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 26 MAY 2020
This week, is English Tourism Week and with many of us hoping to plan staycations this year, today’s Tuesday Treasures looks back to the days when a portmanteau was the bag you took with you on holiday rather than the type of word used to describe it!
In the Edwardian era, once the GWR had completed its vast network and had created accelerated services through heavy investment in “cut-off” lines, it began a massive campaign to exploit the holiday and tourist traffic potential of the areas it served. Not least the West Country, Cornwall, Devon & Somerset.
Starting in 1906, it published its “Holiday Haunts” book annually, which contained both topographical information on the counties and towns and villages covered but also helpful adverts on residential accommodation, from Hotels to Guest Houses. It became so popular, that at its peak, circulation approached 200,000 copies, each of 1,000 pages at 6 old pence. The very last issue of 1947 is one of the two illustrated, after which under Nationalisation the British Railways Western Region and all other regions issued BR Holiday Guides until their demise with the 1962 issue.
As part of their highly effective publicity drive, the GWR introduced the “See your Own Country First” poster, comparing Cornwall with Italy, and their striking logo “The Holiday Line”. So important was this whole initiative, that a large contigent of their publicity department staff became established to ensure each year, Holiday Haunts was accurate and attractive. They even advertised in the Times, Holiday Haunts express trains from all over their system, by which prospective holidaymakers could travel between April and June, at one fifth of the ordinary fares to their intended location to explore and possibly pre-book accommodation!
So, just as Visit England rightly encourages us to use Summer 2020 to explore this country’s delights, they could do worse than employ the GWR’s highly successful message “See your Own Country First”!
The Great Western Trust Museum at Didcot holds a complete set of all the GWR Holiday Haunts publications and its BRWR successors. They are a treasure trove of UK social history, far beyond their railway association.
The Holiday Haunts Express May 1933
TUESDAY 19 MAY 2020
These two undated photographs, were taken by staff within the Railway Signalling Works at Reading probably in the 1950s. If we can grasp the scale of just how large an undertaking both the GWR and then BRWR operated with its mechanical signal boxes, these photos illustrate the size of just one, 101 lever frame being constructed for Llandilo Junction. The fitters are stood behind the awesome folded chart by which the individual mechanical locking was to be created within that massive frame behind them.
The second photo shows its reverse side! Once fully tested, that frame had to be reduced to sections fit for railway wagon transport to the target site in South Wales, installed, re-commissioned, and then operated by shift working Signalmen. All in a day’s work!
TUESDAY 12 MAY 2020
Railway modelling is enjoying increased interest and popularity during lockdown but it's hard to believe in today’s railway employment environment, that this brochure was published by the Railway Executive of the nationalised British Railways in the early 1950s, to detail their very own and large model railway. About 30 feet by 15 feet with 6 locomotives (including of course a WR King Class engine), multiple passenger train sets for each region and goods stock, signalling and “Newtown” a modern construct station!
The picture shows its debut at the Schoolboys’ Own Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall, London on January 1st to 15th 1949. Just look at the large audience of boys, young and old! It went on to be displayed throughout the country in Departmental Stores and at the Festival of Britain in Glasgow in 1951.
Why go to such lengths? Well it included advice that BR had many staff vacancies for those wanting a career on the railways! How many took that offer up we wonder? And, whatever happened to that remarkable model railway?
TUESDAY 5 MAY 2020
With lockdown producing at least a temporary improvement in air quality, this week we remember Didcot’s large coal fired power station that was a distinctive feature of the area from construction in the mid-1960s until demolition which is now almost complete.
Amongst the fascinating items in the Great Western Trust Collection is this BRWR December 1966 Notice to Staff of the just commissioned track and signalling for the Merry Go Round coal trains that fed the newly built complex.
It is said that satellites could track gases from the Didcot plant as they streamed eastward to the Black Forest in Germany!
Building of the power station started in 1964, some three years after the formation of the Great Western Society in 1961. Preparations to mark our 60th Anniversary in 2021 are well underway, and will include events to celebrate six decades of achievement at the Railway Centre, including the preservation of the Engine Shed complex dating from 1932 and bringing alive the history of the GWR from Brunel to the present day.
It is curiously satisfying to think that the colossal structure, which represented modernisation and progress back then, has been outlived by an organisation that many at a time saw as strange enthusiasts trying to save outdated technology!
The incline to the Centre's historic Coal Stage was the perfect vantage point when the power station cooling towers were demolished on 27 July 2014
TUESDAY 28 APRIL 2020
In our current period of the very strongest calls from HMG to our population to “do the right thing”, we post this strikingly designed leaflet which was issued to GWR staff in March 1944, and the images detail its very similar moral plea for ever more struggle, toil and funding for the War effort. The Great Western Trust Collection holds many more examples of those seemingly very dark, unending days of endurance which thankfully, gratefully and perhaps miraculously for our generation, our forebears overcame. We can only demonstrate our awe and respect for them by showing just the same commitment and resolve and grit in our challenging times.
TUESDAY 21 APRIL 2020
During the 1950s British Railways (Western Region) made strenuous efforts to utilise rolling stock that would normally only be used on Summer Saturdays. One initiative was the Holiday Express which gave the public the opportunity to travel on consecutive days to different destinations.
From the Great Western Trust collection here are two handbills from 1957 and 1960 (until 1965 August Bank Holiday was the first Monday in the month). The promise of "somewhere different each day" in the first seems a distant dream at present; but six decades ago, Londoners were offered the chance to travel to Minehead, Gloucester, Bath Spa, Weston-super-Mare and Oxford all for the princely sum of 75/-, equivalent to around £90 at today’s values.
People from Birmingham and the Black Country were not forgotten as the second example shows destinations in North Wales, Lancashire, London and the South Coast on offer. These two items form part of the huge collection of publicity material held by the Great Western Trust.
TUESDAY 14 APRIL 2020
At first glance, this appears to be a standard Great Western Railway ticket; but look closely and you might just spot something rather special!
The name ‘Titanic’ is famous across the World as the subject of one of the greatest maritime disasters of all time, after sinking on its maiden voyage in April 1912 – 108 years ago this week.
This rare ticket states ‘issued on board White Star Line SS Titanic’ for a journey from Plymouth to London Paddington.
The liner’s eastbound voyages were to have called at Plymouth, allowing an onward journey to London via the GWR which would have been quicker than remaining onboard to Southampton and catching a train from there. Passengers from the ‘Titanic’ would have boarded a GWR train from Plymouth Millbay station.
The curiosity is but one gem from the vast and famed, worldwide railway ticket collection of the late Charles Gordon Stuart, bequeathed to the Great Western Trust, which has been fully catalogued and conserved at Didcot Railway Centre in the archives of the GWT Museum.
The collection includes not only tickets destined for the ‘Titanic’ but a similar ticket for her sister ship ‘Olympic’.
TUESDAY 7 APRIL 2020
Today's "treasure" is short and sweet - both the entry and the artefact itself. It's a delightful doll in full Great Western Railway uniform dating from the 1930s and was given out as a gift from Paddington Station refreshment room. They are extremely rare; do you have one tucked away at home?
TUESDAY 31 MARCH 2020
‘Holiday Haunts’ - the perfect way to plan your holiday, or (if you owned a hotel or B&B in the days before online travel agents) ideal for ensuring all your rooms were fully booked! The Great Western Railway published Holiday Haunts every year, this advertising poster was to drum up advertising entries for the 1938 edition. It was discovered in a loft where parts had been nibbled by mice but has it since been fully restored!
Who knows, when life returns to normal there may be an opportunity for the modern-day GWR to collaborate with tourism businesses on their patch to help the sector recover? They'll need to drop the rates though, £30 for a full page in 1937 equates to over £2,000 today!
TUESDAY 24 MARCH 2020
With so many spending more time at home than planned, are you stuck for ideas? Why not do a jigsaw! The Great Western Railway produced a large selection of games and puzzles for their customers, just look at the selection here we have in our Museum and Archive! With brightly coloured pictures of railway scenes and locomotives from the GWR they would keep young minds, and adults, happy for hours!