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A nose for the past.

Using smells to interpret railway histories. . . . . . .

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?


John Swanwick

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