The white marble plaque under the clock outside the entrance to Bristol Temple Meads station unveiled in 1928 commemorates Miss Emma Saunders, also widely known as the “The Railwaymen’s Friend”, who died aged 86 on 27th February 1927. Her mother had inspired her, having worked with destitute girls and women released from prison. The family home was at Sion Hill, Clifton, a stone’s throw from Clifton Suspension Bridge. Miss Saunders first went into teaching before deciding on a life devoted to welfare work. She started working with Bristol’s thousands of railwaymen and their families, including the large numbers engaged in the protracted building of the Severn Tunnel. Described in the press as genial and kindly, she ranged far and wide with her Christian service and philanthropy becoming renowned in the wider Bristol area. She ran a Bible class at Bristol Temple Meads station from 1878 for railway people and mothers. Then in 1881 she was a founder member of the Railway Mission, although she and a growing band of helpers were already visiting sick and injured railwaymen and their families in the Bristol area. Her help also extended to those in any form of difficulty. She wanted to make sure that young railway staff didn’t succumb to the “temptations associated with licensed premises”, and with the help of the Great Western Railway Temperance Society she set up a Temperance Hall in the goods yard at Pylle Hill, between Temple Meads and Bedminster stations. She also founded “The Bristol and West of England Railwaymen’s Institute” in Bristol which was the forerunner of the British Railways Staff Association. The Institute offered a canteen, billiards, skittles and a room for engineering classes and religious meetings. Miss Saunders and her fellow workers were in possession of metal passes which entitled them to travel on locomotive footplates, passenger trains and in goods train brake vans to get to where they needed to be. In 1915, the Railwaymen’s Welfare Association was formally established and Miss Saunders became a director. The basket she always carried contained leaflets, flowers and small presents for those she was visiting, and her visiting work continued until after the Great War.
When she reached her 80th birthday, it was suggested that the railway staff of Bristol and district should contribute a penny each as a subscription to present her with a gift as a token of the high regard in which she was held. Over 5,000 staff in all departments of the Great Western Railway and Midland Railway around Bristol contributed. There was later a presentation gathering, and Miss Saunders was presented with an illuminated address, an easy chair and a settee. Several eulogies were read and the GWR Locomotive Department Male Voice Choir sang during the proceedings.
Her funeral service was attended by senior managers and staff from the GWR and Midland Railway. Soon after, the idea of a memorial was born, subscriptions were invited and the plaque was unveiled the following year. Memorial services, where railway male voice choirs performed, continued for a few years on the anniversary of her death, and the many attendees from the railway industry wore a daffodil in their buttonholes: it was her favourite flower. In addition, every year a wreath of daffodils was laid by railway representatives on her grave in Redland Green cemetery. In her will, Miss Saunders left bequests to the Bristol Railwaymen’s Institute, the Railwaymen’s Welfare Association, the Bristol Railway Mission and the UK Railway Temperance Union. Clearly, Miss Saunders’ life of service benefited so many and through her generosity was enabled to continue after her passing.
Mike Peart is the co-author of Volumes 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and “Trains of Hope” published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994. Friends of the NRM is an independent charity, established in 1977 to support the National Railway Museum. We have raised £1.8m to date in support of the museum in funding, restorations, exhibits and acquisitions of new artefacts. We also support and promote research and educational projects relating to the history and development of railways. Read more about our contributions here Find about how you can become a Friend of the NRM here