History in the details: Railway staff uniforms

History in the details: Railway staff uniforms

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist


The mid-19th century heralded the great era of civilian/occupational uniforms, including those worn by railway staff. Engine crews of early independently-run railway lines wore regular dress, but as scattered local lines developed into a larger network, some companies provided identifying livery-style clothing for their drivers and firemen. The first was the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway, which in 1841 introduced uniforms of dark green cloth with red edging for engine crews. By 1848 Great Western Railway drivers and firemen were wearing blue trousers, white shirts, black neck-cloths and peaked blue caps, with dark blue peaked caps from then on favoured for engine drivers. By the late 1800s the standard engine crew uniform was jacket, trousers and cap, with oilskins or warm pilot coats for cold weather; for summer a working man’s lightweight slop jacket.

From the mid-1800s outdoor railway staff received functional oilskin capes and stout woollen greatcoats. Stationmasters, train guards and ticket collectors on public show wore the finest livery uniforms and during the 1850s/1860s mulberry, dark green or red double-breasted frockcoats were popular with the various companies. Collars, cuffs and caps were often edged with gold or silver lace and caps had a patent peak, uniforms completed with a buckled shoulder belt and pouch. Porters generally wore practical garments like sleeved waistcoats or jackets and trousers in the company’s colours: for example, Great Western Railway porters had short green jackets with corduroy trousers, sleeves and caps bearing the letters ‘GWR’. Uniforms, worn with pride, signified employees’ loyalty to their railway, while companies acknowledged the benefits of smart workwear to staff morale and efficiency.

Reflecting growing sobriety in dress, by 1900 most station platform workers wore a dark frockcoat or jacket, waistcoat, shirt, collar and tie, trousers, boots and peaked cap. Meanwhile engine crews adopted protective bib-and-braces or dungaree-style overalls and wore a peaked cap bearing the company’s badge or, unofficially, a cloth cap. Edwardian main-line railway companies like the North Eastern Railway and Great Western Railway issued complex uniform regulations for all grades of staff, from station master to lavatory attendant. Employees usually received new suits once or twice a year and overcoats/waterproofs every two years. In 1923 many lines grouped into four main railways, public companies whose workers were expected to wear neat uniforms when on duty and present the corporate image. GWR livery typified most contemporary railway company uniforms. First-class stationmasters wore smart dark blue overcoats, frock coats, matching waistcoats and trousers, the coat edges, cuffs and peaked caps ornamented with gold braid, caps also bearing the GWR badge. Their guards wore overcoats with GWR buttons and dark blue jackets piped with red and the word ‘guard’ in gilt thread beside the collar, while porters wore blue jackets or sleeved waistcoats with ‘porter’ on the collar and number badge on the sleeve. Such clothes long remained standard: for example, porters still wore linen-sleeved waistcoats in the 1970s.

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 train guard from the London & North Western Railway
This train guard from the London & North Western Railway by Henry Alken, 1852, wears an early livery uniform of dark green cloth, with peaked cap, buckled shoulder belt and pouch
platform worker from the Cheshire Lines Railway
A young platform worker from the Cheshire Lines Railway, photographed in the 1890s, wears the company’s uniform and peaked cap bearing its metal badge James Feely
Cheshire Lines Railway employees of the early 1900s
Cheshire Lines Railway employees of the early 1900s mainly wear smart three-piece suits and the company’s peaked caps with identifying badges

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