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The Role of Guards from 1874


List of duties to be carried out by passenger guards on the Great Western Railway. . . . . . .



Detail from an 1874 Circular issued to all passenger guards on the Great Western Railway. Image courtesy of the Great Western Trust.

There is no doubt that passenger guards have always had a lot to think about and do in the course of their daily duties. At least today’s train managers don’t have to concern themselves with stowing luggage on the roof and checking its height so that bridges en route don’t sweep it off!


Matters had improved somewhat by 1905. The guard had to be at the departure station half an hour before his train was due to leave to study notices affecting running on the train’s route. He had to have his watch, whistle, carriage key, red and green flags, no fewer than 12 detonators and a hand lamp which had to be lit before going through tunnels and in fog and at night. Couplings still had to be checked along with correct working order of the continuous brake. Doors and locks had to be checked, people had to be kept seated in cases of “unusual stoppage”, and an eye kept out for errant smokers, insecure luggage in racks, blocked corridors, those travelling in a superior class and unticketed fraudulent travellers.


Windows in unoccupied compartments, and vans without passengers had to be kept shut by the guard to avoid sparks from the engine starting a fire. Parcels, especially “value” parcels, had to be signed in and out. Guards had to beware of people trying to distract them away from their vans while criminal accomplices could be ransacking the parcels and mails. Trains had to depart on time, and the green flag by day, or the green handlamp light by night had to be exhibited above head height. [Is it just me, or is it more a case of waist height these days?] Some trains had two guards, and the guard nearer the engine was to give the starting signal having received it from the guard in the rear, or from the stationmaster or platform staff. The guard’s whistle could also be used when necessary. Depending on the type of train, some guards were also responsible for taking cash, issuing tickets and helping people into and out of the coach up and down steps with handrails at halts which were at ground level.

By 1933, guards were given special instructions if they were working trains through the country’s longest tunnel – the Severn Tunnel. They also to report any cases of poor running of carriages, make notes to report details to stationmasters and carriage examiners and, if it looked really bad, have the offending vehicle detached. If there wasn’t enough room on the train for the number of passengers, the guard could report to the stationmaster who might have the train strengthened. There were, of course, “Ladies Only” compartments in non-corridor and corridor rolling stock. Ladies travelling alone could be directed by the guard to a compartment where other ladies were travelling. Separate compartments had to be provided for prisoners and insane persons travelling with escorts. Company workmen, when travelling, had to be kept by the guard apart from other passengers as far as possible. It fell to the guard to stop any nuisance or annoyance from anyone drunk and disorderly, and anyone in this state and not cooperating had to be removed at the next stopping station. The name and address of the drunken person had to be obtained – an optimistic view - along with contact details of at least one passenger witnessing any incident.


Instructions were given on how to gain access to “engaged” lavatories should anyone believe there was a case of emergency. This procedure required the removal of four slotted screws on the lock, yet guards don’t appear to have been equipped with the necessary screwdriver! Perhaps they came equipped without being required to do so - or was there a train-wide appeal for anyone with the right type of screwdriver? In any case, lavatories had to be checked for availability of soap, towels and “sanitary paper”. There were additional duties for guards of sleeping car trains, boat trains and other specials; this included custody of the company’s clean and used towels.

This formidable list of tasks continued almost unchanged into the 1950 Rule Book of British Railways. This still gave passenger guards much to do. A lot of it sounds familiar. Their role and job title has certainly since evolved and no doubt will continue to do so.



Before the days of the “paytrain”, guards sold these bus-type tickets from bus conductor-type racks, and after their shift paid in the cash collected to the booking office of their home station. Photo: Mike Peart.


Mike Peart


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