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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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The Bug House.

Nearly two years into a global pandemic seems an opportune time to record that in December 1930, work was well underway on the GWR's new carriage and vehicle disinfecting plant.

Infectious Carriage Plant

Built at Swindon Works next to 24 Shop, this was a brick building containing an 85 ft long, 16ft 6in diameter airtight cylinder into which the vehicle was pushed and the airtight door closed and sealed. The massive airtight door and sealing ring were machined in the millwrights' G Shop at Swindon. Once sealed, the plant could create a vacuum of 28 inches with steam pipes raising the temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This was thought to kill all vermin, weevils, cockroaches etc after six hours. If a coach was thought to have come into contact with an infectious disease, formaldehyde gas was pumped into the cylinder when the vacuum had been destroyed.

The circular heating pipes create a surreal visual effect inside the disinfecting plant.

The plant was known as the ‘bug house’ to Swindon's workers. The inspiration was believed to have been a German carriage disinfecting plant built before the Great War used to disinfect carriages which had been into Russian territory. Station instructions required that coaches to be disinfected had to be placed in an isolated part of a yard or sidings.

The disinfecting plant with the airtight door closed, allowing a vacuum to be created inside the building.

Windows had to be closed and paper had to be pasted over keyholes and other apertures. The coach would either be dealt with on the spot by a competent person or be sent to Swindon with a label stating whether it was ‘verminous’ or ‘contagious’ to go through the new plant. In extreme cases compartments were stripped and the trimmings were burned.

Coach 3801 being propelled into the disinfecting plant on 4 February 1933.

Information in this Tuesday Treasure is from the Great Western Railway Magazine of which the Great Western Trust has a complete set from 1888 to 1947.


Office Modernisation on the GWR!

Our illustrated image of a very striking advert is taken from the Great Western Railway's Staff Magazine for March 1913. We have chosen it to develop the video Blog given by Thomas Macey as the Tuesday Treasure last week where he engaged in a dialogue with our GWR manikin in our GWR Office Scene in the Great Western Trust's Museum & Archive Building.

Thomas was very particular in pointing out the very basic stationery utensils in that scene, and it is recorded that throughout the GWR system up to the First World War and perhaps even beyond, the vast majority of correspondence was conducted in longhand, using only ink or pencil, and that reference copies of important papers were achieved using mechanical presses on specially designed, damped tissue sheets!

Well, eventually, as this advert testifies, even the GWR had to mechanise, and this bold advert shows one way it did so through the mechanical typewriter! Fancy using one of these today?

It must be said however, that even this device was largely reserved for use by senior officers’ secretaries and later in the ‘typing pool’, where both locations were always staffed by females and a secretary would only be employed having demonstrated high performance in taking short-hand notes as officers were expected to create correspondence by verbal dictation. That alone demanded a quick and confident expression of the subject matter in question.

(Staff evacuated from the Paddington Offices to Newbury Racecourse Station on 18 Oct 1939)

Alas our wonderful archive has yet to acquire a genuine GWR typewriter, but our nearest companion item is a modest GWR branded Typist's Desk saved from obscurity by a keen eyed former Trustee when driving past an office furniture reclamation outlet!

In closing, we should add that the fact of the GWR purchasing such equipment was a reflection by all kinds of manufacturers of those days that it was proof in itself of the high quality and reliability of those products. This particular edition of the Staff Magazine includes many other adverts for a very diverse range of products from lamps to signal equipment, fencing, ticket printing machines and even paints and varnishes.


Our First Vlog (Video Blog)!

Our Tuesday Treasures blog this week is a little more than our standard fare, we have chosen to upload a Video Blog courtesy of the Great Western Trust and told beautifully by our resident Visitor Services Supervisor and archive enthusiast, Thomas Macey.

Here we shall see a GWR Office scene with Mr Macey explaining the various aspects of our display including the process of becoming a Senior Inspector with the GWR and what belongs on a official 1930s GWR desk.


Enticing the Americans

It all began with Brunel of course, who is recorded as asking at a meeting of the committee proposing what would become the Great Western Railway, why it should stop at Bristol? He had the vision and confidence to advocate that the next step would be a ship from Bristol to New York, and of course the return journey could draw visitors from America to England!

Turn the clock a long way forward and here illustrated from the Great Western Trust archive are the splendid front and rear cover designs of the ‘ENGLAND – and why’ brochure. Published in the USA by the Great Western & Southern Railways of England in 1932.


The Great Western had long before this, fully realised the massive potential market for American ‘Tourists’ even to the extent of advertising their Shakespeare's Route from Liverpool, via Birkenhead! They established their own Agent and Office in New York which came in very handy indeed when they gained massive publicity by Sir Felix Pole's clever scheme to be the only United Kingdom representative at the Baltimore & Ohio Centenary Celebrations in 1927 when sending there, the brand new, most powerful express locomotive in England, No 6000 King George V.

The Atlantic Coast Express was published in the August 1928 edition of RM, from a painting by F Moore. The locomotive is No 775 Sir Agravaine

Returning to the illustrated brochure, which had no less than 32 pages of sepia images of key locations with descriptive commentary, the most interesting detail is on the illustrated rear cover. Here we find that in 1932 our American Tourists could indulge in ‘Land Cruises’ of 5 varieties all designed by the GWR who included their very own courier. Extending over 6 or 13 days, the tiny print advises that the Pound to Dollar exchange rate was then, a startling 4.88 Dollars to the Pound!! Behind that extraordinary value of the Pound lies the abject financial and unemployment grief arising from Winston Churchill's decision as the post WW1 Chancellor that the UK should return to the ‘Gold Standard&rsdquo; as the monetary comparator, but at the pre WW1 rate. This made our exports far too expensive, industry crashed, and of course this was compounded by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which caused massive UK unemployment and the ‘Depression’. So why did the GWR & SR still expect to gain USA tourists when even America was in a dire employment position? Well, as we know in our own times, even in dire financial times, there are many who remain wealthy, or maybe become even more so!

The Golden Arrow photograph was published in the August 1929 edition of RM. The locomotive is No 855 Robert Blake

As if this simple brochure cannot give us any more contemporary insights, the fact that it was jointly produced by the GWR & SR is very noteworthy. Until the dreadful crash of a Boat Train on the LSWR at Salisbury, which was an express train reflecting the extreme competition that had long existed between these two companies, a truce was agreed. Indeed much to the surprise of the GWR staff, a strong internal circular notice was issued to them all, extolling the new “warm and mutually supportive relationship” with the then LSWR that the GWR Directors had decided upon, and which all GWR staff must do their utmost to fulfil. Many years later, the GWR & SR worked very closely together and their most remarkable joint company venture was that of the GW&SR Air Services to which our Blog will return in future!

The Southern Belle photograph was published in the December 1929 edition of RM. The train had celebrated its 21st anniversary on 1 November 1929. The locomotive is No E799 Sir Ironside


Accidents Can Happen!

Perhaps this Blog isn't a naturally easy fit into a ‘Tuesday Treasure’ format, but photographic and documentary records of railway accidents are an important indicator of the realities of running a complex transport system coupled to human and mechanical fallibility.

The Great Western Trust has a remarkable documentary archive of GWR accident reports and whilst many are perhaps on a minor scale of individual injury, too many are both grim and affecting both many individuals and equipment and structural damage.

The GWR strove to instil in its ‘servants’ or later renamed ‘staff’ an ‘Is it Safe’ mind-set, much championed by Sir Felix Pole when both its staff magazine Editor and later when he rose to be its General Manager. We will return to that initiative in a future Blog.

Our purpose today is for once to illustrate an ‘Accident’ which in our present era has been re-branded as the all too familiar ‘Incident’, and to hope that our viewers may be able to offer a date and best of all, a location. Our 3 images sadly lack any such information!


What is pretty clear however, is that the nearest GWR accident recovery team will have faced quite a challenge! This auto coach No 91 was a valuable item of GWR rolling stock, and its successful recovery, repair and re-use in service would have been a basic objective. No pressure then?

Remarkably, despite the severe angle of the vehicle, the photo shows that none of its windows were shattered or lost, although the front bogie had other ideas! Recovery up such a steep embankment, whilst lacking that front bogie, makes the recovery an event surely keenly observed by local folk at least?

We look forward to your suggestions!

John Lewis in Great Western Railway Auto Trailers records that 91 was built in September 1912. He adds: “No 91 was in the Birmingham district in September 1937. It was also seen in the Banbury area during the late 1940s, and in due course was given BR maroon livery (1951-style). It had been fitted with sandboxes.” No date is given for the vehicle's withdrawal.

*These photographs show No 91 in GWR livery with post second world war style of lettering.


Holidays by Train – Part 4

We covered in our previous Blogs on this GWR theme, the Company's adoption of ‘The Holiday Line’ slogan, as a direct consequence of their West Country services to its numerous coastal locations.

Summer and even Spring Holidays were naturally well published and exploited but never ones to miss out on stretching opportunities for enticing continued holiday traffic, we illustrate from our Great Western Trust Collection, the cover and centre pages of a physically very small pamphlet for an Autumnal holiday during the West's ‘Indian Summer’.

For those unfamiliar with such a phrase, it is a reflection of the days of the British Empire which once included India (Queen Victoria becoming Empress of India when Disraeli was her Prime Minister). For those British nationals employed there in the Military or its vast Civil Service, they experienced the warm, glowing nature of the extended summer months in India, beyond the cripplingly hot peak of its high summer. If back in England, our summer also occasionally seemed to extend into our autumn, it became known as a year of an ‘Indian Summer’.

That extended summer period was to be most frequent in the ‘West of England’ and the pamphlet illustrated, dated September 1928, and its twin issued in September 1921, prove its extended relevance! Perhaps those interested in weather records will know how often it occurred? The Trust has similar examples of such pamphlets from the Edwardian era.

6018 King Henry VI climbing Dainton Bank with the 1.30 pm Paddington to Penzance

A constant target customer of most GWR holiday focused publications (rather like our Part 4 blog on GWR services to ease your holiday travel plans) were the ‘moneyed social classes’ who thought nothing out of place in the pamphlet covering the West's extended daylight hours for a game of golf! In future Blogs we will turn to the sporting associated publications the GWR produced, some examples of which were known to have been owned by their own, very senior GWR officers!


Bridge Testing – GWR Style

Railway enthusiasts, historians and in fact the general public, have largely taken for granted the beneficial impact of the invention and affordability of photography. Certainly the Great Western Trust Collection would be much the poorer without our extensive image library, and on so many occasions, the captured subject matter can be much more informative than when taken at first glance.

The railway companies themselves, very quickly appreciated the direct benefit of having their very own photographic establishments, which for the GWR and well into the BRWR era, was the preserve of their Chief Civil Engineer's Department at Paddington and the Chief Mechanical Engineer at Swindon.

In the early era, one has to admire the official photographer, sent hither and thither over the entire GWR system, to record specific matters, no matter what the weather or prevailing on site conditions. Add to that the immense weight and financial value of the tripod, plate image camera (12 x 10 inches!) and its necessary supporting materials, not least the heavy box for glass plates, used and ready for use. All up weight around 80 pounds. Then, his image was viewed upside down, and only when developed back in the proper facility was there any proof of success or failure!

That official person, would have travelled ‘free OCS’ ie ‘On Company Service’ and the Trustees have yet to discover whether any such official pass has been preserved. Yes, private individuals when approved by the authorities, are known to have been given such passes, but who were those Official Photographers we are in great debt to?

The image we illustrate ticks all of the boxes. Whilst unrecorded as an officially taken one, its postcard size, hints at it being an unofficial one, taken by a member of the GWR Civil Engineering Department to record a significant moment of achievement, of teamwork and one important instant in time.

It shows three GWR 2-6-2 tank engines, duly requested from the Chief Mechanical & Electrical Engineer’s Dept by the GWR Civil Engineer, to provide a static load deflection test on a major bridge reconstruction, almost certainly replacing an original brick arch with steel girders. This expensive investment would have only been sanctioned by the relevant finance committees if the expected traffic usage of the structure justified it. Perhaps those relatively new and more powerful tank engines were the very reason? Not to be outdone, those engines are in sparkling condition, after early morning treatment by their crew and shed cleaners no doubt!

The image is full of detail, not least the long vertical wooden gauge rising from the track to the steel over-girder, to prove the designed degree of deflection. All the men involved stand proudly for that moment of course, rather in the way their Victorian Era forebears always gathered when a photograph was to be taken, sadly on many occasions at a railway crash!

We are confidently informed that whilst the date is only estimated as circa 1910ish, the location is Felin Fran near Swansea. For those wishing more detail, the GWR London Lecture & Debating Society held a lecture on November 5th 1908 entitled ‘The Experiences of a Railway Photographer’ given by Harold Cooper.


The Joy of the Journey – GWR Style

In 1926 the very forward looking and publicity focused GWR General Manager, Sir Felix Pole, placed his name on the illustrated small pamphlet entitled ‘The Joy of the Journey’ which is one example of many such publicity items we hold in the Great Western Trust Collection.

Naturally, it has ‘social strata’ connotations, when studying the artist's image on the title page. Here we have a well to do, but very contemporary couple, the lady with her cloche hat, about to board the GWR's premier train ‘The Cornish Riviera Express’ no doubt at Paddington, with the Train Guard happily assisting them whilst holding in readiness his green flag, to give the ‘Right Away’ signal to the Engine Driver, its green helpfully matching the lady's dress colour!

This fold out pamphlet, then explains how each aspect of arranging and then travelling by GWR, can be effectively made a ‘joy’ by the GWR removing all those so tiring and vexing details! We illustrate a few sections of its contents and the phrasing used is not only of an age gone by, but underlines the particular social strata it is designed for.


A delightful item even if to our age and expectations it hints at a snobbishness that the general workaday public of that time, may also have found equally grating.

Of note is that having extolled its train arrangements in the bulk of its text, the final page just happens to list all the GWR's own publications, all on sale at most reasonable prices! The Great Western Trust archive holds all those publications, many of which were so genuinely popular, that they were reproduced in many issues up to the GWR's demise in 1947.

Future Blogs will return to these wonderful pamphlets and brochures and the artists who the GWR commissioned to creatively evoke the very special attributes of its self-styled banner ‘The Holiday Line’.



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