REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN
My job as a platelayer with LNER 1941 to 1945.
In 1941 I worked at the British Oil & Cake Mills (BOCM), it was a very dusty job. We had drinks of barley water or tea every two hours (drunk whilst still working mind). We went home with dust covering our hair and clothes - we were a bit fed up with the job but it was an essential one to produce animal feed.
When my husband was called up he suggested I apply for a job on the railway where he had worked as a motor mechanic. My friend (whom I worked with) said she would apply as well as the shift work we did didn't really suit her as she had two small daughters and had to rely on her mother to look after them from 2 -10pm.
We went and got an application form from Paragon station in Hull, filled it in and sent it to the head office in York. A week later we were both sent a rail pass to go to York for a medical - a great free day out.
A week after the medical we received instructions to report to the Engineer's Office at Paragon Street, Hull where my friend and I were given an overcoat and rule book. The Inspector, Mr Stamp, told us we were to be employed as 'Permanent Way Labourers/Platelayers which was outside work and rather heavy. We were given a rail pass for Southcoates Station and were to report there the next day. We reported to the station the following day and were directed to a lobby further down the line called Sweet Dews area. At 7.30 we knocked on the door and asked for ganger Coulson. He took one look at us and said "We don't want any bloody women here! Suppose you'd better come in" He was a miserable chap but gave us both a hoe and said "You'd better join us to do some 'skimming' (their name for weeding in between sleepers and the side of the track)" Bearing in mind that we had to cover two miles with about five tracks it was one of the most hated jobs. It was one of the easiest but also the most boring. This lasted about two weeks doing it between other jobs. The Inspector came after a day or two to see how we were getting on - we just said "Alright" - what else could we say really? Anyway, he had a word with the ganger and he asked us if we would like to work nearer home? Of course we agreed and so went to Wilmington Station which was just round the corner from where I lived.
We were introduced to a ganger called George Biggins. He was just the opposite of ganger Coulson and called us "lasses". He introduced us to the rest of the gang. Mark Winterbottom - he was under ganger Bill Brown and a Mr Longhurst (I can't remember his first name). The hut (or lobby as we called it) was divided into two areas. One area for eating with forms around three sides of a table and a stone in the centre heated with coal. The other half was for tools etc. The ganger painted out the names of the tools and this is where we learned another interpretation of the English language. The ganger said that we could call him Pop (Biggins)
The following are descriptions given to me about the different tools of the trade:-
· Fish Plates weren't to eat off but to join two rails together.
· Chairs weren't to sit in but to fit rails into.
· Sleepers didn't have forty winks but to support chairs and rails.
· Keys didn't unlock anything but were wedges between rails and chairs.
· Points were nothing to do with ballet but diverted rails to another line.
· Dollies weren't to play with but to divert rails to another line manually.
· Bullock Horns weren't about rodeos but allowed a team to lift and move whole rails.
· Fish Spanners weren't to stun fish but to fasten fish plates - these were about 3ft long.
· Claw Bars, Crow Bars, Sledge Hammers, Pickaxes and Shovels. Looking at this list of tools you can imagine that it was fairly heavy work most days.
Snowy weather we had to carry a bucket of salt up the track and clear all the points. We could only carry half-filled buckets as it was very heavy. On very snowy days we had to go back and forth collecting more salt.
Foggy weather meant carrying out jobs like putting detonators on the rails a certain distance from a station or goods yard so the train drivers knew where he was.
Rain - this was our lucky day because we stayed in the lobby with the men playing cards or dominoes whilst we knitted balaclavas and socks or read a book. If there was an emergency we did go out. Fortunately this never happened in the four years I spent there.
When we had to throw ballast along the track another four or five gangs helped. We covered twenty miles up to Withernsea and another fifteen miles to Hornsea. This took two days and we had to choose calm not windy ones. No goggles were supplied for this extremely dusty job.
We also unloaded a coal wagon at all the stations and platelayers lobbies and then had to shovel it into a coal shed at each stop. This took a whole day.
I was twenty three and married when I started work on the LNER line in 1941 - the work didn't affect my home life as I lived with my mother after being bombed out of my house and my husband was away with the forces. The women in our neighbourhood who were eligible to work nearly all did men's jobs. It was an industrial area and we all used to ask each other what we did and compared all our different jobs. I left work after the war ended 15 December 1945. It was a very emotional time as we were a good team which worked well together. The Inspector came down to wish me well and I got a kiss from all the men in the gang. My friend Violet had left us in 1943 as she was expecting a baby. We never got anyone to replace her.
Yes I would have stayed on after the war had I been allowed. I really enjoyed the work. In 1951 I was a cleaner in a bank and stayed for the next thirty six years, a bit boring but fitted in with my home life.
Hull was heavily bombed one morning when we arrived at work and we discovered that an overhead railway bridge had been hit and had fallen on our part of the rail track. Three more gangs had been sent for making a total workforce of twenty four including eight women. We were told to repair it by 4pm as some armaments had to be taken to the docks for loading. There was to be no lunch break. So much track had to be taken from one line to another by swinging it round - this is where the Bullock Horns came into play. By 4pm we all stood back while the armament train trundled past. We all held our breaths as it traveled at walking speed over the patched-up track with creaks and groans. We finally breathed a sigh of relief over this ordeal and set to work making a proper job of the repair. We were all glad to get home, but we'd had a real sense of achievement that day.
Cleaning the track in Wilmington Goods Yard wasn't very pleasant as a lot of fish manure used to fall off the passing trucks. Maggots as thick as your thumb used to fall off your shovel when you threw a shovelful into the wagon - uugghh!
We had to cut all the grass each side of the track and up the banks. We did this with very big scythes. When I first used one I nearly cut ganger's leg so after this I was called 'The Deadly Reaper'. A week after my friend left they sent a man down one morning to take her place. By 2.30pm police detectives came and took him away. He had come from Ireland. No-one else ever came so we had only five in our gang.
Another time the full contents of margarine had been stolen out of a huge wagon in the goods yard. When I was making my way along the track for home two detectives stopped me and asked me to turn my bag out. Of course there was nothing in it but my gas mask and empty packing-up tin. Next day everyone had a good laugh - they would have had to search a lot of people for the amount of margarine that had been stolen.
There were a lot of Italian prisoners of war working every so often in the goods yard - mainly loading and unloading. When our gang were having lunch sometimes they would all start singing and, to be honest, it was as good as any opera.
If we had to do some repairs higher up the line we loaded a bogey with everything that was needed. We had to notify the signal man who opened and closed the crossing gates where we were going. We used to follow the regular passenger train to Withernsea. You can just picture everyone waiting at the crossing, the train had gone by and they expected the gates to be opened. After a few minutes this bogey came by being pushed by the gang. The cat-calls and ringing of bicycle bells was quite embarrassing!
We were isolated most of the time in our own gang. I only met any other women when our gangs had to work together in emergencies.
The drawback of this job was that the only toilets available for me were the station ones which were usually a long distance apart. The men had toilets based at every bush along the railway…
The rule book stated that a load needed a man plus a red flag. This rule "had to be adhered to" - this was very rarely done.
My one regret was not being allowed to take any photographs as we were in the centre of an important industrial area and it was absolutely forbidden.
I enjoyed my time as a platelayer and would have stayed on had I been allowed.
Labourer Mrs. Eileen Bevan
I was the first woman to work for L. M. S. at Victoria Station, Manchester. I worked in the mechanical and electric department, it was hard work, but I enjoyed every minute of it. There was only two women in the electrical department, my friend and myself, the rest of the gang were men. They didn't like the idea of working with women, but after a while they got used to us.
It was very hard work, we used to travel up and down the country, most of the jobs were on the track which consisted of digging holes for lighting on the tracks, and one job I didn't like was pushing the carts loaded up with tools wire etc. It was a bit embarrassing going through the town to different stations, we worked seven days a week, but I liked it very much. I was very sorry to leave. I had to get a release note as I was pregnant.
Points Oiler Mrs Lovsey
Mr. Derek Lovsey wrote: My mother worked on the London North Eastern Railway ( L N E R), her job with another lady who lived just a few doors away was oiling the points. The marshalling yards at Woodford Halse, Woodford cum Membris, Woodford and Hinton, three of the names it has been called as I remember, was vast, there were four large marshalling yards, plus the junctions to the L M S towards Byefield and Stratford on Avon, and the G W R towards Banbury.
We were a railway family, I had three sisters and three brothers, the sisters went into service, as my mother had been, and we four boys worked on the railway. I was messenger boy in the station masters office, one brother became a linesman, doling the wires to the signals, one did the signal lamps and the other a fireman on the footplate, my father sold milk in the village.
I remember her about 52 years of age when she went for her interview and she really feared she was too old, I remember her age so well by deduction, she should have retired at sixty but wanted to work on until she was 62, if you worked on the railway for ten years you were entitled to P. T.'s (privilege tickets) for the rest of your life, if she retired at sixty she would have only done eight years, to her it was very important, and it was allowed; after she retired she made a full use of this until the railway closed in 1956.
When she was at work she wore a bib and brace overall and a blue beret that pulled down to just above her ears, she wore an old mackintosh in the cold weather pulled tight round her waist for warmth, each woman carried a long handled brush in an oval shaped bucket containing a thick oil, I can't hazard a guess on how many sets of points they greased but there must have been about 300 covering about ninety acres from Charwelton to Culworth which were oiled daily, I myself at fourteen had to take messages to the signal boxers but I was allowed to travel on the footplates of engines but they had to walk, to do each set of points properly.
As another point that might be of interest, certain slot machines were put into the lady's toilet in the waiting room, until they were put in the porters would clean the rooms, after the machines were put in the men refused the cleaning so a female porter was taken in to portering work and the cleaning jobs.
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