a porteress, in the parcels office at Didcot. I started off I the office with two senior parcel porters and a young lad Alec, who went into the signal box when he became of that age. We ended up with just one porter and myself. I generally had late turns when the cherries were in season. Just outside Didcot, are cherry orchards, I hated that time of the year, it was jolly hard work weighing and stamping each chip of cherries and then recording it, but I got by. On late turn I always took two big potatoes to work, put them in the ashes of the fire, by 9 p.m. they were cooked and that was my supper.
I can remember one Sunday night when Teresa (ticket collector) came to the parcels office and told me there was some Yankee soldiers out cold with drink and they had to catch another train o another platform. I locked the parcels office, went with Teresa to the train, we both had a heavy four wheel barrow each. We manhandled these Yanks on to the barrow - we each had two. Took them to the lift, down to the subway, up the next lift and we just threw them into the other train. I think we both deserved a medal for that. We had some happy times and sad times.
Didcot has always been an army town and we worked alongside the soldiers, so many were drafted to the railway. What made me sad often was the band, marching the soldiers to the station and to the awaiting troop train, we knew they were gong abroad but how many would see these shores again.
The Italian prisoners of war were brought into work in the engine sheds, but one of the rules was - the women staff were not allowed to talk to them, not that we could have understood them.
I was not very keen on the women's railway uniform, only that it kept you warm in the winter.
The parcels office was a lost property office as well - what some weird and wonderful things we had handed in.
My morning turn was 7 am till 3 pm. One of the first jobs was to go down the subway, with the leading parcels porter and record on a pad all the army goods that arrived overnight. This would often be twelve four wheeled barrows, piled up high. Where it was going to, the address of the sender, stamps and their numbers all had to be written down. All this had to be done by 9 a.m. and written into the ledger book, to be signed for, when the army came to collect. Very often in between this work, a horse box had to be sent for, from the yard, as there was a horse to be loaded and sent off. I hated that job, and to this day I have never liked horses.
Next would be the deliveries for the Didcot shops etc. They had to be weighed and stamp numbers taken and put on to a delivery sheet. The van man would arrive about 9 a.m. as well, so his van had to be loaded up. After all the rush, I generally made tea and we had breakfast.
All day long, folks would be bringing in parcels and cases to be sent, or collecting them.
Then somebody would have left an article on the train - telegrams would have to be sent, to every station along the line, to the trains final destination, to try and trace it.
Secret army letter bags had to travel on certain trains. One of my jobs was to take them to the guard and get him to sign for the bag.
About 1.30 p.m. the stamps that had been sold for outgoing parcels had to be all counted up and the money taken had to balance. This was taken to the booking office and recorded.
On the whole, the parcels office was a very busy place to work.
I always seemed to land the late turn on a Sunday 4 p.m. till midnight. I very often went into the Railway Hostel canteen on my way home, for supper - mostly kippers on night time. I would not fancy them now, but you would eat anything when you were young and hungry.
We were not allowed to talk to the POWs working on the railway as they were our enemy at the time. I have seen many a punch up between the soldiers working on the railway and the POWs - they just had to be kept apart. The POWs had al the dirty jobs, like cleaning the engines etc.
In 1946, when I got married I had to apply to the government for my release from the railway. We were still under wartime rules.
The reason women were allowed to work on the railways, was because all the young men had been called up for war service. I can only speak for myself as I was treated with great respect. I never had to work on the platforms and the staff in the parcels office were men of 50 years and over and fathered me.
I never joined the NUR as my father did not believe in unions, so I was guided by him.
The blackout rules had to be obeyed as everywhere else in the country. We had blackout curtains in the office and very dim lights over the rest of the station. We did not have any bombs dropped on Didcot, but they were all very near and shook the place. I cannot really say I was afraid of the bombs. I had experienced them on visits to London.
I don't think the public thought it anything out of the ordinary for women on the railways - the men were not available, so the women took over their jobs in wartime. We really had no choice, as we were called up at 17 years old.
The parcels office served as a lost property office as well. Anything that was left on trains arriving at Didcot was brought to the office and entered down. We certainly had some very weird and wonderful things given in. Never a day went by it seemed, we always had one or two American kit bags given in.
The office was also for folks to leave their luggage, if they went out into Didcot. We also had a room that parcels etc. that came by train could be called for.
Parcel Porter May Westmoreland
Began my six years war effort 1940 LNER, Victoria Sheffield. I did apply for carriage cleaning, but a new ruling had just started - that kind of work was only for slightly disabled and older people, not for able bodied 21 year old unmarried females.
I became one of the first parcel porters - after three weeks training was expected to take on a man's job - which was so difficult, in fact impossible when it came to handling goods. Was decided two women should take the place of one man - less wages or course £3 weekly. It was still a struggle lugging heavy mail bags, milk churns, enormous wooden packages, bicycles, even pieces of machinery, perishable food, live stock, all the other millions of goods for transport.
The barrows were very difficult to push, and very hard to manoeuvre, especially backing them up to the guards van, sometimes three barrows were not sufficient to carry all the goods - we had to stack the rest on the platforms, handling them again, to be redirected for other stations. Woman still suffer from back ache. We worked eighteen different shifts - 8-12 hrs, commencing different times like 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., finishing midnight etc. The changeover was only 8 to 10 hours in which time we eat, sleep, wash be back on duty most times having walked miles. Tram cars and buses were very rare especially in black out. After nearly two years of this management decided to try lady ticket collectors on the barrier, I was one of the first to volunteer, four of us were need. We had three months training, intensive concentration - understandable - were we to put a parcel on the wrong train it could be redirected, and eventually arrive at its destination, not so with a passenger, in spite of there being a war on, mistakes could mean instant dismissal.
The barrier work also included being an assistant guard, mostly travelling in the van of the "Paper Train", alighting at every station, leaving at each platform the appropriate newspapers, in the very early hours of the morning, this also meant working unsociable hours - wages £4 a week.
After many months of this it was decided to erect speakers for the first time on the station, to give information to passengers. Two announcers were needed, eight of us applied, I was one of the two whose voice suited the microphone, the other girl worked in the signal box. From then on it was morning and afternoon shifts only seven days a week. Occasionally we were called back to assist the guards and help at the barrier in emergency.
Apart from announcing the train times, we gave out other information, "Guard your conversation, careless talk costs lives", and other slogans. Beware of pick pockets stand clear the train is about to depart etc.
Was an experience never to be forgotten seeing the troop trains, evacuees, POWs. When VIP and Royal Train was passing through station was closed to the public.
I was married in 1943, continued work. No one was allowed to leave without a very good reason, mine was in 1947 when I as expecting my first baby.
Also the type of barrows we used were very old and worn, other stations had lifting equipment making the job a lot easier. LNER Victoria was so old it has been demolished almost twenty years.
The men were very resentful at first especially to women porters, mainly about pay, they expected the same as two women, but received only about £1 more than one woman. As the years went by they became more agreeable with us, sometimes even helpful. We announcers, easiest job by far, were embarrassed by our £5 weekly wage, which was the same as train drivers, this was because we came under the clerical grade. We did have enjoyable times, all tried to keep cheerful encouraging each other, realizing what little sacrifices we were making, when we saw the heart breaking farewells, the "sick" train arriving with our wounded troops.
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