I was terrified the day I took the mailboat to Holyhead. But it led to a 36-year-career

I arrived in London one freezing day in 1985. Then came British Rail – and walking the line

Daphne Frogatt: when you walk the line you see, hear and feel the railway

Daphne Frogatt: when you walk the line you see, hear and feel the railway

 

I was born a few minutes’ walk from Dún Laoghaire harbour and went to school in the Dominican Convent. After working for a building firm and then a German company that closed down, jobs started getting scarce in Ireland, and there were very few opportunities.

Going to the United States was my first thought, but London seemed more realistic. I could always return if things didn’t work out, I thought. Despite the fact that I was leaving home, “the Mammy” encouraged me, saying I would only rot away if I stayed where I was.

I was terrified the morning I left home to take the mailboat in Dún Laoghaire. Little did I think as the train made its way from Holyhead to London that I would end up working for the railways for the next 36 years. I still work for the railways, in fact.

One Irish lady in the staff canteen would always insist on giving me an unasked-for pint glass of milk along with my dinner. ‘To build you up, ye poor article,’ she would say

I arrived in London on a freezing Saturday in January 1985. I had booked a guest house for a couple of weeks and got a temporary job working for the Royal Institute of British Architects. My colleagues gave me an address for a flat agency. I found myself in a studio flat in Bayswater, in west London, not knowing what a studio flat actually meant. I soon realised that it meant one room combining bedroom, sitting room and, in the corner, a little kitchen. The bathroom was a few shower cubicles on the top floor of the building.

After a couple of months doing temp work I went into the agency and was asked if I fancied working for British Rail in Euston. I arrived the next morning and went through the glass doors of Stephenson House, one of its buildings there, to be met by a very tall gentleman who thereafter insisted on calling me Dorothy Maguire.

I had never even heard of “typing pools”, let alone worked in one, but that’s where I found myself, plonked in front of an Underwood manual typewriter. Yes, it was the mid-1980s ,but this was a bit archaic, as I been used to working on a word processor. Adopting very heavy finger pressure took some practice, especially as most of the typing involved inserting carbon paper between five sheets of forms. Initially this resulted in the bottom copy not registering any print whatsoever. I scrapped quite a few forms before I realised that they were all numbered.

It was a bit annoying being told I had to ask permission from the supervisor to go to the loo. Obviously, I didn’t do that, causing annoyance from the superviser every time I left the room.

After a few weeks I jumped at the opportunity to move to the sixth floor, where the managers resided, to do secretarial work. I fished out my shorthand book, grateful that I had brought it from home. I knew I had to regain my shorthand skills, which I had so furiously practised by taking down the news for a few evenings.

Office life was a lot more formal than it is today: women were not allowed to wear trousers, for example, and the engineers were always addressed as ‘Mister’

The cooking facilities in my bedsit were somewhat lacking, to say the least. Luckily, I could trundle down to the staff canteen at Euston station and make use of the subsidised meals. One particular Irish lady would always insist on giving me an unasked-for pint glass of milk along with my dinner. “To build you up, ye poor article,” she would say.

The weeks turned into months and I was still there, covering sickness and holidays and getting to know the other staff. I made some good friends, and the job started to feel like home, as colleagues would always give advice and help, which made life less lonely. These were the days before the no-alcohol rule was put in place for everyone working for the railways, and there were a few occasions when you returned to your desk feeling the effects of a lunchtime drink to celebrate a birthday or forthcoming marriage.

After a major reorganisation, the engineering office moved its headquarters to Birmingham, and I was invited to join as a permanent staff member. I wasn’t sure at first, but I was offered lodgings by a number of people and made my mind up to relocate. So in March 1986 I moved my meagre belongings to the West Midlands. I found them very different from London, but I settled in quickly once I got used to the different accents (and they got used to mine).

Office life at this time was a lot more formal than it is today: women were not allowed to wear trousers, for example, and the dress code was quite strict. The engineers were always addressed as “Mister” and commanded a lot of respect.

It was useful working for the railways, as at that time we were aligned with Sealink and could make use of subsidised travel – which meant I could use the ferry for visits home at a reduced price.

When you walk the line you can see, hear and feel the railway. It gave me an appreciation of what safety on the railways really means

I was working in the centre of Birmingham for London Midland Region and really enjoyed the camaraderie. After a while I managed to save enough to put a deposit on a flat in Stourbridge. Reorganisations were frequent, and after a couple of years I moved to another railway building, on the other side of Birmingham, near the Chinese quarter. In 1994 I moved to an HR job for the railway in Croydon, in Surrey, southwest of London, where I spent four years before returning to Birmingham in 1998. In those days, before privatisation (which also changed the company name to Network Rail), it was fairly easy to move around the country in different railway positions.

I ended up in the same building I had been in some years before and settled in very quickly. There were plenty of parties and people to get to know, so these years were very enjoyable. Another move and I ended up in the Mailbox in Birmingham, and spent eight years there before I got a job at one of the railway depots at Sandwell, in Oldbury in the West Midlands. This is the coal face of the railway and quite different from the head office, as the work is happening each day and is not just a record on paper.

I have worked on the off-track section since 2008, in an administration capacity. Vegetation and boundary inspections and maintenance are part of our duties, as are litter picking and removal of graffiti. I achieved my personal track-safety certificate, which meant I could actually walk the line. This is where you can see, hear and feel the railway. It was scary at first being so close to fast-moving trains, but it gave me an appreciation of what safety on the railways really means.

There were a few times when the lads decided to wind me up. Once I was invited to mix the cement in preparation for fence building. I started mixing water and cement furiously – and, of course, I ended up covered in sloppy cement, much to the amusement of everyone.

Most of my family still live in Ireland, although I have a brother who lives in Germany and a nephew who lives in Spain. I live in the Dudley area of the West Midlands with my husband, Adrian, who also works for the railways. Growing up in Dún Laoghaire, the sea was always part of life, so I miss that. I also miss Tayto crisps, brown bread and proper Guinness.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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