Signalwomen in 1943, on the
GWR Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Section
by Steve Daly
During both World Wars the employment of women on duties normally undertaken by men, now away fighting for King and Country, was quite commonplace. The railways employed them in many departments and the working of signal boxes was no exception, although not without its problems.
In 1943, the signalwomen employed on the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Section of the Great Western Railway, were the subject of some lengthy correspondance between various officers of the company.
On 30th April, the Divisional Superintendent’s Office at Swansea wrote to the S&T Department at Reading. “In connection with the employment of signalwomen on the BP & GV Section, it is found that some of the levers at Trimsaran Road, Kidwelly Junction, Pontyates and Pontyberem are difficult to operate, and I shall be obliged if you will kindly have the matter looked into with the view of seeing whether it is possible to ease the working of the levers so that they may be operated by the women.”
Reading duly passed the matter to the S & T Department at Carmarthen and on 13th may they wrote to Llanelly advising that, “……I notice at Pontyates, on lever No. 4, that lift chairs are fitted to the points and I shall be much obliged if you will kindly have same removed. I may say that I am trying out a method at Burry Port Dock Junction Box to see if I can make the points work easier and if successful I propose trying it out on the above Branch,……”
The full details of the method that was being tried out are not recorded, but it was obviously successful as the Stationmaster at Pembrey & Burry Port wrote to Inspector Pullen at Carmarthen on 15th May in this vein, “Since your Department attended to the working of the points lever at Dock Junction Box this week,an improvement has certainly been affected, which makes it much easier for the lever to be pushed back in the frame. The pulling portion is however, about the same as it was before, and although Miss Melton can manage it fairly well, Miss Morgans, who is slightly built, has a little difficulty in doing so. I have no doubt that with a little practice, she could master this, but if something further can be done to ease the pulling operation, it would be a distinct advantage.”
A handwritten addition was appended to this communication before it went on its way to Carmarthen, “The lever has been more difficult to pull today after the sun had been shining on the spring and Miss Melton then failed to pull it over.”
On 18th May, communication was sent from the S & T Department at Carmarthen to Reading Signal Works regarding this ongoing problem. “……you will be aware that all points on this Branch are operated by the F.P. Lock Escapement movement, and in the majority of cases the points are on the heavy side. In my opinion the heavy working is partly due to the short levers in the locking frames, and several of the points are continually being flooded, and a considerable amount of expenditure would be incurred in dealing with the whole of the Branch.”
Flooding was always a problem over the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Section as the majority of the line ran on the course of an old canal, the forerunner of the railway in moving the coal produced by the valley’s mines. This not only presented problems with the low loading gauge, but also it seems, with the efficient working of points.
The letter went on, “I have altered the rodding at Burry Port Dock Junction, and although the signalman stated that there was considerable improvement in the working, the women who are learning the box working stated that the points were heavy. I have tried the points myself and found no difficulty in working them.” The writer then considered the situation at other locations on the branch. With regard to Pontyberem he commented, “At Pontyberem the old pattern escapement cranks are in operation, but if these are replaced by the new type I am afraid that it will still be too heavy for women to work.” Similar comments were made in connection with Kidwelly Junction, “The points at Kidwelly Junction are a good distance from the box, and the station and points are often under water, all of which contributes to the heavy working.”
So it would appear that progress with the problem of the signalwomen not being able to work some of the boxes on the line was slow. On 15th June 1943, the S & T Department at Carmarthen advised the Divisional Superintendent at Swansea that, “……I have made alterations to the Points at Burry Port Dock Junct., and in my opinion Women can now work same fairly easily. I am afraid that no further improvements can be made to these Points and I shall be glad to know if same is satisfactory before carrying out alterations at other Stations on the Branch.”
It would appear that this work was successful as the Divisional Superintendent’s office replied, “I am obliged by your letter of the 15th instant, and have confirmed that the working of the points and lock bar has greatly improved and can now be operated by women.”
Having got the working of the lever frames sorted out, when the darker winter evenings arrived, further problems were encountered at Burry Port Dock Junction, this time due to the fact that the door of the box could not be locked during hours of darkness! However, that as they say, is another story.