My Ancestor was… is a series of books published by the Society of Genealogists. They cover a whole range of topics, including My Ancestor was a Coal Miner / Leather Worker / Lawyer, and others that are not about occupations, such as religions (Jewish, English Presbyterian, etc) and even Lunatic and Bastard. I’ve read a couple of them and know them to be extremely focused overviews, full of facts and useful information.
I first heard about My Ancestor was a Railway Worker while doing an online course a couple of years ago, and I remember thinking, well, what’s so different about working on a railway that it needs its own book? Recently, though, I’ve been researching a family involving successive generations working on the railways; and I immediately started to see that this was no ordinary occupation. The impression I had was of a huge community, not unlike the armed forces, with marriage between the families and seemingly a welcome wherever they went. I had some specific questions, and from my previous knowledge of this series, I was sure this would be a good place to find the answers.
My Ancestor was a Railway Worker was written by Frank Hardy. A Fellow of the Society of Genealogists, prior to retirement he worked for almost fifty years as a railway civil engineer, so he knows his stuff from both angles. The book covers a wide range of occupations on the railways, from construction and maintenance of the tracks and infrastructure, building and maintaining the trains, administration of the service, including related commercial activities and of course operating the trains. There is also information about smaller, non-mainline railways, and overseas railways with a historic connection to our own. I was astonished at the full range of activities, and although I was reading this for insights into someone else’s tree, I realised in the process that apart from one of my own ancestral families who were early investors in the railway at York, I do also have two railway workers in my own ancestry and never realised the true nature of their work – a platelayer (that’s the term for the people who lay and maintain the track) and a mechanic with the London and North Western Railway at Crewe, where they manufactured all the equipment needed for the operation of their service.
The people in the tree I’ve been researching worked on the trains themselves. I learned that there was a specific progression to becoming an engine driver, starting with cleaning the engines in the locomotive shed, a seemingly menial task but one that develops a thorough knowledge of the engine. Next came fireman (stoking the engine) and shunting, and finally the ‘aristocrat of the railway’: the locomotive engine driver. Along the way were assessments and knowledge requirements. If you wanted to progress through the ranks you had to attend classes and study, and you had to be prepared to move to another company in a different part of the country for a promotion to the next level. Health & Safety was taken very seriously: throughout the engine driver’s working life he would be regularly tested for fitness and colour vision. All of this is borne out by the Service Record of one of the men whose life I’ve been investigating.
But there was a huge range of other activities: railway hotels; laundries; goods transfer facilities at harbours and docks; shipping to offshore and overseas destinations including the Isle of Wight, Channel Islands, Dutch and French ports; and buses – all owned and operated by the railway companies. And here’s a bit of trivia for you: the first time a dining car was operated on a train was during the 1870s, on the London Kings Cross service to Leeds.
By the end of the nineteenth century an astonishing 650,000 people were employed by the railway companies. Bearing in mind that working on the railway was a ‘job for life’, that’s a lot of people, many working for 30, 40 or 50 years. A lot of the records survive for employees, particularly for the 19th century, and their likely whereabouts is given in the book. I found a full Service Record for one of the people I was researching on Ancestry.
What I really wanted to know about, though, was the ‘community’; and my original hunch had been correct. Families that moved around the country for promotions, with sons following their fathers into the industry and maybe marrying the daughters of other railway men were known as ‘railway families’. The companies built and provided housing for their employees, close to their ‘home’ stations – and of course they employed bricklayers to do the work. (I found one of them in the family I was looking at too.) So it would be quite natural for sons and daughters of employees to meet and to marry. A sense of community was also encouraged by activities such as ‘Best Kept Stations’ and ‘Best Kept Gardens’ competitions. Plus there were early forms of employee insurance and free rail passes for employees and their families.
In conclusion, I now understand exactly why there’s a need for a book specifically about railway worker ancestors! I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about the work and way of life. The record location information, together with bibliography for further reading will be useful for anyone requiring more, but this little book covered all that I personally needed to know.