The Recruitment and training
of BR's first female guard

Helena Wojtczak

After workng for three years as a GPO International Switchboard Operator aged 19 and two months, in September 1977 I began working for BR Southern Region as a telephonist. I disliked the railway switchboard intensely. It buzzed with a noise that set my teeth on edge whenever a call was waiting - ie, all of the time. Callers moaned that their train was late or asked after lost property. Within days I was looking for an escape route.

One of the things that most dissatisfied me was being on the periphery of a railway - tantalisingly close, yet not quite a part of it. So when a colleague told us her husband had just qualified as a guard, I listened enthusiastically. (She had to tell me what a guard did, for I knew nothing of the specific duties of railway workers.) Since leaving school I had worked indoors for three years with a switchboard in my face and someone breathing down my neck, so hearing that her husband worked alone, unsupervised, out-and-about across the south of England sounded exciting and liberating. Every day was different and he earned twice our wages and received free clothing. My colleagues, mature women, were irked that employment equality came so late in their careers: the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination acts had come into force just two years previously. They all said a "man's job" was better than switchboard work. I was startled to find myself the object of their vicarious ambitions: they decided that I should become the 'first lady guard.'

That was a Friday, and I travelled home from Waterloo station at 5pm. Like most commuters, I usually ignored railway workers; now, I watched in fascination as guards blew their whistles, waved their flags and leapt onto the running-board as the train departed, shouting 'stand away' in stern tones at latecomers attempting to board. Guards seemed to have power, authority and independence. Their freedom and autonomy seemed exhilirating, a very stark contrast to the confined, heavily-supervised atmosphere of the switchroom. Imagining myself in that role both terrified and excited me. A fatherly-looking guard let me ride with him and pick his brains. He explained his duties while I examined the grey-painted walls, covered with graffiti. The mysterious safety equipment, clipped or strapped to the walls around him, fascinated me. I asked his opinion of a girl becoming a guard, and he surprised me by urging me to apply!

Over the weekend I enjoyed a few daydreams of strutting about in a uniform, blowing a whistle and shouting at people. My shyness and self-consciousness had led me to switchboard work and I was not the pioneering "type". A woman who became the first lady guard would be an exceptional member of her sex, like those who become policewomen or fire-fighters or soldiers.

In addition, everyone I mentioned the idea to was adamant that BR would never allow a woman to guard a train. What the law said was irrelevant.

On Monday morning my colleagues were filing in an application form. I agreed to apply merely because the interview would give me a day off duty. I was summoned to the Divisional Manager's office, and I burned red with self-consciousness as I walked across an open-plan office of clerks. Keeping my eyes straight ahead, I could feel everyone staring at me, sizing me up for the job - and finding me woefully inadequate. I could hear their thoughts 'who does she think she is? Lady guard indeed!' Soon I was looking across a huge desk at three middle-aged men in black pinstriped suits. I felt like a little girl. One announced their names and titles but I was too nervous to assimilate the information. (I later discovered they were the Station Manager, Area Manager and Divisional Manager. A male applicant would not have warranted the presence of the latter.) They greeted me with a mixture of curiosity and hostility. One said 'young, lady, we do not employ females as guards', then, pointing to a pile of documents he continued, 'it seems, however, that we cannot prevent you.' They grudgingly allowed my application to progress, but it was made clear that the medical exam, and the training courses, were expected to weed me out by exposing my inadequacies. Their offensive attitude ignited something inside me, and my indifference turned into zealous determination.

I was very worried about the medical exam. I was overweight, and also worried whether my physical strength was adequate. However, I passed. A couple of weeks later I took my place on a week's induction course at Eastleigh. Women, mainly carriage cleaners, did attend these courses, but that week I was the sole female. It was daunting, especially as I had never worked with men before. I was under constant scrutiny and the subject of much attention. However, my fellow trainees were friendly and flirtatious, and I was utterly delighted when my payslip showed £60 instead of the usual £36. My first surprise was to discover that the railway I had commuted on for ten years, as schoolgirl and worker, had a high-voltage electric rail on the track! We learnt basic railway laws and rules, first aid, and had to extinguish a fire. In class, my ignorance was unveiled, much to the amusement of the others. They knew about railways, and even the rawest recruit was familiar with electrical and mechanical terminology from childhood hobbies and boys' education. Many were railwaymen's sons, or train-spotters. Their prior knowledge incited our instructor to skim over the rudiments, which I sorely needed, and I had to mug up at home. My exam mark of 91% qualified me for the next step: a two-week shunting course.

The course began a month later - in January 1978. In the interim I was to work on Wimbledon station where the only other women were a lavatory attendant and two tea-kiosk staff. On my first day, I was given a male guard's jacket, which I wore with jeans, a sweater and Doc Marten's boots. I was given a number of tasks, most of which I found bizarre. I had to clean windows with scrunched-up newspaper, not forgetting the glass case in front of the announcer's box. The case had a slot for money and contained a stuffed terrier called Laddie. He had spent his life walking around the station with a collecting box for the railway orphanage strapped to his back. When he died the taxidermist ensured that his working days were not over.

Shortly after I began working there, the actor Michael Robbins chatted to me as I swept the platform. He had been in the film 'On the Buses', about men objecting to women filling 'men's jobs'. I hoped it wasn't a bad omen! However, there was no unfriendliness; on the contrary, as the first woman 'learner-guard', I was a celebrity - much to my embarrassment. Colleagues soon began to treat me as 'one of the boys' but passengers, and staff passing through, constantly remarked on my gender and bombarded me with questions. Most were bewildered at a girl leaving a clean and cosy nine-till-five switchboard job to work on a grubby station at 6am on winter mornings. When trains came in, guards would leave their brakevans and subject me to a hurried but friendly interrogation. Then they waved their flags and, as the train moved away, leapt into their brake-vans. As I watched them a tingle of panic ran up my spine - was I really going to do that job? Perhaps it was not suitable for a woman, after all. I wondered why I had placed myself in this position. I decided to stay and see what happened - I could always return to switchboard work later in the year.

It was on the shunters' course at Eastleigh that I first encountered hostility from colleagues. We spent much of the day in a classroom and stayed together as a group when visiting the canteen for tea and lunch breaks. My days were made miserable by a steady stream of offensive comments. I was accused of 'poaching men's work' and told that women had no business with trains - except to clean them. When uniform applications were handed out, I was told not to bother, because I would fail the exams. I was reminded every day that training me was a waste of time and money because 'women could not stick the job'. (Ten years later I set out to contact these men to inform them that I was still a guard. Every one had left the railway.)

The course was about engines, carriages and wagons, and electric trains, and was for everyone who had to deal with them in stations and depots, but not in passenger service. All my classmates had railway experience and so, again, a lot of knowledge was taken for granted and I was always at a disadvantage. In a freezing cold, snow-covered freight yard at Eastleigh we tested brakes and attached and detached vehicles. Heavy-duty mechanical machinery was unfamiliar to me, the novelty was exciting. We had to physically grapple with points handles, brake levers on the sides of freight wagons, air-brake and vacuum-brake pipes, and steel couplings. Everything was huge and black and greasy and much of it was frozen. I fear heights and was terrified as I gripped the frosty handrails of an electric train, edging my way from cab door to the gap between two units. Once there, both hands were needed to connect the pipes. I trembled as I wedged myself against one side, shoes slipping on the icy steel, my frozen fingers trying to bend the stiff rubber pipes into position. The ground seemed a long way down. Next we had to lift a notoriously heavy 'buckeye' coupling. Men had told me many scary tales of this creature and I was frequently informed that it would be my downfall and lead to my expulsion from the course, it being far too heavy for any woman to lift. A semicircle of tormentors gathered around sniggering when my turn came. I knew this was the end of my brief sojourn on the 'real' railway: not only would I never be a guard, I would exit utterly humiliated and to a chorus of jeers and 'told-you-so's' from my harassers. The thought of this, and the feeling that all women would be judged on my success or failure, gave me the strength to lift it. But there was no applause and no apology. At the end of the fortnight, we sat our exams. One question was 'what is a light engine?'. Having never heard the expression, I had to guess. In desperation I wrote, 'anything under forty tons.' This was subsequently read out in class in order to humiliate me. No-one had told me a "light engine" was one running alone - i.e. without carriages!

I passed at 79% and progressed to the two weeks' guards' course. Here we learned the bylaws relating to passengers, and the rules and regulations governing trains in transit. We had to know how all the various signalling systems worked, and procedures for dealing with every emergency that could possibly arise: collision, fires, signal problems, derailments, drunks, drug-takers, objects on the track.

After the exam, which I passed at 80%, I was finally sent to my depot, Wimbledon Park. The majority of my one hundred-plus colleagues accepted me; most of the animosity came from station staff in grades lower than me, especially from those who had failed the guards' course. Ironically, it was rumoured that I'd obtained my position through favouritism by the management. Managers and supervisors seemed uncomfortable in my presence and did not know how to treat me. Most had never worked with women before.

The next part of my training was six weeks route (AKA "road") learning. This involved accompanying a guard from my depot throughout his shift, and being alone in a brakevan with a man at all hours of the day and night. I was placed with the senior guards at my depot, most of whom were West Indians recruited in the post-war staff shortage. None was hostile to female guards and many called me 'darter' (daughter) as a term of endearment. There were a few disconcerting episodes. Once, on arrival at a deserted terminus late at night, the middle-aged Jamaican I was with shocked me by nonchalantly urinating onto the track in my presence. Another unnerved me by handing me a collection of photographs of his girlfriend - she was naked in all of them.

Guards had to know all the stations, signalboxes, signalling systems, crossovers, junctions, sidings, yards, catchpoints and level crossings - and what type of crossing, too. The individual quirks of each line and any local arrangements appertaining to different stations had to be learnt; for example, at some locations the train needed to be 'rung out' with a 'plunger' - a button which sent a message to the signalbox that we were ready to leave. At some we could leave of our own accord, and at others we had to wait for the platform staff's permission. It was vital to know where to find the shunter or supervisor at each location. Unofficially, my colleagues taught me 'the road' to the nearest pub, café, chip-shop and tobacconists' at every location I might have the time to utilise them: Eastleigh, Fratton, Portsmouth, Reading, Basingstoke, Windsor, Chessington, Shepperton, Hampton Court, Strawberry Hill, Stewart's Lane, Clapham Junction, Effingham Junction, Woking, Guildford, Farnham, Epsom, Dorking, Horsham, Alton, Weybridge, Staines, Wimbledon, Wimbledon Park, and Waterloo.

In messrooms my colleagues gambled. Some had their caps pulled down low, a mean expression on their faces, which were often engulfed in a haze of cigarette smoke emanating from the corner of their mouths. At first I found the situation scary and declined all invitations to join them, fearing for my wages. There seemed to be a card school in every messroom, accompanied by constant exclamations in thick Caribbean patois, most of it incomprehensible to our colleagues from deepest Hampshire, some of whom had never met a black person before joining the railway. After a few weeks my uneasiness evaporated. They taught me to play, and I purchased my first deck of cards - from the Waterloo branch of WH Smith. Soon, I became one of the most hardened gamblers the Southern Region had ever seen. I picked up a passable Jamaican accent and quite a few untranslatable expressions, which I later utilised when muttering under my breath to fractious commuters.

As a Londoner, seeing the sun rise over a Berkshire field covered with rabbits and set over the Solent were magical experiences. And what can compare to the view from the front cab of a train rushing through a snowstorm at 90 mph or the view from the back cab leaving Waterloo station at night? The signals shone and were reflected on the rails, which I found quite romantic and beautiful. Departing a terminus and picking up speed also awakened the excitement of going on holiday.

I met the drivers I would soon be working with, and every one made me sit in the front cab with them, as there was no better place from which to learn the road. At all stations I was introduced to the platform staff, most of whom were very surprised to meet a female learner-guard. My tea breaks became whistle-stop sightseeing tours of various towns.

Back at Waterloo, we'd collect all the abandoned newspapers from the train and head to the canteen for a slap-up breakfast. Here, we exchanged anecdotes and banter with colleagues from London, Surrey, Hants, Berks, Middlesex, Wiltshire, and Dorset. We'd hear through the lively gossip-and-rumour-mongering network about the mishaps out on the track, and anyone concerned would be cornered and made to spill all the gory details, punctuated by others' witticisms and gentle ridicule. I listened in fascination to tales of fatalities, arguments with commuters and managers, derailments, etc. I liked being the sole female in this male environment. I enjoyed the knockabout wit and the easy, mickey-taking comradeship. I loved to hear the union militants' passionate rantings. I loved being paid to read papers and eat breakfast instead of being subjected to the constant buzz of the switchboard. How could anyone think that being shut indoors, with the same 6 women every day, in a dull switchroom, where nothing ever happened, a better life than this?

After six weeks' route learning I took my final examinations. One part involved reciting 'the road' aloud. Our depot required particularly wide knowledge and it was a mammoth task to memorise it. The second part consisted of an oral exam on emergency procedures. It was extremely detailed. The Guards' Inspector was so embarrassed at being in a small office with a female that he could not even look me in the eye.

Sixteen weeks since my application form had startled the Area Manager's clerks, on 23rd March 1978, I worked my first train alone: the 1246 Waterloo (Main) to Waterloo (Windsor). I was very nervous when I waved my flag and we moved off but soon I began to feel a glow of pride that, in spite of discouragement and ridicule, I'd qualified as a guard - and I was still only 19.

  My first few months as a guard
  Photos of me as a guard
  Return to author page

Helena Fecit
April 2001