Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Growing Up on the Railway in the South West

I'm afraid that when I see a second-hand book shop, I can't resist wandering in and checking the railway books section.  So it was in Fremantle, where there's a branch of the Elizabeth's chain (pity there's no Elizabeth's in Melbourne).

I'm a bit selective about the types of book that I'm prepared to buy, and especially aren't attracted to generic books (such as "Steam Trains Around the World").  I look for books dealing with specific matters, such as researched histories of particular lines and reference materials (such as timetables).    So, the title "Growing Up on the Railway in the South West" didn't appeal to me when I first saw it, but in the absence of anything else of interest, I bought it.
I'm glad I did, because it's quite interesting.   It's a collection of recollections, all in the first person (but I suspect, told to the author) of a wide variety of people associated with the railways in the south west of Britain, especially (of course) the Great Western Railway.   It covers engineers, shunters, signalmen, porters, clerical workers, engine drivers, crossing keepers as well as a passenger and a chaplain.  There are reminiscences  from before World War 2 right up to the  publication date of 1998.  One chapter concerns the clerical worked who started work in 1917!  He retired in 1966, but apparently was still around at the time the reminiscences were being collected.  Thus, it touches on the effects of the depression, war, nationalisation, the passing of steam and the coming of diesels and there are even one or two mentions of privatisation. 

A few impressions emerged.  One is the length of time that some people worked on the railways.   In a number of cases, they started quite young in a very junior role and retired over 50 years later (although of course long-serving employees were more likely to have been chosen by the compiler).   One of the chapters is a daughter's recollections of her father who worked on the railway for over 40 years, but always refused promotion because it would have involved moving to a different town, even though his role was quite  mundane (although there are also instances of people who progressed through the ranks to quite senior positions).  And, especially in the pre-war era, transfers to other locations which today would seem to be quite close were regarded as going to a distant place!

Dr Beeching, and his widespread closures are frequently mentioned.   As I've remarked before, his is a household name, even today in British railway circles!

Another impression was the large numbers of people employed:  a contribution by a person who worked for many years as a shunter at the Swindon workshops refers to the fact that this establishment alone employed between 22,000 and 23,000 people (in the 1950s).  I'm not sure of the basis for this figure, as I see from Wikipedia that the peak employment was 14,000 and the figure in the '50s would have been less.  Perhaps the higher figure takes into account those employed in the proximity of the workshops, such as shunters and the like.  Nevertheless, on any view, the railways were clearly very significant employers.

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