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Florence Cordell was a First World War bus conductor whose recollections were recorded by London's Transport Museum in a video interview in 1985. She was one of the first women to work on the buses in London, having been hired to replace a male conductor who had joined the armed forces.
Before the First World War, she earned 16 shillings a week making luxury lampshades, a skilled job. After the war began, it became clear that she would soon be out of work: people no longer needed such extravagances.
In 1916, she started her training as a bus conductor, strictly a man's job until that point. She was hired to replace a man like her husband who was a bus conductor. He had gone to France to fight in the war. Cordell was 31 years old.
The fortnight's training took place at the London General Omnibus Company (L.G.O.C) Training School at Millman Street in Chelsea. First, however, Cordell had to pass the medical, an I.Q. and a maths test, to prove she was fit to, and capable of, doing the work.
Cordell completed the training and qualified as a bus conductor. She and two other women were based at Willesden Garage, since this was close to where they lived. The three of them did not have a regular bus but did 'spare work', filling in for other conductors. The three women became close friends. Cordell remained friends with one of the women for the rest of her life.
While they worked at Willesden, the women bus conductors were paid 5 shillings a week less than their male counterparts for the same work. Both men and women disagreed with this. Eventually the bus conductors went on strike to gain equal pay. The men had an interest beyond simple fairness in supporting the cause. They did not want the women's wages to undercut theirs in case the L.G.O.C. kept women on after the war ended, putting the men's jobs at risk.
Cordell remembers the men being 'not too bad to work with', though she also recalls one scene in the canteen where a man said in front of everyone, 'Here come the women, all brand new and never been unwrapped!' Cordell, a married woman, took this in her stride. She was now earning 2-3 a week, which was very good money for a woman then.
Cordell has many memories of working on the buses in wartime. Conductors used to let the soldiers ride free, even though they would get into trouble with the inspectors if they were caught. Cordell felt the inspectors were often stricter with the women than with the men.
The L.G.O.C. had to provide toilet facilities at either end of a bus route. There were no such facilities in Richmond, so the L.G.O.C. had to pay a private house-owner to allow the women to use the toilet there. While the men could use facilities in the local pubs, there were no ladies' toilets in pubs then. At the bus termini, there was either a canteen or a caf where the transport staff could relax. Here they could buy bread and dripping for a halfpenny a slice, and cocoa for a penny. On their days off, Florence and her friends would go to the West End to see a matinee at the Palladium or the Empire.
At the end of the war, Florence remembers, 'We expected the armistice to be signed on the 11th hour. We were coming down Kensington Church Street when the sirens were going. Everyone went mad. They all got out of the inside of the bus onto the top, laughing and carrying on'. On that foggy morning, thousands of people ended up at Hyde Park. It got so crowded that Florence recalls being unable to turn round.
Florence was laid off when the men returned from the Front. They had been promised their old jobs back on their return. She would not have continued working with her husband home in any case. She believed then that married women did not go out to work, unless their husbands were very poorly paid.
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