The Lady Tram Driver Has Arrived: Women’s History Month V

  29 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

In 1915, Glasgow was the first city in Britain to hire female tram drivers, partly as a result of the deficit of male workers during the war. This was not an uncontroversial move, as shown in the below article from the People’s Journal, which details feelings of discomfort at the prospect of women moving into what was a traditionally male profession. The extract is taken from Scotland: Her Story, edited by Rosemary Goring, which tells the story of Scotland through the eyes of its women, and is the final in our series of extracts for Women’s History Month.

The lady tram driver has arrived

People’s Journal, December 1915

The shortage of male labour in the war years offered unexpected opportunities for women. As this article in a Glasgow paper shows, they were able – slowly – to overcome prejudice about their ability to do what was previously considered men’s work. Lest it seems the battle has been won, however, there are still areas where old taboos prevail. Even today, the number of female pilots, for instance, is extremely low, the job still being seen as a male profession.

A few weeks ago, when the experiment of trying women tram drivers was mooted in Glasgow, the general public decided that the new departure would only end in failure. Women were constitutionally unfit for such an onerous post, they argued, and the majority of the tramway employees were of the same way of thinking. But now the lady tram driver has arrived. At the beginning of the week five motor women put in a full day’s work on the front platform, and there were no complaints.

During the busiest part of one day I journeyed from St. Vincent Street to Newlands on a car driven by Miss Mary Campbell of Newlands Depot. The vehicular and passenger traffic was heavy; the hour was between five and six, when the light was bad; and the rails were none too reliable owing to a slight drizzle of rain.

Down Union Street the car was guided safely; through the maze of traffic at Argyle Street, the young motorwoman forged ahead: Glasgow Bridge was taken at full power, as the gong sounded a warning note to a zig-zagging carter in front; the policeman on points duty on the south side of the Bridge held up no restraining hand and, with another thump at the gong, we sparked merrily on.

‘By Jove, that driver of ours can handle a car,’ remarked a passenger, unaware that a lady was the guiding and controlling factor.

‘My experience as a lady tram driver,’ repeated Miss Campbell, a most prepossessing young lady, whose rosy cheeks testified eloquently to the healthiness of the open-air life. ‘Well, I’ve scarcely had time to collect any yet. The first thing I did was to go to the window to see what state the rails were in. Thank goodness, it was raining, for although a wet rail is apt to make hand-braking a heavy task, still the magnetic emergency brake acts admirably on a clean, if wet rail.

‘The first day was quiet, but the second was a big difference. I began at eight o’clock, and although the rails were still good, yet it was very cold. On the afternoon, when the traffic began to get heavy, I got my first fright, although it was scarcely a fright either. I was just passing a funeral when one of the horses stumbled and swung the carriage round on to the track right in front of me. I immediately applied the emergency brake, and stopped dead. Somehow I had been expecting such an occurrence.

‘We get it drummed into us at the school to be always on the look-out for these little nerve trials, and I felt quite proud of my
quick stop. Then a motor came flashing out of a side street as I was advancing at a pretty fair speed. I had to look lively again. But, thank goodness, I managed to check the speed of the car in time.

‘The youngsters constitute our greatest worry, however. They will be clinging on to a heavy vehicle and invisible to any one going in the opposite direction and they will dart out unthinkingly in front of you. It means that every instant a tram driver must be on the alert, and there is no time for day dreaming.’

‘How about keeping time, Miss Campbell? Do you experience any difficulty in running to a schedule?’

‘Not so far. You see a lot depends upon the conductor. A good man or woman behind will get the passengers on and off expeditiously and I must say that I am fortunate in that respect. I have one of the best and most experienced conductors in the service.’

‘One more question, Miss Campbell. What answer would you make to the people who still declare that women will never make efficient tram drivers?’

‘They are too premature. The fact that there are five of us in Glasgow seems sufficient reply. They can’t say that we were favoured with the best of climatic conditions. Our preliminary practice was undergone in frost, fog and on rails of the greasiest description. We entered on our test in midwinter; the worst period of the year, and speaking candidly I don’t consider the task beyond women folks. I prefer driving to conducting; there may be occasions when dilatory carters make me wish that my command of the King’s English could be more forceful and still be lady like, but taking it all over, it is a grand life. Out in the open air, with no one to bother you as long as the work is going on and the wheels revolving to time. Yes, I think we’ll manage all right.’

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