UK: Mrs H.M. Rollason of Nuneaton, London, who was a railway guard for Midland & Scottish Railway. Mediadrumimages/Daily Herald Archive/Science & Society Picture Library

By Alex Jones


REMARKABLE photos celebrate the empowered women who kept the UK’s railways running during the Second World War – proving that ‘two women could do the work of three men’.

The stunning shots depict a gang of platelayers fastidiously ensuring Britain’s railways were intact, porters hauling crates of goods along a platform, and telephonists matter-of-factly answering calls whilst sheltering under their desks.

UK: Woman cleaning a locomotive in St Pancras Cleaning Yard, 1941, London, Midland & Scottish Railway (by Cliff Rowe). Mediadrumimages/National Railway Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

Other incredible shots show a lampswoman on an elevated rickety platform signalling trains and collecting tickets from members of the public and troops alike.

The eye-catching photos form part of Susan Major’s new book ‘Female Railway Workers in World War II’, a fascinating insight into the women who stepped up as their partners, brothers, and fathers marched to war.

“During the Second World War many thousands of the men working on the railways in Britain were called up for military service, and many thousands of women were recruited to replace them, to keep this vital service running,” explained Major.

UK: Women in a Southern Railway workshop. Mediadrumimages/National Railway Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library

“There had of course been women already working in some areas of the railway, such as in clerical, cleaning and catering jobs, although before the war even most of those jobs were carried out by men.

“But in wartime many women were employed in the kind of work which was completely new to females, working as porters and guards, and in maintenance and workshop operations.”

In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Britain’s railway companies had almost 600,000 employees but only 4% were female.

Within two years this increased substantially, as by 1941 it was 7% and in 1944 it was over 15%.

In a damning insight of society’s view of women in the early 1940s, government minister Ernest Bevin called upon 100,000 women to take up roles on the railway but calculated that for every two men away on service, three women would need to be employed, to make up the short­fall of labour.

UK: First women take over signal duties on Britain’s mainline railways, 6 March 1941 London & North Eastern Railway South Yorkshire line. Mediadrumimages/Planet Pix Ltd – Planet News/Science & Society Picture Library

Just two years later, he revised his opinion and stated that his own earlier calculations had been upset by ‘the marvellous response of the women of Britain’ and admitted that the output of women, instead of being that of three women to two men, was slightly the other way compared to 1939.

But the recruitment of women on the railways was not without its drama. Men grew concerned that their jobs – particularly jobs they had spent years training for – were under threat. Likewise, there were concerns about the ‘unsuitability of women’s clothing, such as the voluminous skirts, for such tasks, which might involve climbing ladders’. A lack of facilities, such as a female toilet, was also a stumbling block for some.

UK: GWR railway policewoman P. Mitchell at Bristol Temple Meads, February 1942. Mediadrumimages/University of Leicester Special Collections

However, the significance of women keeping Britain’s railways running cannot be underplayed. It has even been suggested that female railway recruitment during the Second World War was a ‘significant factor’ in winning the war, as volunteer civilians were not mobilised in Germany in the same way.

“These women were able to counteract myths about such work being too heavy for the ‘delicate’ female physical and mental constitution, and about some jobs being too ‘intricate’ for their potential skill set,” continued Major.

“This study has demonstrated how they experienced working with men, often for the first time, and the kind of strategies they adopted for coping with potential problems.

UK: Coping with emergencies at the GWR Central Telephone Enquiry Office at Paddington. Mediadrumimages/University of Leicester Special Collections

“It has enabled us to recapture a feel for the kind of world they encountered on the railways, with a testimony of their vicissitudes which brings this world to life in a way that is hidden from other sources.

“Many of these women were young, in their teens and twenties, and many went on to marry one of the rail­waymen and servicemen that they met in the course of their work, binding them to the railway life, even if they had to leave at the war’s end.”

Susan Major’s ‘Female Railway Workers in World War II’, published by Pen and Sword, is available now.