Living Museum of the Great Western Railway

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Tuesday Treasure Trove - May 2020

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.





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



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!



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?



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



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