The aristocracy of the working class

Leadership and prestige among the railway fraternity were acquired via quite different routes, with very different consequences for a railwayman's relationship with his employers.

The strength of every locomotive driver’s desire to reach the highest rung of the ladder made him amenable to deals with management that benefitted a working-class elite, for little immediate advantage to those on a lower rung. The division of labour through a multitude of separate tasks, and the separate loyalties these created, was responsible for a proliferation of separate premises both for work and messing, acting against the solidarity that leadership demanded.

All train workings were assigned into ‘links’. While King’s Cross was associated with main line work on express trains, that work was restricted to the top three links. Most of the work was very mundane. The ‘top link’, the most important passenger and express freight work, was only achieved after four decades of working lesser freight, shunting and shorter distance passenger work. Reaching the pinnacle of a railwayman’s aspirations often depended on ‘dead men’s shoes’, vacancies created by retirement.

The junior link for firemen was the ‘Bottom Bunk’, a small brick hut between the turntable and coaling tower. It was manned by three shifts of medically restricted drivers who took over the locomotives coming on shed.

Leadership of the working class sprang more from intellectual calibre and was particularly challenging in the early 1930s. With a weak economy and dole queues 2ó million long, pay and conditions deteriorated and apathy towards unions set in. To combat this, a group of engine cleaners at King’s Cross, together with other railwaymen, set up the Railway Vigilance Movement, founded in 1934 on the principle that ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’. 

The movement spread rapidly, the Vigilants, as they were known, working within the trade union branch, different grades setting up their own committees to work with the depot Vigilance Committee.The Vigilants developed into a political movement of the left, aided by the high intellectual calibre of workshop floor leadership in which three King’s Cross names were prominent: Francis Gates, Bob Lunniss and Jim Swain. Bob Lunniss served the London district council of ASLEF for twenty-five years as Assistant Secretary, Secretary and Chairman. Jim Swain was a representative for years and delegate to the Trades Union Congress.

The Vigilance Movement coincided with a period of increasing mechanisation, which threatened jobs. King’s Cross depot was often blocked for a week by work-to-rule in the movement of locomotives around the new coaling plant. Urgent appeals were made by management to trade union head offices to calm down these Vigilance committee members. Between 1935 and 1939 there were more spasmodic stoppages and calls to work-to-rule than in all the years up to the General Strike. There was a strong belief that ‘striking was good for the soul’.