A NEW equality act to ensure men and women earn the same wage came into force yesterday — but one Blackburn boss was 94 years ahead of the game.

Researchers at Blackburn Library have uncovered the story of James Cowell, the formidable manager of the town's tramways between 1905 and 1937.

They were spurred into action after claims on a television documentary that women helping the production of Spitfires during the Second World War was the earliest example of equal pay.

But back in 1915 Mr Cowell insisted women working on the trams while the men were fighting in the First World War earned the same wage.

Stephen Irwin, education officer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, said: "It’s hard to envisage how radical it would have been at that time to pay women the same as men.

“I think it was the innate sense of fairness within James Cowell which made sure they were not treated differently.”

Yesterday the Equality Act 2010 came into force as part of the new coalition's moves to ensure equal pay for women.

And this week the film Made In Dagenham, featuring Miranda Richardson playing Blackburn MP Barbara Castle, was released which tells of the battle by women Ford workers for equal pay in 1968.

This prompted historians to look more into the story of Mr Cowell.

Mr Iwin said: “Cowell was the definition of strict but fair, taking great pride in Blackburn’s trams. He once sacked a driver for striking a match on the paintwork.

“In the war years 205 of his staff entered the services. He was left short staffed so he advertised for females, nearly 400 applied and in 1916 there were 12 female drivers, 42 conductors and two inspectors.”

During the early 20th century Blackburn’s tram system, electrified in 1899, criss-crossed the town with several lines including Cherry Tree, Wilpshire and Preston New Road.

In the Tramways Department 1917 annual report, Mr Cowell wrote: “The women have shown great keenness and aptitude for the work and the utmost good feeling exists between male and female employees. The rate of wages paid to females is the same as males, 6d per week.”

Mr Irwin, along with local historians Richard Croasdale and Jim Halsall, also found a press report from August 1916 telling of Blackburn’s first lady inspector, Miss Mary Muir, in which it states’ she wears a suitable uniform trimmed with gold braid’.

Despite the equal pay, the men took the jobs back after the war ended.