Tracing your railway ancestors – WDYTYA magazine

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of the railways in creating the Britain we know today. Before their invention, travel was a slow and arduous business and few people ventured very far from their homes. Once the railway age began, with the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester railway in 1830, people’s horizons opened up and travel soon became commonplace, even for the relatively poor. The railways ushered in the modern age and though their role in dominating transport has been taken over by the car and the lorry, their position in history is assured.

Within a mere 20 years of the first railway, there were 5,000 miles of line across Britain and the railways were fast becoming the nation’s largest industry, a position they would hold until well into the 20th century. Consequently, they were the nation’s biggest employer and during the railways’ long heyday, almost everyone must have known someone who worked in the industry. Some towns such as Swindon, Eastleigh and Crewe grew up solely because of the local railway works and therefore virtually all the men were railway workers.

In trying to track down family members with a railway connection, the workers can be divided into two main categories. First, there were the men who built the railways during the construction period which, with a few minor later exceptions, lasted between 1830 and 1900. They were called ‘navvies’ an abbreviation of ‘navigators’, the men who built the canals which themselves enjoyed a boom before the advent of the railways and were employed by contractors, initially local but later often run by men such as Thomas Brassie or Samuel Peto who built railways across the country and, indeed, abroad. The navvies were a distinct group men who travelled round the country wherever there was work available to construct the lines. They were proud people, who saw themselves as distinct from the ordinary labourers who were recruited locally and did not have the same level of skills. Not only were the navvies proud of their ability to work harder than the less experienced men, they could outdrink and outeat them and were prone to remarkable binges on their payday, spending all their money. At times, too, they took enormous risks, often working drunk as beer could be part of their pay, and consequently their death rate was high. As a result of the dangers and the excesses, many perished young and without issue, although some were accompanied by families who followed them around from site to site, often living in insalubrious conditions. The victims were usually buried nearby but their identity as railway workers was not always revealed in local burial registers, as they could be listed according to their skills as miners, bricklayers, tunnellers, masons or possibly to their ignominy, as mere ‘railway labourers’. It is impossible to estimate the number of navvies, but certainly at the height of the various railway manias, such as in the 1840s and 1860s, tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of men were building railways. There were, too, many agricultural workers who helped build the railways in their local area, perhaps only for a few weeks or months, but it far less likely that any record of their work on the railway is available. They were looked down upon by the navvies who considered them unworthy colleagues.

The second, and inevitably much bigger group, encompasses all the people who worked on the railway. There was an incredible variety, from platelayers and gangers who maintained the track, to porters and ticket collectors at the stations to the white collar workers behind the scenes, who counted the money or set the timetable, and of course, the elite, the firemen and drivers of the locomotives. There were, too, thousands of workers in the locomotive and carriage works, many of which belonged to the larger railway companies. The big railway companies were led by grand figures who owned or ran them, several of whom were also MPs or local figures of note such as mayors or aldermen. There were even men whose sole job was to go and wake up drivers and firemen who worked unsociable hours and had no means of keeping time.

The railway companies operated rather like armies. They imposed strong discipline on their peripatetic workforce, but also treated them, for the most part, with benign paternalism. A job on the railway was usually a job for life, provided the worker followed the rules which were many and varied. Offenders were sacked without hesitation. In 1848, the Great Western dismissed a clerk at Abingdon for betting on a horse, while on the London & North Western later sacked a ganger for going off to get a cup of tea. Many jobs required the wearing of uniforms, and not surprisingly this attracted many former members of the services to join the railways.

For some occupations, railway work was very dangerous job. The most perilous task was being a shunter, working in a train shed hopping between engines to move them around with the ever present risk of being run over. Porters on platforms, too, would often have to undertake the hazardous jobs of connecting or disconnecting carriages, not infrequently resulting in the loss of fingers or hands. Hundreds of workers were killed each year – for example, in the three years 1874-6, 2,249 workers were killed and more than 10,000 injured – and the names of the victims might be found in local newspapers.

For many years, the companies refused to take any responsibility for their workers’ deaths, perhaps merely paying out a few shillings to the widow, as they argued that it was the workers fault or ‘Acts of God’. It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that conditions began to improve, as the railway workers began to unionise and campaigned for reduced hours – which could be up to 60 or 70 hours per week with no overtime paid – and better wages. Railway accidents in involving passengers were less frequent, but nevertheless routinely accounted for more than a hundred people in a year and were investigated by the Board of Trade which published detailed reports on them.

The railways in the United Kingdom were built by a wide variety of private companies, big and small. Some merely constructed a little branch line of a few miles, while others soon developed large networks. Clearly in trying to track down relatives, the larger companies were more likely to have accurate records which survive today. Smaller companies were often later incorporated into larger ones.  Eventually, after the First World War, the railway companies were mostly – there were a few exceptions – consolidated into four giant concerns: the London & North Eastern, the London, Midland Scottish, the Great Western and the Southern –  and then the railways were nationalised under British Railways in 1948.

The records of all these companies are a great source of information and the Ancestry website has recently put on line a wide range of records from several of the larger railway businesses. The Great Western, the only railway company that existed in the same form from its creation until nationalisation is particularly well covered, but there are also records from nine other companies, including all four post grouping businesses, as well as the Retired Railway Officers’ Society. The other principal source is the National Archives which have a fantastic range of records.

In his book, The Railwaymen (David & Charles, 1984), R.S. Joby estimates that at the height of the railways in the period immediately after the First World War, there were 750,000 workers, a remarkably high proportion of Britain’s population which, at the time, was around 45m. By the time the railways were nationalised as British Railways in 1948, there were still 620,000 people employed by the railways. In addition, there is the London Underground which employed up to 30,000 people at its peak and before the creation of London Transport in 1933 was split into various companies. There is, therefore, a good chance that stretching back up to half a dozen generations, someone in your family worked on the railways.

Women on the railways

Women only started being employed on the railways in significant during the First World War when the government made the mistake of not ‘safeguarding’ railway jobs and consequently allowing 184,000 railway workers to join the army. Before then, women had been largely confined to working as crossing keepers, often on the death of their husband, toilet attendants in ladies conveniences, or laundresses, unlike in some European countries where they had been taken on as ticket clerks and secretaries. In the First World War, they were initially allowed only to take up jobs like carriage cleaners and clerks, but as increasing numbers of men left for war, they made inroads into traditional male roles, such as porters and ticket collectors, jobs for which initially they were deemed unsuitable. There were even, eventually, a smattering of signal workers but they were never allowed on the footplate even as ‘firemen’, let alone drivers. On the London Underground, women were permitted to serve as guards, however, and the newly opened Watford section of the Bakerloo was almost entirely run by women because of the shortage of men. These pioneering women had to overcome widespread hostility from the remaining men and even from the unions and their exploits were widely reported in the press. Gradually, though, they came to be accepted.

After the war, most, often reluctantly, were made to give way to the returning menfolk. In the second world war, women were again taken on in large numbers and this time many stayed on afterwards. It was not, though, until the 1980s that women were was able to overcome opposition to be allowed to become a guard on a train or to drive one. Today, there are several women are chief executives of train operating companies or have senior roles in Network Rail, the infrastructure company. The subject of women in the railways was much neglected until the publication of the book Railwaywomen by the woman who was the first British Rail guard, Helena Wojtczak (Hastings Press, 2005) which contains many anecdotes about women workers on the railways.

Watch out
One notable feature of railway work is that jobs were often kept in the family. Railway jobs were often keenly desired and many sons of railway workers followed the footsteps of their father into the same company. So if you find one relative, keep looking – there may be more.

Top tip
The first thing to do when trying to track down information on your ancestor, is trying to ascertain what railway company they were employed by. Before 1923, there were over 200 and many were very local. So start with finding the address where they lived and then trying companies that operated nearby with the help of a railway atlas.

Some useful sources

There are literally tens of thousands of books on the railway, and many tell the story of just one company or even a single branch. These very locally focussed books can be great sources of information if you know where your relative worked. Most are listed in George Ottley’s A Bibliography of British Railway History.

If you want to know a bit more about the overall history of the railways to get you started, my book Fire & Steam, a new history of the railways in Britain provides a concise overview of the growth and role of the railways from their creation until the present day which may help to guide you to the right area.

There are numerous railway museums around the country. The two biggest are the National Railway Museum in York (Leeman Road  York, North Yorkshire YO26 4XJ; 0844 815 3139, ), which now has a ‘Search Engine’ open to the public with very helpful archivists. The other is the London Transport Museum (Covent Garden Market  41 Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2E 7BB; 020 7379 6344  which has a library (visit by appointment) which contains a unique collection of staff magazines stretching from 1913 to the present day. Brief references to individual staff are typically found in notices of retirement, obituaries or social activities.
Record round-up
Researching information on railway relatives can be particularly fruitful as there are numerous major sources of information and lots of potential routes to explore. The first place to start is The National Archives at Kew  (Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU;  020 8876 3444 ) which holds a very wide variety of records  Most basically, these consist of staff registers and record cards, and pension details. Other potential sources include station transfers, accident records (which can include death date), apprentice records (which can include father’s name), caution books, and memos. Records will typically list an employee’s name, station, position, birth date or age, and various other details, such as salary, date entered service, and transfer information.  Records from more than 120 companies are available, including very small and obscure railways, such as the Brandling Junction Railway, which only operated for the seven years up till 1843, eventually being incorporated by the much larger North Eastern Railway which in turn became part of the London & North Eastern Railway. This example shows how it can be difficult to work out precisely for whom an ancestor may have been working. As mentioned in the main text, records from some of the larger companies have now been put on line at the Ancestry website ( ). The National Archives also have a range of railway periodicals – there was at one time about a dozen periodicals covering the railway industry – which were formerly held by the British Transport Historical Records Office library.  As well as the railways, they cover London Transport, waterways and docks and road transport. For staff records of Scottish or Northern Irish railway companies, you have to consult the relevant national archives. The National Archives of Scotland (H M General Register House, 2 Princes Street Edinburgh EH1 3YY; 0131 535 1314 ( not only houses a variety of company records but has several collections of private papers relating to specific companies which may prove useful. Similarly, the Northern Irish records are at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI)
2 Titanic Boulevard, Belfast, BT3 9HQ 028 90 534800 .

The Search Engine at the National Railway Museum is another fruitful source of information and the website ( has a wonderfully helpful step by step guide to tracking down your ancestors. The records there include many very evocative audio recordings from railway workers, bringing to life their jobs and their stories. The Search Engine has numerous unique records such as rolls of honour of railway workers who perished in the two world wars, and a very comprehensive set of magazines and periodicals.

Railway workers were one of the most highly unionised groups, starting in the last quarter of the 19th century and consequently their name may turn up in union records. Trade union records are now held at the Modern Records Centre which is part of the  University of Warwick in Coventry. There is a special section for railway workers (Modern Records Centre, University Library, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL; 024 7652 4219 Be careful. There can be confusion about what union your ancestor may have belonged to. For example, while most engine drivers belonged to ASLEF (the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) others joined the rival National Union of Railwaymen.

For London Transport workers, some early records are held at the London Metropolitan Archives 40 Northampton Road, London EC1R OHB; 020 7332 3820) while others are with Transport for London (TfL Historical Archives, Ground Floor, Wing-over-station, 100 Petty France, London, SW1H 0BD: 020 7918 4535)
There is also which is designed specifically to help people find their railway ancestors.

Scroll to Top