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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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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.


Transition Publicity – Steam to Diesel

The ‘modern’ diesels are trumpeted on the cover of this brochure from 1962 but intriguingly there is also mention of the old fashioned steam trains

The permanent introduction of Diesel locomotives on our railways, beyond experimental trials, some successful others failures, were shunters and of course on the GWR, its celebrated diesel railcars, of which W22 is happily preserved in its finest working condition in our Didcot Collection, and W4 static in the Steam Museum at Swindon.

W22 calls Oxford Road Station at Didcot Railway Centre

A greater attention by enthusiasts is naturally given to the post Nationalisation BRWR Diesel Hydraulic locomotives, which rapidly created the massive withdrawal of still viable ex GWR locomotives such as the Castles and Kings. However, a far greater and immediate impact of BRWR dieselisation, was the Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU for short) which came in to operate both short haul suburban trains and special sets created for inter-city services.

From the Great Western Trust Collection we illustrate one example of the contemporary BRWR publicity of this era of change, using two images, of its front and back covers. The Birmingham to Cardiff and onwards to Carmarthen service covered, was hardly a minor one or of a short distance.

Our blog has another purpose however in that this brochure is exceptional in its wording. The BRWR Managers had already decided that it was going to strive to be the first Nationalised Railway Region to rid itself of steam and began a strident campaign of investment in diesels. To bring force to its intentions, virtually all known publicity extolled diesel at the rather damning expense of dirty old steam. However, this brochure specifically advertises ‘Though Diesel and Steam’ train services!

As far as we currently know, the brochure designers left us no records of their decision making, so we can only speculate that at this moment of publicity the reliability and fleet size of these ‘magical new DMUs’ meant that steam might well be needed to provide the service!?

Train spotters of a certain age, well recall the shocking clouds of smoke and fumes that blanketed stations after these DMUs grumbled away into the distance. A well fired steam locomotive left with but a wisp of white steam! Transition of technologies brought unexpected consequences, for train crews and passengers, not all bad, but not quite so perfect as once championed by the ‘influential experts’ of their day.


Our Feathered Friends

A fortnight ago our blog covered the GWR striking out to exploit man made flight, but today’s blog may be rather humbler, but is worthy of our attention nevertheless for a number of reasons.

‘Live pigeons’ basket label - complete with stamps for pre-paid outward and return journeys

As background, empowered by their Acts of Parliament, the railway companies were given ‘Common Carrier’ status, and that brought quite substantial responsibilities. Remarkable to our present expectations of rail franchises, the GWR amongst its peers, had to accept any traffic offered to it, and for those of a standard commodity basis, publish its transport rates. The latter became a very great burden and indeed weakness for their business viability, when road carriers could focus upon specific commodities and offer competitive charges for ‘door to door’ or for ‘factory to warehouse’ transits. This thorny subject is a far deeper one than can be covered in a simple blog, so today, we concentrate on a specific commodity the railways became a much used vehicle for, namely racing pigeon flights.

Your blogger recalls many such days on stations where a platform trolley was used to off load from trains, numerous specially designed wicker baskets that contained a large number of live pigeons, with attendant bird noise and lots of feathers! The station staff, occasionally under the watchful eye of the Station Master, would take the trolley along to an open space on the platform, free of canopies, the public and of course noisy locomotives and passing trains. At a suitable moment, the flaps to the containers were carefully opened, and the birds given flight. The exact time of that release was duly recorded and the birds usually circled the station a number of times, to get their bearings, and then head off in whatever direction they judged for their home, their owner and his (yes it was a male enthusiasm and pastime) pigeon loft, either in an allotment or in a back garden. The emptied baskets would be returned, by train, to the original owner.

The illustrated GWR pre-printed container label, complete with metalled eyelets for safe fastening to the wicker basket, was used in 1929, and its text gives full guidance on what should be done at the releasing station, not least to cancel proceedings if the weather was unsuitable. Racing pigeons were a quite valuable commodity, and their owners not only took great care with them but great pride in their performance. Loss due to bad weather release or mis-handling by the railways, could generate serious claims for damages. The label has both ‘Pre-Paid’ parcels labels for out bound and home bound (empty) transit, from Devonport Station to Ashburton on the ex South Devon Railway Branch line.

This simple item, miraculously survived to shine a light on this once common traffic, for which the GWR alone, invested in special instructions, carriage rates and of course the basket labels themselves. Certainly the practice continued into the BRWR era but is now never likely to reappear.

Regrettably, pigeons have now become a very troubling pest at many railway stations and cost considerable sums in cleaning and prevention efforts. Oxford Station booking hall for example even has a rather motionless Owl in its superstructure as a deterrent! The numbers of pigeons still there, are proof that this problem is not so simply dealt with!


Eton College

GWR Map 1833 - Eton Branch Section

The GWR's original application to build a line from London to Reading with a branch to Windsor was opposed by Eton College as early as 1833. The Provost of Eton College, Francis Hodgson, wrote on 27th August 1833 that “No public good whatever could possibly come from such an undertaking”. On 2nd February 1834, Eton College took formal action against the GWR to try to prevent the new line from London to Reading with a branch to Windsor coming anywhere near the College. An extract from an 1833 map, shows a proposed branch to Eton which left the GWR main line at Slough.

After vigorous opposition from landowners and others, the House of Lords threw out the first Great Western Railway bill on 25th July 1834. This event was celebrated at a large public meeting at Slough. The bill had already spent sixty days being discussed in the House of Commons and it only got to the House of Lords just before the summer recess. Apart from the vigorous campaign waged by Eton College, landowners were worried about encroachment onto their estates; other opponents complained about cuttings creating dangerous precipices; engines derailing; carriages not being able to run round curves; passengers being made deaf by the noise and/or asphyxiated; farmers' cattle being driven mad and rendered worthless; and that the River Thames would be drained by the railway's need for water and that water supplies for Windsor Castle would be threatened.

The Great Western Railway Act finally received the Royal Assent on 31stAugust 1835. Conditions were set in the Act so that the railway was not to be used by boys from Eton College and that it should have a wall or fence on both sides of the line where it passed through the length of what is now between Langley and Burnham. The Provost feared that Eton College would be ruined. “London would pour forth the most abandoned of its inhabitants to come down by the railway and pollute the minds of the scholars, whilst the boys themselves would take advantage of the short interval of their play hours to run up to town, mix in all the dissipation of London life, and return before their absence could be discovered”. It was pressure from the Royal household that finally brought the railway to Windsor.

Eton boys cleaning at Slough in 1944 - possibly as part of their contribution to the war effort

Despite five years of vigorously opposing the railway, Eton College relented somewhat and ordered from the GWR a series of special trains to take Eton College boys from the temporary station at Slough to the coronation of Queen Victoria on 28th June 1838. The temporary station, which didn’t have a platform, was a way round the College's objections. By 1840, the College had given in and had finally allowed the construction of a permanent station at Slough. The GWR bought a field next to the North Star pub in Slough, a ground floor window of which, protected with a weatherproof shelter, was already being used as its railway booking office.

By the 1940s Eton College's relationship with the Great Western Railway had improved to such an extent that a number of boys were captured in the photograph taken at Slough shed cleaning a 61xx loco, presumably as part of a more enlightened education to see ‘how the other half lived’. Quite how many Old Etonians responded to the accompanying Engine Cleaners poster is a matter for conjecture.

Engine Cleaners Poster

(All items from the Great Western Trust collection)


Let's Fly Away

GWR Air Services Pass

With all the pent up expectation of at last literally flying away to foreign climes for sun, sea etc, but perhaps nervous about our airport reception on our return home, maybe we should holiday this year at least in the UK?

Well although pre Covid, the whole world took for granted a vast choice of affordable holidays using aeroplanes, in 1933, it may surprise you to be told that the Great Western Railway, inaugurated an air service within its UK domain, having been granted such transport powers by its 1929 Act.

It was only possible through a contractual relationship with Imperial Airways, using their aircraft and ground facilities and pilots. Never missing a publicity opportunity, the GWR somehow managed to have the first aeroplane, a 3 engine Westland Wessex registered as ‘G-AAGW’ sporting ‘Great Western Railway Air Services - Operated by Imperial Airways’ beneath the Pilots Cabin, with the fuselage adorned in the chocolate and cream Company colours!

The first service was operated between Cardiff (Pengam Moors aerodrome) and Plymouth (via Haldon aerodrome) with connections provided by GWR omnibuses of course.

Our Great Western Trust collection contains a wonderful array of the striking brochure publicity and timetables, contemporary photographs and even the Pilot cab badges! However our Tuesday Treasure today, is the GWR issued Boarding Pass of which we illustrate both the front and rear pages of its simple fold out card design.

GWR Air Services Pass - reverse

It should be explained that this service was for wealthy folk only, as it was obtained at a premium over and above the normal first class rail fare between Cardiff and Plymouth. The small plane only provided 6 wicker seats, and in good weather initially operated two out and return flights each weekday. This was also, a very early period in air transport, and our eyes may be startled by the most useful instructions that passengers received from within the Boarding Pass, in the form of no less than 12 very detailed ‘Extracts from the General Conditions of Carriage of Passengers and Baggage’ (the age of small print is not new!), which helpfully includes in Item 5, that:

‘Passengers are forbidden to open exterior doors during flight; It is also forbidden to throw articles from the aircraft’. Worse still, any person contravening these regulations is responsible for all damage resulting from the contravention. Well if it crashed, would he (yes all instructions infer the masculine gender) be alive?

Readers wishing to know more about this fascinating aspect of the GWR, are recommended to read John Stroud's excellent book ‘Railway Air Services’ published by Ian Allan in 1987.



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