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Tuesday Treasures

BLOG - Discover fascinating hidden gems from our Museum and Archive

We are very fortunate indeed here at Didcot Railway Centre with our vast collection of historic locomotives, artefacts and memorabilia that forms our world-famous museum telling the story of the Great Western Railway and its employees. For our volunteers and staff there are objects of great interest everywhere around the centre, each item unique to keeping the greatest railway company on the rails.

Our Tuesday Treasures blog is designed to share this vast and historically important collection so enjoy our deep dive into the rich history in our Museum and Archives.


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Early in June we promised that we would take you across Brunel’s 1859 Royal Albert Bridge and as more holiday restrictions are lifted it seems timely to leave England and travel into God's own county, Cornwall. Famous for its beautiful scenery and picturesque fishing villages, the coming of the railway brought a new source of wealth to the county – tourism – at a time when copper and tin mining were in steep decline.

Very few of the eighty or so miles between Saltash and Penzance were either straight or level and great skill was required by the crew of a steam loco in order to keep time over this undulating and demanding route.

Branches off the Cornish main line served the towns of Looe, Bodmin, Fowey, Newquay, Falmouth (the original terminus of the Cornwall main line), and Helston which saw the advent of the GWR's first road motor service to The Lizard. The final junction station was, and still is St.Erth where the scenic branch runs to St.Ives, well known for its dramatic light and a magnet for artists since the railway opened up the county.

The term ‘Cornish Riviera’ dates from the Edwardian era when the Railway Magazine ran a competition to name the GWR's new accelerated mid-morning express from Paddington to Penzance. The county's resorts were heavily promoted as distant, romantic destinations and the stylishly dressed couple shown here (Charles and Fiona for those who have fond memories of BBC Radio's Round the Horne) look as though they have stepped straight out of the pages of a Daphne du Maurier novel. Such people were squarely in the sights of the GWR's Tregenna Castle Hotel, located high above St.Ives, which aimed to cater for affluent first class travellers. Quite what they would have thought of the St. Ives branch being shut for an entire week in June merely to accommodate the world's leaders and a media circus at the recent G7 summit is best left to conjecture.

(All items are from the Great Western Trust collection.)


Women Railway Employees

It is far too easy to believe that the railways were a male employment preserve. Yes, the sheer physical rigours of firing and driving steam locomotives on long hours duties, on heavy trains, was understandably thought far beyond feminine capabilities. Happily today's heritage railway lines and locations can welcome the women who volunteer for such duties, albeit on less arduous steam locomotive footplate operations, though no different at all in their due diligence for maintenance of safety considerations in all its aspects. One heritage line even celebrated their first full female footplate crew and why not indeed?

The Great Western Railway was rather like its peers, very sensitive to the social norms of the ages in which it existed, and being considered even then, a rather conservative organisation in its outlook, it was hardly known for setting new employment initiatives. What can be said however, is that in an age when in Victorian times, sadly life expectancy was not that long, and worse, that so many male railway ‘servants’ (this to become ‘employees’ pretty much after WW1) were seriously injured or killed in accidents in service, the Great Western senior managers were strongly encouraged to ensure that wherever it was practicable, staff widows were to be offered employment, however modest. In an age before state pensions or credible or affordable life and accident insurance policies, this was no small or minor gesture by a privately financed limited company.

Move far forward to WW2, and it is well recorded that women were recruited to work even in Swindon Works and proved exceptionally able machine tool operators to fulfil vital GWR and Government munitions works in place of men called up into the armed forces.

Perhaps a lesser appreciated role for women at that time, was at the vast number of GWR stations and Goods Yards, where it was soon apparent that the difference in sheer physical strength to their male colleagues was proving a significant operational issue. Hence the subject of this blog, the pamphlets illustrated which were issued to the public by the then ‘British Railways’ ie the effectively HMG administered private railway companies to fulfil the wartime emergency transport needs.

The first one may use artistic licence to get the message across, but the second and third, were a further indication of the clear vital importance that the problem was created at source by unthinking individuals and companies in packaging far too heavy, cumbersome and large parcels. Hence the slogan ‘Heavy Parcels Cause Delay – Help Us to Help You’.

In passing we would welcome any information on quite what ‘Cooked English Marrowfat Peas’ tasted like! The parcel illustrated on the second pamphlet rather caught our eye!

So, without doubt, the GWR employed women, but in truth, we must reflect that only in severe wartime adversity did they, and their peers employ significant numbers and truly make the crucial move towards continuing this thereafter. Like so much of the GWR's long history, the social history aspects have only more recently been recognised as worthy of detailed study and appreciation. The Great Western Trust Collection has a wealth of primary source material on the widest range of topics reflecting that subject and our blogs will further illustrate them in due course.


Holidays by Train – Part 1

In our April Blog on this theme we highlighted the GWR's strident and persistent publicity on their claimed ‘unique’ role as ‘The Holiday Line’ and that that inherited approach continued on into the BR Western Region era.

Due to that extraordinary publicity and of course traffic generating focus, it is hardly surprising that the Great Western Trust Collection holds a wealth of such publicity related materials from the GWR right through to the BRWR era. We aim to regularly use that wonderful source material in future Blogs, and that is why the Title of this Blog begins the multiple part journey we shall take our readers on.

The first vitally significant move was to name what became their iconic train ’The Cornish Riviera Limited’ latterly the Express, in Edwardian times. The word Riviera being used to imbue that ‘warmer, balmy climate vision’ that, first for the socially higher classes, and then more widely to all social classes in later years, welded the concept of GWR train travel with holidays.

This ‘publicity’ or as Sir Felix Pole, the acclaimed GWR General Manager from 1921-1929, put it ‘Propaganda’ only functioned by very close working between the numerous ‘departments’ within the GWR organisation. Perhaps surprisingly, crucial contributors on much of the ‘in house’ publicity initiatives were the Civil Engineering Dept. and the Drawing Offices at Swindon. The Civil Engineers because they took and held the vast photographic collection of all matters GWR and the Drawing Office at Swindon, if anything involved publicising locomotives and rolling stock.

Like so much that the Trust holds, we sadly still only have fragments of evidence on many aspects, and that lack of primary background makes the image illustrated a tempting source for speculation on the decisions taken and by whom and why.

So this original print monochrome image, has much of value written or rubber stamped on its reverse side. A classic lineside and striking scene of a King, in fact “King Charles I” on the Falmouth to Paddington Express (location unstated). The various rubber stampings indicate that the Swindon Drawing Office issued this copy in December 1933, but it was also stamped ‘Please Return to Publicity Dept GWR Paddington Station’, probably so when it had been or was to be loaned to a contracted printer?

The fascinating part of course is the witness on the image of its intended ‘cropping’ for best impact on the intended publicity brochure or advert, and the overlaid text ‘Don't miss the “Bullets” HOLIDAY SPECIAL’. The use of capitals re-emphasises the primary message of course.

Our speculation now comes to bear upon the confident belief that, to date at least, no such train or issued publicity ever emerged for such a train. Could it be that the phrase ‘Bullets’ conflicted with a relaxed holidaying message? It does seem to our eyes to be over-stretching things to associate the express trains of the 1930s with the speed of a bullet. Alas, unless primary documents emerge to expose these debates within the Publicity Dept, we are left to wonder just how heated it became at times!


Shining a Light on Stations

Today, we are blessed with an abundance of electric station lighting, perhaps too much when a station can be seen at night from quite some distance! That was not the case in the very early GWR period, when lighting was limited to wall and lamp column mounted oil lamps, which at best only provided a localised ‘pool’ of illumination.

Over time, but still exploiting their existing cast iron lamp columns, these were converted to or replaced by gas and finally electric lamps, the latter, originally inelegantly fed by cables strung daisy chain style between the columns to avoid the cost of buried cables.

The Great Western Trust most fortunately recently acquired the very rare example of an oil lamp casing from Burnham Beeches station illustrated and which is the focus of our Blog today. This remarkable survivor can be fairly confidently dated back to the very opening of this station on 1st July 1899 so that makes the lamp case about 122 years old!! In fact the station itself, when opened was the only ‘single Island platform’ on the GWR.

We also illustrate a fine photo of this station, from a vast photo collection, taken by and generously bequeathed to the Trust by Michael Hale. Michael was a stickler for proper records, so we know he took it on 15th May 1959, showing Prairie Tank 6117 on a Thames Valley stopping service bound for Paddington. The signal box on the left hand side was opened around 1898 and closed in 1962.

So, back to the lamp itself. Miraculously, the beautiful coloured glass station name inserts have survived, and on display in the Trust Museum is a fully restored one of High Wycombe. The Trust holds a number of such lamp glasses from other stations, but sadly they are the only remains of what were the contemporaries of our Burnham Beeches and High Wycombe lamps.

The lamp casing was probably ‘saved’ from the destruction of its sisters, when the station was renamed Burnham (Bucks) in 1930 and later in 1975 it finally became simply, Burnham.

In practical terms we should also reflect upon the combined reasons why oil lamps gave way to gas and then electric lighting. Yes, gas lamps needed individual ‘striking - on’ and ‘turning off’ by station staff, but apart from maintenance of their gas mantles, that was a far cry from an oil lamp's demands. A lad porter was expected to individually maintain each lamp interior, cleaning the glass funnel, trimming the wick, topping up its combustible oil, and lighting and extinguishing each one, day after day. All that duty undertaken in ALL weather conditions, when perched precariously on a wooden ladder propped against the cast iron lamp column.

Beyond that physical hands-on effort, we can hardly be surprised to find that the GWR demanded that every station recorded on an appropriate form, not only how many lamps they had, but the quantity of lamp oil consumed! Woe betide a Station Master viewed as leaving lamps on too long and using too much lamp oil! When they converted to gas, the gas meter readings were similarly used to keep a business minded check on excess use!

Given the very wide and interesting subject of railway lamps of all descriptions, the Trust is currently creating a ‘Lamp Room’ display in our Museum building, to progressively illustrate their varied designs and uses.


Football Crazy

Arsenal fans in high spirits as they are about to board a train at Paddington for an F A Cup tie against Bristol Rovers on 11 January 1936 (Arsenal won 5-1)

In a previous Tuesday Treasures Blog on 9 March, we described the BRWR ‘Radio Train’ which in January 1960 was advertised to carry Aston Villa Football Club supporters to an away match at Swansea.

The current wall to wall media coverage of the home Nation's involvement (so far that is!) in the Euros Competition gives us an opportunity to reflect more widely upon Football and the Railways and vice-versa. Had railways been around in Henry VIII days however, history of football in the UK might have been very different. Then the so called pastime was outlawed as it not only was without rules, it was a close equivalent of inter village mob fighting. Beyond social order impact, Henry saw it as a dangerous distraction from the vital training to perfection of youths and men to be longbow archers!

Suffice to say, things changed radically afterwards, and with the coming of the railways, both football teams themselves, and moreover their supporters could now be affordably transported quite long distances for matches. It has been said that the railways created the vital means by which UK football became national rather than tied to local, village, town or city games.

The Great Western Trust Collection has many football related items, not just for Football Association & League events but a considerable recreational pastime for its staff, more of which in a future Blog.

Anyway, to illustrate just two examples we must first reflect upon ‘International Games’ and what better than this ‘England v Brazil’ example of May 1956. This BRWR printed leaflet on ’How to Get There’ was for those unfamiliar with railway connections to Wembley Station. We can perhaps bring a surprised smile by stating that this ‘Friendly’ was won by England, by no less than 4-2! The England team included Johnny Haynes, Billy Wright, Stanley Matthews and from Manchester United alone, Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne and Duncan Edwards. Pause to reflect on the tragic loss that later befell that team and our National game? However, remarkably perhaps with home advantage, some 10 years later, at that very same Stadium, England won the World Cup! Truth is stranger than fiction?

More local and on a modest level we also have a BRWR handbill of the ‘English League – Third Division’ games of Reading FC v Norwich City & Watford for March 1948 showing Day Excursion Tickets to Reading from a host of local stations including Didcot, but how sad that so many of those stations no longer exist?

This Handbill, issued in February 1948, merely the second month of the Nationalised Railway existence has another highlight for those sharp eyed observers in that it predates the British Railways Corporate Image introduction of what became the iconic and much admired, and now avidly collected, BR Totem logo. That corporate change was published in a BR document of April 1948 and its consequence rippled across all BR regions in the remainder of that year and beyond, given its massive scale where large stations alone required two totems bracketed on either side of every platform lamp-posts etc!

What railway memorabilia will exist of this year’s Euro Football games, is yet to emerge!


Happy Families

With Father's Day next Sunday (20 June) our Tuesday Treasure this week is this charming ‘Happy Family’ poster dating from about 1963, in the Great Western Trust collection. Thanks to travelling by train to the business meeting and having lunch on the Torbay Express, Daddy is coming home early, fed and watered, so he has time to play trains with Timothy's model of a class 52 Western diesel-hydraulic. Happy Family indeed!

The photograph of the Torbay Express passing Southall, hauled by Warship class diesel-hydraulic No D823 Hermes, was taken by Ben Brooksbank on 22 December 1960.

Timothy's Daddy is evidently a high-profile business executive with expense account on a factory visit – the ideal target market for British Railways, travelling first class and dining on the train. But what is better than a single business traveller? Why, of course the entire board of directors!

Didcot Railway Centre's Special Saloon Car No 9002, built in 1940, was used during the war by government officials and service chiefs, and as part of the GWR's Royal Train. It was repanelled inside and refurnished in 1953, but found little use until 1963. It was then advertised for hire as an executive suite in which business firms could hold conferences en route to visit factories or other installations. The photograph shows the day saloon; the vehicle is also provided with a dining saloon that doubles up as a boardroom table, and a kitchen.

Two of the high profile users photographed in No 9002 were Dr Richard Beeching, Chairman of the BRB, and Stanley Raymond, Western Region General Manager, at the launch of the boardroom on wheels on 24 June 1963.7


Glorious Devon

Mindful of HM Government's exhortations to take holidays in the UK this year, we head west to glorious Devon for this week's Tuesday Treasure. Teignmouth has long been one of South Devon's most popular resorts and this brochure from 1936 is a beautiful example of the period. The town offered (and still offers) many attractions including a superb beach together with tennis, bowls and a fine eighteen hole golf course on Haldon Moor near the aerodrome of the same name. Charabanc tours of the surrounding countryside were also available. The famous stretch of railway along the sea wall has been made famous by hundreds of photographers over the years, together with the adjacent footpath running from Eastcliff to Smugglers' Lane just a short distance from Parson's Tunnel.

Travelling to the far north of the county brings us to Lynton and Lynmouth. We have to thank Napoleon Bonaparte for making this remote part of Devon popular with holiday makers as large areas of Europe became off-limits for wealthy travellers during the Napoleonic Wars and in the early 1800s North Devon came to be advertised as Little Switzerland. Stunning scenery, steep river valleys and towering cliffs still bring thousands of tourists to the area every year even though the terrain prevented standard gauge railways from reaching the towns, so horse-drawn carriages and later buses were used for the journey from Minehead Station. From 1899 to 1935 the narrow gauge Lynton & Barnstaple Railway carried visitors across Exmoor to Lynton thence by the remarkable water powered cliff railway (still running to this day) down the hill to Lynmouth. The L & B railway is undergoing a renaissance and a visit to Woody Bay Station for a trip over a short section of the line is highly recommended.

In a few weeks' time we shall travel across the Tamar into Cornwall.

(All items are from the Great Western Trust collection.)


A further look into the case books of the Paddington First Aid Post

Visitors to Didcot Railway Centre can discover the remarkable story of how the Great Western Trust helped Marguerite Huggett trace her birth family for ITV's Long Lost Family; Born Without Trace

The television programme Long Lost Family; Born Without Trace, broadcast on 25 May, featured the Great Western Trust's research into the story of Marguerite Huggett who was found abandoned as a baby at Paddington station on 23 July 1946, in a luggage rack on a train from Worcester. You can watch the programme on the ITV Hub catch up service and the story behind the episode is featured in a temporary display in the Small Artefact Museum at the Railway Centre – if you are visiting over the next few weeks, make sure you take a look at this fascinating tale.

The interest this programme generated prompted us to look again at the case books of the First Aid Post at Paddington station, to discover what other interesting reports they have.

Crowds at Paddington Station on a Summer Saturday in 1946

The case books in the Great Western Trust collection cover the period between 1945 and 1947. This was a time when people were able to travel on holiday again, after the war years, and overcrowding at stations and on trains became routine. This photograph of crowds at Paddington station in 1946 was published in the Great Western Railway Magazine, of which the Great Western Trust has a full set in the library. With people jammed together like that it is not surprising that injuries occurred, and the first aid post was there to solve minor cases or send more serious ones to hospital.

Rather startlingly there is another case of a baby abandoned on a luggage rack! She was found on the 6.5pm train to Worcester on 1 April 1947 (case 6971). A newspaper report pinned in the case book reads: “This is the latest of a series of babies found in London during the past few days. A blue-eyed girl of about six weeks, she was left in a luggage rack in a train at Paddington shortly before it was due to leave for Worcester. She is now at Chelsea Institution.” The institution is the same place that Marguerite Huggett was sent to after she was found.

Almost exactly two years before that, there is the strange case of two Found Babies on 5 April 1945 (case 1024). They were discovered in a pram at the station, changed and fed at the first aid post, and handed over to the police. Then the mothers came forward to claim them. A newspaper cutting in the case book gives the story:

“Two four-months-old babies found in one small pram at Paddington.”

“Nowhere could the police find the mothers – and thereby hangs the story of 18-years-old Freda Helen Evans and 19-years-old Nellie May Mobey, who came to the big city to get a better job.”

“Freda and Nellie came from Reading with their babies, stayed the first two nights in an institution, and then went off to an hotel for work. They fed their babies first, and left them at Paddington.”

“And when they came back the babies had vanished – taken to safety by the police.”

“The girls did not report the matter until next morning – one of the points they had to explain to the magistrates when they appeared at Marylebone Court yesterday, charged with neglecting the babies.”

“ ‘We lost our identity cards and were afraid to approach the police,’ they said.”

“But the chairman thought they had been ‘unkind and unmotherly’ and so they went to prison for 14 days.”

The first aid post books record a multitude of other cases, some routine, some tragic, some with an element of comedy. Here are a few we have picked out, in date order.

On 17 January 1945 (case 183) an R Fousan (difficult to decipher his name) described as a radio operator, attended for attention to cuts along base of his left palm. After the wound was dressed he travelled on the 4.15 pm to Barnstaple, with the comment in the book: “On survivor's leave – after second torpedoing.”

On 21 January 1945 (case 232) Lawrence Contrilla, US Navy, attended with two black eyes – over 48 hours old. His treatment was calamine lotion with the comment: “Patient requested some ‘paint’ to hide blackness.”

There were continuous minor injuries to staff, such as on 24 January 1945 (case 268) Mrs Hunt, a traffic porter with a cut right heel. The note is: “While riding on a trolley, some parcels fell off: Mrs Hunt jumped down to replace them and another parcel fell and hit her heel.”

Another porter, Arthur Turner (case 521) suffered a sprained right wrist on 16 February 1945 after: “The West London guard asked Porter Turner to help him close the train door. He attempted to force the handle down by hitting it with a churn; the resultant jerk hurt his wrist.”

Slightly comical (although not for him) was Corporal Griffiths of Headquarters, 11 Group, Uxbridge (case 610) on 24 February 1945, who had slight cuts on his forehead. These happened when: “Cpl Griffiths came out of the lavatory and as the train was slowing he bent down to look out of the window, which he thought was open. Unfortunately it wasn't and he put his head through the glass.”

The next day another with an element of comedy was Mrs Vivien McCourt (case 618) who arrived at 12.30 am on 25 February 1945 with severe laceration to left wrist, requiring a visit to St Mary’s Hospital. This was: “Result of ‘barmaid’s kiss’ in public house brawl with American sailors.”

Then a real tragedy on 27 March 1945 when Mrs Leonard visited (case 907) with babies Patricia 4 months and June 1 year 9 months, passengers to Redruth. Their state was described as “shock and tired” and they were given tea and feed for babies. The reason given was “Bombed out from East End this morning.” That day the last V2 rocket to cause civilian deaths in London had landed on Vallance Road in Stepney.

Another passenger without physical injuries was Mrs Atkinson on 31 March 1945 (case 979), a passenger from South Wales with two children, Kathleen 6 years and Tony 2 years. Her condition was described as “general fatigue”. The children were washed and given milk and “arrangements made for the night. Mrs Atkinson to proceed to Gainsborough (Lincs) in the morning.”

Warrant Officer J W Katon, 42 Squadron, RCAF, had “severely crushed 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers left hand” on 1 May 1945 (case 1328). The reason given was: “A drunken soldier slammed a door on W/O Katon's hand.” This is one of many injuries described in the books, caused by fingers being trapped in doors.

A member of staff, Miss Katherine Hewitt of Southall, a guard, was treated at 1.50 am on 13 May 1945 (case 1478) with a sprained right thumb. This was caused when: “Passengers stormed the empty rail motor at Ealing Broadway at midnight pushing the guard over and causing her to fall between car and platform. She fell on her hand.”

Next we have a disturbing case of racial assault on 17 June 1945 (case 1848). Mr Shenkar Rao, passenger from Plymouth, visited with a black eye, split lip, scratched and swollen throat, and in shock. This was after: “Mr Rao went to sit down in the compartment (he has recently been discharged from hospital) and an army sergeant objected to is sitting in the same carriage with white men, and assaulted him violently.”

Another case of finger injury in a door was on 18 June 1945 (case 1862) to Matthew H Edwards, a passenger from Stourbridge. He: “went to the toilet; the door was unlocked, but as he pushed the door open, the occupant slammed it on Mr Edwards’ fingers.”

The final report from our brief look into the case books is an unusual method of firing a locomotive by Fireman Eric Jones of Slough. He visited the First Aid Post on 24 January 1946 (case 221) with a laceration to the cushion of the middle finger of his left hand, and shock. The injury happened when: “in putting coal in fire, smoke plate caught his finger and tore it. Patient stated owing to shovel being broken he was putting the coal in with his hands. The train was fast ex Slough.”

The case books provide a snapshot of a little-documented service the Great Western Railway provided for its staff and passengers at a time when the second world war was ending, and before the National Health Service was created.



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