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The Talyllyn Railway recently ran a special train to celebrate the contribution made by our female volunteers since 1951.

The Talyllyn Railway is fairly unique in that we seem to have a high proportion of female volunteers in all departments, compared to other heritage railways. And it’s been the case since we kicked started the railway preservation movement in 1951. During the early days, Sonia Rolt helped run the Wharf office, and Barbara Curwen guarded in the first two years. Many other members’ wives helped by serving refreshments, painting and cleaning work.

Nowadays, around 25% of our loco department grade holders are women, and it’s really not unusual for us to have trains crewed at both ends by women, and as Controllers, Blockmen and Station Assistants along the way. It’s also very likely parts of the engine and carriages on the train were painted and maintained by women!

The idea for a celebratory train came about as two volunteers were chatting about how long they’d worked on the railway. Over a cup of coffee, Barbara and Sarah realised they had both reached 50 years volunteering in various capacities. It got them wondering about how many years other women had contributed between them, and that it should be something worth celebrating. And as we’re a railway, what better way than a train?

Two women stood in front of pull up banners.
Sarah and Barbara in front of the Talyllyn Women pop up banners. Photo: Graham Thomas.

Which is why, on 30 July 2022, a train full of #TalyllynWomen headed up the valley for cakes and celebrations at Abergynolwyn. Rachel and Christine crewed the loco – they were the first Talyllyn Railway all woman loco crew way back in 1995. The train was guarded by Louisa, who started in 1975 and became a qualified guard in 1985.

On arrival at Abergynolwyn, the guests were treated to tea and Prosecco. There was a huge display of photos of our female volunteers in all departments through the years, sparking some lovely memories and conversations, especially among people who hadn’t crossed paths for a few years.

Sarah and Barbara’s welcome speech covered some interesting history, including how they came to be Talyllyn volunteers. It took a while for women to be welcomed as volunteers on the footplate and the Guard’s van, as these were seen as purely male domains. In many ways they would have had to be better than the men to prove themselves competent! Some male volunteers actually said they came to Tywyn to get away from women!

Unfortunately, Ann Hatherill, who became the first lady fireman in 1957, wasn’t able to attend as she had hoped, but sent good wishes to everyone. Following her lead, women are now in every department of the railway: as steam and diesel drivers, firemen, loco cleaners, traffic inspectors, guards, blockmen, controllers, booking clerks, council and board members, locomotive roster clerks, track maintenance, loco and carriage working parties, painters, hedge layers as well as gardening, museum work, shop and catering, area groups, Tracksiders, Navvies, railway postal service, IT, marketing, history research and many hours doing behind the scene roles. This list is endless…

After the heartfelt speeches, we raised a glass to the wonderful Talyllyn women past and present, and to those who were no longer with us. We also sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Diana, a volunteer who celebrated a significant birthday earlier in the year, then tucked into the lovely cakes and had a good catch up with fellow volunteers.

A group of women raising a glass.
Raising a glass at the Talyllyn Women event at Abergynolwyn. Photo: Phil Tugwell.

Before the event, Sarah and Barbara asked our female volunteers to let them know how many years they had worked on the railway. The aim was to get to over 1000 volunteering years. This target was smashed with over 1300 volunteer years submitted. 1100 of those years were represented by guests on the train. Bearing this in mind, we asked our volunteers to apply for our Long Service Awards. Eileen Jones, Mayor of Tywyn, kindly presented the Awards at the event, including Barbara and Sarah’s 50 years volunteering.

All the women present received an enamel ‘Talyllyn Women’ badge, which we’ll wear with pride! Before we caught the train home, there was time for a group photo of the 60 or so women who attended the event. All in all, it was a wonderful idea to celebrate the work women do in the preservation world. Once again, the Talyllyn leads the way!

A very large group of women in front of a train.
Guests on the Talyllyn Women celebration train. Photo: Phil Tugwell.

“What a great idea to celebrate women’s contribution to the TR.

From 1951, ladies were volunteering. Originally mainly wives and girlfriends of male members, women then began joining in their own right and this event shows how they have progressed throughout both the operating side of the TR and also in many ‘behind the scenes’ jobs. They bring a wide range of experience and are vital and valuable contributers. The TRPS ows a debt of gratitude to all the women who play such an essential role in keeping the Railway and Society running.

Thank you to all Talyllyn Women, past, present and future.”

David Mitchell, President TRPS

You may have noticed we had a rather splendid headboard on the train. This was designed using Lel’s logo and painted by Sarah (Instagram: @sarahpaintssigns). Sarah took her headboard for a ride earlier in the day when she was driving a passenger train.

A wooden painted headboard with 'Talyllyn Women' text.
Talyllyn Women headboard by Sarah Freeman. Photo: Barbara Fuller.

Barbara Fuller and Sarah Thomas particularly wanted to thank all those who have helped with the organisation of this event:

  • Bob and Gill Morland for the photographs and display.
  • Lel Johnson for her graphic design skills.
  • Sarah Freeman for the headboard.
  • Lorraine Simkiss and all her staff.
  • Jane Garvey and Lel Johnson for organising the long service awards.
  • Jane Thornton for looking through many, many old TR News to create the momento leaflet
  • Phil Tugwell for taking the photographs and making more memories for us all.
  • The train crew, Rachel, Christine and Louisa.
  • The mayor of Tywyn, Eileen Jones.
  • The lovely donation of rose bushes from Frances Harrison.

And of course, all of our thanks to the Talyllyn Railway which has hosted this event.