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Mikkel

1900s uniform shirt colours

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I'm painting some staff for my 1900s GWR goods depot. I'm aware of the overall uniform colours ( http://www.gwr.org.uk/liveriesuniforms.html) but was wondering about the colour of shirts carried under waistcoats and other coats.  Looking at photos from the period, some goods porters (and all checkers, crane operators etc) wear shirts, often with a tie.

 

Being a naive Scandinavian with no proper sense of class (!), I have always assumed that all shirts were white. But it occurs to me now that the blue collar/white collar distinction may have been prevalent at that time also? The shirts appear white in photos, but as usual that can't be trusted in black and white.

 

So: Does anyone have any idea whether there might have been shirt colour differences between different staff grades? (in my case in a GWR goods depot around 1902).

Edited by Mikkel

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That you have yet to get a reply is not an indication of uninterest but a lot of head scratching. I understand your dilema and if we were referring to a factory you could probably assume blue below foreman who would wear white with a bowler hat. Workers had flat hats.

 

With railways the answer may not be as clear. Working on the railway was seen as a priveliged role for the working classes. There was, and to an extentstill is, a military ethos regarding uniform and turnout. Starting from the top the Station Master would wear white as would passenger guards ticket inspectors and booking office staff. Signalmen would probably wear white. Porters would aspire to the higher grades so probably white. Goods porters crane operators etc might wear blue due to the dirtier conditions but as railway servants (not to be confused with domestic servants) aspired to the military ethos and may well have worn white out of pride. GW ties were red - rumoured to be able to be used as an emergency red flag but really not enough material. In many books there are set piece pictures of all the station staff from the SM down to junior porter and from those I looked at last night cant discern any difference in shirt colour - as you say photographic processes may not differentiate

 

The other question is were shirts uniform issue. I suspect they were and it would most likely be old company records which would give a definative answer.

 

What I can tell you is that white is a blighter to keep clean. I am a volunteer guard on the Severn Valley and have to scrub collars and cuffs with stain removal soap and a nail brush. Yes I do do it myself as my good lady thinks I am daft to go getting dirty playing trains in the first place.

 

If you do paint all the shirts white and it is queried simply challenge them to prove you wrong

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Railway issue shirts back then (and right up to the 1960s in some cases) had detachable collars and many working people sent them to the laundry.  White shirts were de rigeur for senior grades and male clerks and of course the like of Guards also wore them.

 

I'm not so sure about Porters etc or Goods staff but if the shirts look pale in old photos they will almost inevitably have been white.

 

Incidentally I'm not so sure about red ties on the GWR - some were definitely of a dark hue, probably black and in BR years we didn't get issue ties although we did (for Supervisors and Managers etc) at one time get issue shirts.

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An interesting question. Firstly, I'm not sure that the blue/white collar distinction is relevant here. AFAIK, it originated in the USA and is probably no earlier than WW1. Primarily it has been used to distinguish factory and office workers and probably refers to use of materials like denim and the colours used for protective overalls, etc.

 

Of all the GWR staff photos I've seen, for example those in Russell's GWR Miscellany, I can't remember seeing anything that could not be interpreted as a white shirt worn with or without a tie. As Mike says, shirts were collarless and, other than perhaps the quality of material, the main distinctions between grades appear to be in the use of collars. Most of those in senior positions and many whose job involved contact with customers appear to have worn high winged collars in the Edwardian period. Those in lower, particularly more manual, positions appear to have worn soft collars or no collar at all, and are often shown in official photos with their jackets buttoned up to the neck. The only regular exceptions are permanent way workers who, at this time, did not appear to wear any element of uniform so there appearance was much more varied.

 

I'm also not convinced about the red tie business. I've heard the idea about using it as a flag before but never seen any source for this belief. Using a tie as a flag seems quite preposterous, certainly not as effective as the Railway Childrens' petticoats. I suppose it is possible that it may refer back to a much earlier era when cravats might have been more widely worn. Red would of course appear dark on orthochromatic film, but many of the ties worn with high collars by more senior staff could well be black. Incidentally, by the twenties there are photos suggesting that porters etc., at least on minor stations, often wore their own non-regulation ties.

 

Nick

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I did indicate I thought the tie myth dubious. Agree re non uniform ties in later days.Watch Terminus and one porter is wearing a patterned tie. What was even more striking is in a video I have seen in 50/60s there is a lady signalman in a non uniform blue and white floral wide skirt and blouse exchanging tokens. It was somewhere in the Ashchurch area if memory serves

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Thanks very much gents for these interesting and informative replies. Going over various photos again I think I will settle for white shirts as the norm (or "weathered" versions of white!). 

 

On a related note, it's interesting to note the differences and individualities that become evident when you look closer at photos.

 

For example, GWR Goods Services Part 2A pages 28 shows two photos featuring Paddington goods porters in what appears to be Edwardian days. One porter has a waist coat, shirt and tie, and a rather modern looking cap that I thought came much later. Another photo shows a porter with soft cap, soft collar and a different coat. Other variations/combinations appear in the wonderful photo of Reading transhipment shed on p. 68, and on p. 81 there is a group photo of staff at paddington Goods in 1912, where even further differences in attire become apparent if you look closely.

 

If you then add the checkers, inspectors etc there is a delightful individual variety for the modeller. I suppose some of these individual differences came down to staff being issued with uniforms at different times, and that some clothing may have been personal rather than GWR issued (eg possibly shirts in some cases, as you've mentioned). To say nothing of aprons etc, and whether it was hot that day!

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On some railways footplatemen did not get issued with uniforms. I have a nice picture of a J10 in GCR days. The driver appears to be wearing a 'civilian' three piece suit with a tie and a flat cap. (Overalls do seem to have been the norm though.)

 

I suspect shirts were 'white' but not what we would call white. Modern detergents were not available. I think more of a grubby cream would be the norm. Actually, when I think back to my grandfather, I don't recall him wearing coloured shirts at all. I think they are a relatively modern fashion. 

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Good point about the detergent !

 

I wonder if some loco crew would put on their Sunday best for such photos? I remember a photo of a Stella (I think) with wife and child take part in the posing. Not to mention inspectors and hangarounds. We've only just scratched the surface in figure modelling, I think.

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Rummaging through MacDermot's History of the GWR I chanced upon a couple of interesting sections about uniform, or livery as it was known in the early days. There is some fascinating material about the 1840s and 1850s in volume one, including, lists of clothing supplied to various grades and the replacement of top hats by caps for most grades around 1850. From the rule books up to 1855: 

Every Engineman and Fireman must appear on duty dressed in white fustian clothes, which are to be clean every Monday morning, or on Sunday, when he may be required to work on that day.

 

Interesting then that photographic evidence shows the fustian jackets surviving so long after their disappearance from the rule books.

In volume two, there is a paragraph that is more directly relevant to the current topic:

The uniform of the staff, other than Porters, was changed from the original rifle green to dark blue in or about 1863. Porters continued to wear green corduroy, which they had resumed in 1859. In 1902 serge jackets were substituted for the cloth frock coats of the Guards and police tunics of the Signalmen and Ticket Collectors, and Porters were given blue serge instead of green corduroy. At the same time softer caps replaced the old flat topped straight sided variety for all grades below Station Masters, who had first been distinguished by uniform caps in 1865.

In none of the lists of issued clothing is there any reference to shirts, ties or other neck apparel.

Nick

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I do like that quote about the fustian clothes - so they are only to be clean once a week?  :) The phrase is interesting though, because "must appear on duty dressed in white fustian clothes" seems to suggest that it was not provided by the railway?

 

Yes it's a bit of a mystery how the white fustian survived so long. It's the same dates here (not sure which source first, Slinn or Macdermot). 

 

If I may digress a bit, there are some rather nice photos of railway staff in early uniforms (mixed with later photos) on this page: http://locodriver.co.uk/Railway_Encyclopedia/Part155/Part02/index.html

 

The large group photo towards the top of the page is a fascinating study of railwaymen and their uniforms.

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A couple of points.  My grandfather (born 1889) wore the styles of the inter war or earlier period until his death in 1979.  He had white, seperate collars but his woollen shirts were cream or pale beige, some with a fine check or dog tooth pattern.  On a Sunday only he wore a white linen shirt.  He always wore a woollen suit, 3 piece in the Autumn, Winter and Spring, 2 piece in the summer; and a homburg or fedora hat.

 

His hobby was carpentry.  For this, the suit jacket was replaced with a mid brown apron and a dust coat if it was cold, together with a flat cap.

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Another word about the shirts for younger readers.  The material used was much thicker and heavier than is used today.  The linen resembled that used today in a good quality tea-towel, the wool was even thicker and felty in texture, maybe from so many washes.  Unlike today, they would last for many years, in his case several decades.

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I assume that they only had to be clean once a week as washing was only done once a week,  on Mondays.  I assume this was so that Sunday best could be cleaned for the next week.  This would infer that they had two sets of clothes although I find this difficult to believe, one being worn ad one being washed.  Having said this, with the amount of time they had off it would probably have been difficult to wash a uniform in that time.

 

Not sure how many shirts they would have had, but they would have had a clean collar every day.  My dad, in the fifties when my mum still used a tub, and a mangle, had a clean collar every day, and I think, a clean shirt every other day.

 

Fascinating

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I can see the problem of what to do when the clothes were being washed! I can just imagine the motley collection of clothes being worn on Mondays :-)

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