From the end of WW1 to the early 1980s the likes of cotton mills, coal mines and railways crowned girls and young women Queens of their industries in a PR effort to distract from worker dissatisfaction and trade union disputes, improve morale and bring a little bit of glamour to what could be very tough and bleak workplaces.
The competition to be crowned Railway Queen was open to all teenage daughters of railway workers. Despite the demands of the title, the election of an industry queen would often come down to beauty and the apparent virtues of the 14-to-17-year-olds.
An incredible 70,000 people saw Audrey Mossom crowned as the 10thRailway Queen of Great Britain in 1935. The 15-year-old had grown up on the Fylde coast and trained as a ballet dancer. Her mother kept a guest house in Blackpool and her father was a London North Western Railway Company guard.
In true Blackpool fashion, Audrey was asked to switch on the Blackpool Illuminations—making her the second celebrity to do so. In her address she hoped they would “illuminate the path of peace”. Fifty years later she would return to switch on the illuminations again, this time with actress Joanna Lumley.
These girls and young women were expected to champion their industry, county and sometimes their country in their role as ambassador. This demanding work would have changed their lives forever, especially for the Industry Queens who came directly from the factory floor. Few however had experiences quite as dramatic as Audrey however.
Incredibly, Audrey was sent on a peace-keeping mission to the USSR. Arriving in Minsk, she travelled to Moscow in a special train sent by Stalin. There she was feted by Russian railway workers before having discussions with all the leading politicians of the day, including Stalin himself. Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaia, presented her with a magical Matryoshka doll (those famous stacking wooden dolls).
When the dust settled and having helped crown her successor, she went back to school to complete her education. Before too long, however, she was able to return to her first love, the stage, and a successful career as a professional dancer and having a long and happy life.
Elsie Audrey Mossom, Railway Queen of Great Britain: born Preston, Lancashire 3 September 1920; twice married (three sons, three daughters); died Hastings, Sussex 1 September 2009.