Newly digitised historic records document the history of the British rail service through the lives of its employees – Ancestry.co.uk
* Two million railway employment records detail the people who made the Industrial Revolution possible
* Records hark from a time when ‘Train Driver’ was one of the most coveted careers
* Accident books reveal how dangerous the rail service was and caution records show how staff were reprimanded for mistakes
* Details from the ‘big four’ companies; Great Western Railway, London, Midland and Scottish Railway, London and North Eastern Railway and the Southern Railway
In a world-first, Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s favourite family history website,1 in partnership with The National Archives, today launched online the Railway Employment Records, 1833 – 1963, a historic collection containing the employment-related records of British railway workers dating back to the invention of the locomotive in the early 19th century.
Billed as the ultimate train-spotters’ collection, the records tell the story of how the rail service grew during the Industrial Revolution and shows staff striving to ‘make it’ as one of the most desirable professions of the Victorian era – a train driver.
The collection of 1,998,159 records goes into intricate detail, listing not only name, home station and date of birth of the employee, but also information on their career progression, salary increases, rewards, fines or suspensions for misbehaviour and notes from superiors on the worker’s character and behaviour.
The records date from 1833, a time when the Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was in its infancy and the Stockton & Darlington line (opened in 1825) had been running for a little under a decade. By the middle of the 20th century, the entire rail network encompassed 6,000 stations and covered over 21,000 miles of track, with its development widely hailed as the primary catalyst for Britain’s industrial growth.
While today many young people aspire to be professional footballers or actors, during the rise of the railways, the role of ‘Engineman 1st Class’ (train driver) was one of the most coveted jobs available to the masses. As a result, men would join the service as labourers, cleaners or attendants and work their way up, often taking 20-25 years before controlling their own train.
However, unlike today’s dream jobs, the role hardly delivered fame and fortune, with the average wage of a train driver in the late 19th century standing at around 8/- a day – equivalent to around £10,000 a year today.2
Working in the railway service in the 19th century was also extremely dangerous as the country got to grips with this ‘new technology’, which is shown in the lists of injuries and fatalities documented in the archive going online today. Prior to 1900, there were approximately 98 major accidents resulting in hundreds of fatalities and over 2,000 serious injuries, all recorded by safety staff in meticulous detail.
With stakes so high, the rail companies introduced a series of strict reprimand systems whereby staff members were punished for behaviour that was deemed irresponsible or dangerous. These varied from minor fines (often of a shilling or two) to major disciplinary actions where the worker would be suspended without pay or fired.
Examples of misdemeanours found in the records include workers being ‘inebriated’ while at an engine, drivers demoted for running red signals and staff fighting amongst themselves whilst on duty.
At the same time, rail workers were actively rewarded for taking action that prevented possible accidents, with the good deed marked in red ink on their personal records and rewards of up to two weeks wages issued. As a result of this system and the advancement of rail safety, the early 20th century rail service became a safer place to work (and safer for passengers too).
The rail networks were brought under government control for the first time during WW1 but were returned to private ownership immediately afterwards when the bulk of the system was in the hands of the so-called ‘big four’ – the Great Western Railway, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, the London and North Eastern Railway and the Southern Railway – all of whom have thousands of former employees listed in this collection.
During the WW2, the companies had to join together to operate as one as the war effort put a severe strain on the railways’ resources and created a substantial maintenance backlog – part of the reason why the government brought the rail service into the public sector in 1945.
In fact, the majority of employment records in this collection date around this period (1947), although a number date up to 1963.
Ancestry.co.uk International Content Director Dan Jones comments: “These records shed light on what it must have been like to work on the railways in its early years – a dangerous job with strict rules and severe reprimands for error, but with the promise of reaching that highly coveted role as an engine driver.
“The level of detail within the records is also staggering, which means family history enthusiasts can gain a real insight into their ancestor’s character – be it through records of promotions and rewards or perhaps punishments and demotions.”
Caroline Kimbell, Head of Licensing at The National Archives, said: “The Railway Employment Records are one of the largest and earliest archives of civilian trades in the UK. The records reveal fascinating stories about life on the railways from their early, dangerous beginnings to their heyday as a key component of Britain’s Victorian infrastructure, and reflect the significance of the railway companies as huge employers in both towns and country. Many families will find railway ancestors here, and the level of detail in these records make them a valuable online resource for historians and rail enthusiasts alike.”