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My First Few Months as the First Woman Guard

March-July 1978

by Helena Wojtczak, St Leonards, Sussex, UK


As someone who had struggled to get up for school, the next challenge after passing my guards' course was to be punctual for early turns, which began between 0400 and 0600. I had to go to bed at the absurd time of 8 pm and Ray, my partner, would rise at 3am and bring me tea, to make sure I got up. I purchased a moped to get me to work, but the instant I mastered it, I found it unbearably gutless. Within weeks I'd bought a nippy Kawasaki which I cherished, but red-lined at every opportunity. After riding through silent, dark streets the fluorescent lights at Wimbledon Park depot seemed impertinent and its cheerfully chatting inmates grated on my nerves. I collected my guard's kitbag and a mug of strong tea, squinted at a list to find my train's location and strolled across to the bleak sidings. Having no BR station attached to our depot, we ran empty to Waterloo or another terminus to begin passenger service. This gave me twenty minutes or so to become fully awake and to organise the necessary paperwork for the duty.

Throughout the guards' training programme detailed procedures for dealing with every possible emergency were drummed into us so thoroughly that for weeks after qualifying I was in a state of continuous vigilance throughout every journey, expecting a catastrophe to befall me at any moment. After a couple of tense weeks, I noticed that nine out of ten journeys passed without incident, and I relaxed enough to take up the guards' universal hobby: reading the newspapers left on trains. It became my favourite daily pursuit to read every national paper, and to complete the Daily Telegraph crossword. I also took the opportunity to supplement my meagre education by reading a huge number of books.

At each station passengers, news-stall proprietors, cabbies, station staff, postmen and kiosk staff would nudge each other and point at the "lady guard". Many just stared and muttered to each other. Those who addressed me asked a lot of questions. Why did I, as a woman, want to be a guard? Why was BR employing female guards? Did I work the same hours as men? Was I expected to deal with emergencies? When told that I received equal pay, some people objected, arguing that men deserved more because they are breadwinners and, besides, they paid for everything on dates. I replied that I preferred to earn the same and go Dutch, and was labelled a 'woman's libber'.

My colleagues aired their comments about female staff freely and profusely. Among groups of railwaymen crude and sexist banter abounded, and many laughs were had at my expense. There were incessant references to bra-burning and endless speculation about liaisons in driving cabs at night. As a sensitive and fairly shy teenager, being the subject of such ribald teasing made me feel profoundly humiliated and powerless but rarely could I escape: a gang of track-men might be in my brakevan or perhaps I was waiting with station staff for my train to arrive. Building a shell of defence would look like sulking, so it became essential to arm myself with a selection of put-downs and wisecracks. With time and experience my self-confidence increased and I soon developed an array of retorts so impressive that I was able to emerge from such situations as victor, not victim. I also received a number of lecherous propositions when alone with individuals and it was perhaps sour grapes on their part that led to the appearance of obscene graffiti about me on brakevan walls.

I always felt disconcerted, even traumatised, by pre-dawn starts and found late turns and nights a great relief. My group - or "link" was the beginners' link. It consisted of the earliest "earlies", the latest "lates" and all the night turns. Later in the year I discovered that my favourite duty was the Sandite/De-icer which, if it ran, started at 8pm and, with judicious reorganisation of its timetable, finished by midnight. We had several "spare" turns, in which we were ready to step in if trains were disrupted or a colleague was late or sick, and many lates and nights contained trains that ran "if required". Whole duties were therefore frequently spent reading, or playing cards and games in the messroom until released early by the Controller, usually after four hours. This was seen as a perk to compensate for such unsocial turns. The senior links' duties were closer to "normal" hours, for example 7am to 3pm or 12 noon to 7pm. While this was more compatible with family and social life, the duties contained mainly passenger-trains and no opportunity for early release. (Each time my turn came for link promotion I declined, and was still in the beginner's link when I left Wimbledon Park ten years later.)

All our stock was electric, but we had a good range of different units including the 1940s-built SUBs. These were primitive, and working them required special skills and, sometimes, nerves of steel. Firstly, they had no intercom between guard and driver; our method of communication consisted of a red and a green flag and a steel Bardic lamp with three colours. However, only the green was of any use; it was pointless waving a red at the driver if he wasn't looking. If a reckless passenger flung a door open after the train had started I had to spring across the van and slam down the red brake handle, which brought the train to a shuddering halt as I clung to the window-bars. When the train stopped, I'd look out in dread, half-expecting the idiot to have fallen down the gap and be horribly mangled. (Luckily, this never happened on any of my trains.) On a sharply-curved platform, I walked yards from the train in order to obtain visual contact with my driver, waved the green at him, and darted frantically back to the brake-van, often having to leap in as the train moved away. (Guards were sometimes left behind: some drivers saw this as an achievement.) After enduring this hair-raising procedure a few times, a kindly driver let me into a secret: waggling the light trip-switch made a clicking noise in the front cab indicating that I was safely back in the van. There was no access to passenger compartments from the van and no public address system, so if we were delayed between stations I'd walk the track, yelling up at the windows to tell passengers what was happening. At termini the SUB's paraffin tail lamp had to be swapped from one end to another. If the lamp was not on the platform side, I had to open the offside cab door and, dangling from the train with one hand, grope around the outside, unhook the lamp, and swing myself back inside, then carry and reattach it to the other end. We were even issued with a box of matches with which to light it.

On nights we moved empty stock between depots, usually spending the journey in the front cab. In common with other guards I was invited to drive. The instant dismissal this would entail was not completely disregarded; we tended to do this only at night, and would swiftly swap places if there was any danger of being observed by other staff, for example if we had to stop and speak to a signalman or shunter. Though nervous at first I soon became accustomed to driving non-stop to Portsmouth every night for a week, at speeds exceeding 90 mph, and over the months I gained experience of driving every type of electric stock. Compared with roads, railway lines are very dark. I found it hard to judge the distance to a red signal and always stopped too soon, as they seemed to advance towards me out of the blackness. As much as I loved driving illicitly, with the driver chatting to me from across the cab, I had no yearning to switch jobs. Sitting alone in the dark for hours on end was not for me, and I knew that, once the novelty had worn off, I would have found it unbearably tedious.

The cosy, feminine world of the telephonist drifted off into my past. Now, being outside, in all weathers, day or night, and dealing with heavy, dirty equipment and potentially dangerous situations was my normal daily experience. Every duty was different and there was a huge range of situations to cope with. Sometimes I'd find my brakevan packed with dozens of heavy mailbags and, at some locations, it was my duty to unload them unaided. Investigating smoke coming out of a train window one night, I discovered a cushion had been set ablaze by an arsonist and was able to put my fire-training to good use. Despite shaking with fright I was pleased that I extinguished it without help from anyone. Then, one Saturday midnight on arrival at Clapham Junction with a busy train, I ran towards someone yelling for the guard. Two huge drunken Englishmen were beating up two American tourists. Without thinking, I intervened by edging between them and, in a flurry of blood, broken spectacles and torn clothing, raised my arms to push the aggressors away while bellowing at them to break it up. Their astonishment at my audacity stopped them in their tracks and the victims ran away. The emergency over, I realised that all the passengers were staring at me and so I slid off, embarrassed, back to my guard's van, and reflected on the episode. In truth, I was a little taken aback at my own boldness.

Sometimes I acted as second-man on a diesel engine; more often I guarded diesel-hauled trains. We always had to prepare these. Walking between the trains in a dark, rat-infested Victorian train yard, by the light of my hand-lamp, I'd kick the brake pads where they touched the wheels to establish if any handbrakes were screwed on. If so, this entailed climbing into the train and unscrewing a huge horizontal steel wheel which often required considerable effort to release. A battered, grease-ridden paraffin lamp would be collected from the dismal Clapham Yard shunters' lobby and I'd struggle to hang it on the rear of the train. Standing on a rail, on tiptoe, balancing the lamp on the tips of my fingers, I held my breath and stretched my body to its utmost length in order to hook the lamp over the bracket. Leaning across the buffer I invariably smeared my jacket with gelatinous black gunge. After a hand signal to the driver I performed a brake test, which involved unleashing an unruly and filthy vacuum pipe. This sprung wildly from its bracket and sucked air into the system. Having replaced it, I'd take my place in the secondman's seat in the engine. (For the connoisseur, these were Class 33 or 73s.) The cab quivered so appallingly it bounced your teeth together and it was so noisy that conversation was impossible. Ex-steam carriages were generally taken to Fratton by a diesel engine and used for football specials. The first time I guarded one I took advice from more experienced colleagues and cowered in the brakevan while rowdies ran amok and bellowed their songs. I leaned out of my window as we arrived at Waterloo. I was mortified to see that, from almost every window along my train, a hooligan was proudly dousing the platform with urine. On returning the train to Clapham yard I found windows smashed, cushions slashed and compartment and toilet walls smeared with human excrement. This was left to carriage cleaners mainly women to clear up. No guard did any task that was not his/her responsibility.

The difficult and unpleasant episodes were outweighed by the good times. I fell in love with the railway and felt thoroughly at ease on the track and the stations, and in trains and messrooms. I came to love the stillness and silence of a country station at night as I stood motionless on the platform, waiting for time or for the red signal to change. I began to develop a sense of history and began to notice the architecture and to appreciate that tunnels, cutting, bridges and viaducts were remarkable feats of 19th century engineering. I became aware of continuity; of travelling on a permanent way more than a century old, over which had passed so many famous and infamous people. I felt connected to the generations of railway guards who had worked over the same track and faced the same responsibilities.

My personal life was greatly affected by my shiftwork. My partner, Ray, and my friends worked office-hours. Late turns finished too late to go out, and on earlies I retired to bed at 8pm, just as the evening social activities began. Ray and I, who had been near-constant companions for four years, now saw each other mainly in passing. Our only quality time together was evenings before my nightshifts, and one Sunday per fortnight. Soon I began to meet railway colleagues socially during the day, while Ray continued to socialise in the evenings. I joined colleagues for rail trips around Britain; Ray went away for the weekends while I worked. Soon, each of us had a set of new friends the other had never met.

I'd been a guard for a few months when one rainy evening a homeward-bound commuter alighted at Strawberry Hill and, pointing to a soggy Evening Standard asked, "what are you not a woman, or not a guard?" My curiosity was intense but shyness precluded asking passengers to lend me a paper. Impatiently I waited till the end of the line where I snatched up one of the dozens of abandoned copies. To my surprise I found an article headlined: "Granny guard makes her rush-hour debut." There was a photo and a story about how the "first woman guard", based at Cannon Street, had worked her first train that morning.


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