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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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From the Sport of Kings in early British history, horseracing has become the sport of kings and commoners throughout the world. The earliest English race meeting is believed to have taken place during the reign of King Henry VIII on what is now known as The Roodee at Chester, one of many race courses served by the Great Western Railway. During the 1930s, no fewer than 125 training establishments were located on the GWR and horses were sent to meetings all over the country including those at Newbury, Chepstow, Windsor and Cheltenham where, every March, the world famous Cheltenham Festival now attracts 250,000 people to its four day meeting. Indeed, both Newbury and Cheltenham had their own racecourse stations which are still in use today. The GWR was at the heart of the racing world and was held in very high esteem and every year hundreds of special trains were run for the racing public, owners, trainers, jockeys, book-makers and other followers of the sport. Catering staff too were conveyed to and from the meetings to say nothing of the large quantities of food and drink for man and beast. The Company also issued a handy pocket racing calendar giving a complete list of the principal race meetings throughout the country.

Many racehorse specials were run to courses and back on the same day and were treated in the same way as express passenger trains. The GWR took great care and pride in being able to transport valuable racehorses and a fleet of specially designed horseboxes were provided for this purpose. From the time the horses were boxed until they were unloaded, every train movement or shunting operation was made with the full knowledge that such sensitive creatures were not shaken or startled.

In 1937, one hundred and fifty new horseboxes were built by the GWR at Swindon Works, with accommodation for three horses and a coupé for grooms. The vehicles were well sprung and ventilated, had a non-slip floor and the stalls were padded with leather covered horse hair whilst there was a manger for each animal.

The GWR also introduced a service which conveyed horses by road to the nearest convenient station using an articulated vehicle carrying two horses plus a groom. Lambourn in Berkshire was at the centre of the racing industry and on the Newbury to Lambourn branch, diesel railcar No. 18 was provided with drawgear which enabled it to haul up to six loaded horse-boxes.

In addition to normal race traffic, the GWR also carried hundreds of horses to and from bloodstock sales held in September and December at Doncaster and Newmarket respectively.

Information and photographs in this Tuesday Treasure are from the Great Western Railway Magazine of which the Great Western Trust has a complete set from 1888 to 1947. Other items are from the Trust collection.


Four Candles!

Long before the phrase was made famous by the late Ronnie Barker, this Christmas Poster was jointly issued by the ‘Big Four’ railway companies. Designed to encourage travel by train over the Christmas holiday it worked as part of a marketing idea whereby the public could buy tickets for travel covering four weeks during the Christmas and New Year period. Tickets were supplied in specially designed Christmas cards which would then be posted to friends and family. The carriage of parcels was also a major source of traffic and a huge fleet of rolling stock and a network of depots was provided for this purpose.

It is interesting to note that in 1936, the term British Railways was being used in a marketing sense long before the same brand was born upon nationalisation of the railways which occurred on January 1st 1948. Also of note, is that fares were calculated on a pence per mile basis rather than the modern idea of ‘journey pricing’ where what the market will bear holds sway.

Railway companies were also keen to stay in touch with their major customers by way of sending Christmas cards. Two examples are illustrated here – a 1938 item from the GWR Publicity Manager and a stunning 1955 image sent by the British Railways (Western Region) Public Relations & Publicity Officer.

From the Great Western Trust – thank you for reading, we plan to resume our blogs in January.

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year.


Every Picture Tells a Story!

Meccano Magazine December 1954

The illustrated cover image on the December 1954 Meccano Magazine is clearly staged but is a very typical boyhood scene, and clearly only very well dressed ‘boys’ are the central characters!

That magazine was a superb monthly journal, clearly advertising the splendid Meccano products, but cleverly doing so by appealing to many other boyhood hobbies, such as stamp collecting, modern flight, and even stories on amazing natural wonders, of which this edition covered ‘Volcano Steam for Industry’!!

Yes, yes, of course model railways, Hornby and Dinky Toys were centre stage, as were adverts for Ian Allan loco-spotters books. But each edition also featured ‘Railway Notes’ covering activities of all BR Regions useful for train spotters, and a topical in depth article, which in December 1954 was ‘On the Footplate from Liverpool to London on the Merseyside Express’ aboard 46208 Princess Helena Victoria.

So what would Father Christmas actually bring for those young boys looking longingly through the shop window?

Meccano Magazine December 1954

Our second illustration is the back cover advert on this edition which shows that Father or Uncle would need to spend around £7 in 1954 on son or nephew for that very modest trainset. But before we groan in frustration that that is such a trifling amount, the Bank of England inflation website gives the 2019 equivalent as £193!! Maybe that is why ALL the boys illustrated throughout the journal are ‘well dressed’??

Even a relatively humble monthly trade journal can provide social history pointers about those ‘good old days’ we of a particular age are so often misty eyed about?   


Christmas is Coming!

So what will Father Christmas bring for a young railway enthusiast?

For countless generations the railways were a fascination and an inspiration to children, and rather more generally ‘Boys of All Ages’. Quite quickly the children’s book publishers realised that this was a perfect subject to generate welcome income for their authors and themselves and so ‘Children’s Railway Books’ became established in children’s literature. In fact the quite surprising outcome was that progressively, far from being a simplistic text, the demand for accurate and up to date information, meant very respected authors were employed, many being railway employees or working in the railway industry.

Even more relevant to the Great Western Trust Collection, was that the GWR publicity department was very much in the vanguard of this publication stream, not only through their own children’s publications, but by providing information or photographs for independently published journals and books. Hence, we have a very comprehensive collection of contemporary children’s railway books to illustrate this aspect of the GWR’s and railways in general, impact upon juvenile literature and their imagination. Until the jet aircraft age and then rockets and spaceflight, many of our books contain the well-worn aspiration, ‘When I grow up, I want to be an Engine Driver’.

The book cover illustrated, immodestly entitled ‘The Railway Story Book’ was as far as the GWR was concerned, quite a bonus for their image to youngsters. In colour, one of its top rank King Class locos depicted on an express almost certainly on its Devonshire coastal line given the steep cliffs in the background, was hard to beat! It grabs the youngster’s attention immediately. Its content included a sketch of a GWR Castle loco, a Goods Wagon and even the Broad Gauge ‘Lord of the Isles’! Yes, the LNER and LMS were also mentioned!

The Railway Story Book 6004

Produced by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd of London and New York, this particular book has no identified author, and no publication date either, but is probably around 1928. Lacking a printed date was a clever ruse to avoid unsold stock being rejected if even a year had passed! It contains articles on ‘How Railways Came’, ‘Goods Trains and their work’, ‘Some Famous Locomotives’, ‘Locomotives of Today’, ‘Electric Trains’, ‘The Railway Coach’, and ‘Something about Signals.’ So in very gentle terms, subjects of a broad nature and with 4 colour illustrations too, one being the Metropolitan Railways Electric locomotives.

Many of the examples we hold also contain a wonderful reflection of family associations in the dedications written inside the covers, most from Uncles and Aunties to their favourite nephew, with love, at Christmas or perhaps for a birthday present.

Of course as boys grew older and expanded their railway interests another famous series of books ‘The Wonder Book of Railways’ by Harry Golding came into its own with no less than 21 editions covering the years from c1911 to 1955. In fact it was so successful that after the first railway related title it prompted the publishers to expand the range of subjects to include for example Electricity, Army, Nature, Motors, Why & What, Things to Do, Stories and even ‘Wonders’ themselves! Beyond that there were the Collins Railway Annuals and many more titles besides. They complement our collection of children’s railway toys.

So if the book illustrated was excitedly discovered under the Christmas tree, we can only imagine how every page and picture would have been relished! Their survival is a reflection of how dearly they were cherished and kept even as those boys became fathers then grandfathers, who probably delighted in giving their children similar books in later years.

Happy Christmas one and all


Out with the old...

This week’s Tuesday Treasure highlights one of the Trust’s large collection of posters.

Featuring a painting by renowned artist Terence Cuneo, the scene is Swindon Works AE Shop in late 1957. Under construction in the foreground are the first two D8xx Warship class locomotives, D800 and D801 while one of the BR Standard 92xxx locos is being built on the right of the painting.

The Warships were revolutionary in their design. Their monocoque bodies were mounted on two longitudinal parallel tubes and were entirely of welded construction. The erecting shop staff seen working had to learn new skills and techniques far removed from those needed to build steam locos. The Warship on the right, D800, is in a more advanced state and is seen being fitted with one of a pair of Maybach MD650 high speed V12 engines each of which was linked to Voith hydraulic transmission.

Cuneo painted this scene at an interesting time of transition during the last years of steam loco production and the dawn (at Swindon) of diesels. The adoption of hydraulic transmission was unique to the Western Region of British Railways and would turn out to be Swindon’s last show of independence following nationalisation in 1948. The Warship design was based on the German V200 locos and had a much higher power to weight ratio than its contemporary diesel-electric equivalents. Despite this advantage, dogged by technical problems and railway politics, they had a woefully short life and the whole class of seventy machines had been withdrawn by the end of 1972. For similar reasons, all diesel hydraulics on the Western Region had gone by 1977.

Harking back to a much earlier period in the GWR’s history, on a plinth in the background can be seen the replica broad gauge North Star built by the Great Western as part of the Stockton & Darlington Railway centenary celebrations in 1925. Sitting below this are the driving wheels from the broad gauge loco Lord of the Isles, the only remnant to survive after it was belatedly and sadly broken up in 1906. The original North Star was withdrawn as long ago as 1871 and Lord of the Isles in 1884, the latter being shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. They were retained at Swindon as museum pieces but due to lack of space, both were offered to the Science Museum in 1903. The offer was astonishingly declined and so they were lost to future generations.

Two full-size broad gauge replica locos, Fire Fly and Iron Duke are both on show at Didcot Railway Centre together with other broad gauge rolling stock.



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