Staff wages, Great Western Railway, 1833-1956
One of the trickiest issues facing the Victorian Professions team is determining how much the Professionals in our cohort and their family members were actually earning. Whilst there was a pecking order of ‘pukka’ professions, such as law, medicine and the Church, over the ‘new’ professions such as accountancy, clerks and teaching, this was not always reflected in the associated salaries. The frequently poor lot of the clergy is a common trope in nineteenth-century literature, with authors including Trollope regularly questioning how a man could be expected to support a family in a decent manner on incomes as low as £80 per annum. To give some context, historians generally agree that an income of £200 – £300 would have been necessary to secure and maintain the trappings of middle-class status.
The image above is of the Great Western Railway Employment Record, and gives the name of the company’s clerks, their age, and the date that service commenced. The ledgers also provide the starting salary of the worker, but even more excitingly they detail any pay rises that the clerk was awarded thus allowing us to chart their journey through the company.
Record of Harold Robert Prideaux
Focussing on the record of Harold Robert Prideaux (b.1870) shows very clearly why knowing the salary of a professional is so important. Harold is the son of cohort member Thomas Symes Prideaux (b.1814), a chemist and engineer who was born in Devon but worked in Merthyr Tydfil, and he began work as a Clerk for the Great Western Railway on 25th February 1886 at the age of 16. Harold’s starting annual salary was £25, which is not an enormous amount when one considers that a skilled artisan of the same period might earn upwards of £100 per annum, but this marks the beginning of his training and we can see that Harold’s wage quickly increased. By the time that Harold married Hebe Alice Connor (b.1874) in 1899, he was earning £125, an amount which had risen further to £140 p.a. when they welcomed their daughter Joan in 1901.
Harold must have continued to progress through the ranks at the Great Western Railway because although he is still recorded as a ‘Railway Clerk’ in the 1901 and 1911 census, his salary increases are greater than would be expected from simple annual increments. The seven years between 1920 and 1927 represent a very lucrative period for Harold, and his salary more than doubled from £650 to £1550, where it remained until his retirement in 1930 after forty-four years of service. A quick comparison of Harold’s record to others on the same page in the ledger show that although other clerks received the same pay rises in the initial stages of their career, none achieved the rapid increase in salary that Harold saw in the latter half of his time at the Great Western Railway; indeed, Frederick John Dawe who worked for the GWR as a clerk for thirty-eight years had a salary of £360 when he retired.
Without the staff records of the Great Western Railway, it would not have been possible to determine exactly how long Harold had worked as a clerk (he would only be picked up in the 1891, 1901 and 1911 census records), or how his career had progressed from joining the company as a 16 year old trainee to retiring age 60 in 1930. Most importantly however, this source gives the Victorian Professions team some quantitative data about the salary of clerks in the GWR during the nineteenth century which we will be able to compare against the salaries of other professions – both actual salaries, and those discussed in contemporary literature – allowing us to draw wider conclusions about the status of clerks and their place in the professional world of nineteenth-century Britain.
Dr Jennifer Aston
Staff wages, Great Western Railway, UK, Railway Employment Records, 1833-1956 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Accessed via www.ancestry.com Last accessed 10/09/2015
Middle class income information see: L. Davidoff & C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, (London, 2002 edn), p.23-24
Artisan wage information see: D.E.C. Eversley, ‘Industry and Trade 1550-1880’, in W.B. Stephens [ed.], VCH Warwickshire VII, pp. 81-139, p. 136