Railway Workers’ Culture


Railway workers’ culture in Britain

Paul Salveson

This is a paper is inspired by the men I used to work with at Blackburn when I was a goods guard. My three years there were crucial to my own career, which has been strange and varied, and generally fun. It’s a is a salute to my educators, coupled with a question: does ‘railway culture’ still exist, nearly thirty years on from privatisation  and in an era of mass culture and dominance of TV and the internet?

Life at a Railway Depot in the 70s

Most of the men I used to work with as a guard were drivers who’d been raised as steam men at Lower Darwen and Rose Grove depots, in East Lancashire. The depots closed with the end of steam in 1968 and footplate staff were transferred to a new depot – or ‘signing-on point’ – at Blackburn station. I arrived, fresh out of guard’s training school, early in 1975.

I’m deeply grateful to many of the people I worked with, some of whom had a degree of cultural awareness I’ve not come across since, in academia, government, or railway management. This isn’t hero worship. The messroom didn’t resound to debates on Kantian metaphysics, nor the leading role of the proletariat in the socialist revolution (though I do recall a heated discussion on the merits of Beethoven versus Mozart!). But quite a few of the men were very well-read, some were skilled musicians, and lots had a real interest in the wider cultural world around them. Hardly any had a ‘formal’ education, and I can remember Sid Townsend (ex-Rose Grove, ‘Long Sid’) fulminating against the narrowness of modern university education, typified by a management trainee doing a stint as train crew supervisor. ‘He knows all abeawt ancient Greek history, but bugger all abeawt owt else’. Damned forever. Jack Bradley, ex-Lower Darwen driver, noted for his flat cap which was possibly older than himself, was a crossword expert. I don’t mean the Mirror ‘quick crossword’ but the Times, Telegraph and Guardian species. Raymond Watton, ex-Lower Darwen driver, introduced me to the joys of classical music, after having any interest in the subject knocked out of me at school. Raymond had a small amateur orchestra supported by the local Workers Educational Association and wrote occasionally for ‘The Gramophone’. John de Luca, ex-Rose Grove, was a member of a well-regarded local choir and was known to burst into song in the cab. Leo Kay, ex-Rose Grove, was an avid reader whose greatest passion was the work of D.H. Lawrence. ‘Don’t read him before you’re turned 40, you’ll not understand him’.

Several drivers and guards were good photographers, and we formed a ‘Blackburn S.O.P. Camera Club’ which met in the ambulance room. This was also the venue for the ‘MIC’ – Mutual Improvement Class, a unique example of self-education which had existed on the railways for over a century. Now it’s virtually died out, but in the 1970s it was still a strong and active movement. The focus was on technical aspects of railway operations and locomotive management, and the championships were strongly contested.

Many of the drivers and guards were experts on local history and could point out particular places of interest – especially on the Blackburn – Settle – Carlisle route. People like Ernie Lamb, Blackburn guard, had an amazing store of tales about the ‘S&C’ which I greatly regret never scribbling down. The oral tradition on the railway was still very strong. Some of the ‘old hand’ drivers and guards had careers stretching back to the late 1930s and they could remember the stories told them by their seniors. Lots of the men were part of railway families stretching back several generations. They were typical railwaymen: totally dedicated to the railways, and strong ‘union men’ at the same time. They saw themselves as the real protectors of the railway, with little time for most of the managers.

Blackburn depot wasn’t untypical, I’m sure. I worked with men from Carlisle, Crewe, Healey Mills (a rough lot it must be said), and shared messroom tables at Crewe and Carlisle with drivers and guards from much further afield. You would never be short of an interesting conversation, be it on railways, politics, gardening or the world in general. Equally, if you were into card-games you’d have lots of ‘schools’ to choose from.

Industrial culture

Is there a distinct ‘railway’ culture? Compare it with some traditional industries and it’s less obvious. The pits produced some good novelists and of course choral singers were legion in South Wales. The textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire had countless brass and silver bands, usually sponsored by the mill-owners. They also produced an immense flowering of dialect literature, mostly poetry. The railway companies did sponsor bands, and there were regular reports in the staff newspapers. I’d love to spend a few months researching all of them. Definitions of culture are notoriously difficult, and in this paper I use a tight definition which is really about ‘artistic creativity’ rather than ‘culture’ in the general sociological sense of ‘everyday life’. The remarkable tradition of station gardening should perhaps form the subject of another paper, or even book.

Proletcult: railway culture in Europe and the USA

Much railway workers’ culture in other parts of the world was highly political. The US Industrial Workers of the World produced dozens of songs about railroad life. Post-war Hungary, and the other ‘people’s democracies’ saw the growth of railway workers’ culture, supported by the new communist governments as shining examples of proletarian culture. And actually, it was. Hungarian State Railways (MAV) still sponsors a world-class symphony orchestra, which originally was entirely composed of working railwaymen and women. There are several local wind orchestras on the MAV network. In France, the CGT union and its Communist Party sister formed a world within a world. Union and Party created a culture of solidarity and class consciousness which was remarkably strong, and was forged in the heat of the war-time resistance. The CGT-owned ‘bourses de travail’ were the centres for a wide range of cultural activities, including song, drama and orchestral work.

Railway unions and culture

So what about here in Britain? The Labour Party has never been that much interested in ‘culture’. It was left to the tiny Communist Party to encourage, as much as it could, ‘worker writers’ in the 1930s. In the 1970s independent bodies like Commonword in Manchester supported some railway workers, like Joe Smythe, a Newton Heath guard.

Despite Labour Party indifference, the railway unions have a pretty good record of supporting their members’ cultural development. ASLE&F on occasions sponsored publications of members’ poetry and prose. ASLE&F was, and still is, an example of ‘craft unionism’ in which pride in the job as a watchword, and culture was not to be sneered at. F.W. Skerrett’s ‘Rhymes of the Rail’ was published by Goodall and Suddick – printers of ASLE&F’s ‘Locomotive Journal’ for decades. Skerrett was a fireman, then driver, at Patricroft shed, Manchester, in the 1920s. The book had a foreword by the union general secretary, John Bromley, who referred to the ‘American Brotherhood’s’ poet, Patrick Fennell (‘Shandy Maguire’). Bromley also mentioned that Skerrett read some of his work to the union’s AGMs in 1918 and 1919. Skerrett’s poems epitomise the craft consciousness of the footplate, and ‘Ode to the Driver’ is very much an assault on the ‘lesser grades’ of guard, signalman, and controller!

‘so kind and obliging to all other grades

That they take it for granted it’s part of your trade’

And then proceeds to have a go at each of them in turn! Some of his work is an echo, and tribute, to Burns – really the figure which towers over working class literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of his best poems is ‘The Fireman’s Growl’ which was revived by footplateman-singer Don Bilston in the 1970s.

‘It’s not all beer and skittles, this blooming job of mine,

And it’s not a bed of roses, isn’t firing on the line.

You don’t get too much money, you get lots of slack instead,

And they teach you how to work at night and earn your daily bread.’

Somewhere in my archives I’ve an early copy of ASLE&F’s ‘Locomotive Journal’, for about 1889, which gives details of the fascinating cultural world of the footplate. One of the Manchester branches was organising a ‘soiree’ which included female singers giving excerpts from ‘Lucia de Lammermoor’! ‘Smoking concerts’ were popular, invariably accompanied by suitably elevating songs.

ASLE&F was not the only union to take an interest in cultural matters. In one of the most remarkable literary events in working class literature, the Newton Heath branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, round about 1899, actually passed a resolution condemning the unsuitable ending of a novel by local writer Allen Clarke! The novel had been serialised in Clarke’s ‘Northern Weekly’ which was widely read by educated working men and women in Lancashire. The A.S.R.S. was the fore-runner of the NUR, and today’s RMT, and was instrumental in publishing ‘Songs of the Line’ by Walter Hampson, in 1905. Several of the poems had been published in the union paper, Railway Review. His poem ‘The ASRS Brotherhood’ is a sharp contrast to Skerrett’s sectionalism:

‘Of grade distinction it knows none –

No section, class or clan;

ALL railwaymen may come within

Its all-embracing span’

Branches of the Railway Clerks Association – now the TSSA – organised regular dances and concerts for their members. The London Divisional Councils held an annual concert for many years. The Glasgow branches formed a male voice choir in 1923, which became a mixed choir in 1925. Concerts helped to raise money for union-sponsored Labour Party candidates.

There is of course one cultural form which is at the very heart of trades unionism – the banner. The railway unions are no exception, and each of the ‘big three’ have superb examples of banner art, some of which are of great historical value as well as  artistic merit.

Bloody communists

Many of the outstanding railwaymen-writers were members of the Communist Party. Some were influenced by ‘worker-writers’ from the Soviet bloc though by the 1960s the rigid forms of ‘socialist relaism’ gave way to what was, in fact, a more ‘realistic’ approach to railway life. A truly outstanding writer was Bob Bonnar, an NUR locoman from Fife whom I had the pleasure of knowing back in the 1970s. He was elected to the NUR National Executive when I was avtive in the union, but I didn’t realise he was a talented novelist until many years later. His novel Stewartie was published in 1964 by the CP’s publishing house, Lawrence and Wishart. It is strongly influenced by the wonderful Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose Scots Quair is one of the truly great Scots novels. Bonnar’s novel is based on life at Thornton loco shed in the 1950s and features political conflicts within the union, particularly between right-wing careerist Labour people and – no surprise – the principled CP railwaymen typified by the hero, ‘Stewartie’.

Another talented communist railwayman/writer was George Chandler, a railway clerk and member of the Railway Clerks’ Association (later the TSSA). He started his railway career in Manchester in 1919, on the LNER, but moved down to London where he was based at Marylebone. He wrote fictional pieces about railway life in the RCA’s Railway Service Journal and also The Daily Worker, sometimes using the pseudonym of ‘A.P. Roley’ (geddit?). A fascinating writer whose short stories deserve re-publishing.

The oral tradition

A few songs have survived into the modern folk repertory. ‘Paddy Works on the Railway’ is a well-known Dubliners’ number, but was probably written mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier. ‘Moses of the Mail’, recorded by Ewan McColl, was probably written in the 1880s and was popular in the Manchester area of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. McColl also sings a lovely Scottish song about a mother soothing her young child and bidding her not to wake up dad, who’s working nights. And no, I can’t remember the title (but it’s maybe ‘Cannily, Cannily’). Some cultural activities survived in the folk memory. I can remember an old Bolton driver telling me about Saturday nights at Brindle Heath Sidings in the 30s, when one of the shunters entertained his colleagues with clog dancing demonstrations, often with instrumental accompaniment.

Cultural life in the railway towns

Some companies sponsored brass bands, and staff were given paid time off for rehearsals and performances. It’s arguable how much all this was subtle attempt by the employers to ‘incorporate’ their workers and keep them off the drink, and how much was a genuine effort to promote their employees’ cultural endeavours. Probably elements of both. In the bigger railway towns of Darlington, Crewe, Swindon, Derby and York  there was  a plethora of bands, small orchestras, amateur dramatic societies and the like. Darlington, heart of the North Eastern empire, for many years had a ‘Railwaymen’s Carnival’. The origins of this lie in 1886 when a goods guard died following an accident on the line. He could have survived if staff had been in attendance at the woefully under-funded hospital. The local trades unions banded together to organise a campaign to raise funds for the hospital and 5000 people attended a demonstration in support of the idea. The ASRS nominated one of their members to serve on the Hospital Committee, a position it held for many years. Hundreds of fund-raising events ere organised, but the carnival itself began in 1924, at the instigation of LNER staff. The company was strongly supportive and the LNER’s senior management was represented on the carnival committee, alongside Labour councillors and trade union officers. The first carnival showed the range of talent in Darlington’s railway community:

LNER Silver Band; LNER Military Band; Tableaux by North Road Erecting Shop, Coppershop and Pattern Shop

Each department of the railway, in the workshops, locomotive, station and permanent way, entered the carnival  – which became known as ‘The Railwaymen’s Effort’. Remarkably, the carnival went ahead in 1926, only weeks after the General Strike which had seen police baton-charges against striking railway workers at Bank Top station. The parade comprised over 1000 participants including the North Road Works Erecting Shop’s ‘Toy Drum Major Band’, hundreds of cyclists and numerous jazz bands.

The Darlington carnivals indicated the political and social dominance – hegemony – which railway labour began to exert by the 1930s, representing a marked departure from the stifling and oppressive atmosphere of some company towns in the nineteenth century (Webb’s Crewe being notorious but not exceptional). The town’s political and economic life, well into the 1960s, was dominated by the railway, and the ruling Labour councillors were overwhelmingly railway trades unionists. The same kind of hegemony was evident in other towns, where railway workers and their families formed a dominant force in local society. At Horwich, the railway ran through every aspect of life. The ‘RMI’, or Railway Mechanics Institute, was the focus of the town’s social, cultural and recreational activities. ‘The Works’ employed someone from most households in the town. The same could be said for small towns like Melton Constable, Inverurie and Carnforth which owed their growth, if not existence, to the railway. Each railway town would have a full gamut of artistic societies, orchestras, and bands.

The Cambrian’s ‘Ceiriog’, and the Sou-Western’s Inspector Aitken

Individual railwaymen, not particularly tied to trade union or political loyalties, produced interesting and important work. John Ceiriog Hughes, one of the most important figures in Welsh literature in the nineteenth century, was manager of the Van Railway in Mid Wales, after a spell as station master at Llanidloes on the Cambrian. The line could never be described as busy, and ‘Ceiriog’ undoubtedly had the time to write some of his poetry while at work. He is famous as author of ‘Men of Harlech’ and ‘Myfanwy Vychan’ amongst many other popular songs of the late nineteenth century. An interesting footnote to the history of locomotive sheds concerns the marriage of Ceiriog’s daughter in 1883. The wedding reception and dance took place in the locomotive shed at Van, decorated with ‘Chinese lanterns, flags, bunting and flowers’!

‘Ceiriog’s’ work could not be described as light or humorous. Few working men poets were given to levity. However, ‘Inspector Aitken’, of the Glasgow and South Western Railway, had a genuine sense of humour, reflected in some of his poems published in ‘Songs from the South West’ published in Glasgow in 1913. ‘Shifting the Pints’ describes the unexpected visit of a straight-laced inspector, who arrives to find the shunting yard deserted. The poem works on the Glaswegian similarity between ‘points’ and ‘pints’. The inspector notices the nearby pub, and enters, enquiring of four shunters, sat with their drinks ‘Is this where the shunting of wagons is done?’ – to which one of the gang replies:

‘with a face all agrin and a twinkling eye,

Comes  a laugh and a smile and a ready reply

From Bob the ball turner, whom nothing disjoints,

“If we’re not shunting wagons we’re shifting the pints’.

And of course there’s Branwell Bronte, drinking himself to oblivion whilst purporting to be station master at Luddendenfoot.

Modern Times

In the 1970s there were a number of railway workers writing poetry and prose. Perhaps the most important was Joe Smythe, a guard at Newton Heath and subsequently Manchester Victoria depot. Joe was part of the Commoword group of worker-writers in Manchester, and had work published in Voices, published by the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. A collection of his poems was published as ‘The People’s Road’ in 1981, almost co-inciding with the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Joe was able to take three month’s leave funded by the NUR to write a series of poems – not an easy job, as he explained in ‘Third Shunt’ – a poem about writer’s block! ‘New Song for an Old Dead’ celebrates the scores of navvies who died building the Woodhead line:

‘We knew the bitterness of death

from bitterness in life

Angels in a digging hell

Past hope of paradise’

Joe’s poetry was sharp, unromantic and powerful.

One of the railway’s most unusual virtuosos was, or is, Adrian Schofield. Champion Northumbrian pipe player, and former signalman. Adrian learnt to play the pipes whilst working nights at Bullfield West box, Bolton. He went on to become one of the country’s best, no doubt infuriating native Northumbrians with his Bolton accent and punk haircut.

Don Bilston, former Saltley fireman, wrote some brilliant songs about railway life towards the end of steam, as did Dave Goulder. Bilston revived Skerett’s ‘Fireman’s Growl’. Goulder wrote some moving songs about the end of steam and its human impact, as well as the jolly ‘I’d Like to be a Lengthman’. There’s a great collection of poetry by Scottish railway workers, published in the 1970s, called ‘Steam Lines’. It was put together by a retired Polmadie driver, William McLagan. He pays tribute to ‘the philosophers and dreamers, and comic singers – every footplate and bothy had a fair share of them’. There’s lots of entertaining stuff, some that’s maybe best described as doggerel. But I like some of it, doggerel or not, like this by Jock Barret:

I’ve finished oiling jumbos,

And I’ve done with driving pugs

I’m leaving all that nonsense to a thousand other mugs.

I canny get oot quick enough

As sure as I’m alive

I’m tying off and going home

For now I’m sixty five’ 

The period immediately before the end of steam encouraged several railway workers to take their cameras to work: Jim Carter, of Skerrett’s old shed, Patricroft, stands head and shoulders above most. His photographs of steam on the Diggle route, and shed scenes, are works of art. The locomotive is very much placed in its wider context. People, landscape, buildings figure, rather than standard three-quarter front views of engines.

Post-privatisation railway culture

Railway workers’ culture existed well before nationalization in 1948, and it would be ridiculous to say that ‘privatisation’ has somehow killed it. It’s out there, in lots of different expressions – music, literature, painting, drama. As long as there’s a railway, there will be railway culture but it will be very different from that of the past, if it is to have any meaning or relevance. Railway people retain a strong loyalty to their industry, and to the ‘railway community’. The same difficulties, of unsocial hours and the physical isolation of railway workers, remains – but these are not, and never have been, insuperable obstacles. In larger railway centres there will be bands, drama groups, choirs and other ‘collective’ cultural activities. Individual railway workers will continue to write, paint and perform.

While we should be supporting a ‘modern’ railway culture, it would be wrong to consign the cultural traditions of the past to obscurity. One of the great strengths of the railway industry is the ‘collective memory’. This has taken a very hard knock over the last ten years, and perhaps a lot of people are beginning to realise that not everything in ‘the old railway’ was irrelevant and out of date. This collective memory was above all the passing on of the unwritten aspects of the job, ways of getting the job done which could never be enshrined in the Rule Book or in a Group Standard. It was about a pride in doing the job well which goes back to the beginning of the railways. But that collective memory also included wider ‘cultural’ elements in perhaps the broader sense. Some of the young drivers at Huddersfield who work the Penistone Line proudly wear ‘Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’ badges alongside their ASLE&F insignia. They don’t need anyone to tell them where they’re from, and which part of the railway tradition they belong to – even though some of them never even worked for BR, let alone its predecessors. That sort of gives me hope. They’re keen, committed to the job and doing it well, and recognise that they’re part of a tradition stretching back generations. Any railway manager who doesn’t see that as a good thing should go and work for Marks and Spencers.

If railway culture isn’t dead, perhaps it’s too well hidden. As an industry we could do more to promote it – surely it’s in a railway company’s interest to support and show off the creative talent it employs? Why can’t the unions do more to support the cultural activities of their members, as they have done so well in the past? But there’s a limit to how much you can force artistic development – much state or commercially-sponsored culture can be bloody awful. In Britain there isn’t a tradition of supporting industry-based cultural activity – perhaps we should think about changing that. The railways would be a good place to start.


William (Inspector) Aitken ‘Songs from the South-West’ 1913

Philip Bagwell ‘The Railwaymen’ 1963

Derek Cornforth ‘The Railwaymen’s Effort’ n.d., c 1990

Lewis Cozens ‘The Van and Kerry Railways’ 1953

Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers ‘Voices’

John Gorman ‘Banner Bright’ 1973

Walter Hampson ‘Songs of the Line’ 1905

Joseph Jacquet ‘Les Cheminots dans l’Histoire Social de France’ 1967

Norman McKillop ‘The Lighted Flame’ 1950

William Mclagan (ed.) ‘Steam Lines’ n.d. c 1982

F.W. Skerrett, ‘Rhymes of the Rail’ 1920

Joe Smythe ‘The People’s Road’ 1981

Malcolm Wallace ‘Single or Return? History of the TSSA’ 1996

By Paul Salveson

Paul was born in Bolton in 1952, one day before the Harrow and Wealdstone rail disaster. He has had a varied career, mostly to do with railways, mixed in with adult education, journalism, politics and community development. After a 25 year exile he is back home in Bolton. He is a visiting professor at the Universities of Bolton and Huddersfield and chairs South East Lancs Community Rail Partnership

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