Apr 162020


It's April so it's time for our members to help us blog through the 2020 A-Z Blogging Challenge. Our chosen theme this year is Employment, also the topic of our Shared Endeavour where our members are encouraged to research employment within their one-place study. Today's entry is from Peter Cooper.

In the 19th century railways flourished, built and operated by scores of different companies. As they started to link up and become a national network people and goods wanted to travel across the tracks of different companies, and a way had to be found to manage the allocation of revenue collected by the various railway companies. The Railway Clearing House (RCH) was set up in 1842 to do just that, based on the example of the Bankers' Clearing House. For fascinating details about what they did, see http://mikes.railhistory.railfan.net/r164.html.

How did RCH know what was travelling where? One way was that they had "Number Takers" who stood at junctions across the country noting the movements of every wagon and carriage, reporting back to the Railway Clearing House in London so that the clerks could balance the companies' competing claims. Paid trainspotters, if you like.

Matthew Engel in "Eleven Minutes Late: A Train Journey to the Soul of Britain" says they were "an obscure group — barely 500 strong — who were not paid much, they were out in all weathers and their thirteen-hour night shift persisted until 1919. They were run down or crushed, quite regularly, especially in the dark."

The Playle’s derelict old house in 2008

The Playle’s derelict old house in 2008

John Playle was signalman at Needingworth Junction for over 30 years, and his wife Emily was "Gatekeeper" at the level crossing over a minor road near their home. In the 1911 census their son William Henry Playle (17) is recorded as a "Number Taker" for the "Railway Clearing House". Other sons also worked for the railway elsewhere - one a shunter and another a porter.

At that time Needingworth Junction was the southern end of the "Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway" from Huntingdon to Doncaster, and the other line at the junction was for the Ely and St Ives Railway, so it was important for the accounting to know what moved across the junction.

There is a lot online about railways and someday I will do more research about railway people in Needingworth. We had several, including gatekeepers in the "Railway Gate House" associated with the other level crossing (on the main road into St Ives about 1 km south of the junction).

I suspect that William was a "Number Taker" for only a short time, and by 1939 he had a family, lived in Welwyn Garden City, and was a Railway Clerk.

[I have a small personal connection with the Number Takers, because in the late 1960s I had a holiday office job with British Railways in Leeds. Some of my colleagues were working on finding out how many wagons BR had, where they were, and how to keep track of them. That was in the day when we sent computer programs by train to Derby and got the results back within a week!]

  2 Responses to “N is for Number Taker”

  1. Thanks for this – a nice post, and glad to see the railways featuring in the A-Z! Very much like the links you’ve made between the national industry and the particular place, that’s really important for getting a handle on the industry and its impacts.

    Number-taking was a dangerous job, for the reasons you’ve outlined – and it was one that seemed to be a starting point for younger workers. The ‘Railway Work, Life & Death’ project is looking at staff accidents on British & Irish railways; our volunteers have put together a database of cases (with lots more to come). There are 16 number-takers in there, and 14 of the cases are aged 20 or younger, right down to 14. Very sad.

    Find out more, including our free database, from our project website: http://www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk

    As and when Peter does more research into the railway people of Needingworth, if he uncovers anything about staff accidents and their wider family & community impacts, we’d love to know – always open for a guest blog post for our project site!

  2. In the 1911 Census my husband’s grandfather William Charles Fisher is noted as being a Railway Number Taker at the age of 17. As far as we know he was not injured but did suffer respiratory illnesses throughout his life ( he died aged 48) and the job may have contributed to this.

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