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.
In today's Tuesday Treasure join Period Re-enactor Thomas Macey as he explains the fascinating history behind two of the live steam locomotives on display in the museum.
Christmas decorations on The Lawn at Paddington station in 1953
In our previous Blogs leading up to Christmas, the natural focus was upon the anticipation of presents and all the activities associated with this big holiday festival. The toy shop windows, the toys themselves, children’s railway books and even special Christmas cards.
This year, we turn our thoughts to the Railway Staff. Obviously the railways were a business, created and operating to transport people and materials of all kinds, to and from a multitude of places. At Christmas, or more significantly, the period leading up to it, the service provided was both loaded to a far greater extent than usual, especially for goods and parcels and had placed upon it a far higher public expectation of timely delivery!
Our Great Western Trust archive contains countless internal GWR and BRWR staff notices and operational instructions completely focused upon the above demands, and how they should be so organised as to fulfil them. Pre-Christmas extra trains alone were a logistical task of astonishing proportions and arranging all the necessary staff movements alone, occupied and demanded the very highest degree of ability, documentation and experience from those ‘in charge’.
In these current days of short texts and mere soundbite attention spans, and perhaps less than warmly received ‘announcements from on high’ within large organisations, we illustrate what was an expected norm of such messaging, on the railways at least, in 1959. It is a message from the British Transport Commission Chairman, Sir Brian Robertson, to all its staff, male and female, suitably decorative and meant to be pasted up in every station and office frequented by them, and in pre metrication days was no less than 11” wide by 16” high, so it was meant to be seen and read.
Its lengthy wording may surprise us, but its key objective was to acknowledge the perhaps contradictory expectation on railway staff to work that much harder at this time, when most other employees were preparing to relax from their daily labours!
This item has survived to our time possibly as an unused copy issued to a station or office, when its relevance was very short lived once the 1960 New Year had begun. Such items cast an important light on our past and the media then used to connect the top managers with their employees, however much we might wonder quite how well such messages were received.
We however hope that our Blog readers will truly appreciate our wish of a Happy Christmas from the Trustees and volunteers of the Great Western Trust.
The GWR were one of the most active and trailblazing railway companies in the perhaps surprising sector of popular games and toys.
The Great Western Trust Collection is blessed with examples of the breadth of material they produced and much of that was created under the inspired visionary, Sir Felix Pole, when he was its General Manager from 1921 to 1929. That his intuition was correct, is proven by the GWR maintaining a significant output right up to the Second World War under his successor Sir James Milne.
Our example illustrated is of a jigsaw puzzle and its decorative storage box, entitled ‘The Fishguard Army 1797’. This particular example had around 200 pieces, made of plywood with a colour painted scene by Claude Buckle, himself a much admired artist commissioned by the GWR for numerous pictorial posters. It was made in 1935, for the GWR by Chad Valley of Birmingham, as were all their jigsaws of this type, and sold to the public at production cost price of just two shillings and six old pennies, 12½p today, but comparatively equivalent today of about £18. The GWR began producing jigsaws as an experiment when their celebrated Castle Class loco 4073 Caerphilly Castle was first displayed at the Wembley ‘Empire Exhibition’ in 1924, not surprisingly, jigsaws of that very engine! In the period 1924-1939, it is estimated they produced over 750,000 with 44 subjects!
Their popularity with folk of all ages is demonstrated by the Christmas sales statistics in which in 1932 alone, over 31,000 were sold! So popular in fact that one man wrote to the GWR in 1924 to claim he has completed the Caerphilly Castle one in 17 minutes!
Whilst the GWR pondered whether to cut production costs by making them in cardboard, they astutely retained the plywood design to maintain their physical resilience and quality. That fact, and their popularity certainly combined to gift to our generation a vast number of surviving puzzles of which the one illustrated is clearly in superb condition given its 86 years age. It was the 40th title of the 44 produced. So why this subject, and for a railway transport company? Previous owners have pencilled in the box its size, 11 x 17 inches, so a handy modest table will do nicely!
Look up your history books and discover how in 1797, the French invaders were roundly repulsed by an ‘Army’ comprising mostly of Welsh ladies from the nearby villages. Quite whether artistic licence accurately shows the scene is doubted, but we can assure you that the jigsaw itself took a lot more than 17 minutes to complete for two keen puzzlers!
The Trust happily possesses a complete set of the 44 titles produced, and all are the perfect proof of the combination of rugged design and contemporary popularity, making them survive down the years. One such group of jigsaws we were donated had the rather upsetting story that whilst bought by his Aunt, her nephew was never allowed to play with them as his Aunty ’considered them far too precious to risk his hands being near them’! Naturally, they are in perfect condition, as is this one illustrated.