In August 1918 women working on the underground voted to come out on unofficial strike over a claim for parity with men on a war bonus payment that they had been denied. The strike, which mainly affected the Bakerloo line, did make some gains for the women.
The background to these important events was the introduction of women onto London´s transport system after the mobilization of men led to a vast reduction of staff across the industry.
For example, Maida Vale underground station was opened in June 1915 and was staffed entirely by women. The London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) began to employ women in 1916 and it was estimated that in 1919 that 5,551 women had been employed on the underground during the war.
Women were employed as ticket collectors, lift attendants, porters and, from 1917, as station guards, guards and ´gatewomen´ on trains who opened and closed the gates before electro-pneumatic operation was introduced (there were normally three gatemen on each six-car train plus two guards).
Women were to be found on the District Railway, the Metropolitan, and the UERL tubes; the Metropolitan alone having 522 female staff by 1918.
Whilst some railway companies appeared to be horrified by the employment of women, Lord Aberconway, director of the Metropolitan, argued ´lady´ ticket collectors did better than their male counterparts.
Initially, women were excluded from becoming guards and the death of Alice Dixon, a porter at Holland Park tube station in 1915, seemed to offer support to those who believed women were not responsible enough to work on board trains.
Dixon rode on the step-board of a train as it moved off from the platform and was pulled along by her skirt that became entangled. She died of her injuries. The London Electric was the first company to employ women as gatewomen in 1916.
Guards were required to give a starting signal to the driver and then board the train and the London Electric claimed that this was too dangerous for a woman.
The immediate spur for the industrial action was the 6-day strike by over 15,000 bus and tram workers earlier in August 1918. They had come out for the 5/- war bonus paid to men and were supported by the London & Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers.
The strike was successful in gaining a full back-dated increase for the women. Other towns had also been affected: Bath, Bournemouth, Brighton, Bristol, Folkestone, Hastings, Hove and Weston-Super-Mare were all hit.
A year before, the war bonus had been consolidated into the basic rate and renamed the ´war wage´, creating even more anger amongst railwaywomen as it merely increased the disparity between men´s and women´s pay through overtime payments.
Five hundred women met at King´s Cross in February 1918 and discussed possible strike action, calling on the NUR to reopen negotiations on the issue.
A number of NUR branches supported the call for equal pay whilst others fought against any improvement for women that might keep them in the industry after the war. Jimmy Thomas, the NUR leader, simply sold out the women.