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.
TUESDAY 4 AUGUST
All aboard for the "Radio Cruise"
This week, we feature a number of handbills promoting ‘The Cambrian Radio Cruise’ which was a British Railways initiative of the late 1950s and which continued to run around around North Wales into the 1960s.
Billed as ‘The Finest and Most Unique Rail Tour in Britain’ the tour ran Mondays to Fridays from June to September. It was a dedicated train with “an individual armchair for each passenger, facilities for light meals and refreshments a descriptive commentary over a loudspeaker system of the passing scne” – hence the unusual “radio” tag in the train’s title.
Leaving Llandudno at 9.45am it travelled east to Rhyl and then south to Corwen (now the western terminus of the Llangollen Railway). From there the route was via Dolgelley and Barmouth Junction to Aberdovey where time was allowed to explore the town.
The return journey was made through Portmadoc and Caernarvon arriving back at Llandudno at 7.05pm. The fare was 20/- (£1) around £24 at current values, good value for more than 150 miles of scenic travel. Four counties were traversed, Caernarvon, Flint, Denbigh and Merioneth, all of which disappeared under the local government reorganisation in 1974.
Sadly much of the route was closed in the 1960s although the North Wales coastal route and the line from Barmouth Junction to Pwllheli remain open and are well worth travelling over.
TUESDAY 28 JULY
Keeping the Staff Involved Socially
With a very large number of staff (before 1918 they were called “Company Servants”) employed over their physically diverse system, the Great Western realised, very early in its existence, that as well as purely physical welfare, covered by their numerous welfare funds, social recreation for staff was of equal importance. The GWR Literary Society was founded in 1852, then others arrived such as the Theatrical Society, Amateur Dramatics, Gleemen Songsters, Scout Society and numerous others. Here we focus upon the Staff Association, which was the successor to the GWR Social & Educational Union.
This body was particularly relevant to us at Didcot, in that it held an annual Festival of Music at the Town Hall, Reading. Illustrated is the Syllabus & Entry Form (Price two old pence) for their March 20th – 25th Festival in 1939.
The simple paperwork belies how popular this event was, specifically for those participating in the fierce competition for prizes, but the fact that the event ran for 6 consecutive days, gives a flavour of its popularity with the staff and what a massive organisational undertaking it must have been.
Some 97 Individual competitions were run, ranging from One-Act plays, percussion Band, and even “Children’s Play, to Vocal Duets, Operatic Arias, Choirs of all kinds and standards and even Debating!
To ensure that the competitors were sensibly judged, the cast of Adjudicators included no less than Sir Walford Davies (Master of the King’s Music); Mr Dunhill & Mr Reed (Professors, Royal College of Music); Mr Wright (Courtesy of the BBC to judge Brass & Military Bands & Wind Instruments); and Mr Guy Pertwee (Elocution, Debating Drama & Public Speaking).
The 22 Rules of the Festival included the qualification level for certificates and medals etc.
Such annual organisation and conduct was one example of he very senior staff’s commitment to this event, and prizes were recorded in the GWR Staff Magazine, awarded on many occasions by the General Manager and his wife.
The Great Western Trust Museum & Archive building at Didcot Railway Centre currently includes a large display devoted to Staff Musical recreation, a centre-piece being the GWR Swindon Silver Band, Euphonium!
Whilst the illustrated 1939 programme entry form, is sadly a reminder that in September that year War was declared, it is noteworthy that even in nationalisation, British Railways Western Region continued to popularly operate its own Regional specific Staff Association.
We quote from a section of the pamphlet illustrated which invited staff to join that BR-wide Association:
“The Association is something more than a vehicle for running social events; it provides a rallying point for the many thousands of railway staff and their dependents who, in an age that is becoming more and more mechanical, desire in their leisure hours opportunities for self-expression.”
TUESDAY 21 JULY
Last week’s excellent piece from our blogging colleagues at Going Loco on Decoding an Engine inspired us to share a the interesting story behind the shed plate and smokebox numberplate from pannier tank 1646 that are part of our Collection.
The shed plate 60C refers to Helmsdale in the far north of Scotland – an unlikely location for a Swindon-built 0-6-0PT to be stationed!
In 1957, 1646 and 1649 were transferred to work the branch line between Dornoch and The Mound in Scotland. The two pannier tank engines, both less than a decade old were sent North by British Railways to replace two venerable ex Highland Railway W Class 0-4-4T engines (numbers 55051 and 55053) that had been built in 1905 and which had been specifically retained to work the branch.
Both 1646 and 1649 were withdrawn from service in December 1962 – 1646 from Perth and 1649 from Helmsdale.
As if that weren’t curious enough, 1646’s plates’ continued their peregrinations as they were acquired by a GWS member who emigrated with them to New Zealand! A few years ago he donated them to the Trust and they are now on display at the Railway Centre having gone from Swindon to Didcot via the Highlands and the Antipodes!
TUESDAY 14 JULY
A recently acquired “City of Winchester” nameplate has generated considerable interest from visitors since the Centre re-opened. With Summer Steam Days resuming from Saturday 18 July, this week we look at these items and how they have been an intrinsic part of Great Western culture since the earliest days of the railway and popular with collectors for almost as long!
The Great Western Railway company was famed for the breadth of subjects chosen for the naming of its locomotives and nationalised British Railway Western Region continued that tradition by naming their Diesel Hydraulic Locomotives. As such visually attractive mementos of those engines, private individuals were delighted to be able to purchase nameplates from withdrawn locomotives direct from the GWR and then BRWR. In those days, the nameplates could be delivered to the purchaser’s nearest station, bound in protective sacking! A number of these are now proudly part of the Great Western Trust Collection and they are regularly displayed in the Museum.
The naming of GWR locomotives predictably began from the very beginning when the very first locomotives were ordered from private manufacturers to use on the opening between Paddington and Maidenhead (in fact Taplow) in 1838, beginning with “North Star”.
Now, before we get involved with the names themselves and even the nameplate design evolution over the 112-year existence of the GWR as a Company, we should ask ourselves why engines needed unique identification.
Well, as every privately owned motorcar has a unique Registration Number, so the government can know how many cars are on the road, check their MOT status and claim road car duty from their owners, the shareholders (and the financial accountants) of the then privately owned railway companies, wanted to know how many engines and carriages they owned and had paid for, and that each one was easily identified.
Even in Daniel Gooch’s days as the first GWR Locomotive Engineer, he needed to record every item of cost associated with each engine, even down to oil and coke consumed, and when it needed new boiler tubes etc. Fine, so why not just give each engine a numerical number? Other contemporary railway companies did, such as the Bristol & Exeter (a broad gauge line like the GWR) and the Taff Vale Railway (designed by Brunel but “narrow” or what later became known as “standard” gauge). Well, though we don’t have hard written evidence, surely the GWR Directors were influenced by Brunel, to decide upon naming their then unique and distinctive Broad Gauge locomotives, with brass letters on steel backing plates.
Of course, as the GWR expanded its services, to include goods traffic, the sole use of names became quite a challenge, and eventually even they had to adopt cast brass number-plates for some engines, although to the very end in 1892, Broad Gauge express passenger engines always had names only.
To quash any preconception that private individuals wanting to possess GWR engine nameplates is a 20th Century phenomenon, records exist of Churchward, when he was still only the GWR Carriage & Wagon Department head, completing invoices for the mounting of ex Broad Gauge nameplates on high quality wood mounts or even incorporating them on decorative Fireplace Fire-Screens! These were bought by either GWR Directors or private individual admirers of the GWR Broad Gauge, as mementos of a sadly passed age!
When Churchward became GWR Locomotive Chief, he inherited varied engine nameplate designs from his predecessor William Dean, one being what was colloquially known as a “Ringer”, the Great Western Trust has one such on display on a replica cabside in its Museum, namely “Tregeagle” (a Cornish mythical giant) which includes the locomotive number and its Swindon Works construction number and date of build.
You will see that on Tregeagle, it only has “1824” and some telling depressions where its construction date should be! “1824” is its Swindon Works construction number, but the date of construction was removed on most, but not all “Ringers” when some concern was expressed that the GWR were still running “very old locomotives”! Silly really as they still had many good years of cost effective miles in them, so removing the offending detail was the chosen solution.
Although very neat and comprehensive, the “Ringer” design was finally rejected as a GWR standard nameplate form, which over time became like those illustrated in “City of Winchester” now in our “Recent Acquisitions” display, and the replica plate “Lady of Legend” on Saint loco 2999. The recently completed “retro build” is set to be in action on Summer Steam Days through July allowing visitors to admire bot only the nameplate but her ornate livery.
The addition of the City nameplate is vital to the Trust’s collecting objective of having a representative example of every GWR locomotive class nameplate. This engine was constructed at Swindon alongside its very famous preserved sister, 3440 “City of Truro”.
Lady of Legend of course never actually existed on the GWR, but the Society deliberately planned and effected its creation from using the primary elements of loco 4942 Maindy Hall, as sadly none of the original members of this ground breaking Churchward locomotive design was preserved. However, in the Trust Museum we have on display the wonderfully appropriate original class member name and number-plate 2908, “Lady of Quality”. The item is shown here with one of our period re-enactors and is an equally popular amongst our many lady visitors as a backdrop for selfies! We like to think that Churchward would have approved.
The Trust has yet to acquire an original Broad Gauge locomotive nameplate but will warmly welcome donations from existing enthusiast owners!
TUESDAY 7 JULY
With high summer approaching, the thoughts of sea air and sea bathing are nothing new. The GWR took every opportunity to extol these attractions to be reached on their system, having adopted the simple but effective catch-phrase “The Holiday Line”. To make sure that hard pressed commuters into London & other major cities served by the GWR, were reminded of summer’s possibilities they commissioned artists to produce captivating posters to arrest the attention of their passengers.
One stunningly fine example illustrated, was created by Bruce Angrave around 1932, and is on display in the Great Western Trust Museum & Archive building, where it can be admired for its pure artistry and its social history implications. Those lovely young people depicted are clearly part of a favoured social set, far away from fun fairs, children and ice cream!
Now the Centre has re-opened, this poster can now be viewed along with many others in the Museum. They show the wide period of GWR and BRWR poster art and their diverse subjects and represent a very small fraction of the Trust’s acclaimed poster Collection.
TUESDAY 30 JUNE
This Isambard Kingdom Brunel, London School of Economics (University of London) silver medal, was presented to W G Chapman in 1908.
The medals were awarded to those students who gained three First Class passes in approved exams within four years of study. The silver design was crafted using the original die-stamp donated by the GWR to the Railway Dept of the LSE.
The scheme was endowed by Lord Winterstoke a GWR Director in 1907/08. According to Rosa Matheson's "The Fair Sex - Women and the Great Western Railway", of 176 medals won, 76 were awarded to GWR staff.
Both sides of the medal are illustrated, and the ribbed edge is engraved “W G Chapman 1908”.
Chapman, then of the General Manager's Office staff was the first GWR winner along with two non-GWR students. A full report of his award appeared in the Great Western Staff Magazine of 1909.
W G Chapman went on to write many of the publications for “Boys of All Ages” that were produced by the GWR publicity department. The medal was generously donated to the Great Western Trust by his great nephews.
TUESDAY 23 JUNE
The GWR was famed for its wide ranging pursuit of publicity, a particular element being the series of very popular books by their employee WG Chapman on all things GWR pitched for “Boys of All Ages”. They included details of locomotive construction and in an era when boys were genuinely stimulated by engineering and technology of which railways were in the vanguard, the GWR also actively exploited that latent interest by contributing to the numerous Boys periodical magazines, comics and books.
This example is the cover of the Modern Wonder The Pictorial Review issued every Wednesday for 2d. That is the pre-decimalisation coinage, when 12 pennies made a shilling and 20 shillings made a pound!
The image was a GWR official one from Swindon, and this edition included a full depth article on the construction and testing of new GWR locos entitled “The Birth of a Railway Giant” acknowledging content lifted from Chapman’s book “The Cheltenham Flyer”.
Boys being boys of course the magazine also covered diverse “exciting and stimulating” fact and fiction topics, including a mystery tribal dance, The Royal Artillery, Denmark’s first indoor Swimming pool and ending with a Flash Gordon cartoon!
Dated July 22nd 1939 however, it is a sobering reminder that very grim years very soon lay ahead.
The Great Western Trust Collection at Didcot includes a great number of non GWR official publications like this example, showing that GWR publicity spread far wider into the youthful domain than might be appreciated.
TUESDAY 16 JUNE
As we prepare to resume activities on 4 July, we feature an item that has pride of place in the Museum and that visitors can admire when we re-open.
The original Engine Shed at Didcot naturally forms the perfect home for our acclaimed collection of GWR built or designed Steam Engines. To compliment those “full size” examples, the Great Western Trust collection includes a number of exceptional, fine detail model locomotives.
The example illustrated in the two photographs (taken outside the Museum & Archive building) is a 5 inch gauge, live steam model which won a Gold Medal at 2007 Model Engineering Exhibition. It was made entirely by Mr M C Dean and as it was built from scratch, it took him no less than 17 years to complete, beginning when he was 64! Under the closest scrutiny, the detailing is breath-taking no doubt because Mr Dean was never going to hurry a work of sublime craftsmanship. We can reveal that even the scaled padlocks on the locomotive tool boxes have scale keys to open them!
The engine itself was the first one designed and ordered by William Dean, in 1880, when he first became GWR Head of the Locomotive & Carriage Dept at Swindon, to experiment as a
4-4-0T with certain design features. After early modification, as you do with experimental designs, it became as the model, a 2-4-0T and ran successfully until withdrawal from Chester in 1924.
There is more than coincidence in the shared surname Dean. His forebears include William Dean’s brother!
Mr Dean most generously donated this fine model to the Trust in 2014 so that it could be enjoyed by our countless visitors of all ages. It has pride of place within our Museum, as Mr Dean wished, and has drawn high praise and admiration.
TUESDAY 9 JUNE 2020
In 1985, this splendid item was generously donated to the Great Western Trust by Miss Stevenson on behalf of her late brother William Humfrey Stevenson who wanted it preserved in Didcot. He was the great nephew of Ann Lowsley (nee Humfrey) the daughter of Edward Humfrey its original owner.
Its existence reflects the great impact the arrival of the Great Western Railway had upon the Didcot community. Four local farmers, John Holliday and John Lowsley of Hagbourne and Eligh Caudwell and Edward Humfrey of Blewbury agreed that once the railway was established at Didcot they saw a business opportunity! They each subscribed £250 (worth today around £25,000) towards construction of a Corn Exchange in Didcot town. This would avoid costs and inconvenience of farmers travelling elsewhere for such business. The building was completed in 1857 and was located next to the Didcot Station frontage (where today there is the short term car-park and taxi rank).
So successful was their venture that from the profits of its first year of operation, they each had a pocket watch, suitably inscribed to record the undertaking. Whilst the standard watch face of 12 numbers could accommodate “Corn Exchange”, “DIDCOT MARKET” fitted and better recorded its unique location! The watch back, has the letters “EH” engraved, for Edward Humfrey.
In World War 2 the building became a general market, run every Tuesday by auctioneers A W Neate of Newbury for local food produce. Before its demolition, it was the Didcot Station car garage, operated by one Monty Dipper.
The Trust is honoured to hold this remarkable item as just one example of the GWR’s positive impact on Didcot.
TUESDAY 2 JUNE 2020
The London Division news journal was issued to cover staff recreation, new developments and general railway interest. This British Railways Western Region edition from July 1961 is very relevant as it includes an article on a “Supper and Social at Didcot” held in aid of the Didcot Railway Benevolent Fund at the Didcot Staff Hostel. The highlight was singing to the piano accompaniment of 92 year old Jim Gardner who in 1883 at the tender age of 14, had joined the GWR at Didcot, working for 6 months without pay, but going on to retire after 46 years service! His son was then signalman at Didcot West End Box!
A career on the railways was still an attractive one justifying the cover picture of a recruitment event in Ealing Town Hall. Aren’t those schoolboys smart and very attentive?