The 90th anniversary of the Equal Pay strike on the London Underground, by Dave Welsh

The original caption for the picture below: "WOMEN GUARDS ON ELECTRIC TRAINS: This illustration shows the type of uniform in use by the women guards on the electrified Metropolitan railway. Until recently the gentler sex had been limited to minor services on the railways, such as cleaning trains and locomotives, clipping and selling tickets &c. They are now taking up the onerous role of train-guard, but only so far on the electrically hauled trains. The rapid acceleration renders jumping on and off the train in motion all the more trying for a woman, but hitherto no serious accidents have been recorded. " (From The Electrical Times Jan 1917, courtesy of TUC Library Collections)

August 2008 will signal the 90th anniversary of the first equal pay strike on London´s underground railways. In August 1918 women working on the underground voted to come out on unofficial strike over a claim for parity with men on a war bonus payment that they had been denied. The strike, which mainly affected the Bakerloo line, did make some gains for the women.

The background to these important events was the introduction of women onto London´s transport system after the mobilization of men led to a vast reduction of staff across the industry. For example, Maida Vale underground station was opened in June 1915 and was staffed entirely by women. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) began to employ women in 1916 and it was estimated that in 1919 that 5,551 women had been employed on the underground during the war.

Women were employed as ticket collectors, lift attendants, porters and, from 1917, as station guards, guards and ´gatewomen´ on trains who opened and closed the gates before electro-pneumatic operation was introduced (there were normally three gatemen on each six-car train plus two guards). Women were to be found on the District Railway, the Metropolitan, and the UERL tubes; the Metropolitan alone having 522 female staff by 1918. Whilst some railway companies appeared to be horrified by the employment of women, Lord Aberconway, director of the Metropolitan, argued ´lady´ ticket collectors did better than their male counterparts. One female ticket collector on the Central London Railway was observed in the Railway Review ´perched on the examiner´s box, with legs crossed, and her uniform hat at a rakish angle´.

Initially, women were excluded from becoming guards and the death of Alice Dixon, a porter at Holland Park tube station in 1915, seemed to offer support to those who believed women were not responsible enough to work on board trains. Dixon rode on the step-board of a train as it moved off from the platform and was pulled along by her skirt that became entangled. She died of her injuries. The London Electric was the first company to employ women as gatewomen in 1916. Guards were required to give a starting signal to the driver and then board the train and the London Electric claimed that this was too dangerous for a woman. However, The Metropolitan Railway decided to order a new uniform for women (see picture) tailored for such work. The London Electric followed suit 1917, employing women guards on its Baker Street to Waterloo section. In the background they worked as cleaners for example at Hammersmith depot and as maintenance workers in a number of depots doing painting and bill-posting.

The immediate spur for the industrial action was the 6-day strike by over 15,000 bus and tram workers earlier in August 1918. They had come out for the 5/- war bonus paid to men and were supported by the London & Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers. The strike was successful in gaining a full back-dated increase for the women. Other towns had also been affected: Bath, Bournemouth, Brighton, Bristol, Folkestone, Hastings, Hove and Weston-Super-Mare were all hit. A year before, the war bonus had been consolidated into the basic rate and renamed the ´war wage´, creating even more anger amongst railwaywomen as it merely increased the disparity between men´s and women´s pay through overtime payments. Five hundred women met at King´s Cross in February 1918 and discussed possible strike action, calling on the NUR to reopen negotiations on the issue. A number of NUR branches supported the call for equal pay whilst others fought against any improvement for women that might keep them in the industry after the war. Jimmy Thomas, the NUR leader, simply sold out the women.

Over a thousand women and men on the ´tubes´ met in Walworth when the bus & tram strike ended and demanded equal pay in the form of the current 12/- 6d increase in the war wage. They then took strike action with the Bakerloo line being strongly affected. One ´Bakerloo Girl´ declaring that "it is time the Underground girls had their little bit to say. We are doing the same work as the men and we want the same money" (Daily Mirror, 20. 8. 1918). Women strikers, many of whom were in the NUR, visited many stations on the Bakerloo to bring other staff out. The strike also affected the Bakerloo extension on the London & North Western to Watford, where NUR and ASLEF members came out in solidarity. Action spread to other depots including Westminster. A deputation lobbied the NUR. After three days, strikers started to return to work and an agreement was reached for time-and-a-quarter to be paid on Sundays to women as well as men. There was to be no general victimization and women strikers were to be specifically protected from punishment. The companies agreed to pay equal war wage increases and the final rise of wartime was 5/- for each sex. However, the total bonus for men had reached 33/- whilst for women it was only 20/- 6d.

The equal pay strikes of 1918 did not come out of the blue. There had been a wave of strikes throughout Britain in the closing months of the war. As early as1910, women at Cradley Heath chainmakers in the west Midlands had struck and, during the war, women came out over a 10% war bonus at Cleator Mill in Cumbria in 1915, winning their claim and union recognition. A year later, seven carriage cleaners at Old Oak Common depot struck over war bonus payments and this kept the ball rolling. The grievance was also aggravated by the fact that the 1917 increase of the bonus was 5/- for men and 2/- 6d for women. In 1918, strikes took place in amongst shop and warehouse workers and in the printing trades. On the railways the massively militant surge of first national rail strike in August 1911 (when a third of the Metropolitan line´s workers came out-mainly motormen, drivers and guards and the City & South London tube had been completely stopped) resurfaced during the war with the national claim for an 8-hour day. This had been crushed by the government in 1917 when, under the Defence of the Realm and Munitions Act, a proposed strike was declared illegal. But as the war entered its last phase and unions became increasingly frustrated over the lack of progress over pay and the working day, moves for a Railway Workers´ One Union Movement began to be made and a conference of NUR, ASLEF and RCA branches was held.

For working women, the stand-off with the Lloyd George government was beginning to collapse in the light of blatant discrimination in the form of higher bonuses for men in munitions work and the refusal of any bonus at all to women on buses and trams. The fight for the 8-hour day provided a new impetus within the railway industry. The ASRS (later the NUR) was recognised by the Metropolitan Railway and in 1919, the 8-hour day was conceded after two national rail strikes when almost 85% of the Met´s workforce had left work. The 3-day equal pay strike on the London underground showed how quickly the women in the workforce had been radicalized by a combination of growing anger over pay inequality and the new wave of trade union activity in 1917-18. Unofficial action had brought partial and temporary gains and, although women were forced out of the industry after the war, they had registered the impact of women as workers and trade unionists.

Dave Welsh

For more background please go to the TUC History Online website:


Pensioner recalls how as a six-year-old in the Blitz she took refuge in the underground, Islington Tribune, 9 November 2007, Peter Gruner

MEMORIES of the Blitz flooded back for Roz Tankard from Archway as she recalled how as a six year-old she took refuge in the Underground to avoid bombing raids. Most of all, she remembers the bodies and the smells. She still has the little doll she clutched for comfort during those terrifying times.

Roz spoke about her experiences following historian David Welsh´s appeal in the Tribune for wartime memories. Her story is among many to be included in a new book about life in the Tube system during the Second World War which is being compiled on behalf of the TUC library collection.

One night in 1940, Roz and her family took shelter at Essex Road underground station after a 1,000-pound unexploded bomb fell on St James´s Church in Bishop Street, where they lived. As Roz attempted to close her eyes to sleep a landmine exploded above, killing dozens of people and destroying hundreds of homes.

"You couldn´t hear the bomb going off above us," she said. "But when we came up in the morning we were told that various people we knew had been killed or injured in the blast."

Each day as the sirens sounded people queued in their hundreds to descend into Essex Road Tube station carrying bedding and food. Roz remembers how on one afternoon she insisted she went with her mother to collect her grandfather´s pipe, which he had left at home in the rush to get below. They hurried out of the station as people were going down, dodged under a cordon and retrieved the pipe. But suddenly the bombing began and they couldn´t get back into the station. Roz was forced to spend several frightening hours holding onto her mother as they took shelter in a house.

Now 73, Roz, a retired civil service admin secretary, lives in Hornsey Lane, Archway. She told her story to Mr Welsh, an oral historian from King´s Cross who is compiling the history. He explained that at first the government of the day refused permission for people to use the Tube shelters. "The authorities thought it would cause panic and disrupt the trains," he said. "But people would defy the rules and buy a rail or platform ticket and get down that way. The Communist Party in the East End led demonstrations at station entrances demanding that people be allowed down. The CP argued that the public shelters were not adequate and terribly unsafe. The government finally gave in. The deep Tube stations were the safest places to be during bombing. Holborn was popular as was Camden Town, Hampstead and Belsize Park. Swiss Cottage had its own shelter committee and newsletter."

Mr Welsh added: "In the end the Home Secretary realised that if they continued to stop people going down there would be massive disobedience. But not all stations were safe. Bounds Green was hit by a bomb and a number of people killed. There was also a big disaster at Bethnal Green where people ran down the steps and died in the crush."

  1. Do you have experiences of life on the London Underground during the war? Contact David Welsh on 7837 0845, email davidwelsh83@btinternet.com or write to him at I5 Wellington Road, Norwich NR2 3HT.