The True and Tragic Story of Mary Ramsdale and Family

Today’s post is the last in a series of guest posts by David Turner from Turnip Rail. This post has always been one of my favourites by David because it reminds us all that history is, at it’s core, about people.

Originally posted: WEDNESDAY, 21 APRIL 2010 – by David Turner

Sometimes I come across some shocking and very sad stories when doing my research on the Victorian railway. I freely admit that it is easy for historians to view groups people in the past, particularly the poorer sections of society, as homogeneous faceless statistics. We can then use the statistics as evidence and can draw conclusions. When doing my work I rarely have need to move past this approach or acknowledge that every statistic I employ as evidence was a person with emotions, desires, highs and lows. This is why the case of Mary Ramsdale and her family particularly got to me this week. I feel the need to share it with everyone as it is probably the first time that she and her family have been acknowledged individually by anyone for 150 years. Also it just made me feel very sad.

A bit of background is required. When a railwayman was killed on the line railway companies, as an act of benevolence, would employ the widow so as to give support to the family. They were employed in such roles as Gatekeepers, Waiting Room Attendants or Charwomen. These jobs were unsurprisingly very poorly paid, and women in them would receive roughly between 10 and 15 shillings a week (£34 to £51 today).

Mary was employed as a Waiting Room attendant at Southampton station after the death of her husband. Evidence from the Parliamentary accidents return shows that a William Ramsdale, the Gatekeeper at Ashley Level crossing near Ringwood, was struck by a train in May 1859 while attempting to prevent a person from crossing in front of it. Given the proximity of Ringwood to Southampton, the unusual surname, and the time between the date of his death and the story I am about to recount, it is almost certain that this was Mary’s husband.

The first time that I came across Mary was in a Traffic Committee minute of January 1862 (RAIL 411/231), when Richard Beach, Superintendent of the Southampton Station, wrote to the Traffic Committee regarding a complaint made against her:

“23rd January 1862 – 1034) Mrs Ramsdale – Read letter from Mr Beach, Southampton, reporting a case against Mrs Ramsdale the Woman in the Waiting Room at Southampton. Mrs Ramsdale to be cautioned.”

Given her low wage, the ease with which railway companies dismissed their staff, the harsh rules and regulations of railway employment, and the difficulty a widow would have getting a job elsewhere, for Mary to be risk her employment would suggest that her mental health was not good. This was confirmed later in the year by the Traffic Committee (RAIL 411/233):

“13th November 1862 – 387) Mrs Ramsdale – Read letter from Mr Beach, as to the case of Mrs Ramsdale attendant in the Waiting Room at Southampton who has been placed in the Fareham Lunatic Asylum. Further inquiry to be made”

What Mary was suffering with is of course uncertain, however, it seems that given the circumstances of her life after her husband’s death it is quite possible that it was some form of depression. This conclusion is given further weight by her circumstances stated at the committee in later weeks.

“27th November 1862 – 422) Mrs Ramsdale – Read letter from Mr Beach, Southampton, with reference to the case of Mrs Ramsdale late Waiting Room attendant there now in the Fareham Asylum stating that the ages of the two children are one 8 years and the other 5 years. Mr Beach to inquire if Mrs Ramsdale’s friends will take the children and the company will give a gratuity of £10 per year for two years.” “11th December 1862 – 446) Mrs Ramsdale – Mr Scott reported further with respect to Mrs Ramsdale late Waiting Room attendant at Southampton. The Children to be placed in the Workhouse as there are no friends who will take charge of them.”

According to the 1861 census there were in fact three children and Beach got the ages of the two he mentioned wrong. They were Mary, aged 9, Emily, aged 6 and Hannah aged 3. Clearly Mary, with the loss of her husband, receiving a low wage, with three children and few friends around her, found her conditions insurmountable. The last part of the story compounded its highly tragic nature for me. The three girls would have gone into the Southampton Union Workhouse.

In 1865 a Poor Law Inspector described it as a place where there was the “mixing together of all classes, including old, infirm and idiots, in rooms in which it was almost impossible for human beings to live.” The girls would have been together in the workhouse, however it would have been a horrible, scary experience.

It is highly unlikely that they saw their mother again. I can’t tell you what happened to any of them, but at this point it just proves that Victorian Society was extremely harsh, replete with sad and tragic stories, and that perhaps I should stop quibbling when minor things go wrong in my life.

For the original posting, click here.

Opportunity and Exploitation – The First Female Clerks on Britain’s Railways

Today’s post is the second in a series of guest posts by David Turner from Turnip Rail. This post is one of his early writings on researching some of the first female workers on Britain’s railways, a topic he has continued to research and write on more, and some of those links are in this post. The major take away from this piece is: “it should be remembered that the true purpose of the L&NWR’s appointments [of women] in 1875 was not through any urge to reform employment practices for women or to open up their opportunities. Rather, the L&NWR saw them as a source of cheap labour in a time when the railway industry’s profitability was declining.”


Originally posted:
– by David Turner

Before 1870 most women working on the railway received their jobs as an act of charity from the railway companies on the death or injury of their husbands. After being on a waiting list, they could be appointed as refreshment room attendants, carriage lining sewers, ticket sorters or gatekeepers. Unsurprisingly, these jobs were low paid, took place in poor conditions and had long hours. Yet, being appointed to such a post was far better that the alternatives of poverty or possible confinement to the workhouse. Indeed, as I have written before, the lives of railwaymen’s widows was hard and destitution was always possible.[1]

In 1875 the London and North Western Railway (L&NWR), Britain’s second largest railway company, altered the nature of women’s employment within railway companies by appointing 15 women to clerical roles at the company’s Birmingham Goods Department. This was on the initiative of a ‘Mr Nichols,’ who was the traffic manager at the Curzon Street Station. Strictly speaking, this was not the first time women had been given office-based employment by the railways, and on rare occasions the daughters of stationmasters had been engaged as telegraphists. Yet, the 1875 appointments signalled a change in women’s opportunities on the railways as it was first occasion when clerical positions had been created specifically for women, rather than their circumstances or any charitable intent.

This could possibly linked to the improved education in the period. The 1870 Education Act had extended education (somewhat unevenly) to all children between the ages of 5 and 12. Given that most of the women employed by the L&NWR were ‘young women,’ it could be argued that the expansion of national education facilitated their employment. Indeed, a few years later the women were all described as being ‘fairly educated.’ [2] Yet, while these were progressive steps for womens’ employment in the railway industry, overall, railway companies were comparatively slow in appointing women to clerical positions. As an example, the Post Office was employing 3,500 female clerical staff by 1887.[3]

The work and conditions of the fifteen women employed by the L&NWR were described in a number of publications. In 1878 The Englishwomen’s Review (hereon known as ‘The Review’) stated that the women’s work was principally to make ‘abstracts from invoices for the ledger accounts of credit customers and for forwarding to the Railway Clearing House.’[4] This work was described by The Review as being ‘not difficult,’ but required ‘care and accuracy.’ Like most clerical jobs in the period, this would have been highly repetitive and dull.

The conditions of the work were not that distinct from those of the male clerks, although Myra’s Journal in 1889 stated that the women worked separately from them and were placed under a matron’s charge.[5] Unlike other women performing jobs on the railway network, their hours were relatively tame, and they worked between 9 am and 5 pm. However, as with most clerical work in the period, the reality was that they would have gone home when they finished their assigned work, whether that be at 5, 6, 7 or 8 pm.

The pay was pitiful compared with their male colleagues, ranging from 10s to 17s per week (£26 to £44 4s per year). Indeed, most junior clerks on the London and South Western Railway started on £30 per year, but their wages could reach the £100s throughout their career (See here). [6] However, even amongst female clerical workers these wages were poor and Myra’s Journal stated that they were ‘less than those paid by the Prudential Assurance Company.’[7] Furthermore, these women would have had no promotional prospects and presumably they left the company on marriage.

Nevertheless, in comparison with other employment opportunities for young women, working for the L&NWR was deemed better given the office environment. The Review stated that ‘the work affords excellent employment for fairly educated girls whose parents do not wish to send them into shops and factories.’[8] Therefore, in contemporaneous eyes, the avoidance of manual work made up for the fact that the women were poorly paid.

With these appointments being novelties in the railway industry at the time, it is not surprising that they drew criticism. Firstly, some argued that by appointing women to such roles it would threaten men’s jobs. In July 1876 the periodical Judy observed that because of the success of the women at Birmingham and the expansion of the ‘experiment,’ ‘Female engine-drivers and stokers will be the next step of course.’[9] Thus, while Judy was comic publication, this clearly expressed the threat some men felt from women being employed en masse within the railway industry.

Furthermore, in February 1887 The Review noted that a correspondent from the Railway Shareholderhad argued that ‘though paid less…,[women] are totally unable to perform the whole of the arduous and multifarious duties of a corresponding number of male clerks owing to their “want of knowledge of the general routine of work”’ The Review retorted that if there really was a problem it ‘might be easily remedied by more regular training; but we are well disposed to think that the experience of the North Western Company…is conclusive, and that women clerks are up to their work.’[10] Thus, the women were attacked along lines which historically womens’ employment always has been; the taking of men’s jobs and the perceived inability of women to perform their duties adequately.

However, the L&NWR’s management were very pleased with the ‘experiment,’ and The Review stated that ‘it is found that the work is done much more accurately than by male clerks, to say nothing of the neatness which is also displayed.’[11]

Furthermore, The Cheshire Observer stated that because of this ‘the directors have been induced to try the experiment in other large centres of traffic…we believe the interesting experiment is being tried at Chester Station.’[12] Consequently, by the 1890s the L&NWR had recruited around 180 women for clerical posts,[13] at Camden, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds Chester and Wolverhampton.[14] But the success of the ‘Birmingham fifteen’ had wider implications within the industry.

In 1877 The Leeds Mercury reported that other railways were considering employing ‘respectable women’ at stations.[15] Thus, by 1911 Britain’s railways employed 1,120 women in clerical positions (as opposed to 84,802 male clerks.)[16]

It should, however, be remembered that the true purpose of the L&NWR’s appointments in 1875 was not through any urge to reform employment practices for women or to open up their opportunities. Rather, the L&NWR saw them as a source of cheap labour in a time when the railway industry’s profitability was declining.

The Cheshire Observer stated that for all railway companies the employment of the women in clerical positions ‘would be of great consideration in these times of railway competition.’[17] The Leeds Mercury stated that ‘the arrangement is economical, and ought to result in lessening railway expenditure, which has grown unduly in late years, especially in the wages department, and brought about a lamentable reduction in the rate of dividends.’[18]

Thus, the appointment of the 15 clerks at Birmingham was a significant event in the history of women’s employment on the railway, opening up clerical roles for women within the L&NWR and other companies. Nevertheless, the reality was that these women were exploited to improve company profitability. Indeed, this was story repeated in the other railway companies, and in other industries, when they took similar steps.

EXTRA, 11/08/2011: I have since written another blog on this subject to be found HERE


[1] Wojtczak, Helena, Railwaywomen, (Hastings, 2005), p.1-41
[2] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[3] The Englishwomen’s Review, Tuesday, February 15th, 1887, p.78
[4] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[5] Myra’s Journal, Monday, Aril 1st 1889, p.185
[6] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[7] Myra’s Journal, Monday, Aril 1st 1889, p.185
[8] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[9] Judy, July 19th 1876, p. 141-142
[10] The Englishwomen’s Review, Tuesday, February 15th, 1887, p.78
[11] The Englishwomen’s Review, Friday, February 15th, 1878, p.77
[12] Cheshire Observer, Saturday, July 15th 1876, p.6
[13] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
[14] Myra’s Journal, Monday, Aril 1st 1889, p.185
[15] The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, June 25th, 1877
[16] Wojtczak, Railwaywomen, p.29
[17] Cheshire Observer, Saturday, July 15th 1876, p.6
[18] The Leeds Mercury, Thursday, June 25th, 1877

For the original posting, click here.

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.