Paul Salveson talks of the military discipline on the railways in the nineteenth century

Resource Type: Audio | Posted on 22nd July 2011 by Liam Physick

Paul Salveson explains the militaristic ethos that prevailed on the railways in the nineteenth century, largely because the early railway managers usually had military backgrounds. As a result, they adopted a harsh and uncompromising attitude to any strikes: workers who did go on strike risked being sacked, imprisoned or permanently evicted from the company houses they rented. This approach in turn generated the seething discontent that would explode in 1911. He also mentions the London and North Western Railway, which in 1846 absorbed the Grand Junction Railway (which had absorbed the Liverpool and Manchester Railway the previous year), and which lasted until 1923, when it became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway

Interviewee: Paul Salveson

Interviewee Gender: Male

Interview Transcript

The people they recruited onto the railways, certainly drivers, were from often quite skilled backgrounds, but equally, a lot of the workers who came in to work on the track, who came in from, sort of, rural areas, and I think one of the very important things to say about the start of railway labour, if you like, there’s a very strong discipline had to be imposed on it, by the early railway management, who were invariably drawn from the military. So there was, right from the start, this, sort of, very militaristic discipline imposed on the railways, which was there throughout the nineteenth century, and even the twentieth century, when I was a young guard at Blackburn, where I got myself into trouble for leaving a freight train unattended at Warrington, I had to go through all this disciplinary procedure which was, very much, sort of, military in style, you know, I was, like, “You’re charged with elementary irregularity, what do you have to say for yourself?”, to admit guilt! But, one of the earliest examples of an industrial dispute on the railways took place on the Liverpool and Manchester in 1836, in Liverpool, when one of the drivers objected to the treatment of a, a young fireman – the driver’s called John Hewitt – and so he actually encouraged himself and some of his colleagues to go on strike, and for his pains, not only was he sacked, he was actually sentenced to do time in Kirkdale Prison, and spent four weeks on the treadmill and again, that really underlines the, sort of, military discipline that existed, and throughout the nineteenth century there were various attempts came and went to form trade unions, sometimes there were isolated strikes, there was a strike of goods porters at Tithebarn Street which is what, you know, became Liverpool Exchange station, the goods porters there came out on strike in 1851, and there were actually successful, the company, the Lancashire and Yorkshire, brought in strike breakers, but it turns out that they weren’t up the job, apparently, it must have been quite handy being a goods porter in Tithebarn Street, and so they, they completely failed, they didn’t understand the job, and the company caved in, it was a remarkable success, most of the examples of strike action during the 1850s and 1860s on the railways ended in defeat. Now, this was Liverpool and Manchester originally but quite early on it became absorbed into the London and North Western Railway, huge national conglomerate, based in Euston, the engineering headquarters was in Crewe, and Edge Hill depot was part of the LNWR. In 1871, a group of locomotive drivers on the southern section of London and North Western, based at Camden, went on strike, and they were sacked, but not only that, they lived in the, sort of, company houses that you can see in Edge Hill today, and so that they were there as tenants of the London and North Western their whole families were evicted, and never got their jobs back, never got their homes back. So these, these were the sort of conditions that pertained on the railways in the nineteenth century.

Tagged under: edge hill station, liverpool and manchester railway, railway workers, goods, freight, railway cottages, drivers, firemen, london midland and scottish railway, liverpool exchange station

Categorised under: Work & Industry

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