White Star Line conductress

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This uniform badge belonged to Isabella Jane Lyall, who worked as a conductress on board White Star Line ships in the 1920s.

It was the growth in trade of passenger liners carrying emigrants across the Atlantic that gave women an opportunity to pursue a career at sea. Although their job prospects were limited, it was an important development.

Stewardesses had been employed by shipping companies since the 19th century, carrying out domestic duties on board and attending to female passengers and children. 

Due to increasing numbers of female emigrants travelling unaccompanied, and the fact that they were viewed at the time as being vulnerable, emigration societies employed women to accompany them.

In the 1920s the Canadian government informed shipping companies that they expected unaccompanied female immigrants to be looked after by female officers employed by the companies. The role of conductress was introduced as a result and, due to the Canadian directive, they were given officer status. They reported to the purser, and duties included listing unaccompanied women resettling in Canada, and being responsible for unaccompanied children.

Isabella had previously worked as a porteress in a workhouse in Anfield, living on site with her daughter Edna and her husband William, also a porter there. During the First World War she was a matron in a hospital in Liverpool, the photograph above shows her in her matron's uniform. William died in 1919.

Isabella Lyall was about 50 years old when she became a conductress, responsible for the physical and moral well-being of the female passengers sailing to America and Canada. The majority of conductresses employed were older, being seen as ‘motherly’ and more responsible. Her previous employment would have been viewed favourably by White Star Line.

The role of conductress was very of its time, and ceased to exist within a decade.

Although women gained employment at sea in increasing numbers during the 20th century, their roles continued to be domestic in nature - for example, bathing attendants, nursery nurses, and laundry attendants. It wasn’t until the 1950s-1960s that women were able to break in to clerical roles, such as Lady Assistant Pursers, and even more recently that they could aim for careers in all areas on board.

This conductress badge, which is not currently on display, is part of the Maritime History collection at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

  • Conductress badge accession number MMM.2012.34