Object: 1917 penny
In 1917, Britain was at war. Many men and boys from Somers Town were called up to fight. The Midland Rail Book of Remembrance lists the names of those ‘fallen’ who had previously been working at either St Pancras rail station or the Somers Town Goods Yard: loaders, dining car attendants, carriage cleaners, guards, waiters, greasers, van boys, stablemen, porters. Some lived in Somers Town. They had been born there or were drawn there to take menial jobs as van shunters, carmen, clerks or hydraulic cleaners servicing the new lifts at the Somers Town Goods Yard. When war drew them away, the lost male labour needed replacing. Midland Railway employed several hundred women as porters. There is a series of photographs from around 1917 depicting women at work in the station. They shifted goods between wagons and drays, with two ‘matrons’ acting as overseers. The goods were heavy and the women needed to learn how to lift. Allowed to choose their own uniform, they adopted a hat, breeches and a long heavy coat that reached below the knee. The railway company thought the clothing ‘unorthodox’, but it was ‘serviceable’.
This 1917 penny might be imagined as a tip given to one of them for shifting a grand piano or hauling some suitcases. Perhaps the shiny new penny was lost on the way home. It was found in the rubble of demolished 42 Phoenix Road, just opposite the former site of the Midland Railway’s workers’ flats, Polygon Buildings.
By Esther Leslie