Wednesday, 6 January 2016

White Trousers

"Far be it for me to question your authenticity, but why are you wearing white trousers?"

The answer, in a nutshell, is simple: unbleached, undyed, simple weave cloth such as canvas is cheap, hard wearing and can be boil washed. Most European armies during late 18th and most of the 19th centuries adopted unbleached canvas (linen, cotton or hemp) trousers  for fatigue and other dirty duties, including mucking out horses, because of this. 

And it was for this reason, that Railwaymen too, wore white trousers. In 2016 we might not think of white as being a practical colour, but 200 years ago it certainly was!

 Locomotive crews on the Liverpool & Manchester railway had to supply their own uniform, other than their blue caps. The caps had red embroidery on the cap-band bearing the name of the locomotive and the duty of the wearer; thus "Planet: Fireman". A brass company badge was worn on the left arm. They were to supply their own 'blue suit' consisting of a  'waistcoat' (a sleeved garment reaching to the waist) for Firemen and a tailcoat for the Driver, moleskin trousers, flannel shirts and cravats. They were also to buy their own winter overcoat and waterproofs, but of the 'approved pattern.' Train Guards wore an 'olive suit' with the ubiquitous white moleskin trousers; porters wore drab whilst luggage porters wore white moleskin trousers and jacket. Station staff again blue.

 Luckily they were relatively well paid. Back in 1830 the Driver was referred to as the 'Engineman' or simply 'Engineer' [terms subsequently adopted in America and in France] whilst the Fireman, was, well, the Fireman. The first locomotive crews on the L&M were mostly Geordie boys, all from the North East, from the Stockton & Darlington, Killingworth and other colliery railways. Where else could the Directors of the L&M find a pool of trained and skilled Enginemen, Firemen, Fitters so quickly and in such large numbers? They were all appointed by George Stephenson and in the most part were known to him. This, of course, caused resentment amongst the local workforce and friction between the Geordie boys and the Mancunians and Liverpudlians. Charges of corruption were levelled against the Directors and Stephenson, and it's easy to see why, but the appointment of Enginemen from the North East makes perfect sense.

'Enginemen' were very highly paid: 1s 6d per trip and they were expected to make four trips per day. For any trip over that number they were paid 2s and a whopping 5s for working Sundays. Out of this pay - which could be as much as £2/- a week - the Enginemen had to pay his own cleaner, buy his uniform (twice a year) as well as 'provide oil, tallow, hemp, pack their cylinders'. Unlike on the Stockton & Darlington they did not pay their own Fireman. The poor Firemen received half the pay of the Engineman - 8d per trip. The extra concessions granted to the Enginemen caused considerable upset with the Firemen who in 1833 levelled their complaints to the Directors who promptly sacked the lot and replaced them with 'stout boys' who were paid 15s per week.

There was more trouble ahead in 1835 when, the Directors wanted to bring the pay of the two men in line, instead of raising the pay of the Firemen, they cut the pay of the Enginemen, who promptly went on strike. The strike was broken by appointing Firemen and Fitters as Enginemen and those Enginemen who went on strike were dismissed and convicted of 'misconduct'. Four of them who had signed 'Articles of Agreement' stipulating working conditions and pay, were sentanced to hard labour! (ASLEF didn't come about until the 1880s).

So, back to the white trousers. Popular myth is that they were adopted because the first Loco crews were ex-Sailors. Sadly, this is not quite true. As Kingsford has indicated, ex-soldiers were preferred for some of the grades. Labourers and farm hands were preferred for the largely unskilled work as porters, permanent way gangers, switchmen, and brakesmen ex-soldiers were preferred for more skilled and disciplined roles such as guard (who at that time sat atop the coach!), policemen (the men who operated the signals, not for catching law-breakers). The Loco crews were on most early railways drawn from the North East: Daniel Gooch (himself a Tynesider) appointed the first crews on the GWR from skilled crews from that area. The GWR, by offering higher pay than the L&M began poaching L&M staff, so much so that the latter gradually increased the pay of their crews around 1837 onwards. Firemen were appointed from experienced and skilled fitters and engine cleaners from Melling's Workshop (the Manchester MPD). John Melling was locomotive superintendent at Manchester and in 1834 complained of 'improper persons' being appointed as firemen but the Directors in reply stated 

'In appointing firemen it is desirable to look forward to their becoming enginemen, and with this in view it must be an advantage to a man to have been employed in a fitter's shop...We wish...when vaccancies occurred, that the firemen should be supplied from the repairing sheds...'

So yes, white trousers show all the muck. But 185 years ago, white trousers were designed to get mucky! They were cheap and used not just by the railway, but by the Army, Navy, in the burgeoning cotton mills of Lancashire - in fact in any mucky, dirty job.


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