Living Museum of the Great Western Railway

Home » BLOGS - Tuesday Treasures

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.


Latest Blogs


Olympic Games 1948

We are unashamedly using the opportunity of the interest in the current Olympic Games in Tokyo, and of course our British competitors giving us all a welcome uplift and shared pride in their attending let alone their significant medal and individual performances, to cast us back to the immediate post war games in 1948.

A relatively recent TV programme on these Games and the political and practical background issues in holding them in a country devastated by post war economic and social issues, gave many surprising insights, not least how to even feed the competitors!

That apart, the handbill illustrated (from the Great Western Trust Collection) proves that the then very recently Nationalised Western Region, was nevertheless going to do its bit to get crowds to events staged on its patch. Henley, already famed world-wide for its annual rowing regatta, to which the GWR of old and BRWR subsequently devoted a massive train service commitment (a subject for another future blog) staged the Olympic Rowing & Canoeing Events in early August 1948.

The Handbill invites a very wide area of potential passengers, from within a 60 miles radius of Henley including Halts no less! It is worth observing however that the said ‘offer’ was for ‘Cheap Day Tickets’ at Third Class only. This very starkly contrasts with the halcyon days of the Henley Regatta events in which the Trust Collection has an Urgent Train message sent from the Station Master to the effect that that service required a dedicated set of FIRST Class coaches assembled without delay!

It is fair to conclude that post WW2, the times were a changing, and just possibly, holding the first post war Olympic Games in Britain was both a much needed boost to the population’s spirits, and significantly a shift in social class attitudes, so that ALL should share in sport events rather than give preference to the moneyed few?

Pannier Tank No 5766, still in GWR livery, leaving Henley-on-Thames for Twyford in 1951

For those seeking fine detail, please note that the then BRWR Chief Regional Officer (General Manager as a title was at that moment a no-no under nationalisation!) was one K W C Grand. He had a vast GWR experience having joined them in 1919, not only representing the company in the USA and Canada, but on his return he headed the Publicity Department before finally becoming the last GWR Assistant General Manager under Sir James Milne.


Postcards with a Difference

Although the current age of IT and Smart Phones allow us all, unlimited opportunities to ‘snap’ images wherever and whenever we like, share them with friends and family, and add appropriate text, it wasn't so long ago that the most used medium for the ‘message home or otherwise’ was the printed postcard.

While the dominant versions had a printed image, place, item or even saucy seaside cartoon, it was a popular pastime to purchase blank postcard papers so that the ‘image’ could be home produced, if you had the amateur ‘dark room’ photo facility to develop and then print your own images.

This blog, illustrates an example of both types, and does so with images of GWR railway locomotives, of course!

It is to the LNWR that the ultimate accolade must be given for the largest number of their ‘official&rsdquo; produced postcards, not only of engines and railway scenes but also ships and places of interest.

The GWR began soon after the LNWR, not wanting to be left behind when realising this was an excellent means to increase their connection with the travelling public and the growing numbers of railway enthusiasts of all ages.

The coloured postcard illustrated of 4073 Caerphilly Castle was actually produced by The Locomotive Publishing Company soon after the locomotive was built and was a major attraction at the 1924 Empire Exhibition in London. The fine artist’s rendition shows off the full rich livery of the period and even its bogie brakes which were then standard fitting but subsequently removed on GWR locos given their maintenance needs being greater than their effective beneficial operation. The card image helpfully includes the key dimensions and of course the ‘Tractive Effort’ figure so beloved of the GWR Publicity Department!

Our second illustration however has many other interesting features, even though it was produced by an individual, probably for sharing with family and friends, singly or in limited numbers. The rather soft image itself is taken of what had become GWR 0-8-2T loco No 1379, at an unstated location somewhere in South Wales, but probably on the Port Talbot Railway (PTR) system, possibly Maesteg? Well the coal wagon it's coupled to is from the North Navigation Collieries there! The image has much of interest, in that the two footplatemen are the reason for its creation, both in a ‘relaxed’ posture, and given other accompanying papers that came with the postcard (itself blank on the reverse) infers one person was a P W Ackland known to have worked at Port Talbot up to 1957 no less. In that case, we surmise he is the Fireman in the photo, yet to progress to a full Driver status in later years.

The real star however is the locomotive. The PTR may have been modestly sized amongst the numerous other South Wales railway companies, but in having to haul heavy coal trains on its system, it realized that both locomotive and crew savings could be achieved if a powerful 0-8-2T engine replaced double headed 0-6-2T locomotives on these duties. In 1899, British manufacturers were already too heavily contracted for locomotive construction, so the PTR bought two of these locomotives from the Cooke Locomotive Company of Paterson, New Jersey, USA. They were shipped, dismantled and reassembled in the Barry Railway Company works who very conveniently were also taking delivery of locomotives from that same Company! They became PTR Nos 20 & 21, and were indeed a successful investment and others of the same wheel formation were later purchased from a UK manufacturer.

The story behind the photo, might well lead us to assume these engines came legally into GWR stock after the ‘Grouping’ in January 1922, hence its GWR livery and boiler, but it had in fact become GWR as early as January 1908, when the GWR took over PTR operations. Indeed the GWR immediately took both engines to Swindon to ‘Great Westernise’ them with a domeless Belpaire boiler and other features, but only in 1922 did they receive their GWR numbers namely 1378 & 1379. It is well recorded that in South Wales the 0-6-2T form was the proven and very numerically dominant form, and the GWR, itself instilled in the benefits of standardisation were hardly going to enthuse over a very few ‘non-standard’ locomotives. Hence both 1378 & 79 were withdrawn by April 1929. So, the postcard photo dates from between 1922 and 1929. A remarkable survivor. One should add that even on a modest railway, these engines had run over 350,000 miles since 1908 alone! Surely a good return on such an investment?    

Those seeking more information are recommended to study the RCTS published ‘Locomotives of the GWR Part 10 – Absorbed Engines’ pages K245 & 246.

The Postcards from this blog are from the Great Western Trust Collection.



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!


Didcot Railway Centre Newsletter

Stay up to date with events and what's going on at Didcot Railway Centre.
You may unsubscribe at any time. We do not share your data with 3rd parties.


Make A Donation

Click To Donate