A Nose for the Past.

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.’