Hannah Reeves - Doctoral Student

The aim of this collaborative project is to use the idea of the 'railway family' as a way to add women and children into the story told at the National Railway Museum. This will enable existing female audiences and new ones to see themselves and their contemporary experiences echoed in the history of the railway and how its owners, managers, trade unions and individual workers constructed and sustained a notion of the railway as a family and how that resonated in the lives of the men and women who made the railway work. The research undertaken for the PhD will draw on material (text and objects) held in and beyond the NRM, including little-used company magazines and surviving sources relating to the neglected Railway Women’s Guild.

The premise of the PhD research, which sits at the heart of this collaboration, is that in many ways the railway has presented itself as a family - a patriarchal family. Until relatively recently it has been a gender-segregated industry, run and largely peopled by men with a small area of work deemed appropriate for women. The 'respectable family' of the time was replicated by the railway policy of a marriage bar on women workers for all but the manual trades such as cleaners, who were doing feminine 'domestic work'. At the same time the railway was a paternalistic industry. The family would look after its own, and that attitude pervaded the unions as well as the employing companies. So what was the role of the womenfolk (wives, sisters, daughters and mothers) of railwaymen? How did they see themselves and how were they seen by the main actors within the industry - the railway companies and organised labour? To what extent did the idea of the railway as a family enhance the industry?

This project explores both sides of the industry to compare how the railway family was constructed and sustained in the twentieth century up to nationalisation and how women responded to the expectations of them as 'railway women'. It will re-assess the nature of corporate paternalism on the railways in the period when this was being challenged by the rise of organised labour. In order to establish whether the 'railway family' was distinctive, it will ask: Did the railway workforce and management seek different ways to exploit the railway family and its female members in particular? What were women's responses to, and agency within, the changing railway family? What did women get out of the railway family and did the appeals to them continue to resonate as women became citizens and began to enter the workforce in greater numbers? This PhD offers the opportunity to explore the complexities of the railway family, as an idea as well as a practice, across a period when the railway industry was modernising but so was the family itself. In so doing women can be put back into the stories of the railway at a key point in its making. This, in turn, will lead to a better understanding of the culture that shapes the railway today.

Collaborators: National Railway Museum (as part of the Science Museum Group) and Keele University.

Supervisors: Professor Karen Hunt (Keele); John McGoldrick (NRM)