The Early British Station Master

Late Victorian and Edwardian Station Masters are perceived to have been highly respected individuals. They commanded the stations at which they were based, and were pillars of the community; respectable, authoritarian and honourable. However, in the case of station masters before 1870 these attributes are not necessarily applicable. Without established promotional trees, standardised rules and regulations, and with vetting procedures for new employees not being set in stone, Britain’s pioneer station masters were a very mixed bag, to say the least.
Firstly, the term ‘station master’ was not a universal one in the period, although it was certainly around. A London and South Western Railway rule book from 1845 called them ‘station clerks’, and in many cases this is what they were, simply clerks in charge of a station. Indeed, the Great Northern Railway omitted the word ‘station’ altogether, calling officials in these positions ‘clerks-in-charge’ in 1856.

Nevertheless, it seems that other railways used ‘clerks-in-charge’ interchangeably with ‘station master’, as shown in the East Lancashire Railway’s 1856 rule book. The most common alternative to ‘station master’ in the period was ‘station agent’, and the London and South Western Railway, after disposing of ‘station clerk’, retained this title right until the 1900 for all except those individuals administering large stations. It was only in the 1860s that ‘station master’ became far more common and part of common parlance.
However, whatever early station masters were called, the individuals filling these posts came to the railways after being occupied in a vast array of other occupations. In a survey of the professions 400 London and North Western Railway workers between 1830 and 1860 had prior to being employed by the railway, thirty-nine of the sample were station masters or ‘agents’. Their previous occupations were diverse, including farmers, journeymen, sailors, civil servants, bookkeepers and porters. Seemingly, most sectors of the mid-Victorian economy were represented amongst the thirty-nine, and it suggests that it would not be wise to pigeonhole early station masters as having one or two types of employment background.
However, it is unsurprising that with men from many backgrounds filling these posts, not all were well behaved. In 1858 George Reeves, Station Master at Lowdham Station on the Midland Railway, pleaded guilty to embezzling the company out of an unspecified amount. In passing sentence the judge stated that he Reeves had been placed in a position of ‘great confidence and trust,’ and while he showed remorse, he was sentenced to six months hard labour. In 1861 the cash held at the London and South Western Railway’s Windsor Station was found to be deficient. While no officials were found to be at fault, it is odd the management would then ‘break up the staff’ throughout the line and remove the Station Master, John Madigan, to Petersfield with a reduction of salary. Lastly, in 1865 at the Usk Quarter Sessions, Alfred Brown, station master at Hengoed Station on the Rhymney Railway, was charged with indecently assaulting Mary Ann Griffiths in a railway carriage.
Of course, the majority of station masters in the period were honourable and did their job satisfactorily. Indeed, most had to have favourable references to be appointed. The Great Northern Railway’s ‘General Instructions and Regulations for the executive department’ stated that ‘experienced clerks’, who I presume were frequently appointed as ‘clerks-in-charge’, were required to have references from their ‘last employer’ and ‘one from each of two housekeepers of an undoubted respectability.’
Furthermore, after around the mid-1850s it was highly unlikely that an individual would be appointed directly as a station master, as railway companies increasingly preferred these posts to be filled by individuals who had risen through the ranks. Thus, by this time potentially poor station masters were usually weeded out before they reached that post.