A girls’ day out on the railway to Skegness in the 1950’s. . . . . . . .
Digging deep into the oral history files I have a section called, imaginatively, ‘miscellaneous’, there being no obvious place to put the recording otherwise. These are stories which are often quirky, funny, bizarre, even hard to believe at times.
One story concerned Anne, travelling with four girl friends from Leicester to Skegness in 1958, aged 18. ‘It was a spur of the moment thing,’ she said. With parents away it was a good chance to be adventurous and I thought it a sign of the times that Anne and her friends told the interviewer they had no thought about personal safety. ‘I think all the carriages were open in those days. Couples liked the non-corridor coaches though, separate compartments,’ she added as an afterthought.
Disaster struck at Skegness when one of the girls fell over and had to go to hospital to be checked out. ‘We missed the train home,’ Anne remembered. ‘We were looking for an overnight stay and found a woman who offered us bed and breakfast for a shilling (five pence in new money). We slept four in the bed and one on the floor. Coming back we managed to get on the train even though our tickets were now out of date. We met two boys who travelled back with us in the guard’s van. We must have driven them mad. We were singing Marty Robbins ‘A White Sports Coat and a Pink Carnation’ all the way. At Leicester (Belgrave Road) the boys told us to put our tickets under theirs (which were valid) and then scarper. So we did. I don’t think we ever saw them again but I like to think it was all OK.’
By today’s standards I suppose we might consider this trip a risky proposition – five girls on their own, marooned in Skegness overnight with no money, parents away. It has the makings of a film script about it. But, then, perhaps things were different in those days. I would have liked to have asked if Anne thought things were safer for girls travelling by rail in those days, but I wasn’t the interviewer. Perhaps they didn’t give it a thought – itself, an interesting point. And what about ‘revenue protection’?
This wasn’t quite the end of Anne’s story. After a break in the recording she mentioned how, later in life, in the 1980’s, she had been a member of Leicester Ladies Barbershop Harmony Group. As such they had agreed to sing at an event on the then fledgling Great Central heritage railway, part of a competition for harmony groups to find the most unusual places to sing. ‘We sang inside the boiler of ‘Boscastle’ out in the shed yard.’ This sounded interesting. A West Country class Pacific might be big but big enough for a singing group inside? Not quite what Bulleid had intended. The story got better.
There were, err, 18 of us inside, well, a few half in, with the Director standing outside. We sang ‘Cuddle up a little closer’ which seemed appropriate’.
‘Cuddle up a little closer, lovey mine Cuddle up and be my little clinging vine’ (Doris Day)
‘Well, we won, but our leader thought another group deserved it more so they gave our bottle of champagne to them.’
You might think Anne’s stories frivolous in the context of railway history and ‘Did You know?” But they make the collecting of memories and history such an engaging experience to me. You stare at the transcribed words, sitting there on the page, and you start to think about deeper issues. There’s that thought about women’s safety in the 1950’s, let alone today, and you realise how so much has changed – and not changed. Then you start to think about the ever creative ways that steam locomotives in today’s ‘heritage world’ have provided platforms for all kinds of activities, not just the recreation of running a steam railway. You might think I’m stretching things in mentioning these points, but it’s in stories like these that we link past to present in ways which are less than obvious, making them engaging and memorable.
In 2017 we set out to record the stories of women and railways, not just the more obvious male subjects such as footplate crews. Anne’s stories were part of this but she was by no means the only one. There was Christine who remembered being proposed to at Loughborough station while waiting for a train (how could she forget?). Then there was Cynthia, recalling that her interest in trainspotting was a result of getting fed up walking the dog. Mundane and not so mundane, humorous, engaging, real, unusual. More please!
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Women carriage cleaners on the London & South Western Railway, about 1916. Carriages got very dirty from all the smoke and ash produced by the locomotive fire.
Women workers using turret lathes at the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway's Horwich works, May 1917.