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England Occupations Railway Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Railway Records[edit | edit source]

The great variety of records of the many dozens of Victorian railway companies, (and the canal, dock and shipping companies they owned), were initially collected by the British Transport Historical Records Commission (BTHR). The Public Record Office holds a good collection of these mostly in the RAIL class, each former company having one or more class numbers. Other classes where railway material can be found are AN, B, BT, J, MT, WO, ZLIB, ZPER and ZSPC (see TNA leaflet D81). Sometimes records of an earlier company are included with those of the company that took it over. The smaller and older companies are less well represented. The most complete records are for the enormous Great Western Railway and those smaller ones it absorbed over its 120-year existence. British Railways Board records have the letter code AN, but there are few personal records available here as there is a 75-year closure period. Railway magazines have the code ZPER and cover roughly 1900-1960. The RAIL Series are divided thusly:

RAIL 1-799 Individual Railway Companies.
RAIL 800-899 Individual Canal Companies(include Docks, Inland
Waterways and British Waterways).
RAIL 900-999 Timetables
RAIL 1000-1165 General


Bevan gives a summary of TNA records in Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office, but Edwards (Railway Records: A Guide to Sources) , Hawkings (Railway Ancestors: A Guide to Staff Records), and Richards (Was your Grandfather a Railwayman? A Directory of records Relating to Staff Employed by Railways in the Following Countries with Details of Material and Repositories: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Eire, India, New Zealand, South Africa, USA.) should be consulted for details of what is held where, and the TNA has published three descriptive leaflets:

D69 Railway Records
D81 Railways: Administrative and Other Records
D82 Railways: Staff Records


Other important collections are held by the:

  • House of Lords Record Office (a.k.a. the Parliamentary Archives) has the records for Acts of Parliament regarding acquisition of land for building railways.
  • National Archives of Scotland, which contains most of the Scottish railway companies’ records.
  • London Metropolitan Archives has London Underground and the later London Transport records, the latter includes trains, buses, trams and the underground. These comprise mainly board and other minutes, correspondence and some accounts.
  • London Transport Museum holds sets of staff magazines, timetables, photographs, maps and posters, tickets, and other printed ephemera.
  • National Railway Museum in York, whose records are mainly technical, plans of locomotives and rolling stock, signalling and track layouts; they also have many railway magazines.
  • The Railway and Canal History Society holds a huge index (23,000 cards) of some 200,000 documents held in Newbury, Berkshire.
  • County archives and local record offices, railway museums and preserved railways often have material on their local companies and lines.
  • Great Western Railway Museum holds apprenticeship indentures, some company papers and photographs.
  • Thomas Cook Company Archives holds timetables, guidebooks and holiday brochures, photographs and staff magazines.
  • The FamilySearch Catalog does have much railway historical and geographical material for various areas of Britain.

When tracking a railway employee it is first necessary to ascertain what kind of work he did and for which company he worked. If these are not immediately known the following facts can be gathered to narrow the choices considerably:

  • Rough date of joining the railway.
  • Rough date of retirement.
  • Name of a station or area of the country in which he worked or lived at a certain date.
  • If he was involved in any railway accidents or other railway events that would have attracted newspaper or railway magazine coverage.

Care should be taken with dates given for the record classes as they may cover the dates of retirement of employees whose information goes back another 50 years, or they may refer to the birth date of the oldest member of staff whose service is covered. There was a great need for experienced staff as railways were developed abroad. Records of railway staff sent overseas may appear in Foreign Office or Colonial Office classes, or may not have survived. Other men were lured by higher wages and Richards Was your Grandfather a Railwayman? A Directory of records Relating to Staff Employed by Railways in the Following Countries with Details of Material and Repositories: United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Eire, India, New Zealand, South Africa, USA includes a section on this topic.

The following types of records were kept by many companies in different formats and with varying degrees of diligence and archival care. It should be remembered that people changed jobs, and companies merged, went bankrupt, or were taken over by other companies, so sometimes the trail goes cold and needs to be picked up again elsewhere:

Staff Registers[edit | edit source]

These were kept mostly for manual workers (operatives) and basic records may include:

  • Name, date of birth, and date of entry.
  • Employment before entering railway service.
  • Initial grade, wage, and place of employment.
  • Periods of absence and ill health.
  • Promotions, wages increases and transfers.
  • Offences, punishments and commendations.
  • Awards for proficiency in railway related subjects such as first-aid and the Ambulance movement.
  • Railway educational achievements and civic honours.
  • Resignation or death.

Staff registers were kept by the department in which the man or woman worked which for a large company would be as follows (Richards):

Manual Staff[edit | edit source]
  • Operating, traffic or coaching includes porters, shunters, guards, signalmen, gatekeepers at level crossings, traffic inspectors and general station staff.
  • Locomotive, or loco carriage and wagon includes engine drivers (enginemen), firemen (stokers), engine cleaners, loco depot labourers, wagon repairers and examiners, loco workshop and carriage building staff, mechanical and electrical staff involved in maintaining fixed and mobile plant like lifts and mobile cranes at stations and depots or at works and factories.
  • Commercial or goods handling included all staff who collected, delivered and handled goods in freight depots, including horse and motor drivers.
  • Engineering includes staff involved in construction and maintenance of permanent way, bridges, stations and other structures; track maintenance staff (surfacemen, platelayers or packers); and timekeepers.
  • Signal or Signal and Telegraph staff were involved in installation, maintenance and renewal of signal boxes and apparatus, telephone lines and exchanges, and telegraph equipment. It’s worth noting that railwaymen called a signalman a policeman.
  • Miscellaneous groups such as stores, marine, continental, ticket printing, hotels and catering.

Many Railway Police records are held by the TNA, but some are with British Transport Police who do assist with enquiries. An extensive series of railway police documents is listed in TNA leaflet D69.

Staff registers, like muster rolls for the army and navy, indicate former employment with the railway as well as promotions thus it is possible to track an employee from one place or department to another. TNA leaflet D82 has a good example from RAIL 264, and a listing of the RAIL classes for different companies is given in leaflet D 69.

Salary Registers[edit | edit source]

These were kept mainly for clerical staff and record regular salaries, salary increases, benefits, bonuses and fines. TNA leaflet D82 has a typical example from RAIL 264.

Personnel Files[edit | edit source]

Some companies maintained separate administrative files on individuals or groups of both clerical and operative staff. The diverse purposes include pensions, attendance, discipline and fines, members of staff associations, complaints, joiners, and leavers. Pension and benefit schemes were operated by many companies. These usually indicate the name, next of kin, date of resignation, amount of pension and date of death.

Company Minute Books[edit | edit source]

These record individual appointments, promotions, resignations and dismissals. Small companies have these in their board minutes, larger ones in the appropriate committee minutes.

Accidents[edit | edit source]

Accidents to trains, passengers and railway staff were frequent, especially in the early years, but they did create written material of use to the family historian. Newspapers are a good source for all accidents and the Railway Inspectorate of the Board of Trade in the Ministry of Transport investigated and reported on fatal ones with their reports being in MT 29, MT 30 and MT 114. Other accident reports can be found in RAIL 1053 and MT 6.

Staff Magazines[edit | edit source]

The earliest staff journal arrived in 1862 and most of the larger railway companies were publishing monthly staff magazines by the time of WWI. These contain much biographical material about individual employees, especially postings, retirements, social activities, and obituaries and often contain photographs. Wigg gives examples of what can be found. If you know the date of death or retirement this might be the best place to start your research. Sometimes former employees who had emigrated used the journals to keep in touch, Richards gives a good example.

Mention should be made of Lawrence Popplewell’s seven parts of the Gazetteer of Railway Contractors and Engineers for the different areas of England and Wales. It should be noted that the navigators who built the railway lines were mostly employed by construction companies not railway companies, and records of those are hard to find and rarely mention names of such men. However, it is also true that after their navy days many of these men subsequently joined the railway staff, mainly as engine drivers or track maintenance crews. A most interesting article on the life of navies is that by Leeds (The Railway Navvy North West Kent Family History Vol 8 #11 page 470-474).

There are sometimes other kinds of records as well, depending on the company and the individual. There is now a growing name index to Midland Railway records under the name Wyvern M.R. Index. The researcher will not be short of background material, including photographs, as there is a vast literature aimed at the thousands of current and former railway enthusiasts. Richards lists some better ones describing working conditions.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.