Female Applicants to the Eastleigh Locomotive Works in Wartime

Today is the first in a series of guest articles by David Turner of Turnip Rail on women in the Victorian railway. Be sure to check out his website for more of his original research on the British Railway.
Originally posted:
– by David Turner

Analyzing historical sources that don’t get much attention is something that always excites my mind. The simple recognition that I could be the last person to touch and view a document for decades, if not centuries, is an amazing feeling.

As some of you are no doubt aware, in the course of my PhD I am acquiring all the information that is available on the female workers of the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR). Over the years I have viewed a lot of documents on a range of subjects, however, it is only when doing this work that I can say that the documents I am using have never been used before by historians. This is a symptom of the fact that women’s history, and women’s existence in history, has been shrouded from view, hidden by a male dominated field where the emphasis has been on ‘great men’ and not ‘great women’. Further, this has been exacerbated in the case of railway history by the dominance of male researchers, little interested in the contribution of female railway workers to company operations. Therefore, for these reasons the documents I handle when doing this research have potentially never been analysed to discover the history of the individuals contained within them. As such, what I am doing is breaking new historical ground.


In earlier blog posts I recounted the history of female clerks on the L&SWR. In this entry I will look a document I photographed at the Hampshire Record Office earlier this year. It is a list of women that applied to work at the company’s Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon works at Eastleigh, in Hampshire, between 1916 and 1923 (example shown). It is not, however, a list of those women who were actually employed at the works, that has seemingly been lost.

The document contains a range of information about the women, such as their ages, their addresses, the job they applied for, and any pertinent remarks. It therefore contains interesting information on the women who were living in Eastleigh during this period. For the purposes of this study I am only focussing on the information between January 1916, when the record starts, and November 1918, when the war ended. I will look at three areas of interest that are contained within the document. These are the women’s ages, the jobs that they applied for, and any remarks that detailed links with the L&SWR. Before coming to write this blog entry I had not looked at my images of the document, so all the findings are new. However, it does mean that the analysis may still need more work.

I started off looking at the women’s ages, the results are shown in Graph 1 below (enlarge by clicking on it).

As shown, the majority of women who applied for employment in the works were in their teenage years. Generally it seems that the minimum age for employment was 14, data which is in line with general company policy by 1916. However, two younger girls thought to try their luck and apply for work. These were Miss D. Bailey, who applied on the 22nd March 1917 to work in the polishing room, and Miss D. Smith, who applied on the 27th March of the same year, aged 13, to do either polishing or lining. Whether they were successful is unknown.

There were also a good number of women who applied to work for the company in their more senior years. Before World War One women were generally employed by the L&SWR as an act of charity if their husband had been killed on the line. They would be given positions as Waiting Room Attendants, Carriage Lining Sewers, or Mess Room Supervisors. Predictably for the era, these jobs had long hours and in most cases lower pay than even the most junior male staff. Therefore, in the case of most of the older applicants for employment at the Locomotive Works in wartime they were in the same, if not similar, situations. For Example, Mrs Scott, who applied on the 14th May 1917 for employment in ‘lining and trimming’ aged 36, and Mrs Clement, aged 40, who applied on the 1stNovember 1918 to do sewing, both were widows whose husbands had been previously employed at the works. However, some older applicants also had husbands who were unable to work. Mrs A. Golding, aged 36, who applied to do ‘anything’ in January 1918, had a husband who had been in the army and was an invalid. Therefore, it seems that for the older women in the sample, the majority of them had had some tragedy befall them and were looking to support themselves.

Further, what is also noticeable is that the average age of the women applying for employment went up over the course of the document. The average age of the first 20 applicants in the file was 18.4, the average of 20 selected in the middle was 21.6, and the average of the last 20 was 23.2. I have developed a theory about why this was so. It is possible that the company did employ many, if not most, of the women that applied to work. Thus, by employing more and more female staff they were gradually draining the local area of potential female labour. This forced up the average age of applicants over time as older women, that potentially had familial commitments or for whatever reason had poor financial support, and were less likely to join the workforce in 1916, came to be employed in the later part of the war when they saw that the need was pressing or that opportunities were available. This is more plausible when considering that in 1916 conscription was introduced, and, with increased numbers of men being called up, recruitment for vacancies was possibly stepped up by the company. This is, however speculation and requires more investigation.

I will now move onto the type of employment that the women applied for. The information is shown in Graph 2 below.

Of the 299 women sampled, 178 (59.5%) applied to do ‘anything’ at the railway works. This shows that the women of Eastleigh were willing to help the war effort in any way that they could. However, the remainder specified what work they wished to do and subsequently have helped me define the restrictions that the L&SWR’s management put on where in the works women could be employed.

Of the women who specified where they wished to be employed in Eastleigh, most requested to work on the finishing end of carriage construction or in office activities. Therefore, the jobs applied for were in carriage cleaning, clerical work, polishing, cushion work, dining hall supervision, lining, trimming, painting, sewing or upholstering. Only a small number, 5 in total, applied for work in the labour-intensive parts of the works. For example Mrs E. Warwick, aged 25, applied on the 16th January 1918 to work in the fitting shop.

Therefore, the evidence suggests that the L&SWR only advertised for women to be employed in jobs where the company had allowed them to work before World War One. A glance at staff records from the Eastleigh works in the 1880s and 1890s shows that women at that point were only employed in the Carriage Lining and Sewing Rooms. Therefore, at the Eastleigh works in wartime all that occurred was that the number of jobs in these areas were expanded. While a few women applied for the labour intensive sections of work, I doubt they were allowed into them. As such, even though the female labour force expanded, the divided between what were thought of as ‘mens’ and ‘womens’ work did not break down. The reasons for this are not explicitly known, but some obvious theories present themselves such as institutional sexism, management’s adherence to tradition gender roles, or possibly a fear of union action from male workers who felt that their jobs under threat. Therefore, employment at the works did not open up new working opportunities for the women of Eastleigh in wartime.

Lastly, I want to look at the women’s’ links with the company. The results of the data pertaining to 361 women are to be found in Graph 3 below:

The evidence shows that the majority of the applicants had some link with the company and only 33 (9.14%) did not. This reflects the nature of the town of Eastleigh. Eastleigh was only a small village until the L&SWR relocated its carriage and wagon works there in 1891. As a result the company built houses for all its workers and created an entire new town. The number of railway employees living there was further expanded in 1909 when the company finished relocating the Locomotive Works to the same site. As such, it is unsurprising that 328 (90.86%) of the female applicants had links with the railway company as their fathers, brothers and husbands would have worked for it.

Further, it not surprising that because of the works’ presence and Eastleigh’s status as the regional headquarters of the Locomotive Department, that women with relatives in the Locomotive Department dominated the applications for employment at the works (192 – 53.19%). Contrastingly, those women with relatives in the other two major departments of the company, Traffic and Engineering, only managed to contribute 13.85% of the applications between them. This reflects the nature of railway employment in Eastleigh overall, as while the some employees did work for other departments, the majority were employed in the Locomotive Department.

Also featuring heavily in the study were women who’s main relative was deceased, retired or otherwise incapacitated, and 61 of the 361 women were in this position (16.9%). This ties up with evidence presented earlier. It is quite possible that with the war drawing away male labour that these applicants saw employment in the works as an opportunity to improve their lot in life given their financial situations. Of this group, and probably the most interesting individual was Mrs Tapp, who applied on the 29th March 1917 to do any work available. Her husband, had gone down with the R.M.S Titanic. Her case is also important as it raised the question as to whether many of the women in this group had lived difficult existences up until the point they applied for work. The Titanic had sunk five years earlier. Therefore how had Mrs Tapp got on in the period in between, and did wartime vacancies at the works give her her first opportunity of work? Of course, there may have been another explanation, in that employment at the works would have meant moving to a better job. Yet, the sheer number of women in the sample who were in a situation where they had incapacitated or deceased husbands, fathers or brothers, suggests that there was a large body of women in Eastleigh who were out of work who took the opportunity to earn some money and achieve a better life.

This is re-enforced by the fact that the data gives me the impression that applications from women who had no living relatives became more frequent towards the end of the war. Firstly, this potentially indicates that in the earlier parts of the conflict that familial ties with the L&SWR were highly important for women wanting employment, as the knowledge about opportunities for employment were passed on through these relationships. Also, having a relation working for the company was almost certain to improve a person’s chances of gaining employment with it. Secondly, it also suggests that as the war progressed, and the local pool of female labour was being drained, more and more women who were in need of work through no fault of their own, came out of the social woodwork to fill vacancies as within the labour market their chances of being employed improved. Of course, this is speculation, but it is a working theory.

What this short study has shown is that the ‘average’ female applicant to be employed in the works was under the age of 25, applying for a work in the carriage shops and had a relative that was in the company’s employ. I have also shown that while the employment opportunities in the works for women grew in number, the types of jobs that they were applying for did not change. Subsequently, the divide between what was thought of as men and women’s work that had existed before the war remained in tact throughout. I also have shown that the types of women that applied for employment in the works altered over the period, and some changes in both the age and social situations have been noted. Lastly, this brief investigation has shown that each woman’s employment chances, even in wartime, were still dependent on their male relatives’ through their relationships and occupations. Overall, this data needs more rigorous analysis and investigation, but this, for a start, isn’t bad.

BELOW: I don’t have a picture of the shops at Eastleigh where most of the women worked, but this picture is of the Wagon Sheet Making shops at Nine Elms in 1885.

Female Applicants to the Eastleigh Locomotive Works in Wartime

The original post can be found here.

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