Did You Know?

Short stories from the history of Britain's railways 

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Readers of the post ‘Polishing the Past’ (25th January 2021) may have noticed in the comments a reference to smells in railway museums. Apparently the sense of smell is the one most directly connected to sensors in our brains so it wouldn’t be surprising to find that smells often evoke vivid memories of the past in each of us. Museum curators are well aware of this and Russ Rollings reminded me of the Jorvik Viking Centre here in York which uses smells to authenticate the past – to the delight of children if not all adults!

Turning to railway museums we find plenty of examples of places offering us the ‘sights and smells’ of the railway, most likely steam railways. Thinking of smells in this way we might remember hot steam, coal smoke, hot oil, the occasional smell of burning, perhaps. On the other hand, railway oral histories offer us much more.

Norman remembered the smell of his signal box and the lino on the floor. ‘You got used to it after a few minutes but it could be really strong, especially on warm early mornings in summer. I suppose the air made it stronger.’ Roy and Ron were more concerned with the smells in the footplate crew mess room. ‘Remember it, Ron? It was those plastic table cloths, all sticky. Then there was the smell of stale tea. Somebody was supposed to wipe it down but nobody did – just us when we wanted to.’

Picture: Mallard NRM

Susan remembered her commute into London Victoria in the early 1960’s and, in particular the Southern Electric compartment stock. ‘I used to hate it. It wasn’t the smoking – there were separate compartments for that. It was that smell of – you know – sweat, lots of bodies on those seats. I preferred to stand but men always used to offer me their seat. I’m sure it was more than sweat, you know.’

Moving swiftly on, another Ron remembered the booking office as a place of ‘polished wood and brass. It wasn’t like the Waiting Room where the Brasso on the door plates really hit you. The office had more of a paper and ink flavour, I suppose you could call it that. And another thing. You could smoke then, not like now, but a lot of us smoked pipes. ‘Balkan Sobranie’ it was called but Eric always got it mixed up and called it ‘Bolton Sobranie. Ha-ha!’

Eric told me that when he used to collect tickets at the barrier there was one lady, ‘quite posh’, who always handed over hers to him every week. It was ‘Chester to Birkenhead (Woodside), First Class return’. Thing is, it always smelt of her perfume, she must have washed in the stuff. I think it was on her gloves. My wife said it was most likely posh stuff, ‘Rive Gauche’, French I think. We smelt one in the office once. I certainly smelt of something but I don’t know what it was.’

Those who won’t remember those days might be reassured by trawling the internet for ‘railway smells’ where the odour from Cross Country Trains’ toilets, or the smell of brakes on 125’s feature regularly.

That’s the thing you see. If there was ever a way to evoke nostalgia, remembrance, and a sense of the past in a museum, why can’t we enter and just ‘follow our noses’?

Finally, I have been asked a few times what smells I remember. As a boy, in the 1950’s my grandmother used to live in Coalville, Leicestershire, still, then, a coal mining town. Across the road from her house were some disused sidings which I later found out were once part of the Coalville East station of the Charnwood Forest and later London and North Western line from Market Bosworth to Loughborough. I used to play there without regard to any railway movements (there were none by then). Instead I remember hot summer afternoons wandering around looking at old wagons and the remains of the old station, closed in 1931. In the long grass insects ticked and buzzed. But it was that smell, the smell of hot tar on old railway sleepers, that has lingered with me. It’s the smell of boyhood, a powerful reminder of my past.

So, when the time comes, take off your face mask and smell that museum air. It might just remind you of days gone by. What about it NRM? Parfum de Locomotion? Odour of Mallard?


By John Swanwick

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A previous post commented on the approach to restoration of museum objects at the Berlin Technical Museum (‘Polishing the Past’, 26th January 2021). But readers might be interested in another excursion I made while working through a summer in Munich some years ago.

I told the city information desk in Munich I was interested in trains. ‘Oh, you must go to Nördlingen’, the man said. This took me to a small Bavarian town with a long history and some old engine sheds, rather like what I think of as Carnforth in the UK. Inside was a treasure trove of old locomotives. Ekkart, the town’s pharmacist and volunteer guide for the day, showed me around. He explained they were getting about 15,000 visitors a year (pre-pandemic). With many locomotives to see, it wasn’t hard to work out why. Everything from Deutsche Bundesbahn’s last survivors to ‘Krieglok’, black and red monsters from World War II. ‘They built 5000 of these between 1942 and 1945,’ explained Ekkart. He pointed to the ‘Krieglok’. ‘This one is from Romania’.

Picture: NRM

We both stared at it. It was festooned with various bits and pieces, important to the design. There were sand boxes on the top of the boiler, various clack valves and connecting pipes, knobs and levers everywhere. He pointed out an express locomotive that looked a lot smoother. ‘This is my favourite,’ he said, and I agreed. All the various encrustations were well hidden. ‘It looks smoother, better. I think British locomotives look better,’ he added. That surprised me and we talked through the pros and cons of hiding or exposing the various bits and bobs in the interests of aesthetics over practical maintenance. If you go into the NRM you can get the general idea by comparing the Chinese Government KF class 4-8-4 or Bulleid’s Q1 with not only the ‘streamliners’, but the more conventionally designed ‘Lode Star’, for example.

But, then, it depends where the locomotive was to work. Eastern Europe, Russia, in winter, was no easy proposition for locomotive and crew. It’s not surprising there were fully enclosed cabs, water heaters and sand boxes on the tops of boilers for example, the better to keep out intense cold. There was a practicality about it and, some years earlier in China, I had much the same thought when I realised the harsh conditions, heat and cold, wet and desert dust, that locomotives there had to endure. I was lucky enough to ride on the footplate of one of the last steam locomotives ever built in the world, at Datong in China in 1988. It was a memorable experience. We took it for a ‘test’ down the works yard and back. Anyone who has held the regulator of a steam locomotive will know what it feels like when the engine moves but this was something else. The locomotive was enormous but the various additions to the outside of it made it look like a mobile workshop. It would work (for just a few years) the big coal trains in the north, where temperatures were usually at least 10C below on most winter days.

Contrast this with the smooth and satisfying lines of many British locomotives. But as we do we have to forget the under current of complaints from footplate crews and fitters who had to work with them. In an interview for an oral history series a fitter at Nine Elms shed discussed the finer points of grazed knuckles and bruises, acquired crawling around Bulleid’s Pacifics, streamlined or not. He was particularly graphic in describing the effect on the boiler suits the fitters wore – ‘3 suits and never one dry from washing. They lasted a day before they were really oily, filthy. My wife couldn’t cope.’ He then rolled up his sleeves to reveal forearms bearing the marks of a lifetime in contact with railway metal, some of it hot.

Ekkart’s comment has stuck with me over time. I prefer the smooth, ‘British look’ but I didn’t have to work on the locomotives concerned, nor did I have to drive them through blizzards and heat waves. ‘Horses for courses’ I suppose but I have this sneaking suspicion that national pride was at stake. You know, the ‘British way’ or the “German way’, the ‘flashy’ or the ‘utilitarian’. Or perhaps we might think of it in another way – the locomotive as an attractive marketing tool, or as a strictly practical workhorse…….

You can read more about the Bavarian Railway Museum (Bayerische Eisenbahnmuseum or BEM)

For more on the JS Class 100 ton plus monster from Datong


By John Swanwick

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If you have visited the NRM you may have strolled along the mezzanine floor which connects the Great Hall to the Search Engine area upstairs. Displayed on the walls there are several artworks which capture different styles and eras of railway history. We all have our favourites there and mine is ‘Service by Night’ by the artist, the late David Shepherd.

Shepherd was commission by BR in 1955 to produce posters depicting the various commercial activities of the railways. The idea was to communicate to everyone what the railways do and why, and to do it in an eye catching way.

David Shepherd for British Railways. A 1955 scene at King’s Cross station; that time when ancient steam and modern electric technologies mixed.

Shepherd’s painting, from which the poster was made, depicts Kings Cross at night with steam locomotives in the station and coming through the station throat before disappearing into the Copenhagen tunnel on the climb heading north. The poster depicts an interesting night sky as a backdrop to the lights of the station and of signal lamps. It’s very evocative and quite inspirational (to me) in showing the railway at night. But take a look at the viewpoint. It’s low down, at track level, giving an unusual perspective. We might imagine the artist at his easel, cowering as enormous locomotives force their way past to enter the tunnel behind. Then there’s the vague thought that something might come up behind. Here is the artist among the signal wires and dummy signals, the heaps of unused track ballast, the litter of the railway.

Except that Shepherd probably did a sketch or took a photograph before retiring to his studio to produce the finished work!

Twenty years after Shepherd’s painting, the late Jay Appleton, an academic working in the Department of Landscape at Hull University, was developing his ‘prospect refuge’ theory. Take a look at landscape paintings, particularly older ones, and you will see that the perspective is often higher up, so looking down on the scene, and set back, perhaps against a hillside, or looking through trees and bushes. Appleton argued that this perspective is that bred in us as hunters from long ago when the best position was high up to see what was coming and what was to be hunted, whilst having your back protected. The theory states that taste in art is "an acquired preference for particular methods of satisfying inborn desires. The two desires are for opportunity (prospect) and safety (refuge).”

Far fetched? Well, maybe, but it’s certainly true about many of those paintings we look at – including views of ‘the train in the landscape’.

But what about ‘Service by Night’? Shepherd could have gone for the prospect refuge theory approach but his choice of track level is evocative and exciting, as he intended. There’s also the vague sense of unease in the viewer, that the artist might be in danger from front or maybe the back. Could an A3 Pacific be sneaking up on him, and us, as we watch Kings Cross at night? What do you think?

Shepherd went on the paint many evocative images of railways including some very sad scenes of locomotives in a dilapidated state at Nine Elms, London, in the last days of steam. He also owned locomotives and contributed hugely to the railway preservation movement,

as well as painting many thoughtful scenes of animals in Africa. I have one hanging on my study wall – of zebra in the dust of the plains in Amboseli Park, in prospect-refuge mode. There are some great images but, in the end, it’s Kings Cross at night that does it for me.

You can find Appleton’s work in his book ‘The Experience of Landscape’ (1975); John Wiley. In 1970, he also wrote a report for the Countryside Commission on "Disused railways in the countryside of England and Wales"


By John Swanwick

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