The war women who worked on trains

Women cleaning the smoking compartment of a steam locomotive (picture: National Railway Museum)

Women cleaning the smoking compartment of a steam locomotive (picture: National Railway Museum) - Credit: Archant

A century ago, Stratford was at the centre of the railway industry. And when war broke out, it was the women who stepped into the empty roles, as a new exhibition shows

Railway cleaners for LSWR (picture: National Railway Museum)

Railway cleaners for LSWR (picture: National Railway Museum) - Credit: Archant

Next time you get on a train, chances are all you’ll have to contend with is overcrowding, expensive fares and worrying about whether you’re going to be late.

A century ago, though, there were a different set of problems to contend with.

Across the country, 100,000 railway workers left their positions to serve their country in the First World War.

Despite this drastic loss of staff, the railway was to prove vital to the war effort.

Nurses by an ambulance train, 1916 (picture: National Railway Museum)

Nurses by an ambulance train, 1916 (picture: National Railway Museum) - Credit: National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Libr

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Trains were used to transport horses, military equipment, medical supplies and troops to ports across the country.

Already a bustling location, by 1915, Stratford’s role in the train industry was on the increase.

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It had one of five engine sheds in the country, covering the southern district of the Great Eastern Railway.

The Stratford works, located between the Great Eastern Main Line and Stratford to Lea Bridge routes, employed 6,500 people in 1912 and built 39 new locomotives that year.

During the war, a hospital train was built there, while a new engine repair shed was opened in 1915.

With so many men called away to fight – a fifth of whom would be killed in the war – the skills gap had to be filled.

Prior to the outbreak of war, around 13,000 women worked on the railway, mainly in domestic roles.

By the end of the war, this number increased to 70,000, working in a variety of positions.

Now the role of women in the war, and the sacrifices made by the men that left their jobs to fight, are being examined in an exhibition that is touring stations around the country.

Phil Hufton, managing director of operations at Network Rail, said: “Without the contribution of women, the railway could not have played such a significant part in the war effort.

“We owe a great debt to them and to the thousands of railway workers who fought.”

The exhibition will contain photgraphs, soldiers’ letters and memorabilia from the men who went away and the women who stepped up to fill their place.

Phil added: “It is important for us to know their stories and ensure that they are not forgotten.”

The free exhibition will be displayed at Charing Cross station until August 10, when it will move to King’s Cross until August 31.

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