From the 19th century right up until recently, the station master was the key authority figure in the railway station, with responsibility for all station staff. Large terminus stations and small country branch line stations were both managed by station masters.
He (invariably they were male) was a well-respected figure with significant social standing in the local community. He was usually provided with a station house to live in. It was also common, especially in rural areas, for the station master to be running a sideline or two to supplement his railway pay packet.
Today’s station managers don’t have the same visible presence on the platform, and can split their time between managing several large stations. Using historical accounts from our collection and memories shared by station masters through the Station Stories project, I’ve pieced together a picture of the role of the station master as it’s changed through more than a century of station life.
Tom Baker became a station master with Midland railway in the 1890s. His diary entries offer revealing insights into his professional and private life.
Here he records his efforts to locate a missing trunk:
At work 7.40am. Pretty busy. Recorded wire from Wilson Rangemoor which said “Shall expect trunk at Burton four o’clock”. Griffiths wired Burton who had no trace. About 3pm Mr Hodgson came in and he mentioned the matter to him. Mr Hodgson in turn told Mr Maxey who had Griffiths in and gave him a good jacketing. He looked no end of places but without success.
Left duty 8pm. Still no trace of Wilson’s trunk. Went to see if anything had been heard of it at 10pm. Griffith, West and Challans were there. Burton had just wired for description of trunk and we replied and at 11pm they replied “Wilson’s box now found”. Bed at 11.30pm. Tired out.
A typical page from Tom Baker’s diary.
Tom’s diary includes comments about Victorian society, such as this description of the Liverpool docks:
I saw children and women barefooted and nearly naked. They had scurvy.
It also charts his growing affection for Edie, the young lady who became his wife. Like many of its time, their courtship was largely conducted by letter.
Edie replied to my letter writing that she didn’t like me going to Liverpool.
Had a very nice letter indeed from Edie, best I have received yet.
Edie, or ‘Grandmother Edith’, in a photo taken by one of her grandchildren.
The next recollections were submitted by a station master’s great-granddaughter via our online story form. Her great-grandfather was the station master at various big stations in the early 1900s, including Bristol Temple Meads and Derby.
He had a top hat which folded away into a box. He used to show it to us when we were children and told tales of having to wear it on special occasions to meet important people who were arriving at his station. One person I particularly recall him speaking about was Sarah Bernhardt, a French film actress.
Sarah Bernhardt and her entourage at St Pancras station, 1894
Norman Kemp was appointed the station master for two small branch line stations Elland and Greetland in the 1940s:
When I first came to Elland station from Hull I rang them up and said, “Can you find me some accommodation?” I got off this train, I remember it was steamed up so I was black and dirty, I’d called into Wakefield to report. Then this little porter who was in his early seventies came down to meet me. I said, “Where am I staying, have you got me somewhere?” he said, “Ey lad, just down the path there, Station Hotel”. I was there nearly six months until I found a house, and my wife came to join me with our first son.
In those days many station masters had side lines such as coal sales, newspaper sales and so on. In fact, the first station I was at, Hedon on the Withernsea line, even had a lorry to deliver the coal, it was such a large operation.
Norman and his new bride Pam leaving Hull Paragon station on the ‘Honeymoon Special’ to Kings Cross, London
E.L. Wheeler was a country station master in the 1950s. He was in charge of Sandling for Hythe station and Westenhanger station. Here he describes how he overcame the challenge of travelling between them:
To overcome the difficulties of travelling between the two stations an ancient bicycle was made available. The supply of which to me, had created one less item on hand in the Central Lost Property office at Waterloo. I also used it to travel to my most distant signal box, Herringe, a couple of miles beyond Westenhanger. This box was only used on Saturdays during the summer train service to cope with additional boat trains to and from the Channel ports.
Mr Wheeler in his station master days
The Beeching cuts in the 1960s led to the closure of many small stations. The land was sold off, including the station master’s house.
Hollin Harper was a station master in the 1950s. He experienced the Beeching axe first hand:
I was appointed Station Master at Moulton on the Richmond branch, from the 12 November, 1951. The attraction of that job was twofold – one, I got a house – I remember the house rent was eight and eleven pence a week – and it was on the Richmond branch, which had a good passenger service in those days. We used to think, ‘Well, as long as they’ve got troops stationed at Catterick camp, this railway’s going to last forever’. How false that was. It didn’t last for ever at all and it lost its passenger service in 1969, a matter of great regret. It lost its freight service in 1970 and was completely closed and abandoned – something we never thought could ever happen.
The red on the map signifies lines that were closed down by the Beeching axe
Mohammed Ayub was an assistant station manager at Liverpool street station in the 1980s. He has fond recollections of banter with passengers:
A few funny things happened at Liverpool Street. One day I was standing on platform 11 seeing off the Hook of Holland. A gentleman and his wife came to me. The wife pointed at the engine, and he said to me, “Is this the train for Hook of Holland?” I said, “No, this (pointing to where she had) is the engine, the train is farther back”.” She laughed and the gentleman gave me a big grin. The gentleman put his wife on the train before he came back. As he walked back one of my inspectors says to me, “You’re in trouble”. The gentleman said to me, “Can I talk to you, on your own?” I took him aside and he said, “Thank you very much. She’s never laughed the last twenty years. You’ve made my day”. I had my ups and downs, some passengers were rough, and some were easy, but I always did my job!
Passengers boarding the ‘Hook continental’ train at Liverpool Street station, London
Until earlier this year, Phil Crow was the station manager for York, Darlington and Durham railway stations. In an interview, he talked about his career progression, and how he juggled managing three stations:
Twenty-eight years ago I started on a Youth Training Scheme. I progressed through a range of placements that involved things like working with Red Star parcels. I then moved onto switchboard operator at the Travel Centre at Middlesbrough. Then I’ve progressed through Travel Centres to supervisor to Travel Centre manager to head of Travel Centres for the route and then into station operations.
I tend to base most of my time at York because it has more services, more staff, and more customers: the footfall is much higher. I go through Darlington everyday on a morning and on an evening, so I get to see Darlington everyday and I get to Durham as often as I can. For example this week I’ve been to Durham twice. I’ve got a team of four managers. This enables us to ensure we’ve got consistent approach across all of the stations.
The ticket office at York station, 1993
A timeless thread through all the station master stories is the enormous sense of pride they all took in the job. This is nicely summed up by Trevor Adams, former manager of Waterloo Station, who recalls:
People wanted a bowler hat on the platform to meet them and say, “Good morning. Thank you for travelling by British Rail”. That’s what makes the railways tick, the people!
You can see stories like these on display in our redeveloped Station Hall. Find out more about the changes were making on our main Station Hall page.
If you have a station story to tell, you can get in touch by filling in our online form, or emailing us at email@example.com
Note: Sally’s now left our museum to work at the British Postal Museum & Archive – but we’re still actively collecting your Station Stories. Email us at the address above.