When I was younger, like all teenagers there were so many options for careers in industry, engineering, and of course railways that were on offer, and amongst those was working on the railway – British Railways. Not everyone wanted to be on the footplate, and there were equally as many options for work across the industry in workshops, research, design, train control, telecoms, and later even computing.
In 1948, at the start of the BR era, the railways employed 648,740 staff at every level, and although only 3 years later this had fallen to 599,980, BR was still one of the biggest employers. In the early 1950s, traffic levels for passenger and freight was fairly stable, and modernisation had yet to start, there were the traditional footplate occupations, and engineering apprenticeships to encourage young people to join.
From 1948, until the late 1960s, BR produced a series of booklets, summarising what the railways did, and what jobs, training, progression, and health and social facilities were offered to the potential new recruits.
These booklets carried the same title throughout:
The wording of the 1953 booklet, produced just 5 years after nationalisation has some fascinating phrases, especially when compared with later editions, take this statement entitled: “Our General Policy”, for example:
Our policy is:-
- To give safe, speedy, dependable railway service at reasonable cost.
- To give the staff good wages, security, and conditions as good as is reasonably possible.
- To make British Railways pay their way.
The last point might seem, in the face of all the negative publicity to be a wish rather than a policy statement, but BR did pay its way in the 1950s, and indeed, in later years, and was not the economic disaster some claim. In 1953, Sir John Elliot’s introductory remarks included:
This same booklet just a few pages later urges new recruits to learn the routes of the railway system, and notes that the new starts own region contained maybe 3,000 route miles, or maybe more. Luckily the booklet came complete with a map of the entire system.
Some interesting cartoons were included, such as this one:
Hmm – “Cheerful obedience” eh? Maybe some of the old companies’ management styles were still around – I gather on the Western Region, railway staff were still referred to as the company’s servants. I know it sounds a bit odd to us nowadays, but despite the enormous changes taking place in the post-war society, some aspects took a while to die off.
Facts about BR for the new recruit in 1953
According to this booklet, total staff would be six times as many as went to an FA cup final match, or if all the steam locomotives were coupled together in a single continuous line, they would stretch from London to Cardiff, or Liverpool to Hull. On that same note, apparently:
“The total miles run by our locomotives in a year would be equal to about 21,500 times round the earth.”
“The tonnage of freight which starts a journey every working day on British Railways is nearly ten times the tonnage of the Queen Mary.”
Amongst numerous other facts, although the idea that any new sleepers used annually if placed end to end would form a plank between London and Calcutta (Kolkata today), seems an odd one.
The remainder of this booklet goes on to describe how the all six regions work, from signalmen, ticket collectors, lorry drivers, permanent way gangs, booking office and control office staff, station porters to workshops staffed by fitters, plumbers, electricians, etc. There are several pages about opportunity, either promotion within a department, or moving to another role somewhere else, but there is a particularly interesting comment about the influence of the private companies practice over the nationalised system. It was stated that it may not mean anything to the new start, but the old practices were still in place in almost everything said or done in 1953.
Maybe that was partly to blame for the Western Region’s enthusiasm a few years later for its chocolate and cream (ex GWR) livery on main line rolling stock, and its ultimately failed attempt to use hydraulic transmission systems for diesel locomotives.
Training was emphasised, along with opportunities for further education such as day release, or night school, for many engineering or craft apprentices. These training options lasted well into the 1970s, and have only recently seemed to die out – perhaps as Britain’s engineering industry began its long, slow decline.
Paragraphs about, pay security, recreation and welfare made up the remainder of the booklet, with details of the grading system, and arrangements, and the ever popular staff magazines and notices. The concluding paragraph sums up the BR approach – at least at policy making level – to the running of the railways:
Some of these ideas, policies, and practices changed significantly over the years, for a new starter on British Railways, and later British Rail. A decade later, the same booklet was produced, but this time, with a foreword by the then chairman of the British Railways Board – Dr Richard Beeching.
The change in tone from the tone of the introductory remarks in the 1953 edition is quite marked.
The language of Dr Beeching’s introductory remarks in 1963, showed that difference, and focussed on the changing times, and the upheaval in operations. The first sentence seems quite a contrast to the paternal, family friendly style of a decade earlier:
The brevity was continued:
“The organisation that changes is the organisation that lives, and British Railways are going to change fast to match the changing needs of the times.”
His last comment seemed to suggest the ‘new’ organisation wanted only those recruits who were able to bring or develop the skills needed to make and sustain technological change – with the carrot of promotion dangled much more obviously:
Fascinating, still generally paternal in approach, but now with little reference to public service, or stability. Perhaps rightly reflecting the very dramatic changes that Beeching and Marples brought to the railways, using the hook of new technology and promotion for those ‘bright minds’. The comment he made about needing to … “ design and operate new equipment” …. Suggested the door was closing on the old style railway workshops as engineering education and apprenticeships.
[15 railway workshops were closed between 1962 and 1966, with the loss of more than 12,000 jobs, but despite this, BR still managed to recruit apprentices, and the engineering skills were maintained and grown – for a time.]
There was clearly a theme that reflected the change that BR was undergoing, and technological progress was affecting the available career options, whether in engineering, traffic, or administrative roles. The prospect of secure employment on the railways was seen as diminishing, and yet BR was actively developing and inventing technology that is still in service today, and not just in the UK. BR was also still active in ferries and coastal shipping in the early 1960s, and operated cross-channel hovercraft services under the “Seaspeed” label, in partnership with SNCF.
So, yes, there were still prospects for those ‘bright minds’, but by the 1970s, with the exception of the ill-fated APT, and the extension of electrification from Crewe to Glasgow – as promised in the 1950s, things were beginning to slow down.
Jobs for the Boys
There were still jobs for the boys, with the occasional reference to women in clerical and secretarial roles in these “Welcome” booklets, and this gender divide was certainly in evidence in this 1961 edition, which opened with this comment:
That said, women were shown in these booklets in their stereotypical roles of the day, such as these examples from 1961 & 1963:
Each of these introductory booklets showed the layout of BR’s regions, and included a much larger map of the whole network, and perhaps that too, along with the free and ‘privilege’ travel, seen as an inducement to an adventurous career on the railway. The list of contents was equally wide ranging, and this is typical:
There were regional variations of these booklets too, and the example below is from the London Midland, and dates from 1961. The cover would look particularly patronising today, but as it is important to say, that was how society at work and play expressed its opinions on roles.
This particular booklet was issued by the LMR’s Traffic Department, and obviously focused on the roles that operated the trains. This included a variety of jobs from cleaner, through the other footplate roles, and you could start as telephonists, junior porters, messengers and letter sorters.
Pay & Conditions
In 1953, statements about pay were included in a section marked “WE and YOU”, which had become “Rewards and conditions” by 1963, but in both examples, the rates were agreed in negotiations with the trades unions. This included basic hours of duty, and overtime payments when necessary at a higher rate. The actual hours had changed too in the 1950s, and the ‘guaranteed week’ of 44 hours had been reduced to a 42 hour week by 1963 – for what was then called “wages grades”.
There was a mention of “Security” in 1953, which is not mentioned in later editions. However, the security refers more to the value of the “guaranteed week” – clearly no longer available to anyone on a “zero hours contract” in 2019 – and to sick pay and other “benevolent funds”. For BR’s new recruits in 1963 this was referred to under “Pensions and sick pay”.
Looking at the wages in the above list from 1966, it is difficult to relate to what this meant in practical terms, but a great deal of information provided to new starts covered pay, promotion routes, duties, responsibilities, health and safety, leisure and recreation. I wonder how much of that remains in place for many businesses today.