REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN
Signalwomen, Box 'Boys' and Crossing Keepers
Signalwoman Mrs Heath
After I left the Land Army in 1943, I had to choose factory work, or the railway as a signal woman. As I had no wish to work in a factory, I went for training at Reading Station for three weeks. Much to the disgust of the men at training, I managed it in 10 days. But I finished the three weeks. I worked in the Perivale box GWR.
And we had our own little stove, and a box which was heavy metal, if a bomb dropped. I think I would have been squashed by the bomb shelter. As I was only 19 years old, it was a lovely time for me, except for the night shift when the buzz bombs were busy, and we had munition trains riding through. There were a couple of light moments when I had to stop two express trains going opposite ways, one to Paddington and one the other way. There I was waving a little red flag, as a door had been left open on one of the trains. Everybody was trying to look out of the windows, wondering what was going on. Another time, I had left an engine tender at a signal, and forgotten to raise the signal, until a young man knocked on the door and asked me very kindly, why they were still stuck there.
As I was young and single it was fun for me, except at the end of the war in 1945, I had a mini breakdown, my eyes were affected and I was moved to the booking office, where after the restrictions were lifted, and you could work anywhere, I started a new career.
Signalwoman Mrs. D. Sprigg
The name of my signal box was Childers Drain, just south of Doncaster. My father was a signal man for over 50 years. We lived in a railway cottage next to his signal box, so I grew up going in and out of the signal box. My eldest brother went into a signal box. Then my next brother was a guard. My youngest brother was a signalman after the war. So I grew up with the railways.
During the war, after I was married in 1943 my husband went overseas. My father came home from work one day and said they want women to train for signal women so I have sent your name forward. As I had grown up with signal boxes it just seemed natural.
I went to a signalling school at Doncaster Station to learn all the rules and passed my exams on that. Then it was out into signal boxes to learn how to work them and pull the levers to work the signals.
After going to signal boxes and the man telling you what to do, we passed out by an inspector watching you work. If you passed then you had your signal box allocated to you. I must admit the first day was a bit scary, but I don't remember it bothering me after that. Even nights in the winter didn't bother me.
I must admit when drivers and firemen on the express trains knew there was a woman in my box, they waved and whistled as they went by.
I left the job after my husband came home and was demobbed.
I was in a signal box at Bentley when I was learning. The driver of a goods train going to the colliery for coal asked me if I would like a ride on the footplate with him. I just jumped at the chance, it was great. I'll never forget it.
Signalwoman Joan Percival (Warrington)
When I was 18 I was called up for war work (in 1944). I chose munitions. After about a year I had to go into hospital and asked the doctor to sign a certificate saying the munitions work was making me ill, so that got me out o f the munitions factory. I went into signalling.
I had no physical difficulty doing signalling or station work. It was a 12 lever box. Not too bad to pull, except for the distant ones, three-quarter and a mile away. I think women can do any job they wish, if they put their minds to it. I have this to say to women doing men's jobs on the railway, good luck and keep on treading where no women have trod before.
There were two of us to run it, one on early shift, one late and changing weeks about. We had to wear many caps:- booking clerk, ticket collector, parcel clerk, porter, accounts clerk - doing daily, weekly and monthly accounts, gardener and cleaner. In fact one person had to run the station completely alone. Sometimes the station master could not make his weekly visit to the pay the wages so I had to get on an engine, pick up the salaries, get another engine back, then ay the signalmen, the plate-layers, the one other station staff who was on the opposite turn to me, not forgetting to pay myself.
This was not an unusual job for a woman around this area, they had quite a few. I guess the grade must have been 1st class or Grade A because there was no one else above us only the station master. A spare station master's hat was there to wear if we wished, but we preferred to wear our own. I sometimes put on the station master's hat when the late trains came in, full of drunks. The hat seemed to steady them a bit.
May 1945. You got trained in the signal box for about six months in those days.
I had no self-doubts, I loved the work, and I was full of self-confidence. The two old signalmen who trained me made me that way. From the first minutes of my first day, they let me take charge of the box, they watched me carefully of course because if I caused an accident they were responsible, not me. This is the very best way to be trained for a signal box, not in a college of school.
I myself know that women make just as good signal box controllers as men, there is no difference, not when lives are at stake. Men and women face their responsibilities exactly the same. We received the same pay as the men, why not, we did exactly the same work, only the railway paid the same, and the Civil Service.
I never knew any signal woman make the box look any different from the men, only cleaner, that's all. Lace curtains, plants and flowers were not allowed in signal boxes in this area. After all they are dangerous and would obstruct the view of the line. We were not allowed to read newspapers of books or listen to the radio, we could only read our rule books. Mind you, we did read papers and books when the boss wasn't around.
Both men and women kept the door locked at night.
There was never a dull moment, what with mail trains being robbed, mail trains crashing, wagons on fire, sheep and cows on the line, suicides on the line, carriage doors open someone has fallen out, train loads of drunks, ticket evasion.
I was the youngest ever to be in charge of a signal box, as the men had to be 21 years old. They had to get special permission from London for me to work.
The signalling was done by cipher morse code, that means you could tap a whole sentence with one or two dots and dashes. There were 350 signals, and you had to know each one by heart.
I found the attitude towards signal women very good, they were glad to have us. In 1947 all signal women were told they had to leave because British Rail now had enough men.
Three years later I was working in the refreshment rooms (which I didn't like) when the signal box boss came in and asked me what I was doing there so I said, what else can I do, I can't work in the signal box. There was a shortage of signalmen at this time and the men's attitude to them was very good, because they were fed up of working 12 hours.
Signalwoman Hilda Lunn
I worked for 18 months 1944-45 on the Rochdale to Manchester line. I went to classes in Manchester to learn the morse cipher and signalling system.
I enjoyed the job and felt I was helping the war effort. My wage was £4 4s, not much, eh, but the men doing the same job got £4 9s. It makes you think.
Signalwoman Dorothea Edwards (Stockport)
Was porter and booking clerk. I had quite a fight to get into signalling. I passed all my tests in record time.
Lock Lane Box LMS last box before LNER border. Alone in box, shifts covered 24 hours.
Scared by youths shouting in the glass box from a footpath behind the box. The chap in the LNER box (Ashton Junction) was extremely kind to me (on the phone) if I got very scared during the night I used to phone him, just to talk to someone.
I must admit I did enjoy my time on the railway.
Signalwoman Doreen Stevens (nee Spackman)
When the second world war started I was in domestic service together with my friend, as that was not a reserved occupation we had to find ourselves war work or enter the armed forces.
An aunt suggested I went to live at Steventon in Berkshire with her and my uncle. There I got a job in a Ministry of supply depot, after a few months the railway checker told me they need a woman porter at Steventon Station (GWR). I went to see the station master, and the job was mine. A few months later they needed another woman porter so my friend joined me and that was the start of some of the happiest days of our lives, I started in 1941 and left in April 1949.
We did the same jobs as the men except for sheeting the wagons, we loaded grain etc. in to the trucks and unloaded goods for RAF Harwell (now the power station). During daytime and harvest we took it in turns to man a farm crossing box, Berrycroft, about a mile down the line from the station.
Once I was asked to take my uncle's turn in the Causeway Crossing Box at Steventon to enable him to take his annual leave, as there was no relief man available. This gave me a taste for the signal box, so when the District Inspector asked if I would take a post as signal woman I jumped at the change. I went to Collingbourne on the M & SW section of the GWR. It was good to be near home again, even a six mile cycle ride, often in the blackout, did not worry me.
Sometimes it was hard work, especially on frosty mornings, with the distant signal 1,675 yards away.
We had lots of troop trains, including the ambulance trains from Southampton after the D Day landings. Ammunition trains from the Midlands to Southampton Docks and supplies for the Army Depot at Tidworth.
From Collingbourne we had goods traffic to and from a Army Medical Centre at Everleigh so we were kept quite busy.
Most of the men treated us as equals and were very helpful, the Steventon signal men helped us with the rules and signalling code so we had a good start before actually doing the job.
I did feel for some of the older signalmen, seeing eighteen year old girls dong a job they had waited years to attain.
There was a real feeling of comradeship among us and we felt we were dong a good job to help the war effort. We were allowed to join the NUR also the Union of Railway signalmen and were treated as fairly as the male members.
While at Collingbourne I took a correspondence course in railway signalling (and passed!) Took the written exam at Swindon Junction.
Sadly, through illness I left the signal box to work as a clerk in Savernake booking office. There was no mention of us leaving until we were prepared to and I stayed there until after my marriage in 1948.
Signalwoman Thelma Durnford
There were three girls in the box working three shifts round the clock (6-2, 2-10 and 10-6) unless there was illness, holidays etc., then if there was no relief available we worked 12 hours, 6 to 6.
There was also a lad porter and the Station Master, Our duties as well as in the box, was, after 6 p.m. when the station master and lad porter had gone home, were to see to the passenger trains, issue tickets to passengers and locking up, including shutting a large gate which was part way down the station approach, after the last passenger train had gone. This was a bit creepy on our own with just the small oil hand lamp and on Saturday nights the last train was midnight.
Before leaving Steventon, the signalmen were very good and let us get the hang of pulling the leavers and also helping with the bell codes and lending the rule book, so when getting to Collingbourne I was quite familiar wit the workings of the box.
The levers were quite heavy to pull, the down distant signal was a third of a mile away from the box and needed quite a bit of muscle power to pull it.
It was quite a busy line then, most of the time, as there were troop trains and ammunition trains, and the line to Tidworth, which of course was all military, went from Ludgershall, which was our next station, so there was movement to and from there all of the time, besides all of our regular services.
I think us girls coped pretty well really and I suppose it was there, more, that I really felt I was doing a man's job and realised it was quite an important one with many people's lives in our hands.
We replaced a man so therefore did the same work on the platform and in the box, and I'm sure nothing was altered because we were women.
Thinking back now on all the journeys to and from work, cycling most of the time (we were able to travel on the train sometimes) dark nights and all weathers, no street lights and also in the box all night on our own, I wonder how we did it. But I never remember being particularly afraid, there was always the phone and if we were worried could always ring the next box. At night sometimes, especially during air raid warnings, several of us, men and girls, used to get o the phone along the line and have a chatter, which was company, The men we came I contact with never showed any sign of resentment that we were doing men's jobs and were always quite helpful if needed.
I was in the signal box from January 1943 till I got married in September 1947. I was unable to continue working thereafter, as we lived too far away. I was sorry in a way to leave, I missed the life. I was replaced with another woman and as far as I know she stayed until the railway closed. There was no night duty then so only two ladies were needed, and both of those have sadly passed away.
Another thing I don't remember is about the NUR. I feel we must have paid a few coppers out of our wages, but I don't remember what our stoppages were, and can't think there were any disputes during my railway days. Nothing is stamped in my memory at any rate.
Signalwoman Bessie Ellinor
My signal cabin was Cheriton Junction main line between Shorncliffe and Sandling Junction, one end of the Elham Valley which is closed how. The signal box no longer exists. I was at Cheriton 1943-1946 and had to secure my release by the Ministry of Labour and National Service.
Call attention 1 train in Section 2, train clear of section 2-1, Passenger train 3-1, freight train 3-2, light engine 4-1, bank engine in rear of train 1-4-1.
When the Golden Arrow was making its trial run from UA to Dover Marina, I signalled the box ahead to have it stopped as it was overheating beneath one coach and I saw the danger of possible fire or wheel seizure which could have caused a derailment and with the tunnels in the section between Folkestone Junction and Dover Marina. I had no hesitation I having it stopped and checked. It was found to have a hot axle box. My father was a signalman at Folkestone Junction at the time and all he could say the day before the trial run was "Make sure he gets your distant." I think he must have had every distant from the word go.
Signalwoman Phyllis Dewhurst
In 1944 I was working on munitions, doing two weeks days, then two weeks nights. I was 21 and had married in February just after my 21st birthday.
The Ministry who had power over people and jobs (I forget the name) decided I had to move, for no other reason except I was 21 and what they called 'mobile'. Eventually after a fair amount of trying to stay where I was, I had to move. I went on the railway and after a great deal of hard studying I went I a signal box. I must admit I got to like the job very much.
The man I was to replace in the signal box had a reputation of a hard man and of course, Hilda was already there and working and as soon as I passed the exams, he would have to move to main line box, so I didn't expect much of a welcome from Brooky Brown. You will appreciate that the signals were not the small electronics which are in use today, but the great iron ones which needed a foot up on a rest. Hilda, being short and sturdy, wore a divided skirt, I, being taller and slim, wore slacks.
I got a real surprise with Brooky. He knew my parents! After that, it was easy. He was a character. His main advice was to tell me what steps to take if a train left the rails and headed for my cabin. With a wide grin he said, "The cabin steps, and blo---y quick." The porter on with me, was supposed to be on station when the first train arrived (with me on it). It was due at 5.45 a.m. and I opened the box at 6.00 a.m. Annie was hardly ever there, so I saw the train out, then dashed up to her house to get her. She absolutely refused to set out till she'd done her hair and put her make up on. In those days we wore curlers and frizzed our hair into tiny curls, and it took ages. However, I left Annie doing her hair and went to open the box.
The platelayers could make or mar my job. In winter, pulling the points didn't always mean they fitted. Frost got into them, and left them slightly open. This meant that a train (engine) going over them would split them further, thus putting the train on the floor. It happened to me. I was shaking like a leaf just picture it. A pilot engine doing shunting which involved crossing the main line, and an awful lot of signal pulling for various points, just coming off the line and resting at an angle on the track. My inspector turned up. A Mr Pepper. A very dapper little man. He said "How do you feel" I said "I'm scared stiff". "Right" he said "Put the kettle on and I'll have a biscuit whilst we get things working again." The platelayers were usually very good and came early in winter to open and close the points for us, and walk the line to make sure they were fitting. I was very grateful to them.
I went to Manchester for my final exam and eventually a man congratulated me and said I'd passed. I gave him a beaming smile, which faded rapidly as he told me "Of course you know you can be prosecuted or had up for manslaughter if something goes wrong." After that he shook my hand, and I left.
We got advance information on special trains carrying Prisoners of War, and were warned to make sure the trains were given clear passage and never ever stopped. We live on the edge of Saddleworth Moor and I suppose it would have been easy for the P. o. W's to lose themselves.
With both Hilda's and my husband away in the Forces we had no difficulty in getting leave and when they got leave. Each of us did 12 hour shifts so Mr. Pepper hadn't to find any relief signal men. It was whilst I was on a 12 hour shift, that I got a train stopping to put off a flag draped coffin. I've never forgotten that. I suppose I was lucky it only happened once for me. It was dark, no lights, and very very quiet, and so very very sad.
I hadn't been married very long and I those days women did a lot of jobs which puts scratches on brand new wedding rings. Most of us went to Woolworth's and bought one of their best. It usually left a green ark on your finger, but at weekend you could put the real one on, and see how shiny it was.
The men we had to deal with were, in the main very helpful. I can think of one who wouldn't have us in his box till we were qualified (not even me) and I was I the same class as his on when we were at school.
I can think of another one from the same box (different shift) who constantly invited me to visit him for extra practice, except he was on nights when the invitation was issued. If I was really stuck with some problem, I found the best thing to do was to ask, and be honest and say I didn't know, and always, they helped.
If I was on a 12 hour shift and it wasn't busy, I have known us to have a concert or sing song on the phone. All the phones were connected to each box of course. I have even (inadvertently) eavesdropped on a male conversation such as "Look on the second coach, third compartment." This would be the last train and usually was a courting couple.
I can honestly say I enjoyed my time on the railway. I had had to leave my job in an engineering works to move to the railway, and wasn't very happy about it. In fact I was furious. In those days though, if you were 21 like me, the Ministry, could, in effect, move you from one house to next door, job wise.
Signalwoman Mrs. L. Bennison
I was one of the ladies that worked in a signal box near to Sheffield when the raids were on. The job was very demanding. After training for six weeks we were then in soul charge of our signal box. There were three ladies relieving the men folk to go to war. We worked three shifts and it was dreadful in the blackouts and raids on nights. We had an iron type box to stand up in when the raids was on at Sheffield. Our poor inspector lost his daughter in the shelter's. Blown to bits and she was never found, only her ring to identify her.
My first shift after my training was on nights. I got to the box and a note from my tutor to wish me well on my first duty, plus an apple. I had to phone the box down the line for them to send the little shunting engine up. Called Jock and the engine was stood at the signals with the driver on and I was supposed to pilot the engine up to my box, but truth was I was told to hone and they would let the engine up for me as this was always done.
Well the signal man in that box refused to let the engine up. I could not believe it on my first duty. No way would he budge. I thought having a woman he was getting at me, and acting it out . At the finish I had to light a lamp and start to walk about two miles down the track I the blackout, falling over wires on the track. Cut and bleeding I got to this next signal box and stormed up the steps and just flew at this man, who turned out o be a relief signal man obeying the rules as stated in the rule book. Another time they had to rewire a signal line. So it was disconnected to the frame that holds the levers. I went to pull the lever back for a train to move up the track, forgot it was disconnected, my own fault, the lever hit me smack in the chest and sent me out of the door the other side of box.
The little box was scrubbed and polished each day, lovely and warm. You could fry your breakfast on the stove. The kettle was on the boil all the time. The shunties outside tried to take care of us, when the raids was to start a red warning came over. All had to shut down. Everything was total blackness.
We worked seven days a week at this job. Happy times and sad times. My husband was called up so I lived alone and worked alone so on doctor's orders I left and worked making small bombs amongst a lot more women and was better for the company.
Signalwoman Sheila Pittan
After being invalided out of the army during the war, I was still eligible to do war work of some kind.
The railway were looking for signal women, who could pass the exams and run the boxes, on shift work.
Because of my disability I needed to work inside, and I applied for a signalman's job and passed straight away.
I operated the Bletchley No. 4 Box, where lots of troop trains passed through, night and day and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I joined the A. T. S. at 17 years old and was in radio location. I caught a serious illness through dashing about t night when the sirens sounded as we had no time to put proper clothes on. The guns could not fire accurately without radar, in the dark.
I was invalided out of the army but was still eligible for war work, and as I had to have an inside job, I offered to go as a signalman. I passed the exams and was in No. 4 Box outside Bletchley Station, which was very busy. Troop trains used the Cambridge line most of the time.
The job was not adapted to suit females, and the men who did shifts at No. 4 Box were always kind to me. I was 20 at the time.
I did shift work - 6-2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
I left the railway after three years as I was allowed a year's training as a secretary on account of my being pensioned out of the army.
One night, I had a very frightening experience. We had a dreadful storm, thunder and lightning, and the signals blew down the track, so I had to control the trains all night by hanging out of the window with either a red or green lantern. It was quite traumatic.
Another time, the station phoned to say there was a Buzz Bomb, immediately overhead of my box, so would I put all lights out and work in the dark.
Signalwoman Mrs. Marjorie Smeaton
Maybe I was lucky, but I had a good, close relationship with all many colleagues at the time I was in the signal box. Of course, it was wartime, and things were very different. My signalman, for instance, should have been retired - he was about 70 years old - a very small man who called me "boy", he was known to all as "Brainy Bill" - what he didn't know, about anything, wasn't worth knowing! My own feelings? I was so happy being allowed to work on the railway - my Dad was an engine driver and I used t wish I was a boy so that I could go on the railway too!
Sometimes my 'relief' did not come to relieve me at 10 p.m. I had to stay on until 2 a.m., when the 'day' person would come in. I can't say I enjoyed walking the full length of a blacked out platform, then walking home I the dark - no street lamps.
If anyone was off work, ill, we had to work 12 hour shifts - 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. I really loved my job, though I did get a bit sleepy in the early hours of the morning.
You ask about the romantic side. Well, I had never met the train-recorder who taught me the job, but he must have been a good teacher. I 'took over' in three weeks, instead of the six weeks I was allowed to learn the job. He was then sent out, as a shunter. He later told me that he had watched me walk down Station Road - thought I may be going to catch a train - then I walked off the platform, and in the box - and that was it.
It was a few months before we actually went out together - and one day when I had worked a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, he was waiting for me, on my way home. We chatted for a while - then he asked me to go to the pictures - second half - so I rushed home to get ready - and it went on from there. I remember that whenever I had to work until 2 a.m. he would stay up and come down to meet me, to walk me home.
I think I would have been upset, had I still been on the railway at the end of the war, and had been replaced with the men again - but we married in 1943 - our first son was born I 1944, so I didn't go back to work. My husband eventually left the railway and went into civil engineering. My youngest son worked in a signal box, as a signalman, but gave up when most of the 'boxes' were demolished,. He had the 'box' at Scunthorpe Station, but it was demolished, along with most others in this area.
I got my first job on the railway through my father. He was, at that time, a fireman at the Mexborough depot, and heard there was a vacancy for a carriage cleaner. Only temporary, for six weeks, as one girl was away ill, with measles. I enjoyed the work, and at the end of six weeks I w told there was a vacancy in a signal box if I wanted it did I? I really loved it.
Yes, I did exactly the same work as any other train recorder - although it id not entail any heavy work - and my signal man 'allowed' me to pull a lever now and then.
I was treated very well by any male staff I came into contact with, though it was usually by telephone to the other signal boxes - they were all very helpful, perhaps being in a signal box, with only the two of us on a shift, my situation would be different to other women who worked I larger groups. I didn't have a lot of contacts with the NUR but they did see that I had proper facilities and they did get us a couple of wage rises.
Yes, I loved my job, and have some very happy memories of that time.
I let my job of my own accord. This was because I got married, and had my first son in 1944. If I had stayed o, I think I would have been a bit upset if I had been replaced - still - the men needed the jobs after the war, didn't they?
I was one of those women, and I first started as a carriage cleaner, in place of a girl who was ill. When she returned to work, I was offered a job as a train recorder in a signal box.
At the time, I lived at Mexborough in Yorkshire and went to work in No. 3 box, just outside the station. I had to get my parent's permission, as being under 18, I would have to work shifts, including nights.
I well remember my first 'shift' - starting on the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. 'afternoon' shift. As I walked into the box, bells were ringing, an the young man who was the train recorder the, went to answer them at one end of the box, then passed them on a the other end! It was all very confusing - different bell signals for each train - the signal man setting the road, and signals each time - then each train was recorded in a big book.
I couldn't understand how they knew what each train was - where it came from - and where it was going, and thought I would never learn it all.
I was allowed six weeks to train, I took over in three weeks, and loved every minute of the time I spent there - about two and a half years.
My signal man was affectionately called "Brainy Bill" -what he didn't know wasn't worth knowing! He should have retired, but was kept on for the duration of the war.
We had passenger trains full of soldiers passing by us - wanting to know where they were - and we didn't enlighten them - no names on stations then. We also had goods trains full of tanks and armoured vehicles - probably going to Hull, for embarkation.
I remember we had a canal at the back of the signal box, and on warm summer nights, the miners would come down for a swim - bringing soap and towel - quite a sight.
That signal box - along with many more, has now disappeared - a whole area being controlled through one electric-controlled box, but I don't know whether they still have train-recorders.
Incidentally I eventually married the young man who taught me my job, and we had 47 years of happiness before I lost him in 1990.
Our youngest son also worked in a signal box, until that, too, was absorbed into the electric ones.
I can still remember most of the 'codes' for the different trains - and if ever we stop at a level-crossing, I listen for the 2 bells that sys a train is about to pass through.
Signalwoman Mrs. A. Hodgeon
I had no idea anyone needed memories of wartime signal women. I have watched on T.V. documentaries of wartime women, what we did, but have never seen anything about signal women. And you know we were on our own in a signal box responsible for people and troop trains shunting goods trains about so food arrived in shops. I am happy to write to you so people will know about the women who kept the railway running on the right lines, but seem to have been forgotten.
I was a signal woman for four and a half years. The most interesting job of my life. I found the men very respectful to you if you made it plain hands off.
The first morning I opened the signal box (Shaw North) I was scared to death, if was 4.45 a.m., blacked out with blackout curtains and only a gas light burning. I signalled Shaw South signal box and Newhey Signal box that I was on duty, accepted my first train on the line and pulled the distant signal (yellow colour) then the home signal (green) then pulled the locking signal (red) but the engine driver must have been liverish that morning because I heard him swearing (why I don't know) but I felt it was my fault, so I pulled a little of the black curtain back and looked out of the window, then I heard him shout to the fireman "it's a bloody woman" . Ten minutes later the man in Shaw South box phoned me to say the driver was very sorry but he didn't know women were taking over the signal boxes. Why I am telling this is because when the goods train driver was early turn and I was on duty, he used to hand me a shopping bag of potatoes, onions, veg., and sometimes flowers. He had an allotment at home so that was always gratefully received. I had many friends among the men, as I used to brew their tea on the little stove we had. Even cooked bacon sandwiches for the lucky ones with bacon. The engine drivers on goods trains who I had been busy shunting them abut in the goods yard, used to throw big lumps of coal off near the signal box and the shunter on my shift used to come across and break them up and we would share the coal. A big lift during the war.
When I had been working for a while, the early goods train going towards my box would pull up at Shaw Station and I would get a lift down to work and the fireman would shovel fire out and carry it to the fireplace in the signal box an I had a ready fire made. They were all a great team of men, they swore at times but I shut my ears.
I wish I could sit and talk to you, I could tell lots of stories. I know there was a war on, but I've got to say I was happy at work and never dreaded going. Every day something funny would crop up. I only got shouted at by a goods driver once (I deserved it). He had shunted the wagons off for Shaw and was ready to come out of the goods yard to pick up the rest of the wagons going to Rochdale. I pulled the points over for him to come out, but I put the points lever back too soon, which trapped his back wheels and the front wheels dropped off the lines (they call that putting an engine on the floor). Now I had to report to my controller on the phone what I had done, and the engine driver had to wait for the breakdown team to arrive, when he did resume his journey (he was late). As he passed the box I tried to keep out of sight, which was difficult with windows all round you, but I heard him and felt very guilty.
It doesn't seem fifty years ago tome, I can remember different headlamps for each type of train, the colours of the levers. The signal box was always spick and span. We mopped the wooden floor, polished the brass work, burnished the steel tops of the levers, and black leaded the frame and the little fire place.
My other shift worker was a man for two years, then I got another female partner. We did twelve hours work sometimes, but it was easier than the cotton mill.
We had a chemical toilet outside which we had to empty ourselves, We would pull the inside of it out, carry it with one hand, shovel in your other hand, go under the tunnel nearby into a field, dig a hole and bury the contents, take it back, put Cresote in and dread your turn coming round again.
Once |I kept on about the dirty paint work inside the signal box, but no one took any notice they kept putting me off, so I did it myself. But I did it black and white and I was noticed then as they were not the railway colours. Three weeks after three men arrived (painters) and the signal box was painted inside and out, maroon and a dull yellow.
The railway inspector used to call at any time which kept you on your toes, he would test you on the rules and regulations. He asked once what would I do if I heard the phone give four rings, I said run home as fast as I could. He laughed at me, saying "you know that is wrong." "Of course" I said "but what would you do if the Germans were coming down the line half a mile away?" We were supposed to smash the place up and pull all the wires out.
One day there was an air raid, of course me, I went to the window looking for the planes. The station master saw me and came running down the line yelling at me "get your tin hat n and gas mask ready, put your boots on and away from that window". He came into the signal box so I had to do as he said. The tin hat fell over my ears, the gas mask was in a haversack which landed at the back of my knees, and the boots were size 12 wellies. I couldn't stand anywhere after putting my protection outfit on. It was a good thing no trains were due, I dread to think what would have happened, I did look a comic though.
When the weather was foggy the signal person was I charge of the platelayers who put the fog signals o the lines to slow trains down, they liked me being in charge as I used to keep them out a bit longer. It was extra money when they were on fog duty (wages were not so good in the forties).
I used to go to Hunts Bank in Manchester for revision classes when I was a signal woman once a month. There was a giant railway model there, all that has gone. Now it is a carp park outside Victoria Station.
Signalwoman Mrs. F. M. Anderson
In September 1939 I was busily engaged as a wages clerk in a local laundry where I had worked for five years, then war broke out and my life quickly changed!
I was conscripted to go onto war work - working at the LMS Railway workshops in Derby with men after being in a female office - what a shock to the system! I was put on assembling aircraft wings for Typhoon and Tempest planes and had to work 12 hours a day on a shift system, two week son day shift, then two week son nights, weekends included! I worked there till August 1944 then the contract ended so I was on the move again!
I was sent to Chellaston station a branch line out of Derby to Melbourne to work as a signal woman. There was a large military camp at Kings Newton just along my line so I had quite a few troop trains passing through taking the soldiers into Derby and returning after a night out in the town - as you can imagine there was some high jumps with them!
Sunday mornings I had to open my signal box especially for the local farmer who had a train load of cattle brought to Chellaston and they were let loose in the station yard, then driven along the road to his farm - as you can imagine we had a lively time rounding them up and getting them on the move, it was like a Wild West Rodeo.
In the spring of 1945 the war was about to finish so I got married in April 1945, in the autumn my box was under threat of closure so they wanted to transfer me to another box in Belper which is the other side of Derby from my home at Shelton Lock, so I decided to retire and by then I was expecting a baby so I stayed at home to rest up after my hectic war years.
Unfortunately over the last few years the Derby railway, as in many parts of the country, has been drastically reduced and the Chellaston signal box finally closed in June 1966. The railway line is not used now and the box was finally pulled down to make way for a housing estate about ten years ago - the end of an era.
Signalwoman Grace Adamek
I served in the Women's Land Army - joining just before my eighteenth birthday - and was billeted along with 24 other girls at the Rectory at Stanton by Bridge near Melbourne, Derbyshire. When we were disbanded not wanting to leave the area, I applied for the position of signalwoman at Melbourne Station. This was a goods line only with single track working, my most vivid memory of this is having to pass the tablet to the driver of the train as he proceeded on the 'up' journey, the tablet was a pouch with the key to change the points - then standing at the side of the track in the dark, holding my lamp in my right hand, seeing the lights and noise of the engine approaching on the return journey and having to snatch the tablet from the driver. I used to shake in my shoes - but thankfully never missed it.
After a year there I asked for a transfer to my home town at Long Eaton, and was placed in a signal box on the high lines between Toton East and Trent Junction boxes - working a shift system with two elderly men. What I remember best is the way the men accepted me as the only female signal woman I the area.
This again was a goods line - a very busy one with coal trains constantly going into the sidings. Frequently having one standing at my home signal - the drivers would come along with his mash can to brew his tea, stay and have a talk with me and if I wanted coal bringing up for my stove would always fill the bunkers for me.
It was quite an eerie feeling being perched up high on an embankment, especially on night duty seeing a light approaching at the side of the track and waiting to see who appeared at the door. When on the morning shift - 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. - the lovely elderly gentleman in the Toton East Box would always send me a cooked breakfast, bacon and egg or sausage and tomatoes with the men on the footplate of the first light engine out of the sidings.
My worst experience here was in the early hours of the morning, having a long train coming I from Attenborough, and then hearing another one approaching from Trent Junction and from experience hearing the noise and knowing the rate it was travelling I realised he had missed my distant signal and would not be able to stop at my home signal - so I had t run down the track as fast as possible and place detonators on the track and waving a red lamp. He did just overrun my home signal but managed to stop a few yards away from the Attenborough train, averting what would have been a terrific crash.
I made many good friends during this employment and still see some of them after nearly fifty years.
Box Boy Josie Edwards
I got a job on the railway in 1942, when I was 20. My then husband had been called up into the Fleet Air Arm, and I was instructed to do "War Work" so decided it was better on the railway than in a factory.
I started working at a goods depot at the Angel, Islington. Didn't like that, so got transferred to Wanstead Station, Essex, as a ticket collector. That was a bit too quiet for me, so I was asked if I would like to be a "Box Boy" in a signal box, which appealed to my sense of adventure. I had to enter, in an enormous book, the time of every train that passed through the junction. No easy task, as it was a very busy box. The job also involved keeping the box clean, making tea for the signal man, and general dogsbody. It was called Gas Factory Junction and was at the end of Wellington Rd. Bow, on the Fenchurch Street Line.
The box was right up high, over some railway arches, and looking down, there was a graveyard one side and small houses the other side. I really enjoyed that job. Three signalmen did the three shifts between them, but there was only one 'Box Boy'.
I learnt all the codes for the different trains, how to use the signal levers (big heavy things that had to be cleaned with emery paper each week) and how to pass on info to the next box along the line. We sometimes would go for a drink in local pub when it was reasonably quiet and leave me in complete charge.
One evening, on his way back to the box, the signal man was hit by a massive lump of shrapnel, carted off to hospital and I was left to cope till the next signalman came on duty at 6.a.m.
As I had proved that I was as good as any man, I had no problem in getting a job as signalman, and in the same box. I stayed there, taking my turn with the 3 shifts, until 1946, when my husband was demobbed and I tried to settle down to being a housewife.
It didn't work, but that's another story.
Crossing keeper Alice Foster (Southport-Manchester LMS, Pool Hey Junction)
(Notes taken during interview)
28 levers. Temporary war time. Husband platelayer (previously signalman) heard of vacancy as crossing keeper. Men wouldn't do it.
November 1945, lived six miles away, learnt how to run the box, parrot-fashion at home after learning for one hour with signalman.
Heaviest box on line. 28 lever movements for crossing, a set of points. Muscles got so big she had difficulties with sleeves. 28 movements and then turn the wheel for crossing. Lamp man did gates along with signals. 60 hours per week nights. Crossing box separate, often scared by men round. Left box lamp out sometimes, worried that men would find out she was a lone woman. Traffic fluctuated so much no average.
Bell codes 10-6 a.m. 11-11 summer weekends and 10-6 winter. 2 form 1's meant the sack.
At the beginning of the war still sort of on January 1945, took time for men to be demobbed etc. Allowed to keep job because men would not have done it as a crossing keeper.
From beginning, daytime was covered by Grade 2 signalmen and later, automatic barriers came and porters did (in 1967) the daytime on a much higher rate than crossing keepers rates.
Was in NUR, attended Branch Meetings (Southport) and was only female there.
Redundancy notice given at least three months.
Station master gave her day rate of porter three months before (£14 per week) from £3 per week, which meant higher redundancy pay three months later.
Jealousy from wives if she conversed with men.
Listened in to conversation between the other signalmen to hear the railway gossip.
Find out about the book "Railwaywomen"
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