Helena Wojtczak made railway history by becoming the first female train guard in 1978.
The first railway line to operate from Brighton went to Shoreham in 1840, with the London line opening in 1841. The connection to London and further afield opened up Brighton and other towns in Sussex and played a huge role in their development and growth. Despite their long presence in our lives, however, trains, railways and all related infrastructure are still seen by many as ‘men’s work.’
Also in 1978, some months after Wojtczak’s historic appointment, Karen Harrison, defying pressure to take on a clerical role instead, had become the first female assistant train driver. In 2005 Shoreham-by-Sea born Wojtczak , by now a published author with a degree in Social Sciences, traced the fascinating yet hidden history of women railway workers in her book ‘Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace’. The book, launched at the House of Commons, was the first time a light had been shone on the women who, through the years, have quietly taken their place with men in keeping the country’s trains moving.
Various stories were pulled out of the shadows, from the early nineteenth century level crossing gatekeepers who worked round the clock in dangerous and miserable conditions, earning half the wage of their male counterparts, to the women who stepped into men’s shoes to operate power lathes, do electrical work and uncouple trains during the World Wars, to the remarkable Elizabeth Holman who managed to get a job as a navvy with the Great Western Railway in the 1850s by dressing as a man.
The book was sixteen years in the making and, with these women at last being given their due, Wojtczak is now considered the foremost authority on the history of women working on the railways in the country and has acted as a consultant historian to the National Railway Museum, making sure women’s voices are heard on projects and exhibitions. With Network Rail reporting that only 18% of its employees were female as recently as 2018, ‘Railwaywomen’ is still a poignant read.
Railwaywomen aren’t the only ones that Wojtczak, who now lives in St Leonards, has pulled from the shadows. She has written a series of books that have allowed unknown and unheralded Sussex women to take their place in our rich local history. ‘Women of Victorian Sussex’ (2003) portrays the harsh realities of ordinary women – many of them too poor and unsung to have merited recording previously – living in Sussex in the nineteenth century, the type of work they did, the opportunities they had, the crimes they committed, and the laws that affected them. In 2002 Wojtczak championed unsung Sussex women by writing and producing an exhibition on Victorian working women for Hastings Museum.
The later ‘Notable Sussex Women’ (2008), is a compendium of women from all fields – from royalty to Suffragettes to pioneers in the fields of education, sport, the arts, politics and more – and is the go-to book of local women’s history. Flicking through a few pages of this and realising what a wealth of inventive and brave women to have connections with our county is a cheering read. Helena has written a number of other award winning books and has taught at the Universities of Brighton and Sussex. Her latest book, to be launched at the Burton’s St Leonards Society is ‘Strange Exits from Hastings’. For further information about Helena Wojtczak’s books go to hastingspress.co.uk
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett