REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN
Engine and carriage cleaners
Engine cleaner Hilda Coe
I evacuated to Leicester with my family in 1940 and worked on the LMS, London Road, Leicester, LMS for four years. Four of us went down the line in the sheds in October 1941. They told us we had to work shifts as our husbands were away in the army and we didn't have any children, so had no one to depend on us.
I worked down the Loco yard as a tube cleaner; we worked in pairs. I had two long steel rods about 3 to 4 yards long, one had a screw end, one had a very pointed end. We wore clogs. We had to climb upon the engine, walk round to the front of the engine open the smoke box door, which contained lots of tubes reaching from the smoke box to the fire box. I then had to rod each tube, which was very hard if they were blocked with clinker. My mate then had to steam blow, fixing her pipe to the steam pipe on the side of the engine, then blow each tube, it was a very dirty job and we had to be very careful when it was raining or ice about when climbing the engine. It was also very dark we had a little can with cotton wool soaked in oil for a torch. We pulled the cotton wool through the spout, and lit it. The men were very good, we got on very well with them, we done shift work. 7.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m., 1.00 p.m. to 10.00 p.m., 10.00 p.m. to 7.00 a.m. Some of the older men told us that women worked down the loco in the first war but they cleaned the outside of the engines. I enjoyed working there but wouldn't like to do it again, as a lot of rats ran about and it was very cold working outside all the while in all weather.
I left in November 1945, when my husband returned home after being a prisoner in Japan for three and a half years.
Engine cleaner Mrs. M. Roberts
I am pleased to state that I worked at Hither Green locomotive shed and shunting yard from 1942-1947. I have still got my identity slip from that period. I was engine cleaner and ash loader, which believe me was very hard.
We were all married women with either a small family or an adult family. My baby was just nine months old and I had a son of five years when I applied for work and can you guess what they offered me. Demolition, or the railway. I chose the latter.
I would have to get my two children ready at 6.30 in the morning, then walk about 25 minutes to catch a tram then leave my baby at the nursery, my little boy had already gone to school, then I would catch a bus about half an hour's journey to be at the sidings at Hither Green by 8 o'clock, you may guess I was always late so my money was always short for being late.
Then I had a cousin who had left home living with us then my parents and brother were bombed out of their dwelling and came to live with us, so you can see we had rather a busy life, my husband had been invalided out of the army so that was eight of us living together.
Cleaning engines was not hard because I had a pressure gun that was fitted to the boiler of the engine, then I would get all the grease off with the gun. I was the only cleaner doing that sort of cleaning because the inside of the locomotive was done by the footplate men. We would wear clogs, overalls and caps for to keep our hair clean.
There were twelve of us working in the shed, one forewoman and one woman that was a fitter's mate and I a cleaner. After a while I went ash loading with the other nine women, which was very hard.
When I was working in the shed there were three men who would clean the boilers and pipes in the engines and one day one poor little man got shut in and was not found for some three hours later and naturally he was dead when found. What a terrible death he must have had.
When we were ash loading, the engines would come in overnight and the fireman would clean their fires out over the pit and of course in the morning they would be red hot, so we would have to cool them with a hose pipe, then one woman would go and work along the length of the pit throwing the ashes on to the edge of the pit, then we would get two trucks so that four women could load them with the ashes, we would work one woman to each corner and would use large shovels and load the truck. When we had got the corners full one woman would climb up and scrape the four corners to the middle, we would do two trucks each group a day.
The men really resented us working there, one day we asked one to help us move our truck but he would not, he said it was out of his grade, he was a driver.
We had Italian prisoners working with us but they were so lazy. We would feel sorry for them and give them cakes.
It had its funny side, one day I was walking around doing my job up and down the pits and wondered why everyone was laughing, some joker had put a duster down my overalls and when I jumped up and down the pits it would wave about. Of course while we were doing this job the bombs were falling. Sandhurst Road School which was nearby was bombed also Lewisham and we lost a couple of friends during the day.
Engine cleaner L.C. Reynolds
I was 18 years of age when I decided to join the LMS Railway at Bourneville shed, five miles south of Birmingham. We had two rather glamorous girls on this and a mother and daughter. The men treated the ladies very well and was always polite except on the odd occasion, when they became annoyed about something. I found that at the most, the elder men were grumpy. One of the girls worked in the stores, handing out booking on tokens, cleaning cloths, oil etc., it all had to be booked out so she had quite a clean job. The elder lady and the other two, did help to clean engines, as you can imagine, not a very nice job, smelly too, the cleaning fluid was a mixture of oil and paraffin I think. They were issued bib and brace overalls, and seemed to get on very well, they were never put upon and we always helped them on several occasions, another fireman and myself would take a pass out and go for a trip with the two girls, just friends but we had some nice times. Both girls ended up marrying young railwaymen.
To our surprise the railway installed a canteen, the elder of the ladies was appointed to run it, so we were able to get tea and snack sometimes. This was about 1940, so the war had been on two years or more before women were employed. I think that the men found it quite pleasant to see a member of the opposite sex around after years of male domination. I did let myself down on one occasion. I was annoyed over a matter of a shift and swore without thinking in front of one of the young ladies, I never gave it a thought until I realise who I had spoken to. I did go and apologise, she was very good and dismissed it right away, we were the best of friends.
I do know drivers weren't happy about women signal staff or also guards, I was a member of ASLEF and the NUR seemed to take it more seriously. It would have been the same, I am sure had women been appointed on the footplate. I couldn't have imagined a lady fireman with a male driver or vice versa so I suppose men thought that women weren't capable of doing the job. I knew of one woman signal person and she was praised quite a lot for doing a good job. I did come into contact with woman porters on New Street and I am sure that they did night shift. I never ever heard of any trouble between men and women. In my opinion as a young lad remember I thought that they did a fine job. I never worked with a lady guard, they were few and far between, and they could have been very unpopular with the stick-in-the-mud oldies. You can imagine a man about 50 or more years, only ever worked with men, suddenly being told that he was booked with a woman guard. The ones I worked with were a miserable lot and would have been most upset even to refusing to take out the train, younger men were more tolerant. I think that the strains of the war, long hours, the bombing etc. took their toll.
We had to have tarpaulins that kept out the light from the fire hole door and it used to get very hot underneath, I used to get very sleepy if we were stationary for any length of time. The bombs were a real hazard, incendiary bombs were a nuisance.
I remember seeing the light from the fires at Coventry, 18 miles away, it was dreadful. Another lad and myself watched a dog fight over the Austin works at Longbridge in the middle of the day. The German plane came low following the railway and came right over our heads we dived under a wagon but we could see the pilot's face quite plain, he opened fire with his guns and machine gunned some children going home from school.
I had been helping out with a minor shed at Redditch doing a firing turn. We had a bad night. I saw two or three bombs explode by the side of the railway, like a huge firework, lots of sparks. I used to come home from that job by passenger train, but it had been stopped, so I had to get a lift in the guards van of a goods train that was making a very slow progress towards Birmingham. I managed to get back to the shed after an arduous journey and I booked off and made towards home. There was a tunnel that went under the railway with a path that joined two roads together just a few hundred yards from my home. I was turned back when I got towards the tunnel, by the way, it was used a bomb shelter and was thought to be bomb proof, people had been standing just outside the entrance smoking, a bomber had released his bombs, one hitting the entrance killing eight people mostly from two families. The railway passed our house and was often used by a train that had huge naval guns mounted on wagons, they would often open up smashing windows in nearby houses. My biggest worry was that my father always insisted that my mother and sisters used the tunnel in an air raid, as he said it was safe, thank goodness my mother disputed him. I am sure that they would have suffered had they gone into the shelter.
Engine cleaner Mrs. Ada Donellan
I worked for LMS in 1940 when I was 16 years old. I was first to clean the coaches and I remember one poor chap, who left all his belongings on a seat on a coach, I thought it was lost luggage so I turned it in, he was angry at first, then he said. 'No; my own fault' and thanked me.
I decided I wanted to clean engines. It was a dirty job but I loved it, I remember the King and Queen coming through Derby on way to Scotland and a bunch of us, clean an engine and put cross flags on front.
I remember getting a hunk of Vaseline, rubbing the motions, and sand paper for rust, when the King and Queen came they changed the engine, we all cheered. Cleaning engines was a very dirty job, but I remember the good times we had, Singing as we cleaned. There were about six more girls. I got pass to travel to see my sister. She was in Wales, so at that time the railway was a good job, cleaning those giant engines, getting them to shine. I thought I was doing an important job, I love the railway. I've got a large picture of one I cleaned on my living room, engine no. 5593. I was proud to be an engine cleaner.
Engine cleaner Mrs. E. Glasscock
Myself and six other girls received our Calling up Papers and were given the choice of either hospital work, munition factories, or working on the railway. Needless to say we all chose the railway because this meant we were able to get home each night. We were all from villages in Cambridge and were told to report to Cambridge Railway Locomotive Sheds for our interview. I remember thinking how noisy and dirty it seemed. The work was explained to us and how we were replacing the men who had been called up for the forces. We were told not to wear any good clothes because of the grease and smoke (as if anybody had that many clothes to spoil for work, it was war time and clothes were rationed). I must say we all enjoyed our work even though it was so filthy, which our poor parents despaired of.
Reporting for work on the given day, we were given boiler suits and mob caps, a bundle of thick oily cloths, bundle of dry cloths and an item called a scraper for cleaning wheels.
Each engine to be cleaned had three girls working on it, cleaning the boiler, smoke stack, footplate, tender and finally the wheels, this was where the scraper came in for use, thick black grime and grease gathered there and had to be scraped out and cleaned with the oily cloths and then dried, so that the tappers could test the wheels for any cracks.
Always for safety we had to hang a stop sign on the engine so that the incoming engines would not overshoot and bang into the one we were working on.
For this work, 8 o'clock until 5 o'clock if I remember right the pay was about £6 per week and cheap travel passes, there as no equal pay then - there was no men to be equal with.
However, all loved the work, had lots of laughs and happy times. Getting clean at nights was a nightmare, I remember using paraffin, Vim, Swarfega (not very kind to our skin especially as soap rationing made things difficult) nevertheless we got by. Each time my mother put clean sheets and pillow cases on the bed they would be black in the morning, where the grease came out of my skin during the night, in the end all I used t have was a piece of old cloth placed over my pillow.
The men who were left, the fitters, shunters and wheel tappers were all ready for a laugh and joke, we all got on quite well together; it was war time and things were a lot different then. We girls had our own Mess Room and toilet but these were kept locked until our lunch time or the need for the toilet, I think this was done so that time would not be wasted or any naughties being carried out, a strict eye was kept on us.
Also working with us at the same time was a group of Italian Prisoners of War. They were always put to work further down the yard away from us girls. Their Mess Room was next door to ours, nearly every day we would see Spaghetti or Pasta hanging up to dry ready for their cook. Lunch times we used to enjoy listening to the prisoners singing their Italian songs which included Ave Maria. These men were so polite it was hard to imagine them as enemy, but like so many others caught up in a war they didn't want either.
Every day saw train loads of troops on the move, calling out to us ready for a laugh and joke, poking fun at our boiler suits and funny mob caps, the occasional ribald remark but all in good fun. Then there were a few girls carriage cleaning on the station itself, the job was different to ours as sometimes they only had a few minutes to sweep right through the train and clean the toilets - not a very nice job as toilets were different then not up to date as they are now.
I eventually left in 1946 after getting married and moving away but all the girls had to finish later as the war was over and the men returned to their jobs.
On the whole I don't think then it was a case of thinking we were surprised what we could do, it was more of a change from factory work, meeting loads of different people. At one time the Royal Trains came in for a special clean. The Italian PoW were put to cleaning this, they really did a marvellous job of it. A box under the compartments used to hold blocks of ice to cool the compartments when Royalty travelled. While the engine and train was cleaned the blinds and curtains were kept closed, we were not allowed to see inside. We all stood and watched as it pulled out of the station.
I don't think many women today would willingly do engine cleaning, because of the dirt and grease involved, but a lot are capable of doing a man's job simply because of all the opportunities there are available today for them, which were not there for me or others.
But I do think if any of us in the war time had the chance to do different, I honestly think we would all choose engine cleaning again. We all agreed they were our happiest working years.
Engine cleaner Elizabeth Doyle
I remember very well my first day at LMS loco shed Bletchley. I'm 5ft 10ins tall and I was being shown what to do by this little man, called 'Knocker' Chamberlain - he took me to this huge engine and showed me how to climb up and open the smoke box door and that's as far a we got, before I was sick! And there on no.2 road was my breakfast (tomatoes and dried egg). I was so embarrassed! There were quite a few spectators of course, waiting for me to make a fool of myself so I didn't let them down did I?
Well I soon settled in, and after a couple of weeks training with 'Knocker' I went on to shift work on my own, and loved it, the only time I'd been close to a steam engine was being in the station and I never, realized just how big they were! We had a shed chargehand on regular days, his name was Freddy Butterworth, and he called us all Miss, even after we'd been there for years, he made no exception even the girl who lodged with him and his wife, he called Miss! We girls had a separate cabin from the men, where we made tea on combustion stove, and got lovely spam rolls from the 'Coffee Knob' by the station. We were given so much tea from the railway but had to take our own sugar.
In those days a car was a luxury and in the goods yard horses and drays were used, the horses were brought into the loco for the blacksmith to shoe. I can still imagine the smell of it (not very pleasant).
We had quarter fares and free passes while we were employed by the railway but not after we had to leave.
When I went to work at the carriage shed, I can't recall getting paid less money; we were still classes as labourers. We used to bike to work and leave our bikes at the bottom of the railway bank, unlocked and in full view and everybody, and they were perfectly safe - those were the days!
There were four of us girls, and we worked in pairs, washing the carriage floors and woodwork, and inside windows, toilets etc. The worst ones to do were the excursions and these always came in for cleaning all frozen up in the winter, and I could not face cleaning those toilets! They were awful, but one of the other girls always did them for me. The girl I paired up with, Enid, is still my friend to this day and by sheer coincidence we live next door to each other in council houses.
One dark and wet winter's evening we were crossing the lines to go home, an engine was backing out of the carriage shed (carriages attached). I thought we'd make it over the lines but I slipped right in its path, I just rolled myself over the line and lay still until it had passed, my friend was in an awful state, she was shaking and I had to help her down the embankment! She still talks of it to this day.
When I worked in the loco I got very dirty with the soot, but had a bit of a wash in a bowl of cold water before going home (there was no sink or hot water). On getting home, we had no bathroom or running hot water, so it was a wash down and sticking your feet up in the sink and once a week the 'luxury' of a tin bath. However, when I worked at the carriage sheds I could go home to a lovely bath, in a proper bathroom, as I was married and living in a brand new council house.
I look back on my days (and nights) on the railway and count them as some of the happiest times of my life.
Carrriage cleaner Dorothy Osborne
I started work, leaving school at fourteen years. I got a job at a big restaurant. I started there as they called it then, a stillroom maid, doing a bit of everything. Then came the war and the restaurant had to close. I enjoyed working there.
I had a hearing difficulty. I didn't think I would get into the forces. I asked my father, who was a railway policeman at Brighton Station, to put a word in for me, as a carriage cleaner. So I was working there, a lot of the women cleaners were quite a bit older than me, but they were a lovely crowd.
I liked the work and mixing with the public, there was a couple of ones I got on with and became friends.
I left the railway in 1945 when I had my daughter.
There is one story that I often laugh about, we had an elderly cleaner who had been there years, she used to disappear during the day. They all knew. She'd find a train to work on, and sure enough there would a phone call from London. We have one of your cleaners here, what shall we do with her? Send her back on the next train, my boss said. Her shift was nearly finished then, talk about craftiness.
Carrriage cleaner Rosemary Smith
I was employed by the Southern Railway as a carriage cleaner, never having done anything like it before. During the war I was conscripted to work in a hospital at Dartford, looking after the nurses in a military hospital. When peace was declared I left to go home to my parents in Dover. I was out of work for six weeks, then was offered a job as a carriage cleaner at the Dover Marine Station. My folks didn't think I would stay there.
I clocked in sharp at 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. Sunday to Saturday every other Sunday off. We had all-in-one-piece blue dungarees; thought we were very smart. Dover Marine only had special trains. 'Golden Arrow', all Pullman cars, the Continental Express mixed Pullman cars and coaches. Troop trains carrying troops to Germany and home on leave.
We gathered our brooms, buckets, cleaning material. Hot water we got from the engine drivers, we girls cleaned the inside of the trains. The 'Golden Arrow' was all carpets and armchairs, really lovely. The 'Continental' - some were Pullman cars others long walk through with red runners up the middle, which we cleaned with special jelly. The men cleaned the outsides and they really had to be all spick and span, polished door handles and windows. All ready for passengers to board. When the trains came in we had to keep out of the way. Great excitement when the 'Golden Arrow' pulled in with flags flying.
We saw Laurel and Hardy, Sir Ralph Richardson, Merle Oberon, and the Duke of Windsor going back to France he looked very sad. And we always got a wave from them.
I met my late husband there he worked on the Pullman Cars from London, looking after the passengers, serving meals. They had chocolate and cream jackets and trousers, very smart. I was there from 1946-1949. April 1949 I was married, and as my husband was based in London, we moved there.
Carrriage cleaner Victoria Simpson
I worked on the railway for seven years all through the war. I worked at Victoria Station in London where I - with lots more mums - were taken on as Carriage Cleaners. That was a laugh, you name it we did it, cleaning inside and outside trains, cleaning the signal lamps, tanking - which was climbing on to the roof of the trains with a hose pipe and filling the toilets with water through a hole in the roof. We also filled up the tanks for the buffet cars on the 'Brighton Belle' and the Naafi cars on troop trains. We cleaned all the trains for the evacuation of Dunkirk and they were cleaned, scrubbed and returned to Dover in a couple of hours, We also unloaded mail bags on the platforms from the luggage vans, putting them on trolleys and then loading them on to Royal Mail vans for delivery to Mount Pleasant. Then we unloaded the vans with tomatoes and vegetables up from Worthing and sent them on lorries to Covent Garden. We swept platforms and the forecourt, cleaned brass handles on trains and may I say the trains went out spotless, not like they are today. We all had children and our husbands were in the Forces. We only earned about £4 and we had to do shift work in between dodging the Doodle Bugs and we had to train for fire fighting also. All in all we worked very hard.
Near the end of the war we had Italian prisoners of war working down the sidings with us. That was the first time we had men working with us. Before they came we did all the men's work as well as our own. One of our ladies even went on the delivery side and drove a pair of horses and a cart all round London. Nevertheless we used to have a good laugh every day, the comradeship between us mum's was great, as you never knew whether you would be alive the next day or not. We had to get up by 5.30 in the morning even though the raids were still on. Many times going to work you saw where the bombs had fallen. I had to get to Balham in South London from Tooting and could only travel so far then walk the rest. When I got to Balham there was a red bus gone down a bomb crater outside Balham Station - that was a terrible sight. The trains were still running though and I got to work.
As for the attitude of men towards us at first they were very distant but as time went on we showed them how we could do the job and at last they accepted it. As more and more men were called to the forces they had to, and eventually there were mostly women doing all the work on the station and the sidings. Our wages were lower than the men, no equal pay in those days and we very often had to work seven days a week getting double time on Sundays to make £4. I was sorry to leave because in spite of all the hard work we had a good gang of workers all mums with children (some who were evacuated) and in spite of the bombs etc. we managed to have a good laugh. I left when my husband was repatriated by the Red Cross from a German prisoner of war camp and of course when he came home I fell pregnant with my third child.
A lot of our ladies stayed on after the war but they still kept on carriage cleaning for a while at least. I worked for over seven years at Victoria and although it was war time and hard going you made the best of it; you never knew what would happen the next day. We were not allowed in signal boxes, but we often had to work and walk over the live lines. We used acid to clean the outside of the trains using a brush on a long stick which we called Audrey, the acid stayed on for about one hour by which time we had covered an eight coach train. Then we had to wash it off, sometimes in the winter the acid and water froze on the windows and it was hard work, couldn't use hot water, didn't have any, and if we had any windows would have broke. The only hot water we had was an old copper that we kept going with coal from the engine drivers, and that was for use for scrubbing floors and sides. One lady went through with raw soap and a small Audrey and second would come along rinsing, bending down all the time right through the train, and a third to dry it up. We could get through a train in no time. Once we were cleaning a troop train and when we came to one carriage (it was just before Xmas), hanging from all the luggage racks the troops had blown up their Army issue of condoms and they were hanging like balloons all through the coach, needless to say we were in hysterics, so we had our funny moments.
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