What's my line?


The Boiler Shop at Swindon in 1950: photo British Railways.


“What’s my Line” started as a TV panel show in 1951. People with obscure occupations signed in and mimed for the panel an action from their particular line of work. It was then left to the questioning panel of celebrities who had a limited number of questions to guess what they did for a living. If you beat the panel you got a certificate – the days of winning $64,000 were long off! Panels would have been a bit foxed by some of the occupations in the railway works of old. So too would have been the Ministry of Labour who catalogued what they thought was every occupation in the land for national statistical and job-finding purposes. The Ministry’s staff trainers relished their stock-in-trade example by telling their trainees about the “sagger maker’s bottom knocker” only found in the ceramics industry. One wonders what they would have thought about some of the railways’ more obscure occupations.


Robert Stephenson & Company started it all off in 1823 with their works in Newcastle. Independent makers of locomotives and rolling stock quickly followed before the early railway companies had the chance to establish their own facilities. When this happened, there were at least 29 main works operated by railway companies building and repairing steam locomotives up until 1963. Added to this number were commercial makers such as the North British, Robert Stephenson & Hawthorns and Vulcan Foundry companies who helped out when railway companies’ works were up to capacity. By 1948 the private companies employed 13,000 people, and with the advent of British Railways in 1948 some 43,000 people were employed in that new organisation’s works.


The railway companies’ works where locomotives and rolling stock were made provided some interesting “men only” job titles. Women did appear in the works during World War Two. Storemen kept account of - and issued - the plethora of parts and consumables needed, and were grateful for an increasing move towards standardisation. Tinmen, coppersmiths, lead burners and brass finishers and polishers worked near their ferrous colleagues engaged as strikers, forgemen, platers, journeymen, tubers, boilerscruffers and stay-tappers. With cranemen working overhead moving large parts to where they were needed, the steam hammermen (who were excellent lip-readers) made the earth move hammering hot metal into shape and making themselves invariably deaf. Railways got through a lot of rivets and the rivet-hotter was an important part of the process, heating up rivets and passing them with callipers to riveters who hammered them in, both trades risking hearing loss with many deaf by the age of 30. Founders produced the castings helped firstly by patternmakers and then by ladle runners; punchers made holes, drop stampers stamped, buffers smoothed what was stamped and shearsmen cut things up. Springmakers and springsmiths put the bounce into rolling stock, and chainmakers kept it coupled together. Angle-iron smiths saw things from a different angle. All the while furnacemen maintained white, yellow and red heat. Shinglers protected against intense heat worked in the rolling mills. Once the boilermakers had finished, laggers used “snow” or “fluff” to insulate locomotive boilers and cylinders long before the dangers of asbestos became evident, and boiler clothiers covered it all up. Machinemen, millwrights and turners produced parts, and fitters fitted them. Boshers cleaned up parts. Scraggers tapped and screwed nuts and bolts and put threads on anything needing them. Frame gangs started off locomotive construction, and finishers-off finished them!



The Wheel Shop – wheels within wheels: photo British Railways.


Wheel turners and axle turners made wheels and tyres balance, and axles run true. Valve setters brought together wheels, rods, pistons and cylinders. Oil testers analysed oil and grease for its qualities. Checkers and timekeepers checked on who had arrived for work. Chargemen timed the toilet breaks and penalised those taking more than ten minutes. Foremen in bowler hats did the rounds pacing their workshop areas and kept order. Apprentices became improvers before they proved their skills as journeymen. Messengers brought the news – good and bad – around the larger and more recent works sites at Derby, Doncaster, Darlington, Horwich, Gorton, St Rollox, Crewe, Swindon, Caerphilly, Brighton and Eastleigh. Finally, testers and inspectors checked that the combined outputs of the works came together so that the works of the works on new and repaired locomotives worked and could be run in!


Putting it all together at Swindon Works in 1950: photo British Railways.

Putting it all together at Swindon Works in 1950: photo British Railways.


Mike Peart


Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum.


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