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.
TUESDAY 30 JUNE
This Isambard Kingdom Brunel, London School of Economics (University of London) silver medal, was presented to W G Chapman in 1908.
The medals were awarded to those students who gained three First Class passes in approved exams within four years of study. The silver design was crafted using the original die-stamp donated by the GWR to the Railway Dept of the LSE.
The scheme was endowed by Lord Winterstoke a GWR Director in 1907/08. According to Rosa Matheson's "The Fair Sex - Women and the Great Western Railway", of 176 medals won, 76 were awarded to GWR staff.
Both sides of the medal are illustrated, and the ribbed edge is engraved “W G Chapman 1908”.
Chapman, then of the General Manager's Office staff was the first GWR winner along with two non-GWR students. A full report of his award appeared in the Great Western Staff Magazine of 1909.
W G Chapman went on to write many of the publications for “Boys of All Ages” that were produced by the GWR publicity department. The medal was generously donated to the Great Western Trust by his great nephews.
TUESDAY 23 JUNE
The GWR was famed for its wide ranging pursuit of publicity, a particular element being the series of very popular books by their employee WG Chapman on all things GWR pitched for “Boys of All Ages”. They included details of locomotive construction and in an era when boys were genuinely stimulated by engineering and technology of which railways were in the vanguard, the GWR also actively exploited that latent interest by contributing to the numerous Boys periodical magazines, comics and books.
This example is the cover of the Modern Wonder The Pictorial Review issued every Wednesday for 2d. That is the pre-decimalisation coinage, when 12 pennies made a shilling and 20 shillings made a pound!
The image was a GWR official one from Swindon, and this edition included a full depth article on the construction and testing of new GWR locos entitled “The Birth of a Railway Giant” acknowledging content lifted from Chapman’s book “The Cheltenham Flyer”.
Boys being boys of course the magazine also covered diverse “exciting and stimulating” fact and fiction topics, including a mystery tribal dance, The Royal Artillery, Denmark’s first indoor Swimming pool and ending with a Flash Gordon cartoon!
Dated July 22nd 1939 however, it is a sobering reminder that very grim years very soon lay ahead.
The Great Western Trust Collection at Didcot includes a great number of non GWR official publications like this example, showing that GWR publicity spread far wider into the youthful domain than might be appreciated.
TUESDAY 16 JUNE
As we prepare to resume activities on 4 July, we feature an item that has pride of place in the Museum and that visitors can admire when we re-open.
The original Engine Shed at Didcot naturally forms the perfect home for our acclaimed collection of GWR built or designed Steam Engines. To compliment those “full size” examples, the Great Western Trust collection includes a number of exceptional, fine detail model locomotives.
The example illustrated in the two photographs (taken outside the Museum & Archive building) is a 5 inch gauge, live steam model which won a Gold Medal at 2007 Model Engineering Exhibition. It was made entirely by Mr M C Dean and as it was built from scratch, it took him no less than 17 years to complete, beginning when he was 64! Under the closest scrutiny, the detailing is breath-taking no doubt because Mr Dean was never going to hurry a work of sublime craftsmanship. We can reveal that even the scaled padlocks on the locomotive tool boxes have scale keys to open them!
The engine itself was the first one designed and ordered by William Dean, in 1880, when he first became GWR Head of the Locomotive & Carriage Dept at Swindon, to experiment as a
4-4-0T with certain design features. After early modification, as you do with experimental designs, it became as the model, a 2-4-0T and ran successfully until withdrawal from Chester in 1924.
There is more than coincidence in the shared surname Dean. His forebears include William Dean’s brother!
Mr Dean most generously donated this fine model to the Trust in 2014 so that it could be enjoyed by our countless visitors of all ages. It has pride of place within our Museum, as Mr Dean wished, and has drawn high praise and admiration.
TUESDAY 9 JUNE 2020
In 1985, this splendid item was generously donated to the Great Western Trust by Miss Stevenson on behalf of her late brother William Humfrey Stevenson who wanted it preserved in Didcot. He was the great nephew of Ann Lowsley (nee Humfrey) the daughter of Edward Humfrey its original owner.
Its existence reflects the great impact the arrival of the Great Western Railway had upon the Didcot community. Four local farmers, John Holliday and John Lowsley of Hagbourne and Eligh Caudwell and Edward Humfrey of Blewbury agreed that once the railway was established at Didcot they saw a business opportunity! They each subscribed £250 (worth today around £25,000) towards construction of a Corn Exchange in Didcot town. This would avoid costs and inconvenience of farmers travelling elsewhere for such business. The building was completed in 1857 and was located next to the Didcot Station frontage (where today there is the short term car-park and taxi rank).
So successful was their venture that from the profits of its first year of operation, they each had a pocket watch, suitably inscribed to record the undertaking. Whilst the standard watch face of 12 numbers could accommodate “Corn Exchange”, “DIDCOT MARKET” fitted and better recorded its unique location! The watch back, has the letters “EH” engraved, for Edward Humfrey.
In World War 2 the building became a general market, run every Tuesday by auctioneers A W Neate of Newbury for local food produce. Before its demolition, it was the Didcot Station car garage, operated by one Monty Dipper.
The Trust is honoured to hold this remarkable item as just one example of the GWR’s positive impact on Didcot.
TUESDAY 2 JUNE 2020
The London Division news journal was issued to cover staff recreation, new developments and general railway interest. This British Railways Western Region edition from July 1961 is very relevant as it includes an article on a “Supper and Social at Didcot” held in aid of the Didcot Railway Benevolent Fund at the Didcot Staff Hostel. The highlight was singing to the piano accompaniment of 92 year old Jim Gardner who in 1883 at the tender age of 14, had joined the GWR at Didcot, working for 6 months without pay, but going on to retire after 46 years service! His son was then signalman at Didcot West End Box!
A career on the railways was still an attractive one justifying the cover picture of a recruitment event in Ealing Town Hall. Aren’t those schoolboys smart and very attentive?
TUESDAY 26 MAY 2020
This week, is English Tourism Week and with many of us hoping to plan staycations this year, today’s Tuesday Treasures looks back to the days when a portmanteau was the bag you took with you on holiday rather than the type of word used to describe it!
In the Edwardian era, once the GWR had completed its vast network and had created accelerated services through heavy investment in “cut-off” lines, it began a massive campaign to exploit the holiday and tourist traffic potential of the areas it served. Not least the West Country, Cornwall, Devon & Somerset.
Starting in 1906, it published its “Holiday Haunts” book annually, which contained both topographical information on the counties and towns and villages covered but also helpful adverts on residential accommodation, from Hotels to Guest Houses. It became so popular, that at its peak, circulation approached 200,000 copies, each of 1,000 pages at 6 old pence. The very last issue of 1947 is one of the two illustrated, after which under Nationalisation the British Railways Western Region and all other regions issued BR Holiday Guides until their demise with the 1962 issue.
As part of their highly effective publicity drive, the GWR introduced the “See your Own Country First” poster, comparing Cornwall with Italy, and their striking logo “The Holiday Line”. So important was this whole initiative, that a large contigent of their publicity department staff became established to ensure each year, Holiday Haunts was accurate and attractive. They even advertised in the Times, Holiday Haunts express trains from all over their system, by which prospective holidaymakers could travel between April and June, at one fifth of the ordinary fares to their intended location to explore and possibly pre-book accommodation!
So, just as Visit England rightly encourages us to use Summer 2020 to explore this country’s delights, they could do worse than employ the GWR’s highly successful message “See your Own Country First”!
The Great Western Trust Museum at Didcot holds a complete set of all the GWR Holiday Haunts publications and its BRWR successors. They are a treasure trove of UK social history, far beyond their railway association.
The Holiday Haunts Express May 1933
TUESDAY 19 MAY 2020
These two undated photographs, were taken by staff within the Railway Signalling Works at Reading probably in the 1950s. If we can grasp the scale of just how large an undertaking both the GWR and then BRWR operated with its mechanical signal boxes, these photos illustrate the size of just one, 101 lever frame being constructed for Llandilo Junction. The fitters are stood behind the awesome folded chart by which the individual mechanical locking was to be created within that massive frame behind them.
The second photo shows its reverse side! Once fully tested, that frame had to be reduced to sections fit for railway wagon transport to the target site in South Wales, installed, re-commissioned, and then operated by shift working Signalmen. All in a day’s work!
TUESDAY 12 MAY 2020
Railway modelling is enjoying increased interest and popularity during lockdown but it's hard to believe in today’s railway employment environment, that this brochure was published by the Railway Executive of the nationalised British Railways in the early 1950s, to detail their very own and large model railway. About 30 feet by 15 feet with 6 locomotives (including of course a WR King Class engine), multiple passenger train sets for each region and goods stock, signalling and “Newtown” a modern construct station!
The picture shows its debut at the Schoolboys’ Own Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall, London on January 1st to 15th 1949. Just look at the large audience of boys, young and old! It went on to be displayed throughout the country in Departmental Stores and at the Festival of Britain in Glasgow in 1951.
Why go to such lengths? Well it included advice that BR had many staff vacancies for those wanting a career on the railways! How many took that offer up we wonder? And, whatever happened to that remarkable model railway?
TUESDAY 5 MAY 2020
With lockdown producing at least a temporary improvement in air quality, this week we remember Didcot’s large coal fired power station that was a distinctive feature of the area from construction in the mid-1960s until demolition which is now almost complete.
Amongst the fascinating items in the Great Western Trust Collection is this BRWR December 1966 Notice to Staff of the just commissioned track and signalling for the Merry Go Round coal trains that fed the newly built complex.
It is said that satellites could track gases from the Didcot plant as they streamed eastward to the Black Forest in Germany!
Building of the power station started in 1964, some three years after the formation of the Great Western Society in 1961. Preparations to mark our 60th Anniversary in 2021 are well underway, and will include events to celebrate six decades of achievement at the Railway Centre, including the preservation of the Engine Shed complex dating from 1932 and bringing alive the history of the GWR from Brunel to the present day.
It is curiously satisfying to think that the colossal structure, which represented modernisation and progress back then, has been outlived by an organisation that many at a time saw as strange enthusiasts trying to save outdated technology!
The incline to the Centre's historic Coal Stage was the perfect vantage point when the power station cooling towers were demolished on 27 July 2014