London Underground’s First Female Driver: Hannah Dadds

by Becky Laxton-Bass

Founded in 1863, serving over a billion customers annually, with 270 stations across 11 lines, the London Underground is the oldest and one of the most impressive transport networks in the world. However, it took until October 1978 for the London Underground to get its first female driver, Hannah Dadds.

Hannah was born in 1941 in Newham, her working class background meant that after leaving school at 15 Hannah worked first as a shop assistant at the Co-op and later in the Bryant and May match factory. After being made redundant she applied for a railwomen position she has recently seen advertised. Hannah was hired and joined the network in 1969 as a station woman at Upton Park Station, over the next few years she worked her way up to become a ticket collector and eventually a guard. Although at the time women weren’t allowed to become official drivers for the London Underground, guards were trained as emergency drivers. If anything happened to the driver on duty or there was an accident, guards, like Hannah, had to have the ability to move the train, therefore even before officially qualifying as a driver Hannah had already gained driving experience. 

It is no wonder that after moving up the ranks as she did and receiving this experience, Hannah was one of the first women to apply to be a qualified driver after the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was passed. This act was significant for women in many ways, it opened up various avenues for women which had previous been closed to them due to their gender. Under the act, employers could no longer prevent women from applying for jobs, although training and being hired was still difficult.

In her later life Hannah spoke openly about the struggle and inequality she faced during her seven- week training course to be a train driver, she was the only women on the course and noted that during the training she was asked more question than any of the men present. She even put strokes on her cigarette packet to keep note of the difference and on one day recorded that she was asked 37 questions while the four men hadn’t been asked that between them. She also faced verbal abuse and harassment during the training from male staff and even after qualifying had to deal with hostility from male colleagues. Despite this Hannah successfully qualified in October 1978, the appointment of the London underground’s first female driver was big news. On the first day photos of Hannah were take whilst she drove a train out of Acton to Ealing Broadway and back, she was also interviewed for both television and radio. After what was surely an exhausting first day on the job Hannah went straight to the pub after work, in traditional London style! 

From her first journey in 1978 Hannah went on to work as a driver on the District, Bakerloo and Jubilee lines, retiring in 1993.  Although Hannah received much publicity during her 15 years as a driver, her fame didn’t suddenly open the floodgates to women on the London Underground. By 1990 there were only 30 female drivers out of 2500, and in 2001 after a recruitment campaign targeted at women to choose a career as a driver on the London Underground, 167 out of 3000 drivers were women. The most recent figures published (2016) state that only 5.4% of all train drivers across Britain, including the London underground, are women.

Hannah died in 2011, aged 69, however her legacy does live on in a number of ways, the London Transport Museum interviewed her upon her retirement, keeping the recordings which can still be accessed today. In 2004 Hannah was one of 200 women invited to a Buckingham Palace lunch to celebrate ‘Women and their achievements’, and in 2019 a commemorative plaque was installed at Upton Park station where Hannah began her London Underground career. Speaking at the unveiling Hannahs niece, Vivian Parsons said: ‘ at the time she did not realise what a big step she took for women but made the most of the opportunity she was given’ – a truly inspiring women.

Hannah died in 2011, aged 69, however her legacy does live on in a number of ways, the London Transport Museum interviewed her upon her retirement, keeping the recordings which can still be accessed today. In 2004 Hannah was one of 200 women invited to a Buckingham Palace lunch to celebrate ‘Women and their achievements’, and in 2019 a commemorative plaque was installed at Upton Park station where Hannah began her London Underground career. Speaking at the unveiling Hannahs niece, Vivian Parsons said: ‘ at the time she did not realise what a big step she took for women but made the most of the opportunity she was given’ – a truly inspiring women.


About the Author

Becky is a London born historian who, whilst studying history at university, began tour guiding around the CIty of Westminster using her knowledge of London and history to share the many tales the city has to offer.
5 years have passed since her first tour and in that time she has helped research and design a variety of tours around London and in its museums. Including launching her own tour company, Women of London in 2018. She now spends her time researching the stories of women for future tours, hosting collaboration events, organising the social media pages and just generally trying to increase the visibility of women in history.

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