Middy Staff in the 1921 Census

February 21, 2023

Publication of the 1921 Census in 2022 added another major piece to the jigsaw we have been building, portraying the hundreds of people who worked for the MSLR at various times. Among the new information in this census were employer’s name and place of work, which solved several mysteries (and created some new ones!)

My desire to find out more about the staff of MSLR really began with the publication of the 1911 Census more than 10 years ago (all Census information is supposed to be kept secret for 100 years). Although Peter Paye’s book gives details of many people who worked for the MSLR, inevitably there is more coverage of staff from the latter days of the line, because many earlier employees had passed from living memory by the time the book was written.

Primary sources like the 1911 Census are invaluable in providing reliable information from the early days of the Middy. However there are some issues, including a lack of standard ways of recording occupation (eg “Clerk” & “Porter” are also used for non-railway jobs), no indication which company someone worked for (a railwayman living near Haughley might be employed by the GER or MSLR), and no indication where someone worked (people might walk or cycle several miles from their home to their place of work). Nonetheless, this Census provided our first snapshot of the entire staff of the railway, and unearthed many new names, see www.mslr.org.uk/history/middy-staff-in-the-1911-census/

Clerical staff of the MSLR Superintendent’s Office at Laxfield in the early 1920s. L-R; Edward Cann, Edgar Gladwell, Edward Norman, Stanley Francis. Photo probably by C. Nicholls, from the Geoff Rice collection.

Since then a number of other significant sources of staff information have come to hand. These include a list of all the staff in April 1922, together with their grade and wages. This was compiled by the Great Eastern Railway as part of the preparations for the absorption of the Middy by the London & North Eastern Railway: see www.mslr.org.uk/history/the-middy-staff-in-1922/

Although not strictly a Census, a detailed Register of the UK’s population was compiled in September 1939, just after the outbreak of World War 2, to assist in the production of identity cards and later the introduction of rationing. These records were made available online in 2015, although details of anyone born less than 100 years ago are redacted unless they are known to have died.

Another fascinating new source of information has been the record books of the National Union of Railwaymen for the years 1897 to 1928, which again revealed many MSLR staff who were previously unknown. Many of these worked on the line during the Great War when there was a rapid turnover of staff with short-term employees (boys, young men and even – shock horror – women!) taking the place of those joining the forces. See www.mslr.org.uk/history/trade-unions-on-the-mslr/

Studio photo showing Driver Josiah Bloom, his wife Agnes and their two eldest surviving children Reginald (Reggie) and Ernest (Ernie), early 1920s. Courtesy of Mrs Denise Allen (Josiah’s granddaughter).

As a result of all these sources, we had identified over 260 individuals believed to be connected with the MSLR, from its initial promotion in the late 19th century to its closure in 1952. This includes anyone who had been involved in the construction of the line, was employed by the railway or served as an officer or director.

It was with great anticipation that we awaited the release of the data from the 1921 Census. This is likely to be the last significant source to be made available for many years to come, since the 1931 Census records were destroyed in the war, and there was no 1941 Census for obvious reasons. I am unlikely to be around when the 1951 Census results are unveiled! Although the 1921 data was published online in January 2022, it was initially expensive to view, particularly given the large number of people we were interested in: free access was only available by personal attendance at a limited number of locations. “Free” online access (in the sense that it was included within a subscription to Findmypast, which we already had) only became possible in November 2022.

Christopher (Charlie) Nicholls, Chief Clerk, dated early 1920s. From the Geoff Rice collection.

A major difference from previous censuses is that the 1921 edition recorded the employer’s name and place of work, which would help us to resolve many of the uncertainties from other sources, particularly to eliminate GER staff. One problem we had to overcome was the poor quality of transcription from the original handwritten census forms. For example Norton Allum’s surname was transcribed as Parker, while Ollie Botwright became Allie Batrick! This made it much more difficult to locate the relevant records, and it certainly helped that we already knew the names of many of the people who were likely to have been working for the MSLR in 1921.

In the end, we identified 70 people working for the MSLR on 19th June 1921, Census day, compared to a total of 63 staff in 1922. The drop is almost certainly due to the critical financial situation of the railway at this point: in 1921 it had made an unsustainable operating loss of some £5,000. Ten of the 1921 staff had left by 1922 (including two of the three women identified as MSLR employees, both clerks), and three new ones had joined. It is interesting that four of the lady crossing keepers listed in 1922 only gave their occupation in 1921 as “Home Duties”, even though they were living in the crossing cottages and undoubtedly working the gates (and are so shown in the detailed lists referenced below).

A well-known photo, but it does capture most of the loco department’s staff around 1923. L-R; Alfred (Dick) Tacon, Arthur Bowen, Alexander (Alec) Boag, Josiah Bloom, Clifford (Cliff) Bloom, Charles (Charlie) Brunning, James (Sid) Read. Photo by C. Nicholls, from the Geoff Rice collection.

Changes in the numbers employed break down into the net loss of five platelayers, and one each of clerk, station master, guard, porter, fireman and cleaner. There was a compensating gain of one loco department labourer and (strangely) three gatekeepers. A few people changed their role between 1921 and 1922, eg Alfred “Dick” Tacon changed from a platelayer to labourer in the loco department, while James “Sid” Read was apparently demoted from fireman to cleaner (though perhaps he was exaggerating his importance in 1921).

There are some unexplained oddities in the 1921 data, for example, there are two porters at Brockford (Christopher Parrott and Leonard Stannard), while Kenton has none. Still, this information is based on what the heads of households themselves (generally the same person as the MSLR employee) wrote on the return, so we must assume that the information is largely correct. As in 1911 though not quite to such an extent, one is struck by the youthfulness of the staff, with an overall average age of 32: the Clerical and Traffic departments are significantly younger, and the Loco and P. Way depts correspondingly higher. One interesting discovery is that in 1921 two guards and one set of locomen (driver, fireman and cleaner) were still based at Kenton rather than Laxfield like their departmental colleagues. Paye states that the Kenton cleaner was withdrawn in 1912 and the driver & fireman transferred to Laxfield in 1919, but it looks like the Kenton engine shed was still in active use rather later.

Porter Christopher Parrott at Brockford station circa 1920-21. Sadly he died in late 1922 at the age of just 18. From the collection of the late Mrs Christine Last.

To conclude, we only found six new MSLR staff (including three women) who we were not already aware of, but the 1921 Census data has provided a lot more information on many individuals, such as full names and dates of birth, which has allowed us to trace much more genealogical data for these people and to paint a fuller picture of their lives. A complete list of the 1921 staff can be found in the tables below.

Clerical and Traffic Department

Loco and Permanent Way Departments, plus Salaried Staff