Maids of all work

So far in these blogs I have looked at what could be called the more glamorous jobs performed by ships requisitioned from the Railway Fleet, but the rapidly expanding Royal Navy also needed ships to perform the day to day routine and maintenance required by the Fleet. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the Great Central Railway found that many of the foreign ports they served had fallen into the sphere of influence of the Central Powers and therefore it was impossible to continue their services, it is therefore unsurprising that their ships became available for use.

The vital need to supply war ships meant that the need for stores vessels increased and this is primarily where the cross channel steamers of the GCR and the L&Y were used. They transported ammunition, explosives, food, coal and all manner of naval spares and operated in all European naval theatres of war. The GCR provided at least seven vessels and four came from the L&Y.


1977-5781 Great Central Railway steamer SS Notts, by Alfred J Jansen. Copyright NRM/SSPL

The Great Central also provided three paddle steamers; Brocklesby and Cleethorpes were assigned to the Auxiliary Patrol Service. Used to combat submarines these vessels were armed with deck guns and by late 1917 7.5 inch Naval Howitzers, or anti submarine mortars. The other paddle steamer Killingholme became a fleet messenger.


1975-7945 Paddle box cover possibly from PSS Killingholme: Copyright NRM/SSPL

Smaller vessels were not exempt from requisition either, all five GWR tenders based at Plymouth were taken over at the outset of the war. Their original purpose, the transfer of passengers and their belongings between the shore and the large passenger ships, was adapted to their new circumstances – ferrying soldiers and sailors from shore to waiting troopships and warships. Of the five Atalanta was adapted for salvage and rescue work, whilst Smeaton found herself operating with the US Navy in France. The GER paddle steamer Suffolk undertook similar work as did the Midland Railway tug Wyvern. The GER were also to contribute the Harwich – Felixtowe launches Pinmill, Hainault & Epping to harbour work duties.


DY 1288 SS Wyvern, Midland Railway: Copyright NRM/SSPL

At least twelve vessels from across the railway fleet were also requisitioned for duties as troopships, some operating in the very unfamiliar waters of the Mediterranean.


1975-7916 Model ship, Twin-Screw Steamship `Maid of Orleans’. Copyright NRM/SSPL

“Maid of Orleans” was requisitioned from the South Eastern and Chatham Railway as soon as she was completed by Wm Denny & Bros and went straight into service as a troopship in 1918.

Perhaps the most peculiar service rendered by a railway ship was that of the GCR Steamship Accrington which served as a Prisoner of War Accommodation Ship (so far as I can find out the only railway ship to be used as such) until 1917 when she was converted into an Accommodation Ship for a Naval Training Establishment.

Finally it should also be noted that the harbour support vessels such as dredgers, lighters and tugs continued to work under their owner’s flags regardless of whether the port had been taken over or whether they were servicing Merchant or Royal Navy vessels.

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High Flyers

This guest post was written by our archive volunteer, Tania Parker

The railways and airlines have long had an association. Between 1934 and 1947 the Big Four group of railway companies (Great Western, Southern, London & North-Eastern and London Midland & Scottish) worked alongside Imperial Airways to operate Railway Air Services. This airline operated domestic air services across the United Kingdom. One of our archive collections, the Forsythe Collection of Transport & Travel Ephemera, contains publicity material that comes from not only the railways but also all forms of transport such as airlines from the late 1950s to the 2000s.

Caption: Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/A/4, ALS2/113/B/3, ALS2/113/A/6

Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/A/4, ALS2/113/B/3, ALS2/113/A/6

It was whilst working through the Forsythe Collection that myself and another volunteer came across some guides about air travel for prospective travellers from several airlines which caught our interest. The most fascinating of these sought to provide a “detailed guide to happy, well planned air travel for women.” This booklet, which was written in the late 1970s, speaks to a new generation of independent female travellers. Written in a breezy, conversational style it focuses on women’s interests and concerns.

Caption: Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

The booklet offered several pages of tips for those struggling to decide what to put in their suitcases, cautioning the readers: “With arrangements made for your overseas jaunt, stop dreaming and do a spot of clear-headed thinking on what to wear. A little time spent on it will pay dividends later.” The booklet includes sample wardrobes for city breaks and beach holidays:

Caption: Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

It suggested that “Denim’s fine only if your holiday is to be very very casual.” As well as advising that travellers take “1 fold-up umbrella, because yes! It even rains in Paradise, sometimes!”

Caption: Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/

Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/

The booklet gives useful tips for “beauty in-flight and at your destination” that advised to “avoid using hair lacquer. When you pass through the tropics it tends to become sticky, and not only makes your hairset become limp, but irretrievable.”

Caption: Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

As well including practical guides to shopping and local cuisine in different countries, there is also a helpful table that details the cost of having a haircut across the world:

Caption: Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

Forsythe Collection ALS2/113/B/3

As we all set on our holidays both near and far away, this leaflet provides a great reminder of a time when air travel was imbued with an aura of glamour and airlines lured travellers with the promise of a chic and exotic holiday once they had touched down at their destination. How do your experiences of flying compare to the sophisticated image of air travel that is depicted in booklets such as this?

The Forsythe collection (ref: 2009-7053) is available to view in Search Engine.

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Transporting the wounded: Railway ships as floating ambulances

At the outset of World War 1 the Admiralty requisitioned many ships from the fleets of Britain’s railway companies and their affiliates. These ships were converted to serve a number of purposes including the transport of wounded servicemen.

Technically a Hospital Ship is a floating hospital and is painted white with a green stripe (red if privately fitted out) running along the side and the red cross should be clearly painted on the bows, amidships, and at the stern, these red crosses should be clearly lit at night.

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Conserving the Mersey Railway poster

Over the last two years we’ve been working to conserve and frame the biggest poster in the National Railway Museum’s collection. At more than 2m x 3m its been a challenge, but it’s finally complete and ready for the wall.

Mersey Railway poster, detail, after conservation

Mersey Railway poster, after conservation, Feb 2014

The poster advertises the Mersey Railway’s electric trains between Birkenhead and Liverpool. The company opened the line under the Mersey connecting the two towns in 1886, but its fortunes were waning as people were reluctant to travel in the dirt, smoke and steam produced by the locomotives in the tunnels, much preferring the ferry services. By the turn of the century the Mersey Railway was losing money and decided to move to electric rail power to turn around its fortunes.

In an incredible feat, the Mersey Railway company made all of the adjustments to the line while the steam service was in operation and trained the existing steam drivers on the new electric units in the evenings. The switch from steam to electric was made on 2nd May 1903, losing only a few hours service in the change over. The line became the first in Britain to be operated entirely by electricity.

The poster dates to between 1903 and 1908 and it illustrates the line between the Liverpool stations Liverpool Central and James St., and the Birkenhead stations Hamilton Sq., Central, Green Lane and Rock Ferry. The connecting services to New Brighton, Manchester and so on are shown with a dotted line. It advertises ‘Electric Trains every 3 minutes between Liverpool & Birkenhead in 2 ½ minutes’. It also shows a first class interior in the top right. The poster reminds potential passengers that the railway is ‘Free from fogs, gales and tides’, to entice them away from the turbulence of the ferries.

The poster was in very poor condition so we commissioned local paper conservator Ruth Mathias to treat the poster and bring it back to life. The poster, originally printed onto a number of thin pieces of paper and pasted together (much like a modern day billboard), had been glued to a linen backing and then fixed onto a wooden board. Ruth’s first job was to carefully try and separate these layers of paper, fabric and wood. The poster had also been over-painted – possibly to hide earlier areas of damage – and varnished. It was very dirty and there was some structural damage to the poster with holes and scrapes. Ruth surfaced clean the poster and removed the varnish using a mild solvent. The poster was washed, and the over-painting removed where possible. Ruth then repaired the damaged areas and rejoined the individual sections of the poster, backing it onto Japanese paper. Finally she in-painted the areas of loss. The conservation process took over a year with the poster occupying the whole of Ruth’s studio.

While the conservation was happening we had a (massive) bespoke frame built by the fine art frame maker Alan Harvey. The poster has now been framed and we hope to put it on display in the Station Hall later this year.

Mersey Railway poster, before conservation, Sept 2011

Before conservation, Sept 2011

Mersey Railway poster, detail, showing dirt and damage, Sept 2011

Detail, before conservation, showing dirt and damage, Sept 2011

Detail, Birkenhead. After conservation

Detail, Birkenhead. After conservation

Detail, electric train. After conservation

Detail, electric train and guard. After conservation

The poster was made up of smaller individual sheets of paper much like a modern billboard. Here conservator Ruth rejoins the last of the sections.

The poster was made up of small individual sheets of paper. Here paper conservator, Ruth, rejoins the sections

The last job for paper conservator Ruth, was to infill areas of loss.

The last job for paper conservator, Ruth, was to infill areas of loss

The frame was prepared and the poster careful lowered into it.

The frame was prepared and the poster careful lowered into it

Mersey Railway poster after conservation and framing, July 2014

Mersey Railway poster after conservation and framing, July 2014

You can see a video of the conservation and framing process here.

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Port of Richborough and the birth of the cross channel train ferry.

How to keep an army in the field supplied with sufficient arms, ammunition, food and other essential supplies to keep it effective is a fundamental question asked by all military commanders. The difficulty of this undertaking is increased when that army is fighting overseas, and it was a question which had to be addressed in 1914.

Supplies manufactured all over the United Kingdom had to be transported to all theatres of war and therefore it is not surprising that the government sought control over the bulk carrying transport infrastructure such as railways and canals. Nor is it surprising that the military developed specialist units to build run and maintain such facilities in the war zones.

In December 1914 the Inland Waterways Transport Department of the Royal Engineers was formed, its purpose was to acquire, dispatch and man supply barges being sent from Dover to France. The barges were loaded with military stores and towed across the Channel; their crews would then pilot them along the French and Belgian waterways to stores depots close to the fighting front.

The use of barges was seen as advantageous to military logistics for several reasons; firstly it cut down on the need to double handle cargoes, once loaded the supplies could be delivered directly to the depot rather than being unloaded at a base port, loaded onto a train and then unloaded once again once they reached their destination. This in turn meant that the French ports and railways would be less congested with the materials of war and better able to move troops to where they were needed most. Thirdly because of their size and shallow draught barges were less likely to be sunk by torpedoes and therefore it was more likely that their cargoes would arrive safely at their destination and it spread the risk – if a cargo of ammunition is put aboard a ship and it is sunk the whole lot is lost, but put the same cargo on a barge convoy, even if they don’t all make it across, a percentage of the cargo will.

The barge operations began very quickly but IWTD was not particularly welcome in Dover and it became clear that they needed an operational base elsewhere. Richborough was chosen as it was close to SE&CR’s Minster Junction giving easy access to the rail network so that war materials could be easily transported to the new facility and allowing for direct dispatch to France. By 1916 Richborough Military Port had become a military stores depot not just for France but also for all other theatres of war. It also became the training centre for waterways operations sending men to Italy and the Middle East where they set up inland waterway operations to serve those fronts. By 1917 the port had its own engineering works and was building its own barges rather than just assembling them, they were also repairing railway wagons and operating their own railways. At the end of the war Port of Richborough covered some 2200 acres, had five railway yards, approximately 60 miles of track and could handle some 30000 tons of traffic per week.


Copyright National Railway Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

Richborough also became the Eastern port for a brand new service. In 1916 the need to supply the army becoming urgent and it was suggested that a train ferry service be introduced. The value of the barge service was that materials could reach the forward supply depots without being constantly loaded and unloaded so why could you not do the same with a train – Shunt the wagons onto a ship, send it across The Channel, couple it to a locomotive on the other side and take it straight to where it was needed. Such a ship would also make it easier to transport, large guns, tanks, lorries and armoured cars, replacement locomotives and rolling stock, in short all the necessities for modern warfare. Given the support of Sir Guy Granet (Midland Railway), the railway representative on the Army Council and Director General of Movements and Railways at the War Office, and his successor Sir Sam Fay (Great Central Railway) In 1917 the plan was approved and army proceeded to order three Train Ferries. Two of which were to operate from Richborough and one from Southampton. Whilst the ships were being built their new facilities were constructed both at the English ports and the ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Cherbourg. The first Train Ferry left Richborough on February 10th 1918, the above image shows army lorries and an ambulance train loaded onto a train ferry at Southampton, 11th April 1918. The ferry accommodated both road and rail vehicles. The lorries and ambulance trains are heading for the Western Front in France or Belgium, where the German Army had just launched its spring offensive. The ambulance train had been manufactured by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. They continued to sail on a daily basis until late 1919 when the ships were laid up.


1992-7780 The Train Ferry by Frank H Mason. Copyright National Railway Museum/SSPL

In 1922 the Great Eastern Railway approached the Army with a view to purchasing the three ships and the docking facilities both at Richborough and Southampton as they were planning to set up a new Train Ferry service between Harwich and Zeebrugge. Purchase was completed in 1923 and the dismantling of the Southampton facility began in earnest, unfortunately part of the link span was lost when the ship carrying it sank on its way across The Channel. The Richborough facility was also dismantled and sent to Harwich. The ships retained their rather functional military names Train Ferry 1, 2 & 3 and began their new service in 1924.

All three vessels were to serve again in World War 2 this time under The Admiralty. Train Ferry 1 was purchased in 1940 and converted into a Landing Ship under the name of HMS Iris (later Princess Iris). In 1944 she was converted back into a Train Ferry and at the end of the war was sold back to the London & North Eastern Railway, who named her Essex Ferry. Train Ferry 2 was requisitioned and used as a stores ship. In 1940 she was sent to St.Valery-en-Caux to assist in the evacuation of British Forces, she came under fire from enemy held shore batteries, which caused sufficient damage to force the crew to abandon her off Le Havre. Train Ferry 3 was also requisitioned as a stores vessel and in 1940 was sent to assist in the evacuation of Jersey and Guernsey. She was purchased by The Admiralty and renamed HMS Daffodil. In 1945 she struck a mine and sank off Dieppe.

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MOR Music: Music On Rails – Spotlight on Vinnie & the Stars

Last week we met up with Craig Whitehead (lead singer of Vinnie & the Stars) to discuss their upcoming performance at our Music On Rails festival. Here is what he said:

Vinnie & the Stars

© Flaming Pint Productions

What type of music do you perform and how did you all get into music? 

The Vinnie & The Stars genre is what we have come to call Hull-Hop, it’s Rock, Blues, and Funk with a Hip-Hop thread binding it all together. I started as a solo acoustic singer and the current line-up is really made up of friends who have seen me play that I knew where all great musicians that’d I’d asked to join the band. Andy Precious (Bass) has been in the band since pretty much the beginning. Tom Shillito (Drums) and Kath Perring (Keyboards) are newer additions. We all have a diverse taste in music and it’s fun to bring it all together to create our sound!

What have been the bands musical achievements to date?

Been play listed on BBC 6 Music on The Tom Robinson Show, Supporting Goldie Lookin Chain, my Solo Acoustic Tour of Louisiana. I’ll also be flying over to Canada to work with Paul Milner a producer who’s worked with Keith Richards, Sting and Eddy Grant on the next album.

What attracted you to want to perform at Music On Rails?

We love MOR Music, and everything they do for the local music scene, it was a pleasure to be asked to play! We can’t wait for the opportunity to play alongside some of our favourite local artists, have a great day, and share our music with lots of new people.

If you could describe the band in a sentence what would that sentence be?

“A boat filled with funk, punk, folk, blues sweetened with a sense of humour sailing out of hull harbour destined for the world!!!!!” – Grant Henderson (Music Producer/Loom Studio/Killer Computers)

Click here for more information on MOR Music: Music On Rails

Click here to find out more information on Vinnie & the Stars

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Recreating a First World War Ambulance Carriage

This is a post written by our Interpretation Developer Jane Sparkes

The role of the British railways in the First World War is almost too huge to begin to contemplate: from 10 to 17 August 1914 alone, 68,847 men, 21,523 horses, 166 guns, 2,446 vehicles, 1,368 bicycles and 2,550 tonnes of baggage and stores were moved from the UK to France by rail.  184,475 railway workers joined the forces, and many more stayed behind to build the vehicles required for the war effort and to keep the UK’s railways running.

“To all the officials, to all the men, and to the large number of women who are employed by the railways to-day, for their devotion to duty, for the immense amount of hard work which they are doing, and for the long hours in which they are engaged, we owe a real, genuine debt of gratitude.”
Sir Albert Stanley, President of the Board of Trade, 15 May 1918

Photograph from a Great Central Railway album (1914) showing one of five wards on a home ambulance train (Ref: 1996-7884)

To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, we will focus on a wartime railway story which is perhaps less well-known.  From July 2016, our exhibition will tell the story of the ambulance trains used to transport sick and injured troops, both in theatres of war and in the UK.  The centrepiece of the exhibition will be a carriage of the type used in these trains, presented as an ambulance carriage Ambulance trains had been used in previous conflicts, but their use in the First World War was on a new scale.  If a soldier was injured or fell ill and was sent back to the UK, it was more than likely that he would travel on an ambulance train.  The mass evacuation of casualties which was called for simply could not have happened without them.

The ambulance carriage recreation will be based on research carried out into the museum’s incredibly rich, but as yet not fully explored, collection of ambulance train drawings and photographs, some of which have only recently been catalogued.  These cover the whole range of carriages, from wards and treatment rooms, to pharmacies and kitchens.  Recreated fittings from across these areas, along with first-hand accounts from passengers and staff, will create something of the experience of travelling by ambulance train.

The carriage which will be dressed as an ambulance carriage, and an ambulance train


built by the Midland Railway (Ref: 1997-7397_DY_10274)








This experience could vary greatly.  Some passengers were suffering from terrible injuries, infections and the psychological impact of war, whereas others may only have had minor ‘Blighty’ wounds, which would allow them a welcome return to the UK.  Medical staff coped with immense suffering under intense pressure, but they also spent long periods of time waiting for the next trainload of casualties.  This time could be spent creating magazines, playing football or staging plays.

“October 25 couldn’t write last night: the only thing was to try and forget it all. It has been an absolute hell of a journey – there is no other word for it. …They were bleeding faster than we could cope with it; and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget.”

Anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front (Edinburgh ; London : William Blackwood and Sons, 1915) (general ISBN 978-1-153-60053-8, available to view in Search Engine ref B4-7/242).

Nurses on Number 18 Home Ambulance Train (Ref: NRM_1443_92)

Nurses on Number 18 Home Ambulance Train (Ref: NRM_1443_92)

We hope to uncover the personal stories of people who travelled and worked on ambulance trains, those who were associated with the station buffets which provided comforts for troops, and railway workers who played their part either as soldiers or back in the UK.  If a member of your family was one of these people, or if you have any related objects, photographs or stories, then we would love to hear from you – please contact me at

Follow our progress with the transformation of the carriage on this blog, where over the coming months we will also share discoveries from our research, and explore the wider role of the railways in the First World War.

Read more about ambulance trains and the York Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Buffet:

View our list of fallen World War One railway workers.

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