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TSSA History: The Railway Clerks' Association and the 1914-18 war


Much has been written over the past few months about the First World War. Many articles, books and television programmes have been devoted to exploring various aspects of the war, not least the contribution made by volunteers from every part of the British Empire. They may have had different perspectives but what they all had in common was to record the huge loss of life.

This article describes the role played by members of the Railway Clerks’ Association (the forerunner of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association) during that horrific period. It also highlights the positions of political parties to the war, how the railways came under state control, and how the Association first won recognition from the railway companies.

The War Begins

The working class movement had been aware of the danger of war in Europe for some years. Socialists throughout Europe had met at international forums in Stuttgart, (1907) Copenhagen, (1910) and Basle (1912) where, in an attempt to stem the tide of war, it was agreed that:

"In the case of war being imminent, the working classes and their Parliamentary representatives in the countries concerned shall be bound to do all they can, assisted by the International Bureau, to prevent the war breaking out...Should war nevertheless break out, it would be their first duty to intervene in order to bring it to a speedy termination and to employ all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war in order to rouse the masses of the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalistic class domination."

On 29th July 1914 a massive demonstration was held in Brussels, and Keir Hardie and other Socialist leaders voiced their opposition to war. As late as 2nd August the British Section of the International held a rally in Trafalgar Square with over 20,000 in attendance. Five thousand members of the Transport Workers' Federation joined the rally after marching from the East End of London, singing the "Red Flag" and "The Marseillaise" as they entered the square. George Lansbury, Arthur Henderson, Will Thorne, J. Keir Hardie and even H.M. Hyndman, who later became the most vociferous of those in favour of the war, were present, all calling for peace and opposing the move towards war. The rally concluded with Russian, German, and French Socialists hugging each other in an expression of solidarity and calling upon the people of London to voice their detestation of war.

time-splash.jpgFollowing the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on 28th June 1914, the politics of Central Europe quickly took over; on 1st August Germany declared war on Russia, and two days later, on France. Following Germany's invasion of Belgium in August, Britain declared war on Germany, and despite all the rallies and international declarations most of the European Socialist parties changed their political positions overnight. The following year, on 15th February 1915, Socialist representatives of the allied nations reversed their pre-war policy and said that the invasion of Belgium and France by the German armies threatened the very existence of independent nationalities, and had struck a blow against all their faith in treaties. They then went on to commit themselves to fight until victory was achieved. This, too, was the position of the Railway Clerks’ Association (RCA).

The Labour Party gave immediate support to the Government's declaration of war and its General Secretary, J. Ramsay MacDonald, who opposed the war, resigned. Arthur Henderson was elected as Secretary, with MacDonald continuing as Party Treasurer. In 1915 a coalition Government was established and a political truce was agreed between the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties, who undertook not to contest any vacancies that might arise during the war. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) opposed both the war and the political truce. The British Socialist Party, formed in 1911 and affiliated to the Labour Party in 1916 with a membership of 20,000, was divided between those who supported the extreme jingoism of its leader, H.M. Hyndman, and those who would eventually defeat his policies and help to form the Communist Party. The Irish Parliament supported the war and Nationalist MPs took part in recruitment campaigns; Sinn Féin chose neutrality. Both James Larkin and James Connolly opposed the war as did most Irish-based trade unions. The Irish TUC and Labour Party, although not directly opposed to the war, criticised it and believed that the interests of Ireland should have priority. 

Alexander Walkden, General Secretary

On the 7th August Alexander Walkden, General Secretary of the RCA, had an interview with J.M. Robertson MP, Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade, to discuss the immediate effect of the war on the Association. He also wrote to the Railway Executive Committee (REC), which had been established by the Government immediately war was declared, and to the General Manager of each railway company, from whom he obtained assurances that volunteers for the armed forces would be reinstated upon their return from military duty. He was also advised that military service would be counted as railway service for superannuation and increment of salary. Unease at the sharp increase in prices brought a special allowance in 1914 for those servicemen with dependents, making up the difference to four-fifths of their railway pay. In 1915 a War Bonus was obtained for those in the Conciliation Grades, but when denied to those on salaries protests were made by the RCA. It was then given to all railway workers - other than women. Such blatant discrimination provoked protests of outrage from RCA women, and following representations made by the Executive Committee (EC) they, too, received a War Bonus. This payment was designed to be a special award for one year only, but increasing pressure from the membership to match rising prices resulted in further bonuses being given in 1916 and 1917.

Alexander Walkden and other RCA officials attended a meeting of Labour Party and trade union leaders at the House of Commons on 5th August, when a War Emergency Workers' National Committee was elected. Walkden, who totally supported the Labour Party's position on the war, was elected to the EC of the National Recruitment Campaign and took an active role in its work. On 29th August 1914 he sent a circular to all branches appealing for recruits. This had a positive effect and by October 1914, over 1,500 RCA members had joined the armed forces, including four members of the Head Office staff. One of these was Jack Simpson who enlisted as a clerk in the Army Service Corps. Following a few weeks training, he was sent to France where he was killed on 5th November - the first of many RCA members to lose their lives in the “war to end all wars”. Within the first two weeks of the war over 27,000 railway workers had either been called up as Territorials or Reservists or had volunteered for the armed forces. So popular was the recruitment campaign that the REC became concerned about the efficiency of the railway system. The Government then issued an instruction which ensured that men employed by the railway companies should not be accepted for the forces unless they had a certificate from their employer indicating that their services could be spared. By 1915 over 72,000 railwaymen had volunteered, and the demand for additional recruits was such that the mass employment of women on railway work now became a serious option.

William Stott, who would later become General Secretary opposed the treatment of Conscientious Objectors

The union was totally committed to the recruitment campaign but when war badges were issued by the railway companies in 1915 to employees whose work was considered essential to the running of the railways, Walkden, along with many members of the Association, voiced his objections as he believed it would be used to force men without badges to enlist against their will. The Association also had some sympathy for those who objected to compulsory military service on grounds of deep moral conviction. There were approximately 5,000 conscientious objectors, and the RCA disagreed with the treatment they received at some of the Tribunals and from the most vociferous sections of the press. William Stott, who became General Secretary of the RCA in 1936, wrote in the Association’s Journal, The Railway Clerk, “Many of those conscientious objectors are among the best workers in the Labour and Trade Union Movement, and some are in the RCA.” One of these was Jim Haworth, who became President of the Association in 1953. Haworth suffered considerable hardship for his convictions and spent three years, including his twenty-first birthday, in prison. B.T. Williams, a member of the RCA’s Executive Committee from 1913-1917 was also a conscientious objector and spent a period of time in Wormwood Scrubs.

Conscientious Objector James Howarth

The majority of the Head Office staff were members of the ILP but most opposed its attitude towards the war, as indeed did the overwhelming majority of RCA members. There were lone voices in support of the ILP; a future EC member, Harold Chadwick, made his views known at the 1915 Annual Conference, but the most prominent opponents to the war were George Ridley (a future editor of the Association’s Journal and Chairman of the Labour Party in 1943) and Percy T. Heady. Under his nom de plume of Cassius, Ridley wrote a long article in The Railway Clerk which criticised secret diplomacy and the pre-war armament race. However, in 1916 he resigned from the EC and volunteered for the army. He was eventually sent to Salonica with the Railway Troops, became a Warrant Officer First Class, and received the Military Service Medal. Percy T. Heady, who had been appointed by A.G. Walkden as his confidential clerk in 1910 and became the Association’s General Secretary in 1948, asked the EC through the The Railway Clerk why they now denied all the principles they had held so dear. 

George Ridley opposed the war, but after signing up was decorated for his army service

“They had forgotten the Internationale in an enthusiasm for 'War Maps' and brass bands; exchanged the 'Red Flag' for 'God Save the King'; the motto 'Workers of the World Unite' for the soldier's cry of 'My King and Country'; to work yourself to such a frenzy that you can delight in prodding bayonets into the bodies of your German comrades, a deed you would never do in a sane moment.”

It also says much for the internal democracy of the union that such unpopular views were published in The Railway Clerk, whose editor supported the war.

During the war the RCA, through its branches, endeavoured to maintain contact with members on active service, and many appreciated receiving copies of The Railway Clerk. The EC agreed that those who were serving in the forces would be exempt from paying membership fees, but when two women who were serving with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps applied for the same conditions in 1917, exemption was denied, as they had resigned just prior to joining the services. Eventually it was agreed that they, too, would have the same terms of membership as men. Ironically, it was contact with colleagues in the trenches, rather than in the office, that encouraged many former clerks to join the RCA, with the result that there was a sharp increase in membership during this period. This progress continued after the war and the number of branches recorded in 1920 would not be surpassed until 1943.

Percy T. Heady, later General Secretary, was a staunch internationalist

As the 1915 Labour Party Conference had been postponed, matters arising from the war were not debated until 1916. The electoral truce and the recruitment campaign were the key issues of the conference and Walkden opened the debate with a successful resolution which approved the action of the Parliamentary Labour Party in co-operating with the other political parties in the national recruitment campaign. He also attacked the ILP for its condemnation of the Parliamentary Labour Party and for not supporting the recruitment campaign.


Even though the RCA was a staunch supporter of the recruitment campaign, like many other trade unions it had a deep aversion to conscription; when the Military Service Bill was discussed in Parliament the RCA indicated its opposition. A heated debate took place within the movement and when Parliament approved the Bill, conscription for single men was introduced immediately. In spite of the Prime Minister's assurance, conscription for married men followed shortly afterwards. The RCA's opposition continued and many feared it would be extended to industry and used to crush trade unionism. Even as late as 1919, the RCA recorded its strong opposition to conscription and demanded the withdrawal of the Military Service Acts.

Although RCA members had demonstrated their enthusiastic support for the war at a massive demonstration in Dublin on 6th March 1915, with George Lathan, Assistant General Secretary, as one of the main speakers, nowhere was the introduction of conscription opposed more vehemently than in Ireland. When the Government passed a law in April 1918 extending it to Ireland, protest meetings took place throughout the country including one in Belfast, which was attended by over 10,000 people. A massive meeting was also held at the Mansion House, Dublin on 18th April, with speakers from all the main political parties and the trade union movement. This was followed by an Extraordinary Labour Conference at the Mansion House two days later with over 1,500 present. The meeting was opened by the Lord Mayor of Dublin and even though nationalist sentiment dominated its proceedings, William O'Brien, President of the Irish LP & TUC declared that he would be equally opposed to conscription if it had been forced upon them by a native Parliament. Walkden attended the conference, the only General Secretary of a union with its headquarters outside Ireland to do so, thus gaining considerable credibility.

In protest at the Government's decision, a General Strike was called and the railway unions formed an Irish Railway Workers' Emergency Committee with W.B. McMahon (a leading RCA figure in Ireland) as its chairman. Two other members of the RCA prominent in its work were William Davin and Eamonn O’Carroll, both of whom were later elected to the Irish Parliament. Some unions, in an attempt to tell their members of the strike decision, endeavoured to place advertisements in newspapers but most of these were suppressed by the censor. The Railway Workers' Emergency Committee issued a leaflet, calling on all railway workers to strike on 23rd April, and with the exception of Northern Ireland, where the only sign of any action was in the Catholic schools, every part of the country felt its impact. The strike, which lasted for twenty-four hours, included the docks, theatres, shipyards, factories, cinemas and shops. Bread was baked in sufficient quantities to cover two days and even Government munitions factories stopped production. The majority of railway clerks responded to the strike even though the RCA did not grant strike pay, and, with the exception of the Great Northern Railway, all the railway lines were affected. In Waterford, over 500 railway workers marched from the station to the Trades Hall to sign the anti-conscription petition, with other workers joining them on the way. In Dublin alone 100,000 signed. This was the first strike in which a significant number of RCA members had participated and only two complaints were received by the EC - from the Enniskillen and Dundalk branches. The end result was that Ireland remained the only unconscripted country in Europe.

State Control of the Railways


Since 1896 the TUC had repeatedly called for the railways to be nationalised and at the 1913 Congress Alexander Walkden, on behalf of the RCA, carried a resolution which instructed the Parliamentary Committee to press the Government to introduce legislation in the next session of Parliament. The following year, on 7th February, the Railway Nationalisation Society, with A.G. Walkden as its secretary, organised a conference with 615 delegates in attendance. They represented the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties, the Chamber of Commerce, Socialist and co-operative societies and trade unions. The conference called on the Government to initiate railway nationalisation at the earliest possible opportunity and with only six of the delegates in opposition, this reflected a strong tide of support throughout the country. On 14th February 1914, Walkden presented the TUC's case for nationalising the railways to H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, and reminded him that they had discussed the matter on two previous occasions. Walkden emphasised that since their last meeting there had been considerable public dissatisfaction at the way the railways were being managed. The Prime Minister reiterated the Government's decision to appoint a Royal Commission to examine the relationship between the railway companies and the community, and looked forward with great interest to its findings.

Whatever may have been the outcome of the Commission, the importance of the railway system to the nation's economy quickly became evident at midnight on the day war was declared, when the Government placed the railway companies under state control. This was to continue until August 1921. A committee, composed of railway General Managers and W. Runciman MP, President of the Board of Trade, was responsible for its management, but in practice, there was little or no interference in the internal administration of the railways. Each railway company retained its identity under the direction of its General Manager. The actual role of the Railway Executive Committee (REC) was to co-ordinate the various railway systems to best advantage and to ensure that the movement of troops and war materials was carried out efficiently and that a service was provided for public and commercial use.

The Irish railways were not taken over by the state until December 1916 when, they too, were managed on a similar basis to those in Britain. Their administration was in the hands of a Railway Executive composed of six members; one representative from each of the five largest railway companies and the Under-Secretary of State for Ireland. In this instance the pressure for state control came directly from Irish railway workers who had had enough of price increases and threatened to strike for more pay. Initially, they had signed Memorials (today, these are called petitions), held public meetings and appointed delegations to resolve their complaints. This failed to bring results, and matters finally came to a head when the Great Southern and Western drivers decided to strike from 14th December, withdrawing their savings which were held in the company bank. Within days the Irish Railways were brought under state control and railway workers received an increase of seven shillings (35p) per week.

The RCA wanted more than state control of the railways and at the 1916 TUC Walkden called on the Government to nationalise them and for trade unionists to share in its management. On 20th March 1918, he met the Prime Minister and repeated his call for nationalisation and pointed to the success of state control during an extremely difficult period. This plea was ignored and shortly afterwards the RCA developed its own policy for a co-ordinated, publicly owned transport system. This was first approved at the 1918 Labour Party Conference which called for:

"The retention in public hands of the railways and canals, and on the expropriation of the present stockholders on equitable terms, in order to permit of the organisation, in conjunction with the harbours and docks, and the posts and telegraphs, of a united national public service of communications and transport, to be worked, unhampered by any private interest (and with a steadily increasing participation of the organised workers in the management, both central and local) exclusively for the common good."

In September, the RCA proposed a similar resolution at the TUC. This was successfully moved by Samuel Lomax and specifically referred to nationalised public transport including “canals, road motor vehicles, postal, telegraph and aerial services being brought into harmonious co-ordinated working”. This debate stimulated considerable discussion within the movement and from then on the co-ordination of public transport became an issue of widespread debate.

Women on the Railways

womenclerk.jpgAlthough the railway industry has always been male-dominated women had been employed in various occupations for many years. As early as 1872 the North British Railway employed women in its Telegraph Office at Waverley Station, Edinburgh. However, when twelve women were engaged as clerks at Kings Cross, London, in 1900, it provoked considerable discussion amongst RCA members, not least because they were paid far less than their male colleagues. Equal pay would be a topic of considerable debate and campaigning for many years to come.

The first woman joined the RCA in 1910, three years after the Association had taken its formal decision to bring them into membership, but it would be five more years before Mamie Thompson from Oldham who, at the age of 21, became the first woman delegate to attend the annual conference. Mamie wrote many articles for The Railway Clerk, organised Memorials to secure for women the War Bonuses that had been given to male employees and took an active part in the campaign for women's suffrage. In 1917, 20 women attended Annual Conference, but by 1919 this number decreased to 9 despite the massive surge in recruitment of women members.

With the departure of men to the armed forces thousands of women were employed by the railway companies but the class war continued, with pay and conditions a constant issue of concern. Threats and intimidation against RCA women members became common practice and when shorthand typists employed in the Chief Goods Manager's Office at Marylebone considered joining the union the manager warned them of the consequences if they did so. The typists were told not to attend RCA meetings, but after ignoring the threat they were interviewed by the manager and admitted that they had joined the RCA. They refused to resign their membership and were immediately transferred to another department where the wages were considerably lower. After similar incidents were reported to the RCA it became clear that a concerted effort was being made by management to restrict the union’s progress and to inject a climate of fear into the new workforce.

Walkden took up the matter with the General Manager of the Great Central Railway Company, Sir Sam Fay, and told him that his managers had exceeded their duties, and requested the reinstatement of the typists at Marylebone. Walkden apparently expected a positive response as it was reported “Our General expected Sir Sam Fay to put the matter right, seeing he was a strong Liberal, and such an earnest upholder of the cause of the working class.”

Be that as it may, Fay ignored Walkden's letter and the General Secretary took the matter up with the President of the Board of Trade who agreed to discuss it with Fay. On behalf of the RCA, George Wardle raised the subject in the House of Commons on 2nd December 1915, and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, E.G. Pretyman, responded that the railway company had no objections to their clerks joining a trade union except for those employed in confidential positions at their Head Offices.

This position had been defeated by the RCA in 1909 and could not be ignored. Sir Sam Fay defended his policy and wrote to all MPs, condemning the union for wasting valuable time “when the energy of every man and woman should be devoted to the art or practice of killing Germans.” Not to be outdone, Wardle raised the subject again on the 16th December and attacked the Great Central Railway for denying union membership to some of its employees, declaring in a reference to Fay's earlier statement - “We ought to kill the Prussianism in our midst.” The President of the Board of Trade defended Fay and praised him for his remarkable record but took the view that if the Great Central's policy had existed prior to the war, the matter should rest in abeyance until its conclusion. However, if the "rule" had been instituted since the war had commenced, he would ask the company to revert to the status quo.

When the RCA reached its twenty-first anniversary in May 1918 its membership had reached 81,000 (20,000 of whom were in the forces) and women constituted 19 per cent of the membership. Not only were they making an invaluable contribution to the RCA but also in many bodies to which the RCA was affiliated.

At the end of the war there were 25,000 women railway clerks of whom 13,655 were members of the RCA. The majority of women were employed on a temporary basis and the RCA's policy was to ensure the reinstatement of all men who had been on war service even if it meant the discharge of women. Despite this, every effort was made to ensure that as few women as possible were dismissed, and by 1920 all clerks who wished to return to railway service had been reinstated. The only exception were the conscientious objectors. Nevertheless, with unemployment rising sharply, a few male members of the RCA called for women clerks to make way for ex-service men; the fact that some railway women had also joined the services was never considered by those who voiced such opinions. Fortunately, those men who complained were a small minority, and the leadership of the union played a progressive role in defending a woman's right to work. The changes that took place after the war were almost as dramatic as those between 1914-1918. By 1927 the total number of women employed on the railways had been reduced to 9,000, of whom 2,648 were members of the RCA.

1917 - The Russian Revolution

1917 was a momentous year. Two events dominated the scene, the entry of the USA into the war and the Russian Revolution. William Edgar Williams, RCA President, told delegates at the 1917 Conference, that the revolution was “the most important and epoch- making event in history since the French Revolution.” Support also came from the TUC, and the Scottish TUC expressed the hope “that their freedom would be extended and their example followed by the peoples of all lands.” The Irish Labour Party and TUC said “In no country was the overthrow of the Tsardom hailed more gladly than in Ireland.”

As the revolution progressed and industrial unrest became a serious issue throughout the nation, it became clear that concessions would have to be made when the war ended. During this period recognition of the RCA by the companies would be achieved but it would not be won without a fight.


Between 1914 and 1916 the RCA had made repeated representations to the REC regarding conditions of service and various matters arising from the war, but the response was invariably unsatisfactory. Signs of change came in 1917 when the Government, concerned at growing industrial unrest, appointed a Commission to investigate its causes. The RCA presented evidence and emphasised two particular points - dissatisfaction at the inadequacy of the War Bonus and the REC's refusal to recognise the Association.

The Commission reported favourably but the Government refused to act. The RCA’s leadership was incensed and it now felt strong enough to force the pace and insist that all outstanding questions should be resolved. In April 1917 Walkden contacted the President of the Board of Trade, but he declined to receive a deputation. A comprehensive complaint was then sent to the Prime Minister, asking him to receive a deputation, but his Private Secretary merely acknowledged the letter. Eventually, after considerable pressure, a deputation was received by the REC on 13th May. During the meeting, various questions about conditions were discussed, but on 26th June the REC intimated that they would not recognise the right of the Association to act for stationmasters, goods agents and supervisory clerks. Eventually, the RCA received a measure of recognition, but it was strictly limited, and certainly did not include conditions appertaining to Supervisory Grades. The EC refused to accept limited recognition and in December 1917 reiterated its view that every member of the railway clerical staff should be free to become, and remain, a member of the RCA.

To weaken the influence of the RCA some railway companies encouraged stationmasters and supervisors to form their own separate associations. These attracted approximately 10 per cent of the potential membership, but although the companies did everything possible to promote their interests with the free distribution of their circulars, free premises and permission for their meetings to take place during normal working hours, they failed to defeat the growing strength of the RCA.


During the war enormous profits had been made in a number of industries, but despite Government controls, prices had risen sharply, with wages failing to match the cost of living. When the war ended it quickly released a flood of demands for improvements in pay and during the summer of 1918 numerous strikes took place, including one by the police. Women employed on London's trams struck for equal pay, and members of the National Union of Clerks came out on strike for the right of supervisory clerks to be a member of that union. In the early part of 1919 there were claims from miners, cotton workers and bakers, with a number of general workers' unions also pressing for improvements. Foremost in their demands for better wages and a shorter working week were the engineers and shipyard workers on the Clyde, where troops were deployed following violent clashes between demonstrators and police. Such was the political climate when the RCA sought recognition.

Following conferences in Birmingham and London RCA branches were asked to give their wholehearted support to any action that might become necessary to secure full recognition of the Association. Furthermore, frustration at the REC's refusal to recognise the union was fuelled by the lack of progress in dealing with the RCA's claim for improvements in pay and conditions of service. This new mood of militancy was reflected by delegates at a further special conference held at Liverpool in November 1918 when a National Programme, calling for an improvement in salaries, hours and general conditions of employment, was agreed.


The General Secretary wrote to Sir Albert Stanley, President of the REC, on 10th January 1919, asking him to receive a deputation to discuss the National Programme; the effect of nationalisation upon employment; the War Bonus; demobilisation and the position of temporary clerks. Most of these clerks were women, who, with the return of men from the forces, were now being dismissed. The REC responded a week later, saying that it was impossible to give consideration to changes in conditions of service, and reminding the Association that it was not prepared to discuss any questions relating to either supervisory clerks or to any grades outside the clerical staff, such as stationmasters and agents.

As the REC had previously met the NUR and ASLEF and had discussed conditions of service for their members, this was seen as a direct challenge. A further conference of stationmasters and agents was held in Birmingham on 26th January 1919 and it expressed indignation at the unsympathetic reply of the REC. The delegates remained hopeful that a strike could be averted and they asked Sir Albert Stanley to take immediate action to arrange a satisfactory settlement; they also agreed that if he failed to do so by 30th January, another special conference would be called to decide a further course of action.

A meeting with Sir Albert Stanley took place on 30th January but he was uncompromising. He told Walkden that the REC considered that to give recognition to the RCA on behalf of both supervisors and supervised, would affect safety and prejudice discipline. This was an old argument, no longer tenable, and one that would eventually have to be abandoned. Despite protests from Walkden, Stanley refused to change his opinion, and the deputation reported back to the EC which was now in permanent session. Instructions were immediately issued for delegates to meet at Birmingham on 2nd February 1919. In the meantime, the EC organised a rally of RCA members at the Kingsway Hall, London. Over 4,000 attended and an overflow meeting was held in the Essex Hall. Even then, the response was so great that hundreds were refused entry.

By the time the 430 delegates assembled at Birmingham on 2nd February 1919, there was little doubt in the minds of the EC that they had strong backing for strike action. It was Thomas Gill, who became President of the RCA in 1919, who proposed the successful resolution that stated, “In the event of a satisfactory settlement not being reached by Tuesday evening next, to call upon the branches and members to take such action as they, the EC, may deem advisable.”

The strike was set for 18.00 hours on 4th February 1919.

Committees were formed to co-ordinate activity, and although many were nervous of the decision to strike, with some calling for a ballot of the membership, when the time came the overwhelming majority were clearly willing to respond. At 15.00 hours on 4th February, the RCA was invited to meet Sir Albert Stanley and Sir Robert Horne, (Minister of Labour), who represented the War Cabinet. At that meeting an agreement was eventually reached according full recognition to the Association subject to arrangements being made for ensuring the autonomy of supervisory members which the Government considered necessary to preserve “discipline and safety.”


For the first time in its history, the Railway Clerks' Association had formally signed an agreement with the employers. Recognition had been achieved! There were, however, qualifications. Arising from the agreement, stationmasters, agents and supervisors were to have their own branches, hold separate conferences and organise separate delegations to management. These conditions did not prejudice their right to be represented by the Association, and in fact all of these were currently RCA practice.

After achieving victory, Walkden sent a telegram to every branch appraising them of the agreement. Most received the information before 18.00 hours but some branches in the North-East of England, Scotland and Ireland failed to hear in time and came out on strike as soon as the deadline was reached.

Messages that had poured into the RCA's offices indicating support for the strike, were immediately followed by congratulations. The press, too, was generally supportive, with backing coming from the Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, The Star, The Daily News and the Daily Chronicle. The Times, despite an ambivalent attitude on 4th February, later criticised the railway companies and said that recognition was a sensible decision.

As a result of its decision to strike, the RCA immediately gained members all over the country; new stationmasters' branches were opened and within months a national programme for rates and conditions was agreed with all the railway companies.

Line Secretaries are appointed

To meet the challenge that had been created by recognition and the requirements of 84,000 members, the General Secretary was obliged to review the union's organisation and, in 1920, for the first time, appointed professional Line Secretaries. G.M. Richards was appointed to look after members’ affairs on the London and North-Western Railway; W.H. Farrar was responsible for the North-Eastern Railway and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway and Walter Brindley looked after negotiations with the Midland Railway and those companies that had their Head Offices in Liverpool. George Ridley, now returned from military service, was responsible for the Great Northern Railway and all railways in the Eastern Counties; John Morgan Roberts catered for members employed on the Great Western and South Wales Railways. Charles Gallie, who had earlier been appointed as an Assistant Secretary, catered for the North of England, but following demands from Scottish members, later took up responsibility for Scottish affairs and was elected as General Secretary in 1940. J.T. O'Farrell was firmly established in Ireland and the other national officers, Lathan, Stott, Hill and Dalley shared the workload for the remaining areas in Southern England.

The basic structure introduced by Walkden was to last for many years but his decision to appoint full-time Line Secretaries came too late to relieve him of the stress he had been under for some years. Since his appointment in 1906 he had had to cope with the pressure from the union's rapid development, the inevitable meetings from branch level to those with Prime Ministers, the effects of the war and the post-war situation. In addition, he was still the Association's Parliamentary Secretary and even though he had relinquished the editorship of the union's journal, he still wrote articles each month. His family life had also suffered, and neither he, nor his family, had been able to take a holiday for at least six years. Walkden's workload was phenomenal and it took its toll. In July 1920, Walkden, along with the President Thomas Gill, carried out a tour of the Irish branches, and on his return suffered a nervous breakdown. A complete rest was required and the EC, in recognition of all his hard work, granted him £200 to enable him and his wife to take a cruise to Norway. Walkden made a full recovery and finally resumed work on 6th September. During the same period his Chief Assistant, George Lathan, also had a breakdown, and he, too, was advised to have a complete rest. The following year William Hill was seriously ill from January to October. The price of progress had been very high!

The Cost of War

fww-memorial.jpgThe cost of the war to the nation was enormous. Every city, town and village was affected. The scale of slaughter on the battlefield was horrific. Altogether 184,475 railway workers joined the forces. A total of 88,000 railway clerks were on active service, including 16,826 members of the RCA and 14 of the Association's Head Office staff. Of the 21,522 railway workers who lost their lives, at least 1,457 were members of the Association.

No fewer than 5,296 railway workers received medals for courageous conduct; six were awarded the Victoria Cross, two of whom were members of the RCA. These were Lance Corporal J.A. Christie, aged 22, who had previously worked in the Parcels Office at Euston and was a member of the East London Branch, and Lance Corporal Charles Graham Robertson who had also been awarded the Military Medal some time earlier.

In memory of all railway workers who gave their lives during the war monuments were erected in stations throughout the length and breadth of the system. The first to be unveiled was at Nitshill Station, Scotland; this was erected by railway comrades in memory of Sergeant John Meikle VC and Military Medallist, a former clerk who enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders on 8th February 1915 and was killed in action on 20th July, 1918. They will never be forgotten.

"Two of our number caught it rather badly and are now in hospital, whilst a third received a slight wound in the breast. But I suppose it is all in a day's march, and probably I shall get another taste before I am through.” J. Simpson, RCA Head Office Clerk. Born 1891 - Died France 5th November 1914.