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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 GWR Office 1838-1947

In this new Covid enforced era of ‘Home Working’, only made possible through our almost universal possession, use and dependence upon PCs, IPads, Smart phones etc, the representative scene in the Great Western Trust Museum, illustrated, is to the young visitors at least, quite a shock! Did people REALLY work in these conditions?

GWR Office

GWR Office

Well, frankly yes, and in fact, much worse ones the further back one goes into the very formative years of railways.

Whilst the GWR obtained its legal status and Parliamentary Sanction to create its railway in August 1835, we choose to start this ‘office working’ blog, from 1838, when the first section of the line was opened between Paddington (but then, not the famous Brunel station we all admire) to Maidenhead (but not really there as it was Taplow or ‘Dumb Bell Bridge Station’ abutting the Great West Road, as the celebrated Maidenhead Bridge hadn’t been finished). Why so? Well, from that moment onwards, the GWR had to have the staff and the facilities and the ‘system’ to administer both passenger and goods traffic they would (and by its Act, HAD to carry, whatever offered as a ‘Common Carrier’). In short, they needed in our terms, administrators, and they need offices, or somewhere under cover at least.

At such formative times, two requirements were vital, honest, reliable senior station staff and ones who were literate (could read and write). It may come as a shock, but the most senior staff, then called Agents, but were to become Station Masters, were only employed if the GWR accepted substantial written character and ‘financial standing’ recommendations from persons the GWR Directors held to be equally credible. Moreover, that ‘financial standing’ aspect was no mere tick box item, but rather it came with a condition of employment that any unjustified error in Station Accounting (each day that is) that lead to a shortfall, had to be paid to the GWR by that officer!

So let’s now consider Station staff administrative working conditions.

GWR Office Pen Nib Box

In the Station’s Goods shed, if it had one of course, the ‘Checker’ of goods offered for transport, or which had been delivered by train and was being collected by the named recipient, had a raft of forms and varied types of payment schemes to apply. He, yes it was always a he, until maybe WW2, might well have as his stationery implements, a GWR pencil, eraser, a hand-lamp and a wooden lectern of sorts to write upon. The photos illustrate that even the company pencils were branded, so to discourage theft, but in later years the GWR also provided rather decorative boxes of pen nibs and glass ink wells. All such items of course branded ‘GWR’, yes even the pen nibs! One other innovation was that as the pencils wore down in length, the Company supplied tubular metal slides (branded GWR of course) to clamp onto the short pencil, to make it useable to its maximum effect.


GWR Eraser and Pencil

Oh, those ink wells. Yes naturally, the desk stand illustrated (for a senior officer only) has two ‘GWR’ ones, but sharp eyed folk will notice one ‘Go Great Western’. These were used both by the GWR staff but mainly as ‘influencer gifts’ to important goods company senior staff! What a clever idea!!

GWR Inkwells

Mentioning pencils, pen nibs and ink wells, we should show that eventually even the GWR recognised some ‘technical progress’ by having typewriters. For those at last, the GWR employed female staff who were first required to pass a ‘short-hand’ note taking examination. Remember those anyone? This new-fangled item needed typewriter ribbons and so we have the illustrated tin of them, of course proudly emblazoned ‘Great Western Railway’.

GWR Typewriter Ribbon

Finally but certainly not least, we illustrate what is probably the most humble, vital and universal stationery tool ALL office staff had at their desks, the ‘paper spike’!! Yes, the GWR branded one saw intense use in its life, and we also hold a Bristol & Exeter Railway example, circa 1850s. These spikes were the ‘filing tray’ of their day, and their impact is found upon the vast majority of the Trust’s collection of GWR goods office documents, the classic ‘hole’ produced as numerous sheets were thrust upon the spike as the harassed office staff tried to cope with the piles of papers each day.

GWR Paper Spike

Are we exaggerating? Well, a GWR Instruction sheet from its Accountant’s Office at Wolverhampton, dated July 1862 covering ‘Preparation of Goods & Cattle Accounts’ detailed no less than 31 forms, and numerous official books to be used, and a raft of submissions to be sent by the First Train on the 8th day after the close of the month previous! All that, in the cold and draft in a Goods Shed!

So when tapping away at your pc, perhaps even using Excel spreadsheets, pause a moment to thank our distant forebears for surviving in such low tech circumstances, and yet, doing sufficient to make the GWR earn a substantial living for its shareholders, and of course to make the transport revolution that stimulated industrial growth and consumerism that has been our inheritance, for good and bad.


Railway Housing

Following the First World War, the Great Western Railway sought to address the acute shortage of houses and the difficulties experienced by railwaymen. In 1923 the Company received many representations urging that steps be taken to meet housing needs. This led to the establishment of Public Utility Housing Societies and no time was lost in forming such Societies in London, Plymouth, Truro, Penzance, Severn Tunnel Junction, Caerphilly and Swansea.

Share Certificate from 1945

By far the largest of these schemes were the two estates developed by the Great Western (London) Garden Village Society which, by 1938, comprised 491 houses at Acton and 568 at Hayes. The financial structure was that 90 per cent of the capital was advanced by the GWR on fifty year mortgages at a favourable rate of interest. The remaining ten per cent was funded by the tenants who were required to be shareholders in the Association which was governed by a Committee of Management of twelve members of the Association, most of whom were themselves, tenants.

Thanks to the efforts of the late Ted Jones and his son Alan (a long time Great Western Society member), the Great Western Trust is fortunate in holding extensive records of the GWR’s housing schemes and illustrations here are from the collection.


Examples of the semi-detached housing and green spaces

The houses were of various designs, largely semi-detached and with a density of less than twelve to the acre. The plans and specifications were produced by the Welsh Housing Trust Architect, Mr T. Alwyn Lloyd, F.R.I.B.A and the houses were built to a high standard of layout, design and construction. They all had three bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, larder, bathroom, w.c. and coalhouse. They were fitted with enamelled baths, points for electric or gas wash-boilers, glazed sinks, draining boards and combination ranges. All ‘mod cons’ were provided and the houses really were very well equipped for their day.  Great attention was given to the provision of trees and shrubs and to open spaces, shrubberies and greenswards. Many railwaymen were keen gardeners and friendly rivalry developed in the cultivation of allotments and gardens. The Society was large enough to undertake maintenance of its properties, carried out by a small but experienced number of craftsmen.

The weekly rents were genuinely ‘affordable’, 11s 3d (51p) in 1925 and remained remarkably stable. Forty years later that sum had risen to only 19s 3d (96p).

Front cover of booklet detailing the housing estates at Acton and Hayes

The two London schemes were a great success and provided GWR employees with an excellent standard of housing. Your scribe can do no better than to quote from the 1923 booklet produced just before the Society was established:

‘We cannot all build houses for ourselves, and even if we could, we cannot always assure that the surroundings will be in harmony. What one man cannot do for himself all can do for each other – by co-operation. The fundamental object of the Society is to provide houses at reasonable rents for those in need and to accomplish this by co-operative effort. It is a scheme of mutual assistance by which every tenant-member gets practically all the advantages of being a landlord of the property as well as of being a tenant. Co-operation is the keynote of the future in social and industrial progress.......‘

Would that we now lived in such enlightened times.


The World War 2 Railway Staff’s HOME GUARD Volunteering

With the 11th November Remembrance Day imminent, we thought it timely to reflect upon the non-combative but vital contribution of the GWR’s HOME GUARD, which on the UK wide scale was part of the rather fondly called ‘Dad’s Army.’

The GWR were not alone amongst all the Railway and Transport organisations, then of course under direct Governmental direction, in realising that their civilian staff, some with WW1 military experience, would have a beneficial role to play, within the UK itself. One such role was that of ‘Roof Spotters’ for protecting GWR buildings prior to or even during Air Raids. What a stressful job to undertake after a long day at the office? We know by personal anecdotes that Shed Staff at Didcot, a crucial yard and junction with the massive arms munitions depot at Milton very close by, had such volunteer ‘Spotters’ manning an Anti-Aircraft gun atop the tallest local building, the now sadly long demolished Horse Provender Store.

The GWR Staff Magazine devoted a great deal of its space in each monthly edition to both the HOME GUARD activities and sadly the casualties of its staff who had otherwise joined up and were on Military Duties.

The very simple certificate of authority illustrated, is one example of many items from both World Wars now gathered in the Great Western Trust Collection.

(GWR W Griffiths HOME GUARD Mustering Certificate)

It simply confirms to anyone who may otherwise challenge him that William Griffiths of GWR Paddington Goods Department is enrolled in A Company, 10th Battalion Buckinghamshire of the HOME GUARD and will in an emergency be still required to continue his GWR duties until he can be released! This was not however a snub to the military, but the reflection that the railways themselves were vital to the success of the War effort and at times, its needs were paramount. Its tell-tale folds show Griffiths kept it in a uniform pocket for immediate ready access! A very rare and remarkable surviving relic of WW2.

Perhaps the most telling information on the certificate is in its ‘small print’ on the lower left hand side, which is its GWR Stationery Office printing reference ‘8,000-6.42 (2) - P.O.’ That shows that it was just one of 8,000 printed in June 1942, so the GWR alone, had up to 8,000 of its staff volunteered in the HOME GUARD!

Reflecting the respect and team spirit of such volunteer Platoons, the Great Western Trust most recently acquired the illustrated EPNS engraved tankard presented to LIEUTANT W.N.GRIFFITHS from the NCO's & Men of No4 Platoon G.W.R. HOME GUARD. Just because coincidentally this is also for a W Griffiths, we cannot confirm he is one and the same as on the illustrated Certificate as of course there were rather a lot of men with that surname throughout the GWR!

(Home Guard presentation tankard)

We also illustrate a GWR issued ‘HOME GUARD’ khaki armband or “Brassard”, the latter was the name given for such an armband having brass studs and fixings. Another wonderful survivor which was bequeathed by the son of a senior GWR officer in the Exeter Division.

(GWR Home Guard armband or Brassard)

Although not necessarily a Wartime issued item, we finally illustrate an example of the standard steel helmet the GWR staff had. This one was rescued by a GWS member from a skip at Reading Signal Works! Identical helmets were used for ‘RS’ Roof Spotters and we have one marked ‘DS’ presumed Damage Squad? None would have offered much protection from blanket bombing, so we should pause to reflect upon their undoubted bravery. 

(GWR Steel Fire helmet)

We should now indeed salute their memory!


Children’s Education through Railway Publications

In a previous blog we have mentioned how the Great Western Railway produced children’s books and games that provided their image but gave varying degrees of educational content.

The Great Western Trust Collection Policy, specifically embraces the wider examples of that children related education initiatives by both the GWR, its contemporaries and its successors, because it is an important aspect of official railway produced literature and undoubtedly it had a direct beneficial impact in this field, and has had, to date, scant academic study and appreciation of this.

Today’s blog gives just one example but through a now hardly remembered publication, namely “The Children’s Newspaper” edited by Arthur Mee and published every Thursday price two old pennies (12 to a shilling with 20 shillings making a pound!).

The illustrations are extracts of a very special initiative in March 28th 1936 in the form of a booklet devoted to 40 examples of Poster Stamps depicting the pictorial posters of the “Big Four” railway companies including of course the GWR. The booklet was issued with that edition of the newspaper, together with the first four examples, and subsequent editions would include the remainder. They were only available from that Newspaper!

What is all the more striking however, is that the illustrated introductory page “Round Britain’s Sea Girt Coast” extols the wonders of the Britain’s coastal glories, demonstrated by those seaside focussed posters, and also illustrated is the 100,000 miles of free travel competition for children under the age of 15! This related to children submitting on an outline map of the UK (included in the centre fold) the town locations of each of the posters in the posters. So, children were drawn into education by a very clever and subtle “competition” with a very attractive reward if their submission was a successful winner!

Sadly we do not know how the competition concluded, nor how many children benefited from the free travel offered.

To extend the story one further step, the Trust possesses a Joint GWR & SR poster which illustrated colour coded railway & connecting bus routes, which was used by a Public School for pupils to know their personal travel routes home! We also know that a schoolmaster obtained from his local GWR stationmaster any unused posters as they were much enjoyed by his pupils and had similar educational use in his geography classes!     

Our future blogs will occasionally return to this much under-recorded children’s education theme.



Westwood Box

The Great Western Trust is fortunate to own a number of original oil paintings and arguably the finest of these is shown here.

Painted by Malcolm Root GRA it was commissioned by the late and renowned railway photographer Peter Gray whose thousands of images now form part of the Trust’s collection. The painting is based on one of Peter’s favourite photographs.

The date is Saturday 2nd August 1958, a stormy day with a westerly gale blowing. One mile west of Doublebois Station between St. Pinnock and Largin viaducts on the Cornish main line, the 9.20 am Saturdays-only from St.Ives to Paddington is almost two hours into its journey. After leaving St Erth, the junction for the St Ives branch, the train is only advertised to call at Truro and Plymouth (North Road) on its journey to London. Nearing the summit of a six-mile climb from Bodmin Road and on a gradient of 1 in 159 which soon stiffens to 1 in 90 the twelve coach train carrying a senior guard and travelling ticket inspector, weighs close to 500 tons. Heavy Summer Saturday trains in the 1950s, normally between twelve and fifteen coaches in length, always need two engines in order to maintain the schedule. The firemen on locos No.1021 County of Montgomery and No. 6808 Beenham Grange will be working flat out in order to keep time on the undulating main line with barely a level section between Penzance and Plymouth. No. 1021 is allocated to Plymouth (Laira) shed  and No. 6808 to Penzance so both engines will been seen here on an almost daily basis. Two fresh engines will take over the train at Plymouth, one of which will be detached at Newton Abbot. The train then runs non stop to London but it will be close to 5 pm before the 600 or so holidaymakers arrive back at Paddington ‘all sunburnt and skint’.

Of equal interest, on the right of the painting, is Westwood Box, a typical Cornwall Railway signal box. Constructed of local stone with a slate roof, it was built around 1874 when Westwood quarry was opened to supply ballast for the railway. It was square in design and had windows on three sides to give the signalman maximum visibility. The quarry also supplied stone for the rebuilding of Brunel’s original timber viaducts, enabling the single broad gauge line to be replaced by double ‘narrow’ gauge tracks when the broad gauge was abolished in May 1892. Westwood Box closed soon after this event and was sadly demolished in the early 1960s.



‘The Noxious Weed’

Sir John Hawkins is credited with introducing tobacco into this country in 1565 and two other sea-dogs of Devon were responsible for popularising its use twenty years later. It is somewhat surprising then to learn that until 1868, smoking in a railway train or on a railway station was a criminal offence.

In the early 1850s Isambard Kingdom Brunel was travelling on the Taff Vale Railway with some senior officers of that company. He had just settled into the compartment with a big Lopez cigar when, for the second time that day, the guard, a man named Meyrick, suitably chastised the great engineer. “I had been,” said Brunel, “up to Dowlais and was quietly smoking a cigar on the platform waiting for the train back to Cardiff when Meyrick very respectfully came and reminded me that smoking was strictly prohibited on the platform. I strolled out into the Goods Yard, as there was some little time to wait before the train started, and on my return I requested Meyrick to reserve a compartment for me, which he did. When well out of the station, and as I was comfortably enjoying a smoke, to my surprise there was a tapping on the window, and Meyrick’s face appeared. In the most sorrowful tones he said, ‘There you are, at it again, Mr Brunel, a-breaking the rules.’ ”

When Viscount Ranelagh was fined for smoking in a train at Faringdon Street Station in 1867 the first step to end the ban was taken. The noble lord was fined twenty shillings plus costs. When, the following year a Bill for the Regulation of Railways was before parliament, Mr H Sheridan, MP for Dudley and a descendant of the famous dramatist, introduced an amendment to compel railway companies to provide smoking accommodation on every passenger train. Thus was the tobacco-loving passenger allowed to smoke his pipe in peace provided he travelled in a compartment specifically labelled for its use. Since 2007 we have come full circle but it is difficult to appreciate how much smoking was very much regarded as the norm in the early part of the 20th century.

In 1908 the GWR introduced its own brand of Virginia cigarettes. Made for them by Lambert and Butler, they were sold at Paddington Station, in restaurant cars and in the Company’s hotels.

However, this venture only lasted until hostilities commenced in 1914, correspondingly, packets of this brand are exceedingly rare and only three or four are thought to have survived. The Trust is fortunate in having two of these, part of the R K Bird collection.

We also have ‘vesta’ tins in which non-safety matches were sold. These small tins, which carry advertising, are also very rare and have a striking ridge on the base.

After the First World War these tins were superseded by the book match, by now of the safety variety, all made by Bryant & May. Examples of these are shown here, again all bearing some form of advertising.


Ashtrays were, of course, also provided. China and glass were used in the Company’s hotels and refreshment rooms and metal versions in restaurant cars. The ‘modern’ Bakelite item shown here came from Royal Saloon No.9002.


Smoking is now almost universally condemned but the Trust is fortunate is having such a wealth of artefacts which allows it to portray history rather than judge it.



Moving Home

We doubt that anyone today would ever think of contacting the existing railway franchises to ask for them to quote for, let alone provide a household content removals and delivery service!

However, as legally empowered by Parliament ‘Common Carriers’, the individual railway companies had the ability to cover a vast range of goods, from pen nibs to massive generators for power stations, and so they had railway wagons of necessary scale to cope. Crucially, unlike the much more focussed (some would argue far too limited) service of today, only providing rail borne transport, they also had a massive road transport capability.

So the strikingly attractive brochure illustrated demonstrates the remarkable extent to which the railway companies sought family household removal custom, and endeavoured to answer all the obvious questions a family would raise about such a service. The pictures and story board sketches are a delight!

Two further points should be added. This brochure was issued by all the four private railway companies who in the years between the World Wars, realised aggressive inter railway company competition was self-harming when the greatest threat to their trade came from the burgeoning road transport industry. It should also be explained that perhaps even more remarkable to us today, was that the railway companies even moved entire farms, livestock, equipment and house contents too! But that is another story.

This brochure is but one from the many hundreds in the Great Western Trust collection at Didcot Railway Centre.


Possibly the ‘largest’ exhibit in the Trust collection is the series of nineteen cast iron letters that spell GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY. They were recovered in the late 1960s from the station building at Acton, 4 miles from Paddington on the GWR main line. Due to a stroke of good fortune, a British Railways employee happened to be on hand when demolition contractors were removing them prior to demolishing the entire building. He kept them in his garage until the 1980s when they were generously offered to us and we accepted them with alacrity. Careful removal of many layers of paint revealed the original colour in which they are now displayed.

The letters are 15½” high and were used on a number of stations in the London Division but we believe that these are the only examples to have survived. They were cast in a very ornate style by Walter McFarlane’s Saracen foundry in Possil, on the north side of Glasgow. McFarlane’s were manufacturers of a vast array of ornamental and structural ironwork. Their products can still be found all over the world and ranged from lamp standards, bandstands, water fountains, gates, balustrades, verandahs, bridges and even gents urinals. If you can think of an item of architectural ironwork, they probably made it.

McFarlane’s independent existence ended in 1965 and the foundry closed in 1967. Heritage Engineering based in Glasgow still restore and manufacture many original designs of the Saracen Foundry and examples of MacFarlane’s original catalogues are available on various websites.




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