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.
Well before railway staff (or servants as they were then described) had by law the bonus of being paid whilst absent from work on holiday, and perhaps rather more in the form of today’s ‘staff team building’ away days from the workplace, the GWR’s senior departmental staff had established ‘Annual Outings’.
Thankfully, because they were grand days out, mostly for men of course, the participants retained as mementos the official programmes of these events and the Great Western Trust has many such examples. The first one illustrated proves that very point, its 121 years old and miraculously survived through many generations to come to us!
It’s that of the GWR Stores Department outing to the Isle of Wight in June 1899. A very Victorian Era decorative cover shows that these outings had already created a ‘committee’ structure with of course a Treasurer etc. And of course, as the title shows, it was certainly not the first such ‘Annual Outing’ for that Department!
The group left at 7.20 am from Swindon Town station (by a rival railway the Midland and South Western Junction Company) arriving at Southampton to catch the ferry to the Island and then by coach to the Carisbrooke Hotel for lunch, only returning to Swindon at 11.32pm. A very long day indeed and a long way to go for lunch!
These outings continued throughout the GWR’s existence, excepting in both World Wars of course, and they were continued after railway Nationalisation. Our second illustration is the programme for the BR Western Region Chief Engineer’s Department outing to Cheddar and Wells in 1949, exactly 50 years later. As in so many of the documents in our Collection, which span from 1833 to beyond the end of BR Western Region, they also demonstrate the massive change in social attitudes. So here the programme cover is it seems an amusing sketch of a train in trouble riding roughly at a junction. That it is for the Civil Engineering officers, who directly design and maintain the railway track and infrastructure, such frivolity would not have pleased their Victorian era forebears. Again, though more recent than its 1899 predecessor this programme was clearly kept as a memento of an enjoyed day away from the office, with colleagues.
Studying the Great Western Trust Collection, we find that we only have one more recent ‘Staff Outing’ of this kind on 14th June 1950 where the BRWR Mechanical & Electrical and Carriage & Wagon Engineers' Personal Staffs Swindon Joint Annual Outing was to Southend and the Thames Estuary. Perhaps later outings took place, but our records only show Annual Staff Dinners continuing even up to 1981. We will be very pleased to be offered any examples that we could add to our Collection, to provide the widest source of this most interesting aspect of the GWR and BRWR official staff outings for current and future generations.
We are familiar with James Bond’s very specific requirements from bar tenders, and that it matched his very comfortable existence in high class society. In those heady social altitudes, expectations were appropriately sky high and to a degree, cost of living was not a matter of concern!
A basic fact of the founding of our railway system, which wholly depended upon private, not public funding, that those ‘wealthy’ individuals who either owned the land a railway crossed, or were able and willing to invest their money in such schemes, were very much anticipated by the railway companies to be their major passenger users. Brunel and the GWR were not alone in designing from the start, the architectural and functional infrastructure and the initial train services for those persons. A classic example of this is the frontal entrance to the original Bristol Temple Meads Station that has long stood next to one of the busiest trafficked roads in Bristol. Brunel arranged that persons arriving in their own carriages, had their own entrance; no rubbing along with their inferiors was their expectation from their social rank!
Turn now to the ‘liquid refreshments’ and the overall ambience surrounding the evolved GWR provision throughout its Hotels Refreshment and Restaurant Car services, and we find that old standards lasted much longer than perhaps we expected? Our first photograph is c1904 and is one the GWR took to record the splendidly adorned interior of Newport Station Refreshments Room.
The second photograph illustrates a small part of our very popular display of GWR Hotels and Catering materials in our Great Western Trust Museum, is one small example to prove this point.
The silvered drinks tray itself, adorned with the GWR Company cypher begins the image being demonstrated. Upon it are various glasses, their shapes wholly familiar to passengers of a certain position, who expected their content to match the wine, spirit, cocktail or ‘tipple’ of their choice. Each glass, naturally marked with the GWR cypher, and even those emblems indicate their relative ages. The earliest could include a garter motif, then the dual London & Bristol shield and in the 1930s the (GWR) roundel. Not to be outshone however, GWR Marine Department steam ships, also had dining and bar facilities, and there, the motif was distinctively different, probably to avoid them being used by the Hotels Department!
Oh, and we are aware that some of our visitors question why one glass is horizontal. Its not because of excessive intoxication but that it’s the only way of showing its GWR motif and Restaurant Department “ownership” it being etched on its base ie ‘GWR R.D’
We should add in passing that what is presented here is a tiny and wonderful example of the success of the longstanding inherent value of highly regarded ‘Company Image’, as all those glasses, being by design, very physically fragile, have however survived to adorn our display! Virtually all of them have done so because ‘someone’ kept them safe as a memento perhaps but for whatever reason, that they have a GWR provenance, is surely a dominant factor. The Trust collection has many such improbable survivors, with fascinating stories as to their journey to us!
We must of course also mention the Tariffs and drink products that the GWR provided. Illustrated is the beautifully crafted is the February 1915, GWR Hotels, Refreshment and Restaurant Cars Department Wine List, adorned with the then GWR ‘Garter design’ cypher.
One might immediately note its date, some months into the ‘Great War’ which sadly at that time however, was still expected to be a short run crisis, although initial hubris that it would done by Christmas 1914 had proven ill judged!
Anyway, the GWR itself, whilst having to work under HMG Control, adding vast extra trains both for military troop movements and as years carried on, even greater warlike munitions etc, still had to cater for passenger demands, including refreshments of all kinds such as spirits and beer.
Within that ‘Wine List’ just the one page alone illustrated offers Californian Wines, Sparkling Muscatel, Saumur, Champagne including GWR Special Cuvee and of course, where needed their Years of Vintage! Given the Great War now impacting all of Europe, it is striking that they still offer elsewhere varieties of German Hocks and Moselle! Elsewhere under Spirits we find that rare a much sought after Scotch whisky ‘Fine old GWR Special’ at 6 old pennies a glass! This ‘special’ creation was so regarded that whilst ‘officially’ withdrawn from sale in 1949/50, rumours abound that it was still being offered much later in the nationalised BR Western Region era, for ‘those who knew’!
Our many visitors who enjoy the larger display in this cabinet, are constantly remarking upon the apparently low prices of drinks and meals illustrated. So, we have provided a relative comparative price ‘then to today’ caption to accompany this display. A mere 6 old penny glass of whisky in 1915, would be about £2.50p in decimal currency today. Not bad but hardly cheap?
Of course Railway owned Hotels and Refreshment Rooms are history today. On train catering is a shadow of even BRWR days, more like airline style from trollies, using plastic cups etc. All immediately ‘discarded as not worthy of keeping as a credible memento’. What will Museums display of our current age of Railway centred catering?
So we end this Blog in a rather sad reflection that our Museum display celebrates an age long past, where standards were high and materials were not so ‘expendable’ but that for that very reason of ‘their admired value’ we have these exhibits at all.
Clearly social attitudes have evolved since the GWR first called upon wealthy private investors for £100 shares (initially totalling £2,500,000 in 1834-1835, each share in 2020 now priced about £13,000). Like its contemporary Railway Companies, the GWR focussed their service provision upon that wealthy social class. Rather than judging that era by our standards we need to acknowledge that we without them, we simply would not have our railway infrastructure, the items in this display, or even Didcot Railway Centre to enjoy, admire and learn from our shared inheritance.
In 2000 the Great Western Trust had the opportunity to purchase a cast iron gate notice from the Swindon Marlborough and Andover Railway Co.
This company was the forerunner of the more widely known Midland and South Western Junction Railway which eventually provided a through service from north to south via Cheltenham and Andover. As, in its original form, the SM&AR only existed for three years (1881-84), surviving relics are very few and far between. The notice had been rescued from Swindon by the well known M&SWJR authority, David Hyde and it is thanks to him that we now possess such a rare item.
More recently, Society member Ray Price (sadly no longer with us) donated to us a large number of items which included a short section of original rail from the SM&AR, supplied by and cast with the name and date KRUPP 1881. In the mid Victorian period Messrs Krupp of Essen, in the Ruhr Valley, produced large quantities of high quality steel to British companies.
Traffic on the M&SWJR was much heavier than first anticipated and the original rail was relegated to lighter duties, hence its survival. This short section had latterly been used to support a notice board at Rushey Platt, near Swindon.
A collection of GWR, Joint and absorbed company uniform buttons was recently donated to the Trust and included was a superb overcoat button with script initials SM&AR. Only one other is known to exist. We also have a number of early documents and an invitation card relating to the opening of the line.
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many Britons spurning foreign travel and instead turning to the UK as their preferred holiday destination. This presents us with a good opportunity to look at one particular type of British holiday that gained popularity during the 1930s.
Camp Coaches first appeared on the Great Western Railway in 1934. They were converted from ex main line vehicles, many of which had spent over thirty years in passenger service, indeed some of the earliest conversions were from broad gauge coaches of the late 1880s. Nineteen Camp Coaches were available to hire in that first year at various specially chosen sites in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and North Wales. The scheme was a great success growing year by year and by 1939, the last summer before the outbreak of war, around 60 coaches were located at sites from Marazion in the west to Wargrave in the east.
Facilities were of ‘camping’ standards – oil heaters were used during cooler weather, fresh water and toilets were available in the station building and fresh supplies for new arrivals were provided by the station staff. Each coach contained a fully equipped kitchen with a sink and drainer, a dining area with table and chairs and between six and ten berths depending on the size of vehicle. All bedding was included in the rent which varied between £3 and £5 per week.
The Second World War brought abrupt changes to the scheme and although a few coaches remained in use during 1940 the majority were converted for mobile wartime accommodation.
An excellent first-hand account of a Camp Coach holiday appeared in the Summer 1968 edition of the Great Western Echo and is reproduced here in full.
Tenants of the GWR
By Eleanor Fox
Our GWR Camp Coach No 9988 was booked from August 21st - 28th, but in essence ‘that holiday feeling’ got under way the previous week when my mother received a reply to her preliminary letter from the Station Master of Tintern station, on the Wye Valley line, which ran from Chepstow to Monmouth.
Dated 16.8.1937, and written in a flowing hand with decided panache, came four pages of a GWR memorandum pad containing the following heart-warming effusion, still preserved with gratitude and affection by my family, who were somewhat taken aback, nevertheless, by such enthusiastic jauntiness, in those more formal days. “My dear Mrs Fox,” it began, chattily, (no stilted ‘Madam’ from our Station Master).
“I am hastening to answer your very interesting letter just received and to tell you how awfully happy I shall be in carrying out your wishes expressed therein. By the time your train reaches our little station – and incidentally I feel sure you and your party will enjoy the run in our stream-line train between Chepstow and here – I shall have the coach properly prepared after departure of previous tenants, kettle boiling, plenty of fresh (spring) water in readiness, an adequate supply of paraffin and methylated spirits, and in addition to the items mentioned in your letter I shall ask the dairyman to leave about ½ or a dozen eggs. And so hoping you will have suitable weather during your forthcoming visit lo be able to explore our beautiful and delightful valley and mentioning how particularly pleased staff and self will be in placing ourselves at your service during your tenancy with us, and finally wishing you a cosy and comfortable journey when travelling down next Saturday.
Allow me remain (sic)
I wish I could remember whether we found ‘about half’ an egg, or six, or a dozen awaiting us – but Mr Muldowney was as good as his word, welcoming us warmly, and supplying our all-female sextette with one not-hitherto mentioned but essential boon – the Key of the Ladies – the ‘Freedom of the Station’ indeed!
Our good Station Master was a comparatively young man, and could well be alive today. If he should chance to read this, I would like to thank him once again for his consideration and courtesy, in the true GWR tradition of service to the customer. Our rent was £3 10/- a head for an idyllic week of entirely fine weather, as wished on us by Mr Muldowney.
We settled in happily: the twin-bunked bedroom for the elders, and the four-bunked compartment for the younger generation. I can remember the unexpected height and also the narrowness of my top bunk, and seem to think that the palliasses were stuffed with straw and had a distinct camber, (or is this only what it felt like? If so, my apologies to the GWR!) The windows were the kind lowered by straps, and, although meticulously tidy in other ways, we merrily emptied the dregs from our cups out of the nearest one until someone hurled theirs ‘through’ a closed one and splattered the assembled company liberally with tea-leaves. My mother, always one for home laundering, hung her ‘smalls’ on a string between the buffers, and found them full of woodlice next morning.
The GWR stream-lined rail-car, with cheerful two-note greeting, ran up and down the valley three or four times a day, and took us north to St Briavel’s Halt (formerly Bigsweir, I see, from Ian Allan's reprint of the 1902 timetable) where the pocket-sized castle awaited exploration up the hill. In those days a very large, very old walnut tree grew on the greensward inside Chepstow castle gate, but not a trace remains today.
The great loop made by the river Wye at Tintern gave us a long walk to the Abbey ruins on the other side of the hill, and as we had purposely chosen this particular week to include a full moon, they were a lovely sight in the quiet of evening, as well as more familiarly by day. In the huge, almost circular meadow enclosed by the river we had an uninterrupted view from the coach siding of a herd of shorthorns, including a fine white bull which from first sight we called Archibald. I am sure he was as good-tempered a beast as he always appeared, though none of us put this to the test.
On our last Saturday morning (before I began a journey from Tintern to Taunton, aided to my satisfaction by a through train from Chepstow to Temple Meads which ended its summer season that day, after transporting me!) Archibald moved up as near to the coach embankment as he could get, and then lay down and rolled in the grass, with what seemed pure joie de vivre, kicking his legs in a kittenish abandon quite unbecoming to his dignity, with his creamy dewlap flapping.
As the rest of our party had left earlier for London I have no corroboration of this memory, and possibly, since such behaviour in cattle is most unusual, there may have been some sinister veterinary undertones here, but I prefer to remember this incident as a friendly farewell entirely in keeping with the spirit of our wonderful week in that ‘beautiful and delightful valley’ as tenants of the GWR.
It is well known that over many years, the British, at all levels of society, became a nation of Tea drinkers. One of the largest UK manufacturers of processed tea, was J Lyons & Co based upon their self proclaimed ‘Model Factories’ at Greenford Middlesex.
With such a factory location close by the GWR Main Line into Paddington and Tea needing Nation wide transport distribution, the GWR established a very strong commercial relationship with J Lyons. Whilst the GWR had generally carried such a product in its covered goods vans, in 1938 they seized an opportunity to convert a number of their redundant MICA Refrigerated Meat Vans to carry Tea and Chocolate and those wagons were coded ‘TEVAN’.
We should quickly explain that to efficiently exploit the GWR’s comprehensive inter-station and HQ telegraph communication system, by which passenger coaches and goods wagons were requisitioned by authorised staff for special trains and to meet urgent new or revised traffic loads, a Telegraph Code system was used. By this every vehicle designed or approved for particular traffics were given unique, short form, code names. The messages could then be very short but sufficiently clear to the receiving agent. MICA and TEVAN are two such unique code identifiers. A future blog may address the vast range of such names adopted, many rather strange to our eyes today!
The GWR official photo illustrated of TEVAN No 105804 complete with its ‘Empty to Greenford’ painted notice and the enamel sign ‘Return to GWR Not Common User’ was taken in September 1938 to record the conversion described above. As was standard practice in such Official Photographs, the photographer when printing the image, has ‘blanked out’ the background, but the track looks decidedly well used, so we can presume it was taken somewhere at Swindon Carriage & Wagon Works. The ‘Not Common User’ enamel sign, reflects that for some years before, all the Big 4 Railway Companies had agreed to better utilise their wagon stock by branding some ‘Common User’ by which whatever the Company, wagons could be widely used. The TEVAN being ‘Not Common User’ however, indicates, as does the ‘Empty to Greenford’ that this GWR wagon was to be kept and used solely for J Lyons Tea merchandise on the GWR itself.
It is heartening that although of a limited number produced, the Great Western Society collection at Didcot includes GWR TEVAN No 79933, but it is waiting its turn for restoration at present.
Having mentioned the strong commercial relationship between J Lyons and the GWR, a very surprising discovery has shown quite how far that warm bond extended. The two further illustrations show the cover and contents of the ‘J Lyons’ Tea Race Game’ which although clearly much used and not in perfect condition, is based upon the J Lyon’s Greenford Factory, with the train comprising a GWR Locomotive with Lyons Tea emblazoned wagons! Quite how many of these Game Cards were issued, is unknown, but it is a fine example of how product advertising was achieved through clever use of toys and games. The GWR were of course celebrated for this very same method in its Jigsaws, Books and Chad Valley games!
Oh, in case you wonder who were the Chocolate manufacturers, also using GWR TEVANs, they were J S Fry & Sons of Keynsham & Somerdale. To demonstrate the similar strong commercial ties between the GWR and J Fry’s, we illustrate the glorious GWR poster of their excursions to visit the ‘World’s Wonder Cocoa and Chocolate Factory’ held in the Great Western Trust Collection.
So, imagine if you will a late 1930s family, excitedly playing the Tea Race Game on the dining room table, whilst the parents at least, enjoyed a refreshing cup of J Lyons tea!