All this was sparked off when I was going through my collection of 1930s Riding magazines, and came across an article on the Willesden Horse Sanatorium, which was where horses who worked on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway went if they were ill enough to need more than a couple of days off.
The thing that struck me when I read the article was that nowhere, at any point, did the author (Col CEG Hope – later editor of Pony Magazine) mention what the horses actually did. There was simply no need to, because every reader would have known without having to be told. Horses were a part of everyday life in the 1930s, to a degree that was quite astonishing to someone researching it in the 21st century.
In 1937, the London, Midland and Scottish railway was the largest private owner of horses in the country. They owned 8,500 horses, and in London alone, they had 2,000. All these horses had to live somewhere, and there were large stables attached to the major railway stations in London, and smaller ones elsewhere. The horses were used to shunt carriages and wagons about, and to deliver goods that arrived at the railways, a role they maintained in lessening numbers until the 1960s, when the last railway horse retired.
London, Midland & Scottish Railway owned horse drawn vehicle, 1939
Much of the history of railways is the history of men, but from the outset, women worked on the railways. As with so many other jobs, it was wartime when women came into their own. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, 25,000 women were employed on the railways. By 1944, they numbered 114,000.
A few worked with the railway horses. Helena Wojtczak’s Railway Women (Hastings Press, 2005) describes the role women had on the railways, and you can find the text of some of her interviews on her excellent website dealing with railway women during the war. In the transcript of her interview with Grace Moran-Healy, who became a horse van driver during the Second World War, you are awed by the privation that Grace and her children endured quite cheerfully, her sheer courage, and the love she had for the horses she worked with.
Grace was, very unusually for the time, divorced. With three children to support on her own, all of them living in one room in Manchester, it was vital she found work. Grace saw an advertisement for van lads at Manchester station, went along, told the supervisor she wasn’t scared of horses (which wasn’t entirely true), and started work the next Monday.
Working as a van lad, or boy, was the first step towards becoming a van driver. The van lad started their day by collecting the horse from its stable and harnessing it, then leading it to the goods yard to be harnessed to the van. Once the round was under way, it was the van lad who was responsible for taking packages off the cart and delivering them. In time, many van lads progressed to being a driver. It was a tough job. Grace said:
‘The horses, snorting and stamping in their stalls – looked so big and formidable to my 5'2". I thought what have I done? But what the heck. The die was cast, so I had a few weeks to learn to drive and handle a horse, and learn the round which was a town round from Piccadilly and environs. So I operated as his [the head driver’s] van lad whilst I learned the job. I hauled the boxes and parcels up stairs and on to loading bays – whilst trying to remember the shops and firms and where to go to find them – and began to develop arm and calf muscles as I clambered up and down on the back board to unload the goods – or load and stack those that had to be collected.’
Grace's landlady was not sympathetic to Grace's predicament. When Grace picked up her children, and told them she'd got the job, the children gave her a very muted cheer, in case the noise offended the landlady. It made no difference. Grace and her family were evicted. No one was willing to rent a room to a single woman with children, but Grace managed to find digs in Sheffield, got a transfer to Sheffield station, and began work there. She was the only female driver, and she was landed with a new horse that none of the male drivers wanted to tackle. The mare was rather better bred than the usual railway horse, and had suffered badly from shock when her former stables were bombed. Jill, as Grace called her, was not an easy drive, but Grace loved the mare nevertheless. Even without wartime dangers, driving could be hazardous. On a particularly icy morning, Jill slipped and fell.
‘Just opposite was a brewery and men dashed out to surround the horse, and pedestrians flocked round in a crowd also. A policeman appeared and pushed through, shouting, 'Where's the driver?' I was enveloped in the crowd, so I started jumping up and down to attract his attention, shouting, ‘Here I am – I'm here.’ He made way for me to get to the horse's head and I knelt to pacify her. As I hadn't the strength to free her from the harness, the men strained and pulled to undo the straps and eventually released her and coaxed her up. My poor Jill was distressed and trembling, but I managed to soothe her; so eventually I could adjust the harness again. They all thought I was a lad till the policeman ordered them to stand clear so I could continue on the round, when they sent up a cheer of encouragement – bless them.’As with so many other women who worked during the war, Grace would have liked to stay on, but when the male drivers were demobbed and returned, she was made redundant.
Other women were more fortunate. Edith Weston was taken on at Snow Hill Station in Birmingham during the war by the Great Western Railway, and there she, and a few other women, stayed on after the war ended. Her story emerged when I read Bryan Holden’s The Long Haul – The Life and Times of the Railway Horse (1985). His chapter on horses and men at work includes the story of Colin Jacks, who began work as a van boy in 1948 at Snow Hill Station, Birmingham. Fascinating though his story of learning to work with horses when you’ve never had anything to do with them is, the most interesting part of it to me is the fact that Colin was put in the charge of Miss Edith Weston, a driver. She had joined the cartage department during the Second World War, and had stayed on afterwards.
She was well-enough respected to be put in charge of new staff, rightly so in Colin’s opinion:
‘She was a lady in the truest sense, so kind and helpful. I was very naïve in my early youth… And she steered me from coarser fellows and I never used swear words until I went into the army!’Lilian Carpenter and Vera Perkins had also joined the railways during the war. They worked for the London, Midland and Scottish company, and were the subjects of a photo essay in 1943 by Ministry of Information Photo Division photographer Richard Stone, showing a day in the life of a van girl during the Second World War.
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The first delivery of the day was in the West End. Lilian and her colleague, Vera Perkins, had little chance to forget about the war. Their route was lined with bomb damaged buildings and semi cleared bombsites.
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There was more than one load to be delivered, and this photograph shows Snowball drinking from a horse trough in Bloomsbury after they'd picked up their second load.
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It wasn't just human food that was rationed. Pre-war, much fodder was shipped in from outside the country, but when the raids on shipping meant that the Channel was too dangerous to navigate for all but absolutely essential supplies, animal food supplies were severely affected. It is why the pony book authors the Pullein-Thompson sisters started their riding school – with shortage came a steep rise in prices, and they were told the only way they could keep their ponies was if they made them pay.
Although food supplies to essential working animals were to some extent protected, by 1943, when this photograph was taken, rations for the railway horses had been cut down from two nosebags a day to one. As is plain from the photograph, for Snowball it was not enough.
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The day ended with Snowball taking himself off to his stable, and Lilian returning home to her son, Clarence. He was named after his soldier father, who had not yet met his son.
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What emerges from Grace's account is the sheer pleasure she took in her work, and in this creature she'd not had much to do with before, the horse. What I've particularly enjoyed in researching this is seeing women taking a full part in an area of the horse world not counted as their traditional preserve. There's a 1930s railway poster which shows the view of women and horses that certainly pertained at the time, if it doesn't still today – a leisured hack for someone with enough money to afford both clothes and horse, but at the same time the poster was published, something much more interesting was going on.