Union of Railway Signalmen

Safe passage for the railway traveller

Badge of the Union of Railway Signalmen

In the aftermath of the 1924 rail strike acrimony existed between the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) and within the NUR itself.

The National Signalmen’s Movement, a pressure group within the NUR, were unhappy with the pay deals achieved by the NUR for signalmen. A.E. Rochester, a NUR signalman, sent an article critical of the NUR leadership to the NUR journal ’Railway Review’. The journal refused to publish it, so Rochester took the article to ASLEF General Secretary John Bromley who made money available to publish the article as a leaflet. The NUR responded by threatening Rochester with legal action and ordering him to appear before the Executive Council.

George Richards, a prominent member of the National Signalmen’s Movement, met the ASLEF General Secretary and was told ASLEF would loan a substantial amount of money to any signalmen who decided to form a breakaway union.

Thirteen men met at the home of a Mr Charles Breton and formed the Union of Railway Signalmen (URS). The URS received £1,000 from ASLEF followed by a further £2,000.

The National Signalmen’s Movement issued a manifesto proclaiming loyalty to the NUR and condemning sectional unionism. Support for the URS was so poor that by 1925 it could only claim 250 signalmen out of all the signalmen in the country.

The NUR continued to represent the vast majority of signalmen and in 1931, probably in response to the URS, introduced national signalmen’s conference.

In 1945 a Charles Holloway formed the Federation of Power Signalmen, which due to the fact that it could only attract 30 of the 1500 power signalmen in the London area was very short lived.

Holloway later surfaced as General Secretary of the URS.

The URS membership hit an all time high of 8333 in 1950 organised in to 180 branches or 32% of all signalmen. The URS declined after that, 3690 in 87 branches in 1960 and 2075 in 16 branches in 1970.

In 1970 a closed shop was introduced in British Rail and all signalmen were required to be members of the NUR. URS membership fell to 150 by 1973, even though there was no reason signalmen could be members of both unions.

Like many breakaway unions the URS acted partly as a home for those signalmen who wanted to avoid strike action. The URS membership climbed to 220 half of who had joined during the signalmen’s strike of 1974. Membership dropped to 70 in 1975 and to 18 a year later.

The last return lodged with the Registrar General of Trade Unions and Employers Associations was in 1978 when the membership was four.

In May 1979 Charles Holloway, the URS General Secretary for the previous 10 years, died and the URS died with him.The NUR later received a cheque for £6.60 from the Co-operative Bank. The bank, unable to contact the URS had closed the URS account and forwarded the cheque to the NUR. The NUR sent the cheque to the URS’s auditors and the Union of Railway Signalmen was no more.