Who was the first British woman tram driver?

ELIZA ORR 1888 – 1953

Until the First World War, driving largely remained the domain of wealthy women but the necessity for large numbers of women to take over the occupations of men who’d been drafted to the Western Front and other theatres of war changed all that.

From October 1915 women were officially allowed to work as bus and tram conductors for the duration of the War and soon there was the need for them to become drivers too.

However, unofficially women had been keeping the public on the move for several months already. One of the first cities to allow a woman to drive a tram was Glasgow and Eliza Orr was one of the first women to be recruited to the job.

The city of Glasgow was proud of its network of trams which was reputedly the finest in the whole of the UK.

In 1910 the network comprised almost two hundred miles of track and 800 tramcars. Each car travelled an average of one hundred miles each day at an average speed of eight miles per hour. In 1910 the network carried over two hundred million passengers in a city with a population of around one million. By 1914 this had risen to three hundred million passengers journeys.  The trams were run by the Glasgow Corporation and after all expenses had been met the profit was put to the common good.

However, as more and more men went off to join the army the Glasgow tramways Committee realised that drastic action was necessary.

So at a meeting in April 1915 they decided to start employing women.

Initially almost two thousand women were recruited which after several hundred early resignations had stabilised at almost fifteen hundred by the end of 1916.

Of these female employees one hundred and fifty were tram drivers and then came the vexed question of what they would be called.

Although met with some derision, the women drivers including Eliza Orr became  known as “motoresses”. It was intended to pay equal work for equal pay but at first all the women employees were paid at the bottom of the scale for men drivers. In 1916 the working time was increased for both male and female tram workers from fifty one to fifty four hours each week and finally in 1917 an agreement was reached to start and pay the same rate.

Of course, Glasgow wasn’t the only city with a tram network that had to rely on women drivers during WW1. In 1918, a sobering newspaper report of the death of an elderly gentleman in Hull blamed the female tram driver for failing to stop after she’d rung the warning bell. After only eight days training and on her first day in charge of a tram, she’d understandably expected him to hear the warning bell and jump out of the way!

Photo credit: Chris Coleman, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons