The Railwayman

I was trying to follow up a part of my mother’s family again – the Lancasters. She did have ideas that there might have been some connection to the nobility, but I have found none. Instead I have found a family with its own set of interesting qualities (as well as the occasional skeleton in the closet), and my railwayman is a part of that.

My great grandfather, William Charles Lancaster, was the youngest (as far as I can tell) of the children of William Lancaster and his wife, Elizabeth (née Bates). The family had been based in and around Dunstable at the beginning of the 19th century, but William and Elizabeth had moved around quite a bit, eventually settling in Maidenhead, Berkshire, with William earning a living as a baker.

William Charles (born 13th April 1863) appeared in the various census returns with a migrating place of birth: Essex was recorded in 1871, Maidenhead in 1881 and 1901, and Ilford in 1891. I deduced that the reference to 'Maidenhead' was most likely to be where he was brought up, and that the place of birth was more likely to have been in the Ilford area. I tracked down his birth entry in the birth, marriage and death indexes, incorrectly recorded as William 'Charlee' Lancaster (that part of the index had been retranscribed into print), and he was indeed born in Barkingside.

I was intrigued by him because, as he moved through the censuses, I could see that he was a railwayman. In 1881, at the age of 17, he was a 'carman' living in Upton cum Chalvey (now Slough), Bucks. In 1891 he was a Great Western Railway 'pass guard' (passenger guard) living with his wife and two sons at 7 Porchester Square, London. However by 1901 he was lodging with a GWR colleague and his family at 39 Kilravock Street, Paddington, whilst his own family were living in Swindon.

In amongst these census snapshots of his life were a couple of life events which threw more light on him. He was married on 20th March 1884 at Cookham Register Office, to Elizabeth Taylor, a domestic servant aged '26' (her arithmetic appears to have been influenced by social convention because she was actually born in Ashton Keynes in February 1851!). At the time of the marriage, William Charles described himself as a signalman on the GWR.

I was intrigued to find out that he worked for GWR, as I'd always seen it as one of the more 'romantic' lines, and hoped that I would be able to find his staff records. So I started hunting through the online catalogue and guides on the National Archives website, and it did appear that they were held at their archive in Kew.

At the time I was researching the military service of my great uncle, Edwin C R Christmas, whom I wrote about for the November 2007 issue of the magazine in 2nd Lieutenant E.C.R. Christmas. As this research also involved searching documents held at the National Archives, I decided to 'piggyback' my new quest onto my existing one when I visted the archive in person.

My visit that day was largely taken up with rooting out the service records for my great uncle, as well as for my grandfather, but I did have some time left to investigate William Charles Lancaster, so started hunting for the GWR staff records. I found them on their computer system and ordered them up, but first I had to sign an undertaking not to disclose private information about living people, since the records also included details of employees who could well be still alive.

I had written down carefully, I thought, the references for which I must ask, noting that there seemed to be some ambiguity, and that the numbers had been changed at some point. I waited, and three large tomes were made available to me on the top floor. I hefted them onto the book rests, and opening them up. Aaaargh! They were the volumes for surnames beginning with C, when I had intended to ask for I-L! That was seriously disappointing as I had run out of time, but an object lesson in making quite sure that you’ve picked up the correct reference for the record you require!

Unfortunately I didn’t get back to Kew until July 2007, by which time I had noted, very carefully, that I needed to request:

Rail 264/GW 15/347 - 1841-1915 I-L
Rail 264/GW 15/360 - 1870-1915 I-L
Rail 264/GW 15/373 - 1868-1915 I-L
This time I managed to find the record after some considerable careful page turning (RAIL264/347 p514). The dry information on the page gave a sudden insight into his day to day working life. He had been taken on in August 1881 as a porter at Southall earning 16/- (sixteen shillings) per week. This was worth quite a bit more in those days, but it wasn’t a king’s ransom. Using a government RPI calculation from ten years ago, gives an equivalent of less than £3,000 p.a. So would be a little more than that today, but not enough to be a rich wage.

He had a few pay rises, and then, in March 1883 was promoted to the position of 'signalman' at Maidenhead. The day before his wedding in 1884, his pay was increased to 19/- from 17/- a week, and then a year later to 20/- a week.

In July 1888 he became a guard, based at Westbourne Park. This promotion seems to have triggered an unwise desire to branch out in free behaviour, as on 26th November 1888 he left the 'break' to ride 1st class. For this offence (recorded as incident no. 3/69), he was fined 2/6 out of his wages of 23/- a week, which would have been more then 10% of his pay.

He seems to have 'kept his nose clean' for the next few years, as his pay went up in small increments. However in 1897, he had another aberration and was reprimanded for not finding seats for some passengers on his train (incident 10/225). At some time after 1901, presumably, he was dismissed from GWR (Testimonial ref no 8952), but this entry was undated.

He died on 11th October 1917, and on his death certificate, he was described as an "Assistant Cashier on the Tube Railway" – a part of his career which I still have to pursue. Sadly, he must have split up from his family by then because it was his sister who notified the death. On its own that might not signify anything, but the family was already geographically split in 1901 and, most tellingly, on my grandmother’s marriage certificate of 21st June 1916, he is described as having been a station master (another example of putting the best gloss on things I suspect), but also as “deceased”, more than fifteen months before his actual death.

Christine in Herts

© Christine in Herts 2009