• University of Strathclyde

Working Lives on Britain's Railways: Railway History and Heritage

Discover Britain's industrial heritage and learn about the lives of British railway workers from 1840-1914.

5,906 enrolled on this course

Workers on the second Tay Bridge
  • Duration

    4 weeks
  • Weekly study

    3 hours

Explore British railway history and learn what work on the railways was like

On this course, you will investigate the professional lives of the men and women working on the British railways from the 1840s until the First World War.

Using archival materials from the National Railway Museum, you will learn about the mental and physical hardship endured by railway workers, as well as the risks and pleasures that came with working in this new industry.

From Irish Catholic navvies to female office clerks based in industrial cities, you will discover the surprising diversity and complexity of the railway workforce.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: On this special extended version of the course the Educators will continue to join the discussions and respond to individual comments but less frequently; this will likely mean that they will not be able to respond to each individual comment or question. Please also note that there will not be any Live Stream sessions during this run, however links to recordings of previous sessions will be included for your benefit.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds This course wants to focus on the lives of the people who made the railways work. Some of the groups that we’ll explore on this course, you may already know about. Drivers have long held a fascination for members of the public. You may know about the technology of signalling, and by extension, the signalers who operated it. If you’ve travelled by train in Britain, you’ll have passed through the landscapes created by the hard work of the navvies who reshaped this country with little more than a pick-axe and a spade. It’s not just about the machines and the technology, It’s about the human relationship to that technology. Join us to explore the history of the people who made the railways work.


  • Week 1

    The Engine Driver

    • Welcome to the course

      Welcome! In this activity we will introduce ourselves and the key topics and themes of the course, and give you the chance to introduce yourselves to us and each other.

    • Welcome to week one

      In this activity we introduce you to the wider world of the Victorian railways and railway labourers, and ask you to start thinking about the engine driver.

    • What did engine drivers do?

      We're now going to start thinking about a specific type of railway worker: the engine driver. In the tasks that follow, we'll think about the type of work they did and how they were depicted in Victorian culture and society.

    • Dangers and difficulties

      As a new industry, the Victorian railways were often a difficult and dangerous place to work. Here we'll learn more about the what this meant for engine drivers.

    • The engine-driver hero

      Engine drivers were popular figures in Victorian culture and increasingly portrayed as working-class heroes. In this activity we'll find out why.

  • Week 2

    The Signalman

    • Welcome to week two

      In week two we’ll move on to think about signalling, the complicated system that underpinned the Victorian railways. We’ll explore the working lives of the signallers and talk about what happened when things went wrong.

    • What is railway signalling?

      Signalling was, and remains, crucial for the railways. Here you'll learn about what it was and why it was so important.

    • Communication and isolation

      Here we will further explore the working lives of the signallers.

    • Accidents and anxieties

      Here we'll delve into the terrifying world of railway accidents caused by signal failures, and how these were perceived by the Victorian travelling public.

  • Week 3

    The Navvy

    • Welcome to week three

      This week we turn to the navvies, the men and women who physically built the railways.

    • What was a navvy?

      In these activities we'll find out who the navvies were, what they did, and the traces they left behind them.

    • Shaping communities

      Each new railway construction project demanded large numbers of navvies. Here we'll discuss their working and living conditions and also how they were perceived by existing communities.

    • Finding the navvy

      Here we'll consider the difficulties of getting accurate information about what navvy life was really like, looking at poems and songs made and sung by navvies.

  • Week 4

    The Clerk

    • Welcome to week four

      In our final week, we'll look at the men and women who often worked behind the scenes in the back offices of the railways: the clerks.

    • What did the clerks do?

      Notably different from the other workers, being a clerk was a middle-class profession. Here we'll look at what clerks did and what their employers expected of them.

    • Office life and leisure

      Here we'll look at what working life was like for the clerks, both in their day-to-day jobs and their leisure time.

    • Rising through the ranks

      More so than the other workers we've looked at, becoming a clerk offered promotional opportunities. Here we'll look at how some clerks rose through the ranks of railway management.

    • Final activities: railway workers and their legacies

      As we approach the end of the course, we'll reflect on what we've learned about working lives on the railways. You can find out more about how to find your railway ancestors, and experiment with searching the archives.

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Discuss the range of activities involved in working on the railways in the long nineteenth century, and how these changed during the period covered by the course.
  • Assess representations of working lives on the railways and railway artefacts and discuss how they relate to wider questions of class, gender, and professional identity.
  • Explore written and oral material on workers’ lives within the appropriate historical and material contexts.
  • Perform searches in the online resources of the National Railway Museum and other archives for material relevant to railway history and workers’ lives.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone with an interest in railway history and heritage, working-class history and culture, industrial heritage, the Victorian period, or museums and their holdings.

Who will you learn with?

I am the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Stirling, and from 2018-22 have led the research project 'Piston, Pen & Press: Literary Cultures in the Industrial Workplace.'

Dr. Oliver Betts is the National Railway Museum's Research Lead. He oversees the academic and research profile of the museum and has a deep love of all things Victorian and Railways!

I'm the Railway Museum's Librarian and my role is to help orientate all levels of researcher to find the answers to their railway-related questions.

Who developed the course?

University of Strathclyde

The University of Strathclyde is a leading international technological university located in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, committed to useful learning.

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