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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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Accidents Did Happen!

Testing the recall of our Blog readers, a very similar Blog title was used in August 2021 covering photographs of a spectacularly derailed GWR Auto Coach.

Necessarily such incidents were the stuff of emergency action by staff at many levels. In this case though, given thankfully it appears no public or staff were injured or worse, the very highest levels in the GWR Organisation were probably unaware of it, unless services were affected or great financial costs were incurred.

However, woe betide any Station Master who tried to cover up more serious events, as shown in the illustrated Staff Circular of December 1886 from on high, no less than the Superintendent of the Line then G N Tyrrell the most senior train Operating Officer on the GWR. Note that it was in itself a re-issue of the same circular of 1872, and that last paragraph shows the repeated threat towards GWR Station Masters, still clearly considered justified, to act correctly and openly or else!

The Norton Fitzwarren accident of 11 November 1890 when a broad gauge train from Plymouth collided with a standard gauge goods train.

The directive reflects that the crucial technology to be used for speed of that message up the management chain, was the telegraph, the GWR’s own communications network. Older generations will recall train journeys with the lineside view adorned by the regularly spaced telegraph poles with the “washing line” strands of copper wires sweeping down then up between them.     

The Great Western Trust collection possesses many such accident instruction circulars to staff throughout the GWR’s existence. To prove just how important that recording of accidents was whether to staff or the travelling public, we have numerous official bound volumes of the reports of them from around October 1910 up to the early BR Western Region period. If resources, people and money, can be found, their vast social history content will we hope can be appreciated.

The Slough accident of 16 June 1900 when a westbound express ran into the rear of a local train headed to Windsor.

To give the harsh reality of some accidents, we illustrate just some of the official or contemporary published photographs of accidents on the GWR. All those reports, consumed great staff resource and time and expensive repairs, all of which should have been avoided in so many cases. No wonder Sir Felix Pole the later GWR General Manager instituted the “Is it Safe” staff safety scheme that was then adopted across all the Railway Companies under the “Safety First” banner. 

Broad gauge locomotive Rob Roy after an accident at Newnham, Gloucestershire, on 5 November 1868, during Tyrrell’s time as Superintendent on the Line. The telegraph lines over which messages would be sent reporting the accident figure prominently in the photograph.



A Locomotive Footplate Photo with a Difference!

Being of a senior age, the New Year has rather marched on and only our &lsdquo;Going Loco’ fellow Bloggers prompted us by resuming their Blogs on Friday last week. So its best we ‘Tuesday Treasure’ Bloggers, get active again, and so we hope you forgive our dalliance having studied this intriguing blog given its full background story.

Illustrated appears at a glance, an ordinary posed photograph of two very smartly dressed footplatemen on a GWR Loco, though both we must reflect have the then popular clipped moustache, made infamous in WW2 by Hitler, but that isn&rapos;t the central discovery!

The photo itself came to the Great Western Trust through a most generous donation of the grandson of the fireman in the photo, one Henry Charles Saunders, as part of a large archive of his grandfather’s GWR employment papers and photos, discovered in the attic of his mother’s house! Mr Saunders worked on the GWR for 45 years, sadly dying whilst still employed as a top link driver on BRWR in October 1961. His collection is of great significance given the career it covers.

Returning to the photo illustrated, it was clearly an important family heirloom as it's a print once pasted onto a stiff card, and probably once framed and displayed in the home with pride.

The crucial detail in the photo, which we regret given its age is rather faded, is that the GWR Dean Goods locomotive has no brass cabside numberplate, but only very faded painted numbers in its place. Why so?

Many GWR Dean Goods locos were known to have been sent to France and even further into Europe during WW1 as part of the logistical support given to the British Army Railway Operating Division (ROD), and it would appear that their brass cabside numberplates were removed beforehand as brass of itself was a highly valued and reusable material at Swindon for the armaments that the then War Ministry contracted the GWR and other Railway Company works to produce for the war effort. Frankly, no one could guarantee that these locomotives sent to ROD would ever return!

The loco 2489, is recorded amongst its peers in the ROD, in the RCTS Locomotives of the GWR Part 4 volume, where their lack of cabside plates is detailed. It would seem that due to post-war materials shortages, some returned engines had to wait up to two more years to receive replacement cabside plates.

The wonderful Great Western Society (GWS) locomotive collection at Didcot, includes our very own WW1 ROD loco No 5322, one of Churchward's finest workhorses which joined the older GWR Dean Goods locos in that effort. Do come to Didcot to admire this engine which happily survived both World Wars and was crucially saved from Barry Scrapyard through the diligent efforts of the GWS.


In today's Tuesday Treasure join Period Re-enactor Thomas Macey as he explains the fascinating history behind two of the live steam locomotives on display in the museum.


Christmas decorations on The Lawn at Paddington station in 1953

In our previous Blogs leading up to Christmas, the natural focus was upon the anticipation of presents and all the activities associated with this big holiday festival. The toy shop windows, the toys themselves, children’s railway books and even special Christmas cards.

This year, we turn our thoughts to the Railway Staff. Obviously the railways were a business, created and operating to transport people and materials of all kinds, to and from a multitude of places. At Christmas, or more significantly, the period leading up to it, the service provided was both loaded to a far greater extent than usual, especially for goods and parcels and had placed upon it a far higher public expectation of timely delivery!

Our Great Western Trust archive contains countless internal GWR and BRWR staff notices and operational instructions completely focused upon the above demands, and how they should be so organised as to fulfil them. Pre-Christmas extra trains alone were a logistical task of astonishing proportions and arranging all the necessary staff movements alone, occupied and demanded the very highest degree of ability, documentation and experience from those ‘in charge’.

In these current days of short texts and mere soundbite attention spans, and perhaps less than warmly received ‘announcements from on high’ within large organisations, we illustrate what was an expected norm of such messaging, on the railways at least, in 1959. It is a message from the British Transport Commission Chairman, Sir Brian Robertson, to all its staff, male and female, suitably decorative and meant to be pasted up in every station and office frequented by them, and in pre metrication days was no less than 11” wide by 16” high, so it was meant to be seen and read.

Its lengthy wording may surprise us, but its key objective was to acknowledge the perhaps contradictory expectation on railway staff to work that much harder at this time, when most other employees were preparing to relax from their daily labours!

This item has survived to our time possibly as an unused copy issued to a station or office, when its relevance was very short lived once the 1960 New Year had begun. Such items cast an important light on our past and the media then used to connect the top managers with their employees, however much we might wonder quite how well such messages were received.

We however hope that our Blog readers will truly appreciate our wish of a Happy Christmas from the Trustees and volunteers of the Great Western Trust.


Popular Games for Christmas?

The GWR were one of the most active and trailblazing railway companies in the perhaps surprising sector of popular games and toys.

The Great Western Trust Collection is blessed with examples of the breadth of material they produced and much of that was created under the inspired visionary, Sir Felix Pole, when he was its General Manager from 1921 to 1929. That his intuition was correct, is proven by the GWR maintaining a significant output right up to the Second World War under his successor Sir James Milne.

Our example illustrated is of a jigsaw puzzle and its decorative storage box, entitled ‘The Fishguard Army 1797’. This particular example had around 200 pieces, made of plywood with a colour painted scene by Claude Buckle, himself a much admired artist commissioned by the GWR for numerous pictorial posters. It was made in 1935, for the GWR by Chad Valley of Birmingham, as were all their jigsaws of this type, and sold to the public at production cost price of just two shillings and six old pennies, 12½p today, but comparatively equivalent today of about £18. The GWR began producing jigsaws as an experiment when their celebrated Castle Class loco 4073 Caerphilly Castle was first displayed at the Wembley ‘Empire Exhibition’ in 1924, not surprisingly, jigsaws of that very engine! In the period 1924-1939, it is estimated they produced over 750,000 with 44 subjects!

Their popularity with folk of all ages is demonstrated by the Christmas sales statistics in which in 1932 alone, over 31,000 were sold! So popular in fact that one man wrote to the GWR in 1924 to claim he has completed the Caerphilly Castle one in 17 minutes!

Whilst the GWR pondered whether to cut production costs by making them in cardboard, they astutely retained the plywood design to maintain their physical resilience and quality. That fact, and their popularity certainly combined to gift to our generation a vast number of surviving puzzles of which the one illustrated is clearly in superb condition given its 86 years age. It was the 40th title of the 44 produced. So why this subject, and for a railway transport company? Previous owners have pencilled in the box its size, 11 x 17 inches, so a handy modest table will do nicely!

Look up your history books and discover how in 1797, the French invaders were roundly repulsed by an ‘Army’ comprising mostly of Welsh ladies from the nearby villages. Quite whether artistic licence accurately shows the scene is doubted, but we can assure you that the jigsaw itself took a lot more than 17 minutes to complete for two keen puzzlers!

The Trust happily possesses a complete set of the 44 titles produced, and all are the perfect proof of the combination of rugged design and contemporary popularity, making them survive down the years. One such group of jigsaws we were donated had the rather upsetting story that whilst bought by his Aunt, her nephew was never allowed to play with them as his Aunty ’considered them far too precious to risk his hands being near them’! Naturally, they are in perfect condition, as is this one illustrated.


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