Railway towns

The towns that became dependent on the rail industry.

Wheel shop at Crewe Works, 1913. The wheels have been made with a mould and are being turned to smooth off the rims.
Credit: National Railway Museum

Once the railways had been built, they needed locomotives and rolling stock, and the workers to operate them. By 1900 over 620,000 people – nearly 5 per cent of the population – worked for the railways.

But railways also controlled workers and their families with an almost military discipline.

Working for the railways created a new sense of identity, through loyalty to a particular company, to a place, or to fellow workers. Railway companies had strong regional identities and workers often developed close ties to their employers, viewing themselves as ‘Great Western’ or ‘North Eastern’ men. And to begin with they were nearly always men – until the First World War, Britain’s railway workers were almost exclusively male.

Towns such as Swindon or Crewe became so dependent on the railways that they became known as ‘railway towns’. In some of the larger cities entire areas evolved to serve the railways, with ancillary workshops springing up to provide parts for major manufacturers in places like Hunslet in Leeds, Gorton in Manchester or St Rollox in Glasgow.

Companies in the railway towns exercised a strong, paternalistic influence, providing staff with housing, education and amenities. But they also controlled workers and their families with an almost military discipline. At Crewe in 1877, for instance, the London & North Western Railway ordered its workers to vote for company officials in local elections.

Although railway work created a sense of pride and identity, there was hardship too.  Railway companies sometimes operated with a ruthlessness that cost the lives of thousands of workers, who were being killed at the rate of nearly 500 a year in the 1880s and 1890s.

Railway workers formed associations and unions to improve their lot or to press for radical social change. Yet company loyalty and the division of labour hindered class solidarity. Each of the railway trades generated its shared identities, traditions and cultures, which meant that a signalman sometimes felt he had as little in common with a locomotive fireman as with an agricultural labourer.

The effects of this are still being felt today, in the complex and often bewildering industrial relations of Britain’s railways. Guards, station staff and drivers still negotiate separately with employers, and ‘demarcation’ disputes that have their origins in the nineteenth century cause strikes that frustrate twenty-first century passengers.

While ‘railway towns’ provided work and a sense of community, over-reliance on one industry left their citizens in vulnerable positions. When British Railways closed some of its works in the 1980s and 1990s local economies were devastated, and loyal railway families felt betrayed.

Shildon, for instance, had a tradition of railway building dating back to the 1820s. When its wagon works was shut down in 1984 over 2,600 jobs were lost, and the town has yet to recover fully from this devastating blow.

Railway identity, therefore, can mean many things. It encompasses company loyalty, class solidarity, a sense of place and pride in the job. As railways experience an unprecedented revival, the identities they create are as important now as they were when the first commercial railways began to operate nearly two hundred years ago.

Background: Class 87