Thursday, 16 February 2012

Retaining 'good' Clerks at the Cost of Innovation

I am always interested in why railway management in the late nineteenth century stagnated in terms of ideas. It should be remembered, that in the period the vast majority of companies' influential managers came from the clerical staff and from within the Traffic Department. Indeed, by the turn of the century, most senior managers had joined the companies as junior clerks in the 1870s and 1880s, had very fixed career paths and felt it was their right to advance up the promotional ladder. This meant that there were few new ideas coming into railway management as those below in the hierarchy simply filled the place of those who had left above them.

Yesterday, through the library, I acquired a copy of Michael Heller's new book London Clerical Workers 1880-1914. Heller quoted a memorandum from a Great Western Railway (GWR) manager, A.W. Solten, that explained why the company preferred new clerks and  managers to come from inside the company, rather than from externals sources; something they were considering but eventually dropped as an idea:

"Hitherto the practice has been to draw from the general staff to fill such positions, the men who, by their ability, zeal and assiduity, have singled themselves out for promotion outside the ordinary routine, and to whom the knowledge that the prizes of the service are open to all, has been an incentive to cultivate the good qualities they posses.
         The successful management and administration of a railway depend very largely on the zealous and capable discharge, by a contented staff, of duties, some of mere detail and routine, others involving in a greater or lesser degree the exercise of thought and judgement. To introduce into the service, however delicately, the mere suspicion that the chief positions are likley to be monopolized by a favoured few individuals, thereby arresting the natural flow of promotion through the service, would I feel convinced, causing a feeling of discontent which would operate to the detriment of the Company by reason of the removal to excel, which under existing circumstances tends to their benefit; and would also lead to the better men, who might leave the service for appointments outside such as would not otherwise attract them."

Therefore, Heller argued that the GWR was reluctant hire managers and clerks from outside the company because it would tie the individuals into it, mean low labour turnover and would motivate staff to improve themselves to advance up the hierarchy.[1] Yet, in a managerial sense, these things contributed to managerial innovation drying up within the late Victorian Railway, as the new managerial 'blood' simply replicated the practices of those who had gone before.


[1] The National Archives, RAIL 258/400, Letter of A.W. Solten to G.K. Mills, 11 November 1900, in Heller, Michael, London Clerical Workers, 1880-1914, (London, 2011) p,52

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