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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, September 2003 Contents

Berkshire Family Historian
September 2003

Staff records of the GWR - God’s Wonderful Railway’

Tom Richards
The Victorian period has often been described as ‘The Railway Age’. Between 1836 and 1837, 1,500 miles of new railways were authorised by Parliament. By 1843 there were 2,000 miles in operation. This set the scene for the railway mania between 1845 and 1848 when Parliamentary Acts were passed for the building of 9,000 miles of track. At the height of the mania in 1847 in excess of a quarter of a million men were employed in railway construction. By 1847 permanent staff employed by the railway companies numbered 47,000, rising to 112,000 by i86o and reaching 275,000 by 1873. These would have included drivers, guards, labourers, officers, clerks and stationmasters.

The main repository for records of railway staff in England and Wales is the Public Record Office at Kew in London. Those for Scotland are at the National Archives for Scotland in Edinburgh. Others are held in county record offices, city libraries and universities. The Darlington Railway Centre (Ken Hoole Archive), for example, holds registers of North Eastern Railway drivers at depots from Berwick to Hull c.1880-1930 and some NER Pension Society record cards. Material ranges from the extensive records of the Great Western Railway and the London and North Western Railway at Kew to a single item held by the Isle of Wight Record Office listing staff affected when the Freshwater, Yarmouth and Newport Railway was absorbed into what became the Southern Railway in 1923.

Many records are now accessible through transcription by volunteers. For example, the 36,000 names of Cambrian, Great Western, London & North Western and joint London & North Western and Great Western staff, in registers at the Cheshire Record Office, have not only been transcribed by volunteers but made available on the Record Office website. Among others processed by groups and individuals are the Peterborough Rail Workers Register, lists of railway workers in Cumbria and a growing archive of London & North Western Railway staff. What follows is a guide to some of the staff records available for the Great Western Railway and where they may be examined.

Illustration - Speed to the West poster

The Great Western Railway General Appendix to the Rule Book, dated 1 August 1936 included instructions on a wide range of subjects from the contents of passengers’ breakfast, luncheon and tea baskets to arrangements connected with engineering works at weekends. It also contained instructions regarding the length of time old books and papers should be kept and among those to be retained permanently were staff records and associated correspondence.

Staff records were maintained in the Staff Sections of the various departments of the Company and in due course the vast majority were deposited with the Company’s Registrar of Deeds and Records at 66 Porchester Road, Paddington. Most staff records were kept in large ledgers, but some, particularly those for workshop staff, were kept on cards. They include details of an individual’s date of birth, when he or she began work and position with subsequent increases in salary or wages, promotions, offences and punishments and date of retirement, dismissal or death.
Following nationalisation the GWR and other companies’ records were merged, with the formation in 1953 of British Transport Historical Records and in 1972 those for railways in England and Wales were transferred from Paddington to the custody of the Public Record Office at Kew. Little of the ‘associated correspondence’ has survived, but the GWR staff records form a large part of the Public Record Office railway holdings and are contained in Series RAIL 250, 252, 253, 256, 257, 258, 264, 1014 and 1057. These range from single items in RAIL 252 and RAIL 256 to a huge amount of material in RAIL 264.

Staff engaged as junior clerks, aspiring to higher things and new entrants, were required to attend at Paddington to sit an entrance examination set by the Officers’ Examining Committee. This included composition of a formal letter to the Directors, dictation, shorthand and some complicated mathematics. If they passed the examination they were then interviewed by a group of Directors for formal appointment. Listings of records of these appointments from 1835 are contained in RAIL 264.
RAIL 264 also contains no registers, dating from 1838, for drivers and firemen, also Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Department staff at stations and depots throughout the system and a variety of other Departments’ records. These include paybills for Reading station staff 1876-77 (piece 429), a 1902 register of staff at the Reading Signal Works (piece 428), and Traffic Department uniformed staff including porters, signalmen, guards and shunters.

Of particular value in RAIL 264 are listings of groups of Traffic Department staff in Wales between 1861 and 1923 and those in the Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Department employed by companies in South Wales who were absorbed into the GWR in the amalgamations in 1923. Accidents to staff are listed in RAIL 264 for 1911, 1913 and 1914, pieces 445, 446, and 447 respectively, and enquiries and reports into staff accidents 1916-1918 are included in piece 448.

The various RAIL groups are not specific for Departments or locations of staff. For instance RAIL 1014 includes staff employed in the Secretary’s Office between 1863 and 1866 (piece 6/39), a letter in 1906 from an Irish youth asking for an appointment (piece 8/16/2) and papers relating to James Hurst, the first GWR driver 1842-1890 (piece 8/3).
The GWR attached importance to apprenticeship, educational and social activities. RAIL 264 includes registers of Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Department apprentices from 1861 to 1947, including registers of the Swindon and North Wilts Technical School. RAIL 258 contains a variety of items relating to pension and other funds, including housing loans to individuals and public utility societies between 1923 and 1947, piece 498.
GWR magazine

A valuable resource at the PRO is the collection of GWR magazines. Listed under ZPER they include the earliest from 1862 to 1864 (ZPER 85) and from 1888 through to nationalisation (ZPER 19). From modest beginnings information on staff promotions, retirements and death increased steadily, in later years occupying almost half of the print area, accompanied in many case by photographs. Mr David Colcomb of 38, Roundway Park, Devizes SN10 2ED, is working his way through the GWR magazines, extracting names in reports of presentations, retirements etc. From the records of the GWR Enginemen and Firemen’s Mutual Assurance Society and Superannuation Society he has extracted details of 41,000 members. Mr Colcomb will deal with postal enquiries on receipt of a stamped addressed envelope and a donation to the Dorothy House Hospice.

The Public Record Office is not the only repository of GWR staff records. The Cheshire Record Office, for example, holds records of Traffic Department staff in the Chester Division between the 1880s and 1950s (NPR2/23) also Goods and Traffic Department staff in the Central Wales District, c.1900s-1950s (NPR2/22). The records are now available on the Cheshire Record Office website. The Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office at Trowbridge holds registers of clerical and supervisory staff of the Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Department and the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s Department at works and stations at various locations (2515/300), also a register of Stores Department staff at various locations (2515/300).

The term ‘railwayman’ is a generalisation and we must not overlook the thousands of women who also were railway employees and whose work in two world wars was vital. A frequently asked question is why individuals became railway workers. For many it was a case of following father and grandfather. particularly in railway factories and workshops — I have recently heard from a former GWR signalman whose grandfather, father, three uncles and a brother all worked for the GWR, a total of over 373 years. For some it achieved a childhood ambition, while for others it was pure chance. I had no railway
background but in June 1939 in my last term of school at Penzance the Civil Service Entrance examination for which
several of us were entered, was suddenly cancelled due to the international situation, followed closely by a vacancy in the GWR booking office at my home town of St Ives.

Railwaymen of my era are probably the last generation to have staff histories entered in large ledgers, and by encouraging others to record details of their railway service we can leave for our descendants our links with a service of which we were proud. Researching Great Western Railway records at the Public Record Office can be time-consuming, but turning up that elusive piece of information can be an occasion for celebration.

Tom Richards joined the Great Western Railway as a lad clerk in 1940 and after working in the Operating and Planning
departments retired in 1982 as a Senior Officer at the Paddington headquarters of BR Western Region. The fourth edition of his recently-published directory of railway staff archive sources Was Your Grandfather a Railwayman? is available from the Society Bookshop.

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created 9th September 2003