International Women’s Day and the Railway Women’s Guild

Today’s post is written by Hannah Reeves, a PHD student undertaking a AHRD Doctoral Award, for International Women’s Day.

Today is ‘International Women’s Day’ – a day that has been celebrated annually since 1911 to mark the “economic, social and political achievements of women”. This post tells the story of a group of women who, although they have remained hidden within railway archives for many years, had a profound influence on the development of railway history and the lives of women across the country.

The Railway Women’s Guild was officially founded in 1900. The aim of the Guild was to provide:
“social intercourse amongst the wives and daughters of railway workers of the district; to render such assistance to any members as may be necessary; to co-operate with the local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS) in any worthy object they may undertake.”

Women workers washing a railway carriage at the Great Northern Railway's Doncaster carriage works, about 1916. Copyright National Railway Museum (img ref: 03_2495_60_99)

Women workers washing a railway carriage at the Great Northern Railway’s Doncaster carriage works, about 1916. Copyright National Railway Museum (img ref: 03_2495_60_99)

Branches were formed with the help of members of the Central Organisation Committee and later the District Organisers; examples of the earliest branches include Accrington, Sheffield, Derby and Bristol, encompassing different railway companies and areas of the country.

From 1900 the number of branches and members grew rapidly, in part due to a weekly column in the ‘Railway Review’, the ASRS newspaper. The Secretary of the Railway Women’s Guild compiled reports from the branches, advertised the Guild to non-members and sought to influence discussions within the branches concerning issues women faced relating to the railway, their husbands and their family. The Secretary also used the column to organise the annual Conference, an important occasion for the members of the Guild to discuss matters relating to the trade union and women’s social and political issues. There were certain issues which remained of great importance to the Railway Women’s Guild throughout the period and were discussed at Conferences and on the Committees on which members of the Guild stood. These included housing, full adult suffrage and Old Age Pensions for men and women.

The Railway Women’s Guild were founder members of the Women’s Labour League in 1906, a section of the Labour Party especially for women because they were unable to join the main party. The League, supported by the Railway Women’s Guild, raised funds for the Labour Party, supported Labour candidates in elections and campaigned on women’s issues such as maternal and infant mortality, encouraging the Government to set up free clinics for mothers and babies. They also supported equal suffrage and the rights of women workers, especially during World War One. Free school meals for children was a major campaign for the Women’s Labour League and its affiliated groups. Along with Mother and Baby Clinics, these were being provided by local Councils by 1914.

Women workers assisting a blacksmith in the forge at the London & North Eastern Railway's Doncaster railway works, 14 August 1943. Copyright National Railway Museum (img ref: 1997-7396_DON_43_78)

Women workers assisting a blacksmith in the forge at the London & North Eastern Railway’s Doncaster railway works, 14 August 1943. Copyright National Railway Museum (img ref: 1997-7396_DON_43_78)

Mary Macpherson was the first Secretary of the Railway Women’s Guild and was very influential in the formation of the Guild and the Women’s Labour League. Mary wrote to the Labour Representation Committee, the earliest manifestation of the Labour Party, to suggest a women’s section of the Party. She also wrote in the ‘Railway Review’ for ten years, under the pen name ‘Marjory Daw’, successfully organising the branches of the Guild through their column in the newspaper. A collection of her letters can be found in the archives of the People’s History Museum in Manchester.

It is clear that the Railway Women’s Guild were influential in improving the political landscape for women and their families. They fund-raised tirelessly for the Orphans Fund, organising concerts, teas and bazaars; they supported their own members by visiting the sick and providing money, food and clothes for those who were in need. Most importantly to the trade union, they supported their husband’s aims for Labour representation and better pay and working conditions from the railway companies.

Womens Railway Convalescent Home, Margate, July 1930. Little is known about this particular example but they were used not only of railway workers, but women that needed support because of injuries or bereavements of their partners. Copyright National Railway Museum (img ref: DS082820-77477)

Womens Railway Convalescent Home, Margate, July 1930. Little is known about this particular example but homes like this provided support not just to women railway workers, but also those that needed support due to injuries to, or deaths of, their railway working husbands. Copyright National Railway Museum (img ref: DS082820-77477)

The Railway Women’s Guild remains an untapped resource, partly because there are so few archival sources with which to discover it’s achievements and influence. However those that do remain can show us just how influential this group were in shaping the social and political landscape and especially those issues that affected ‘railway families’.

For more information on International Women’s Day visit http://www.internationalwomensday.com/

The ‘Railway Review’ is held at the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University and for more information on the Women’s Labour League, see Christine Collette’s book, ‘For Labour and for women: The Women’s Labour League, 1906-1918’ (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1989). Central Organisation Committee Minutes for the Railway Women’s Guild are held at the People’s History Museum Archives, Manchester and Branch minutes can be found in Gloucestershire Archives and Perth and Kinross Archives.

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About Dan Clarkson

Dan is Web Manager for the National Railway Museum.
This entry was posted in Railway History, Research and archive and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to International Women’s Day and the Railway Women’s Guild

  1. Geoff Slater says:

    Interesting piece of social history, including the picture of the LNER Works at Doncaster, which features a non-white female employee. Good choice to accompany an article that challenges the stereotype of all railway employees at the time being white males.

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