REMINISCENCES OF WARTIME RAILWAYWOMEN
Workshops and engineering grades
Chainman Mary Causebrook
I worked as a chainman assisting the draughtsman in the engineering department based at Northampton Castle Station. My work was mostly outdoors, surveying bridges and track in the Northampton District to the L. M. S.
I began when I was 19 years old in the winter of 1941. Previously I had worked as a hairdresser and had to finish with that job as it was a 'luxury' trade. As I didn't want to work in a factory or go into the services, a distant relative of mine, who was employed on the railway suggested the railways as an alternative. The first day I started I had to report to Northampton, Castle Station and the first day we began surveying was at Wellingborough Sidings and I snowed! I nearly packed up then! In the summer it was a lovely job because I as sent to a different place every day, usually with a different draughtsman. We travelled by train, using a free pass, to all parts of the district which included Wellingborough, Kettering, Cambridge, Hitchen, Bedford. We surveyed bridges, track, sidings, goods yards etc. My job was to hold the staff for the draughtsman to read the level. Sometimes when doing the gauge of the track we had to stamp the 'cant' of the track with a metal stamp on the lead top of posts every 100 feet. So there was quite a bit of walking to do! When working on the track we always had to have a look-out man with us to warn us about approaching trains. In tunnels we also had to measure the height of the walls with a huge wooden gauge - after getting soaked with black water dripping off the roof!
When working in tunnels we had two look out men - one each end. One had a whistle and the other a buzzer/hooter again to tell us which track the train was coming along. When this happened we had to shelter in the little alcoves until the train passed.
It's ever such a funny feeling when two trains pass you at once inside the tunnel. You feel 'drawn' towards them! On one occasion we had just rigged up the gauge in the tunnels when we heard the hooter go and having no time to get the gauge down we left it to run for an alcove and the express smashed the gauge to bits, which pleased us because it was so heavy and awkward to carry.
I remember working on the track alongside the aerodrome at Kinbolton ON D Day and we watched the America planes returning - some landing without wheels and ambulances rushing up to them to take off the wounded.
I would usually start work at 7.30 a.m. at Castle Station which was a five minute walk from where I lived. Usually I went out with a draughtsman on the train to begin surveying and then would be joined by a look-out man whose normal job would be as a plate layer and sometimes the gauge and occasionally the works inspector.
I got on well with all the men who were usually past service age apart from a conscientious objector. We would be out all day with sandwiches eaten for lunch sitting in the gangers hut with a cup of tea out of the ganger's old black can! If we were working near one of the towns we might pay 1/6 for a meal in a British Restaurant. At the end of the day we would walk to the nearest station to get a train back to Northampton. We used to get back at about 4.30 .m. and we finished at 5.00 p.m.
I was provided with an overcoat and apart from that \i wore my own clothes. Allowances were 1/6 for dinner and a breakfast allowance if I was out before 7.15 a.m. I can't properly remember what I earned per week but it was a man's wage - probably something under £10.
Whenever we used a carriage recently vacated by American Servicemen we were pleased because we often found on the luggage racks - organs, chewing gum, chocolates - all things we couldn't get as they were rationed which we took home gratefully.
I finished working on the railway in late 1945 and returned to my hairdressing job.
Concreter Lily Turner
I was a concrete worker at the B. R. Central concrete Depot, Leeman Road, which was right opposite the N. R. M.
In 1940 I was told to war work or go in the army, when I applied it was to the Concrete Yard. Myself and another were the first two. The men were rather abrupt, passing awful remarks. I never thought I would be able to tackle it.
We had all sorts of jobs at first. Cleaning and sweeping then I got on to being a stripper, this was stripping moulds and cleaning them after a moulder. Then I became a moulder. We were given mixed concrete on a big palate and several moulds to fill, you shovelled it into the moulds then used a pounder to pounder the concrete into everywhere once it had settled and you thought it was ok you travelled it off to a smooth finish.
Hoping when it was stripped the following day there was no rat holes in as we used to call it. The moulds were then cleaned and greased again for use. There were chair blocks which were used on the rails platform copings posts from small to 18 feet. We also had to put reinforcements I the mould which some were really heavy. They were moved away on to stacks by wheels but big things were moved with a crane.
When the Blitz was on York, I made all the patations for the (P. Way Yard) sections in concrete as the others were wood had been burnt with the bombings/incendiaries. Also some of the flower pots in the Station Hotel Gardens I made as I think they were vandalised by the Forces.
If there was no concreting to be done we had to empty wagons of re-enforcement and coal. The coal came in dumper wagons just a little door which I dropped in the centre so we had to shovel it from inside and throw it over the top into coal dumpers. I can tell you this was really hard work and sometimes in winter when things were snowed and iced up, we went out snow-shovelling.
When I think of the back-breaking work we did and never complained and enjoyed every minute.
Later on when the men came back and we had to finish, my husband went to work there but they had shakers to do their work for them instead of using pounders like we had to use, but I expect it was terribly noisy. But there is no concrete yard there now. Just like a derelict spot.
But I can tell you I enjoyed every minute, and if I had to do it again I would.
Workshop Storeswoman Joan Payne
I joined the Eastleigh Carriage Works in the early part of the war, my peace time work would not exclude me from being 'called up'.
The railway were wanting women to replace the men leaving for the Services, my job was to take over from a store man. I had one day with him before he left. The store was situated in the middle of the body shop which was building and repairing carriages at that time. "It was a very daunting experience being the only woman among so many men" but the days were so busy learning the tools and components which the men needed and trying not to make a mistake, of course there was, at first, much leg pulling, the requisitions called for some very strange items which in my ignorance I would search for to the merriment of the men however I soon settled down and all was well.
There were of course the sirens wailing out sometimes two or three times a day when we would all troop out to the shelters. My father worked in the Smith Shop and we would meet in the shelter, he also made bolts etc., which I issued from the store.
After a while the railway did less and less carriage building and the men were transferred to another very large shop to build landing craft. I took over the stores department and three women were employed part time to help, it was nice to have some female company. I was given large folders, one for each landing craft and asked to arrange my store, how different the components were from carriages.
It was very heavy work unloading crates and moving bags of nuts, bolts, screws, washers etc., but I enjoyed the work and felt we were 'doing our bit' even though they were very long days, when recently we commemorated 'D' day and I saw the landing craft going over to Dunkirk it brought back memories.
During my years on the railway I made friends with a girl working in the office block and together we joined the Red Cross after passing our exams we worked either in a nursing home or mainly at Winchester Hospital at the week end, there were certainly no spare moments at that time for it was back to the store on Monday morning.
A very busy life but a great experience.
I obtained my war job by applying to the Southern Railway knowing men were leaving either being 'called up' or leaving to 'join up' and I was of an age to be conscripted into one of the Service which I did not want.
I did exactly the same job as the man I replaced including mobbing sacks or boxes of items carried in the store, no there were not any difficulties.
I was treated with every respect and every one very helpful until I became conversant with all the store components. The Head/Manager of the stores visited occasionally and appeared pleased with the running of the store so all was well. I did enjoy the experience and feel I am the richer for knowledge gained, I certainly felt I was 'doing my bit' especially when taking over the landing craft store, my duties were primarily to receive, unload, stack and issue all components needed by the workers.
No I was not dispensed with, at the end of the war a landing craft store would not be needed and left of my own accord to take up a peace time occupation and for a while continue with my Red Cross work.
Find out about the book "Railwaywomen"
Return to the wartime index