REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN
Porter Irene Lee
I was offered the buses or trams or railway so I opted for the railway. I was sent to Mauldeth Road Withington Station, which I had never heard of. I worked there from 1943 to 1946.
I worked there from 1943 to 1946.
I had to work two shifts from 6 a.m. to 3.30 then 3.30 until the last train at around twelve thirty, that was if it was not late through fog, it could then be turned 1 o'clock.
The station master and junior porter only worked 9 a.m. till 5 p.m. so I had to open up the station and close up on lates.
I had to be up at 4 a.m. and I had an eight mile cycle ride from where I lived and it was blackout, all that I had was the light on my bike.
My job was to issue the tickets, collect them from passengers alighting and either wave the train out or use my whistle if it was dark.
I had to go across to the sidings to weigh the coal lorries in and out of the yard.
I did all the monthly returns n the tickets that were sold.
If a signal went out, which was often on a windy night, between the station up or down the line I had to walk along the lines and climb to the top to relight it.
Many occasion I had just got back when I got a call to say that it had gone out again.
It was rather eerie in the evenings on my own, as there were no lights showing.
One night I had a phone call to tell me that I had to collect a coffin off the next train due in from Crewe, which held the body of a young airman that had been killed and brought home to be buried. I had to lock it in the room next to my office, which as much as I felt sorry for the young chap, I was rather scared.
Another time I was ordered to uncouple a carriage from the next train coming from Manchester, and shunt it into the sidings, which I was reluctant to do. I could uncouple it all right but I had no intention of shunting it away on my own, whether I was there to do a man's job or not. The driver was adamant not to move the train from the station until I did it, but refused to help, he said it was not his job. In the end, the guard got off the train and helped me to move it.
I would have a train just leave down side to Manchester and a few minutes later the one to Crewe was due on the up side, so I had to go across the lines, which on a foggy night was rather dangerous.
One night, when it was foggy, I was pulled up quickly by some air force men that were going to Wilmslow, I no sooner got on the platform when the train came in.
When I had locked all up, I had to make my way down a long path which had thick hedges on either side, and one night I wheeled my bike down and at the bottom a chap jumped out and asked me for a light, I jumped on my bike and was off like the clappers. It made me wary of going down the path after that.
I had one or two scares when someone tried to lift the flap where I gave the tickets before it was time to open and I heard the sound of his feet, he never spoke but I never asked who was there, but as the regulars came he must have vanished.
I got to know my regulars, and would have a chat with them whilst waiting or the train and I had lots of little treats off them, one owned a cake shop and brought me a nice cake, another a chemist and he gave me my favourite tangee lipstick, and another time a bottle of Seventh Heaven per-fume, which was one of my favourites, along with Evening in Paris and June, also phulnana all of which I wish were available today.
I stuck it for two years and as much as I enjoyed the work the travelling and the hours, mostly the late nights, got on top of me, so I left.
When the war was over, I received a letter of thanks from the head office, but I never got a permit for free travel like the men and their wives had when they retired, yet, it was much harder in wartime conditions than when the men returned, they did have the lighting.
I worked there from 1943 to 1946.
Porter Edna Pontifex
I joined the Southern Railway in 1941 at the age of 16 as a messenger girl at Victoria Station in London, travelling each day from Purley in Surrey where I lived at the time. My job at Victoria Station was to collect and sort all the railway correspondence ready for despatch on the appropriate trains and deliver the station mail to the various offices and signal box, that entailed walking a quarter of a mile into the box which was quite a modern one for that time, and to see how it all worked.
I was probably at Victoria for about a year when I got a transfer to Redhill doing a similar job. One thing I was sometimes allowed do there was to announce the trains something I really enjoyed, and it was my one regret that I couldn't do that job permanently. The reason was that it was given to older ladies during the war and then to railway men returning from war service who had been wounded, which was fair enough.
Redhill was, and still is, a busy junction and all sorts of things were transferred from one route to another, as the guards vans in those days carried almost anything, great boxes of watercress, boxes of smelly fish, goats which smelled even worse than the fish and occasionally a coffin, presumably if a person died some distance away, shortage of petrol made it impossible to take the coffin by road - that's just my theory.
Sometime during 1943 I transferred to Coulsdon South as a grade I porter. This was an interesting job as it involved working in the booking office, issuing tickets, despatching parcels, passengers luggage, telephone enquiries, cashing up at the end of the day, but also assisting on the platform especially at peak time getting the trains away on time. My colleague was an old man, his work was all outdoor, despatching trains. Cleaning the waiting rooms, keeping the oil lamps with which we signalled the trains out, filled and the wicks trimmed. He was also responsible for a couple of signals which he had to climb to attend to the lights on them, also oil fuelled. On one occasion when I was on my own I had a message from the signalman to say a light on the signal was out, there was no way I could climb the ladder, but fortunately my boyfriend at the time had come to the station to keep me company, and he obliged and relit the lamp.
We worked shifts 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. I have never been good at getting up, it was not unknown for me to rush to catch my early morning train with pyjamas under my uniform and complete my dressing when I arrived. In June 1944 whilst waiting on Purley Station for this early train, I saw one of the first flying bombs, not knowing what it was at the time of course. We suffered a great deal of damage in the area. Croydon just three miles away was one of the worst hit areas in the country. It was quite frightening to hear the horrible drone and one prayed that it would keep going, as once it stopped, down came the bomb. Doodle bugs as they were nick-named.
Coulsdon South was a very nice station, quite small. Although it is on the main line. We had a large number of season ticket holders whom we got to know really well.
We had a good working relationship, we had a cosy staff room with a coal burning oven where we used to cook breakfast and bake potatoes, the booking office had a nice open fire and because of the shortage of coal used to walk the tracks between seeing to the trains, picking up coal dropped from the engines which were still used on the freight trains.
We really took a pride in the station, we used to tend the flower borders and keep the furniture polished in the waiting room and this was appreciated by our regular passengers.
I can honestly say it was the job I most enjoyed and I've done a variety over the years, although it was quite hard work and only one day off every three weeks and that was a Sunday.
I left the railway I 1946 as the men were beginning to come back from the war and I had the offer of an office job in London.
Porter Mrs. Rose Rees
I started at a small sub station in Cardiff (Ely Station). After a few weeks I then went to Cardiff General Station. Starting working on the platform. We were all put in gangs of porters, there were six in our gang, three women, three men. The porters were not very keen on us women at first, they didn't help in any way. But after some time they realized we were as good as them and got on very well. The work was very hard loading parcel trains, and also unloading, pushing trolleys along the platforms etc. After a time I was promoted to ticket collect at the gate which was very much easier. It was at the time when a lot of children were evacuated from various towns to Wales. This was very sad to see them with their cases, toys and of course gas masks. It was very sad as some were crying and holding hands as they went on to their different platforms. I was very sad myself as I looked at them all passing through.
Later I had another job, travelling porter, which I enjoyed very much. I used to travel one week to Swansea my guard would leave me at Swansea then pick me up to travel back to Cardiff on the London train. Another week I would go to Gloucester and Mitchel Dean. My job was to pick up the parcels for stations on the way to each station both ways.
Later I married 1941 much to my surprise my railway friends formed a guard of honour when I came out of church. I worked some time on the railway after until naturally a baby came along. My daughter is now 46 years old.
I very often think of my "war work" which I enjoyed very much. We all had some happy times. I could go on and on with little things that happened, times you never forget.
Porter Thelma Durnford
At the age of 18 years we had to find work of National importance and as I was in domestic service and didn't want to join any of the Forces I was pleased when my friend wrote and told me of a vacancy at Steventon (Berks) station for a woman porter. I duly applied and was accepted for the job.
I did this job for twelve months, starting in January 1942. I thoroughly enjoyed the work, which consisted of various jobs - seeing to parcels and helping unload any baggage (including baskets of racing pigeons to be let loose to fly home (we hoped!) off passenger trains, helping the other porter unload the goods vans I the goods shed. One job I didn't enjoy too much was making out the goods returns and also helping to sheet and rope hay wagons which mean climbing up the ladder, a bit too high for my liking!
We worked two shifts. I remember starting at 7 a.m. early shift and the late one finished at 10 p.m., sop we must have changed over about 2 or 3 p.m. The men we worked with were very good and patient with us (most of the time!) but I had no thoughts then about me taking a man's place, it was just employment for me.
I remember once incident that a Naval Officer, I think it was, somehow had fallen out of a train during the night, and when I got to work I the morning was told that there was a dead body in the oil shed, which sent a few shivers through me. He was removed later in the day. I don't think we ever heard what really happened.
Another (quite amusing) thing was the young lady who was learning the job - to take my place when I left - had unloaded large bales of clean overalls (which we regularly received on the passenger train, for RAF Hartwell) and left some too close to the edge of the platform, ready to be taken over the other side, and while waiting to be brought over a passing through goods train took one with it, and was stopped lower down the line as a signalman had seen some clothing on the front of the engine and thought there must have been a body left somewhere.
My friend had, during that year, filled a vacancy as a signal woman at Collingbourne Ducts which was a small station on the Cheltenham to Andover and Southampton line (former M and SW) and she again wrote to me telling me of another vacancy in the signal box there. Collingbourne was only six miles from our home at Burleafe, although I was I excellent lodgings at Steventon, there is no place like home. So I again applied and was accepted.
go to page on signalwomen
Porter Ethel Rosetta Wright
by her daughter Dawn Hellman
Ethel Wright in the 1914-18 war worked as a porter for the L. N. E. R. at Fairlop Station. This was in the loop line opened I 1911 that ran from Ilford, Newbury Park, Barkingside, Fairlop, Hainault, Grange-Hill and Chigwell. She, like so many others, replaced a young man who joined the army.
Her railway duties were arduous and the hours long - 12 hour shifts. She was responsible for the care and safety of passengers and luggage, keeping the platforms and waiting rooms and station-master's office clean cleaning, polishing and trimming lamps, pushing heavy sack barrows about, humping Royal Mail bags into trains and, at times washing down sections of carriages that had been shunted on to sidings for that purpose.
Her uniform was heavy and ugly, of navy serge trimmed with leather n skirt hems and jacket, tightly buttoned up to the neck winter and summer. Black leather boots and leather belt cinching a tiny waist. A peaked cap too large that would keep falling over her nose completed the ensemble.
There was also livestock that was held in the goods yard ready for transportation to the Ilford cattle market. On one occasion, Bill the signalman, handed her a pail and asked her to milk one of the cows as he had a fancy for a glass of the stuff. Gingerly she moved to one of the beasts that was laying down. Suddenly it got to its feet standing in all his glory. He was a large bull. Dropping the pail Ethel took to her heels, laughter and jeers following her.
Her social life was practically nil, her little free time taken up with washing and ironing her clothes and keeping her room clean. She still lived with her parents as unmarried girls did in those days.
Diversions did occur nonetheless with the appearance at times, of the men from the Naval Air Barracks who were stationed at Forest Road. When off duty they would travel by train to Ilford to visit the Hippodrome, or go on to London to sample the flesh-pots there. There was a lot of laughter, jokes and banter with the staff, especially the girl porters and Margery, the booking clerk.
One half day the sky-larking got a bit out of hand resulting in a sack barrow being pushed over a platform and landing on the rail track. Leave it said the signalman. The through express will be along in a minute That'll shift it. But he relented and gave a hand to rescue it just in time.
In April 1916 Zeppelin's raided London and surrounding areas. Fairlop was hit by bombs. Ethel's house lost its windows and all her precious china collection was smashed.
September 1916 Ethel watched as though hypnotised as a Zeppelin was trapped in the cross beams of searchlights, Then a tiny little aeroplane piloted by Leefe Robinson strafed the monster till it caught fire cremating the crew. That image stayed with her for the rest of her life.
That girl was my mother and I heard her story in bits and pieces as and when she felt like talking about it. I came to the conclusion that those four years of conflict stuck in her mind more clearly than anything that came before or happened afterwards.
Porter Gwynneth Dixon
I worked as a porter from early 1941 to late 1945 at Woodbridge railway station which was known then as the LNER line. Those days of steam trains, this station was an extremely busy station, dealing with approximately sixteen trains per day to and from Liverpool St, some fast, some slow.
We dealt with passengers' luggage and all mail from Woodbridge and the surrounding districts went from here, also all perishable goods as there was little transport on the roads due to petrol shortage. We had no lifts consequently everything was carried by hand and pushed in trolleys or large basket barrows.
There were four porters, two on duty and two off, working eight hour shifts, if either of us were off sick, then the others had to cover, therefore working longer shifts. No reliefs were allowed.
Always one man and one girl worked together and we were expected to do a man's work as we were entitled to a man's pay. My opposite partner was always very considerate towards me and gave all the help possible to ease any awkward situation I might have encountered. The only concession was a restriction on weight.
We were issued with a uniform consisting of two pairs of very coarse navy blue trousers and two battle-tunic tops, one overcoat and a peaked cap, which incidentally I never wore because I thought it hideous and unattractive. I took to wearing youths shoes which were much more practical and lasted longer, helping out with the clothing coupons which were never enough for any girl of my then age group.
Although this work was hard and we were out in all weathers including one and a half miles cycle ride to and from I did take it very seriously and considered I did a good job under the circumstances.
About your enquiry concerning giving back our jobs to the men. Women in peacetime just did not do men's jobs, it was unheard of, but during war time it was accepted as necessary and we were made to understand, without question and before being given the job that we would not be required after the war.
About the union, I can't ever remember being asked to join. As far as I can remember the public accepted us as they did the women's services, something that was necessary to help win this awful war.
Yes, we were given tips which were always pooled and shared between the four porters, this I believe was an old traditional way of dealing with the tips.
During an air-raid trains were never allowed to leave the station.
I can remember being very disappointed when I left not to have received any recognition from LNER. It was just as if we had never been.
Porter Joan Stay
I worked on the railway from 1939-1944, my great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all railway men and when war broke out and women had to go into the forces or into a job to relieve a man, my Dad thought the railway was for me. The job I got was then known as a Grade 1 Porter, which involved being ticket office clerk and ticket collector on the platform, amongst other duties I had to make sure the water tank situated at the end of the platform was kept filled, so that the firemen on the engines could fill up their water tanks from it. To do this I had to jump down from the booking office side platform, making sure no train was due! walk down to switch on the machine. After this I had to keep watch that it didn't overflow. The signalmen also kept an eye open for it and rang to let me know when to switch it off.
As you might guess Brading was a small country station with branch line to Bembridge. We issued furlough tickets to men of the Army and Navy stationed at the Forts, it was very interesting the little towns and villages they came from.
I used to work from 6.30 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. one week and 2.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. the next,, the late turn was not so busy so I spent some of the time in the signal box playing cards!
One incident I remember vividly was at 6 p.m. one evening the phone rang a sergeant from the barracks to say a soldier had escaped from the guardroom and as making his way to the station, sure enough a number of soldiers chased the poor boy through the station waiting room and up the road, they shouted to him to stop but he continued running and they shot him in the back. I had shut myself I the booking office. I never heard the result of that, at the end of 1944 I left the railway and started married life.
Porter Mrs L. Ralph
I think I was the youngest and first female to be made a porter, and I was to work on Stratford Low Level Station.I was put into the care of Leading Porter Arthur Cook, he as long past retirement age, but because of the war was allowed to stay on. He was a marvellous man, short and portly, had been a leading stoker in the Navy as he said men were made of steel and ships of wood. Our station was spick and span, the fire in the waiting room was kept burning, bright windows cleaned, our lamps trimmed and filled always standing ready for use, the platforms swept twice a day and seats dusted. The buttons on our uniform polished and our shoes. Arthur looked after me like a father. No swearing was allowed in our little staff room, and we always had a cup of tea ready for any guards or other staff calling in going or coming off duty, and I was treated at all times with the greatest of respect although we had our fun sometimes. I got my face blacked with the soot from a lamp or cream from the cakes that were bought to have with our tea.
When we were early shift that meant leaving home just after five in the morning, no lights allowed, pitch black. Arthur would cook me the most delicious breakfast on a gas ring, slice potatoes, fried bread, sausages, eggs, bacon, whatever he had , he was so kind he wouldn't let me go out I the dark to see to the down side trains. I kept to this side which meant seeing all the passengers safely on or off, all doors closed, signal green and you would give either a green flag and whistle or green lamp and whistle to the driver.
Sometimes the train terminated at the station, and you would go along and shout "All Change" and make sure everybody was off the train. In fact an artistic guard drew a pencil sketch of me doing that with the train and engine etc., and it was framed and hung in the staff room.
I knew all the engine drivers and fireman and guards, a lot believe it or not had little hammer and scycle brooches in their hats, they gave me one. We had our little jokes and a wave as they came into the station. They also wrote a little rhyme about me. "Low Level Lily our young lady porter doesn't behave herself quite like she oughter".
I can only look back and think how we all helped one another through some very sad times.
We had an ARP lady who we held in great respect, she was in charge of the firewatchers blankets which were kept in a room on the station, we also had shower rooms built into the side of the station bridge and was instructed on how they were to be used in the case of a gas attack for decontamination.
When I became of age I was very fortunate to be given the choice of becoming a guard or a ticket collector. I took the job of ticket collector at Silvertown Station as it was on the same line. It involved on my being booking clerk from about 5.30 a.m. for the first hour and it was difficult to get there that early in the morning and from where I lived it was about a mile and a half walk in all weathers pea soup fogs etc. to a train or bus, sometimes I wore my pyjama trousers under my uniform. Everybody used to turn up to work somehow, no matter what the circumstances the trains had to b kept running. I left some months later as I was expecting a baby.
Find out about the book "Railwaywomen"
Return to the wartime index