Like the Great War before it, the Second World War opened up women’s lives to work possibilities that would never have been possible in other circumstances. With able-bodied men away serving their country, women also served – by taking over the jobs that had been vacated. When I was asked to write a saga series based around the working lives, families and friendships of a group of women and girls working on Britain’s railways, I soon found just what a difference these women made to the nation’s daily life. 

One of the first things I had to decide was how my characters were going to get together regularly so that they could get to know one another and form a strong bond. One choice – perhaps the easier one – was to put them all to work in the same job so they would naturally meet up on a daily basis. But once I started looking into the types of work that women undertook on the railways, that idea was quickly scotched. There were just so many different kinds of job – and I knew immediately that I wanted my stories to reflect that. 

I’d already thought about the obvious roles, namely the various jobs done by the station staff – ticket office staff, porter, ticket collector, Lost Property and so on – and by staff on the trains – parcels porter, ticket inspector, guard. But there were so many other jobs besides.  

Crane-drivers, welders, electricians, steam-hammer operators, lathe operators. Blacksmiths and stable-lasses to take care of the horses that pulled the delivery carts in places where there weren’t sufficient vans. Vans meant delivery drivers – if you sent a parcel by rail, the service included delivery to the door. Engine-cleaners, riveters. Women to work in the signal-boxes, women to oil the points, women to shovel cement into moulds to make sleepers for the tracks. 

Well, how could I possibly put all my characters into the same job once I’d started to find out about all that? So Cordelia, the elegant wife of a well-to-do solicitor, became a lamp-woman, dismantling and cleaning the lamps not just attached to the wagons but also those in the signals high above the tracks. Mabel got the job of lengthman, working as part of a team to redistribute the ballast under the railway sleepers to ensure the tracks remained level. Margaret went into the engine-sheds to clean the locomotives, thus ensuring she spent the war constantly battling with filthy nails and gritty hair. Mrs Cooper, her landlady, has to place a cloth over her pillow to ensure the bedding stays clean. 

Meanwhile, as a parcels porter, Dot, who was an instant hit with the readers, travels up and down between Manchester Victoria and Southport, putting off parcels at the relevant stations and picking up new ones. A parcel, incidentally, meant anything at all that the railway was responsible for delivering, from luggage to a punnet of strawberries to a flock of sheep… or, on one memorable occasion for Dot, a goat with a mind of its own.