Summary: The story of Dean and Dawson, travel agents, and Sheffield’s Royal Victoria Hotel. . . . . .
It was a pleasant morning in the hotel lounge. It may have been raining outside but inside there was the clink of cups of tea, the clank of a pot of coffee, subdued music in the background. Sugar – ‘one lump or two?’ I settled into my armchair while Howard and John told me about their long association with the Great Central Railway route and Sheffield. We were in the lounge of the Royal Victoria Hotel, once the station hotel for the long gone Sheffield Victoria station. It was as if we were catching the ‘South Yorkshireman’ to Marylebone that very morning (11 30 sharp!). But, then, the hotel closed in 1970 to be reborn in 1972 under the Holiday Inn brand. Today it’s something of an icon for Great Central fans in Sheffield.
Far be it from me to become a contributor to Trip Advisor but I have to say, readers, it is a comfortable place, of some style. The original layout and fittings have largely been restored under a group of enthusiasts and the Managing Director, Hermann Beck. Once again you can walk the wide corridors, climb the sweeping staircases with wrought iron balustrades, admire the photos on the walls of the railway in Sheffield and even gaze at locomotive nameplates – two ‘footballers’ (LNER class B17), impartially ‘Sheffield United’ and ‘Sheffield Wednesday’. You, too, can pretend to be Edward Watkin, albeit briefly (Sir Edward to you, please). Outside is the GCR war memorial rescued from beneath the arches on Wicker and now gracing a special corner of the car park, overlooking land than once hosted the station itself.
It was a fitting place to interview two stalwarts of railway history, particularly of the city and Yorkshire, and, of course, the Great Central route. The conversation was punctuated with displays of memorabilia, from tickets and maps, to notebooks of locomotives seen, trains caught, and when and where. Here was history rolling out before my eyes.
We wandered far and wide in our discussions. It would take a long time and a very big article to include all that was said but, somewhere, in the middle of it all, the words ‘Dean and Dawson’ came up. Funny, really, funny how an unexpected subject suddenly appears in the threads of an oral history interview and you just know you have to follow your ears.
Howard, it seems, was once the Assistant Manager of Thomas Cook travel agents in Farrgate, Sheffield. Thomas Cook were the firm that bought out Dean and Dawson, some time before Howard’s arrival. Dean and Dawson had started life as travel agents for the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, subsequently the Great Central, and had moved on to become the LNER travel agents upon regrouping at the start of 1923.
I had come across them before. A correspondent had shown me a photograph of the Dean and Dawson shop in Gallowtree Gate, Leicester in 1907, clearly advertising the services of its railway parent. In another interview, Albert Lynn explained that he had started work at Dean and Dawson, in 1929, aged 14. The wage was 6/4d a week, rising to 12 shillings and then knocked back to 11/7d in the depression of the 1930’s. ‘In those days, there were 4 companies in Leicester,’ Albert explained, ‘each looking after different railway companies. For example, Cooks looked after the London Midland and Scottish, Dean and Dawson, the LNER, and so on. The business was mainly selling tickets. During the Leicester holiday fortnight in the first two weeks of August, Leicester folk wanted to go on holiday and if there were no works trains, they would go to the coast in Lincolnshire or Yorkshire. Strangely enough, I remember the Isle of Man being popular too.’
‘It was hard work,’ confirmed both Albert in his interview and Howard - long hours. ‘A man called Ingham, I think, thought it would be a good idea to introduce winter sports so there were some excursions to Austria in the 1920’s and 30’s. But you had to be well off for that’, Albert added.
‘No summer holiday in Spain, then?’
‘Not really. If anyone came in asking for a brochure for an overseas holiday you had to collect their name and address before you were allowed to give them a brochure. You know, so you could follow up. That was hard work.’ By Howard’s time, things had changed. And then it all changed again with data protection laws and so on – and, of course, the internet. Dean and Dawson, and Cooks’ too, came to an end. No traffic light system of travel, no Covid tests.
Howard and John were full of stories about the Great Central route and its demise. It was emotional for them as it was for the communities along the line and the people who worked for the railway. The detail both men produced was extraordinary – meticulous accounts of the end of steam haulage.
But all is not lost. You can still sit in the lounge of the Royal Victoria and reminisce about ‘the old times’ and even your next holiday – socially distanced of course.
More tea, Howard…? Don’t mind if I do, John……..
If you want to see what the Holiday Inn Royal Victoria find out more here
It’s unlikely you will see a picture of Howard and John and me in the shot but I would just like to add my special thanks to them for a fascinating morning talking through their memories of the railway and their thoughts about its future.
John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. After returning from a management career interspersed with travel around the world, John settled down to develop a more extensive interest in railway history. After completing a Masters degree in Heritage Interpretation/Museum Studies at Leicester University, John began collecting oral histories for the proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The outcome is a series of recordings held in the archives of the National Railway Museum and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester.
The human interest in historical material is a particular interest for John and has led to writing several books and articles drawing on such material. John has also written several books about his travels and is currently researching and writing about trees in the landscape of Yorkshire and Leicestershire.
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