Working on the Railways

Working on the Railways

If you travelled by train, the railway people you saw would be those working at the stations and those travelling on the train such as drivers, guards, and ticket collectors. However, there were many more people working for the railway company in lots of different departments. This included offices, engine sheds, workshops and more. Take a look at these objects which were used by workers in just a few of the jobs available.

Locomotive driver's cap made from grease top material.

Grease Top Cap

This type of cap is worn by a steam locomotive driver. It is made from ‘grease top’ material so that any stray sparks coming out of the fire on the footplate would not cause the material to catch on fire! It would also provide some protection from rain – although the driver’s cab has a roof, it can still be a wet and windy place as the train travels along!

Round metal pay check with a worker's identity number stamped on.

Pay Check (also known as a wage token)

These metal tokens were used by workers in the locomotive and carriage works. Until more recent times, workers were paid their wages once a week in cash. On pay day they would ‘clock in’ and be given a pay check with a unique identity number on it. At the end of the day, they would hand their pay check in to the pay office to receive their money. The example on the left is stamped with ‘L.M. & S.R. Derby M.P.’ which stands for ‘London Midland & Scottish Railway Derby Motive Power’. 746 is the worker’s identity number.

Shovel used by a steam locomotive fireman.

Fireman’s Shovel

A steam locomotive fireman worked with the driver on the footplate. It was the fireman’s job to keep the fire going by shovelling coal into the firebox. He used this special type of shovel to do this.

Firing a steam locomotive was a skilled task. On a long journey with a heavy express train, the fireman would transfer several tons of coal from the tender to firebox. How the coal was distributed in the firebox varied with different locomotive and firebox designs. The fireman would be on his feet for most of the journey, so it was a physically demanding job which required a lot of skill.

Metal mashing can - a drinks flask and cup

Mashing Can

The driver and fireman of a steam locomotive would use a mashing can like this to carry a hot drink while they were working. It was kept on a shelf above the fire hole door, where the heat from the fire kept it hot. Sometimes they would fry bacon and eggs by putting them on a shovel in the fire. They had to be careful not to put it too far into the fire or the food could be sucked in by the vacuum of air! This was caused by air being dragged through the firebox, through the boiler tubes, then out through the chimney on the firebox.

Oval metal arm badge featuring the words Look Out.

Lookout Badge

This arm badge was worn by the ‘lookout’ when repair or maintenance work was being done on a railway track when trains were running. The lookout(s) would let workers know when a train was approaching by blowing on a loud horn or sounding a rattle. This job role still exists today.

Railway guard's paraffin hand lamp.

Hand Lamp

This type of lamp was used by a passenger train railway GUARD. It was the guard’s job to tell the engine driver when it was safe to leave the station. He would usually stand at the back of the train to do this. The guard could signal to the driver using flags or hand signals, but this would be difficult when it was dark, so the guard would use a lamp with coloured lights instead. When you twist the handle, different coloured lenses turn around inside the lamp. The red signal light meant STOP. The green signal light meant GO. A white light could be used as a torch for inspecting the train.

Jacket worn by a railway station porter.

Porter’s Jacket

This smart jacket belonged to Mr T. Clay, a porter at Pinxton South railway station in the 1950’s. The porter’s job was to help passengers to carry luggage and also to move goods and packages around.

Metal whistle - The Acme Thunderer - used by railway guards.

Acme Thunderer Whistle

ACME specialist whistles have been made in Birmingham for 170 years. They have been used by lots of different professions including on the railway. Even today, although train guards use modern paddles, the good old whistle is probably still the best way of attracting attention.

Brass paperweight.


This solid brass paperweight would have been used in an office to hold down paperwork. One example of where it could have been used is in a railway drawing office, such as in Derby, where designs for steam locomotives and carriages were produced. The job of the draughtsman was to create technical drawings of these designs on paper.

Bottom of a brass paperweight stamped with the words Midland Railway Company.

This particular paperweight is stamped underneath with ‘Midland Railway Company’.

Piece of railway signalling equipment made from wood.

Midland Railway Company Block Instrument/ Indicator

To operate the railways safely, people working in signal boxes controlled the lines, let trains through sections, and communicated with other signal boxes to tell them when the line was clear. This piece of equipment was used in a signal box to show whether a section of railway line between signal boxes was clear for a train to travel on. The signalman would use the lever to change the position of the needle to the correct section. He would use also use a block bell to communicate with other signal boxes. Special codes would be tapped out to send messages, which would be heard by the receiving signal box.

The information was given to the train drivers through signals, which were controlled by the signalman. Modern signals are electric coloured lights, similar to road traffic lights. Older systems used painted metal mechanical arms in different positions. A train could not pass the signal until it was it pulled to angle up or down. A system of wires and pulleys connected the levers in the signal box to the signal arm.

Oval metal badge featuring the words LMS Railway service and an engraved picture of a locomotive.

LMS “Railway Service” Badge

During the Second World War, a number of jobs were called ‘reserved occupations’. People working in these roles were not expected to serve in the military. These included jobs that were vital to the country and the war effort. The railways were classed as a reserved occupation as they played an important role in transporting food, goods and people around the country. People in these jobs were given a badge to wear to show their role.

Poster for ASLEF - the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen.


Throughout history, workers have joined together to form trade unions to support people in the same job. For railway workers, one important union was ASLEF – the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen. This was formed in 1880 to represent the interests of locomotive drivers and firemen. When changes at the Great Western Railway resulted in lower wages and longer working hours, the drivers and firemen challenged the GWR Chairman. Support from colleagues across the country led to ASLEF forming. A modern version of ASLEF is still active today as a union representing train drivers.

  • ASLEF badges donated by Arthur Stokes, a former engine driver based at Derby.
  • Membership card belonging to Mr C Brown – a locomotive fireman – who was a member of the Mansfield branch of ASLEF.
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