Who are the ‘railway family’ and why are they so important?

Welcome to the blog of the York Transport Historians Group (YTHG). The blog will showcase some of the research that YTHG  are undertaking, and provide updates on our activities. Our first blog post comes from Hannah Reeves, a collaborative doctoral award holder studying with the National Railway Museum and Keele University.

My thesis focuses on the idea of the ‘railway family’ as it was developed and maintained in the first half of the twentieth century. The idea of the ‘railway family’ is twofold: firstly, the most common definition is of generations of the same family who all held jobs within the railway industry. Photographic examples and articles about railway families can be found in both railway company and trade union newspapers and magazines.[1] The second definition of the idea of the ‘railway family’ was as a way in which railway companies and trade unions united their employees or members into a community, drawing in their non-working wives and family members, who traditionally had been excluded as they did not work in the industry and were unable to join the union.

This idea of the ‘railway family’ manifested itself in a number of ways. For railway companies, this involved using their company magazines to instil the idea of the ‘railway family’ through the language that the company used to describe their workers and family members. They included all family members in the idea, whether they worked for the company or not. This allowed them to access the benefits and welfare schemes that the railway companies constructed in order to secure the loyalty of their workforce.

Conversely, trade unions did not seek to draw women and children into their organisation, but set up separate women’s trade union auxiliaries through which the wives and daughters of trade union railwaymen could support the organisation. These auxiliaries were involved in organising social events, fundraising for the Orphan and Benevolent Funds and supporting the trade unions in strikes and campaigning for better pay and working conditions for railwaymen. Some branches of these women’s trade union auxiliaries became involved in local and national politics, focusing on issues that most affected women and the idea of the ‘railway family’, for example infant and maternal welfare, old age pensions and military conscription. Both the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) Women’s Guild, founded in 1900, and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) Women’s Society, founded in 1924, encouraged railwaymen’s wives and daughters to support their respective trade union and to find their own voices to campaign on issues that mattered to them, whether within the railway industry, the Labour movement or in the wider political sphere.Railway Family 2

So why is this study of the ‘railway family’ important? The idea of the ‘railway family’ was a way in which railway companies and trade unions could encourage loyalty from railwaymen and their families. For railway companies it assisted with the transition from paternalistic welfare practices, which emphasised the dependence of the worker on his employer, towards Industrial Welfare, whereby self-help was encouraged with support from the companies themselves.[2] For trade unions it allowed women to become involved with the union, but also acted as a barrier, enhancing the idea that women were a temporary phenomenon within the railway industry, with the exception of railway clerks. A railwayman’s wife was privileged over women workers, and their support and involvement in the idea of the ‘railway family’ was nurtured over that of the female worker. The women’s trade union auxiliaries are particularly noteworthy, because of the role they encouraged women to play in local and national politics, with conferences and campaigns, as town councillors, JP’s and magistrates, and the education they provided into issues within the Labour movement and wider world.Railway Family 3

The idea of the ‘railway family’ allows us to study the railway industry from a different perspective; to consider the responses of railway companies and trade unions to challenges to paternalism and the rise of female labour, and to examine how railwaymen and their non-working wives and family members responded to the idea of the ‘railway family’.

[1] One of the first examples of ASLEF railway families appeared in the ‘Locomotive Journal’, 53, 2 (1940) p.78

[2] Michael Heller, ‘Sport, bureaucracies and London clerks 1880 – 1939’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, 25, 5 (2008) pp. 580


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