Volunteering at the National Railway Museum

This is a guest post written by one of our summer placement volunteers, Monica Bottin

I graduated from the University of Venice in April 2014 and began looking for a placement in the UK, as I was eager to improve my English.

Manning the Information Point in Great Hall

Manning the Information Point in Great Hall

I came to York at the beginning of August, as I had been offered a month-long position at the National Railway Museum working at the Information Point. There are no railway museums like this in Italy, so everything was new and there were a lot of things to learn.

Outside the Museum entrance

Outside the Museum entrance

The main thing that surprised me about York was the kindness of people; Starting from the smiley woman in the street who helped me find my accommodation to all the staff at the National Railway Museum, who did their upmost to make me feel at home.

The museum offered me the chance to interact with people from all over the world, which helped me improve my English. The opportunity also enabled me to gain experience in working within a bustling environment.

I am now back at home with my heart full of love for York and the National Railway Museum. I will never forget this experience and would suggest this beautiful place to everyone.

Thank you York and thank you to the National Railway Museum for offering me with a rewarding volunteer opportunity.

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Work and Play on a First World War Ambulance Train

The most recent addition to our rare book collection is an amazing insight into the lives of people who worked on ambulance trains during the First World War. The book was compiled by the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)  and (in their words) consists of ‘ articles from our train magazine, and reflects for the most part the lighter side of our life – the other side was all too present in our minds’ 

The Friends Ambulance Unit was made up of conscientious objector Quakers, who by choosing not to fight often served in medical positions assisting injured soldiers.

Working on ambulance trains meant dealing with the many horrors of war; terrible debilitating  injuries and diseases and men traumatised from their war experiences. The Friend’s Ambulance Unit dealt with these terrible things, whilst at the same time being opposed to the war that caused them.

A.Train Errant. Being the experiences of a voluntary unit in France. 1915-1919

A.Train Errant. Being the experiences of a voluntary unit in France. 1915-1919

Archives held within Leeds University’s Liddle CollectionThe Imperial War Museum  and The Library of the Religious Society of Friends document horrific experiences of the Friends Ambulance Unit. ‘A Train Errant’ provides us with a lighter insight into how ambulance train staff coped with their experiences.

The cartoon below from the magazine shows how men on the trains had begun styling their beards as ‘facefins’.

‘Sergeant writes. My moustache is a treat. the satisfaction I have derived from same especially on tedious railway journeys is quite worth the necessary trouble. They all say they like the one that tickles ‘

Facefins! Facefins!! Facefins!! If you have not got one now you have got to get one quick

Facefins! Facefins!! Facefins!! If you have not got one now you have got to get one quick

Men could spend years serving on ambulance trains close to the front. The below cartoon is obviously a dig at the quality of the food on the train.  Those travelling on the train ate ‘armoured pies and tarts’ made by ‘Bub and Co … Jam and armour plate makers’.

BUB IMPENETRABLE PASTY - a specialty in armored pies and tarts

BUB IMPENETRABLE PASTY – a specialty in armored pies and tarts

This extract written by a matron on a train is tinged with the same sense on humour as the above; her ‘impressions of an A.T. [ambulance train]‘  describe the superior driving of British engine drivers (as apposed to the French),  smashing of enamel as the train jerked forward, moving to the more profound ‘wooden crosses in the rude God’s acre’, making us pause and think of the cheery ones “gone west”‘ and rumbling of guns far away.

Impressions of an A.T. [ambulance train] by R.M.C. (Matron)

Impressions of an A.T. [ambulance train] by R.M.C. (Matron)

This is only a small selection of the fascinating articles contained in ‘The Train Errant’. The book helps us to understand how people coped with the enormous pressure of war, where people were launched into unfamiliar and horrifying situations.

We hope to include this kind of real life insight in our ambulance train exhibition due to launch in 2016.

The book is available to view now in Search Engine, our library and archive centre. For details on how to access items from our library and archive see these pages.

Other Ambulance Train blogs:

Recreating a First World War Ambulance Carriage – click here

Coming Home From the Front Line – wartime ambulance train travel – click here


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The Last Campaign of the railway ships

In March 1918 a treaty between the Central Powers and the newly formed Bolshevik government of Russia was signed at Brest – Litovsk (now Brest in Belarus) which effectively ended the war on the Eastern Front.

This had two major effects on the Western Allies: firstly it freed up the forces of the Central Powers meaning that they could redeploy to both the Western Front and the Middle East Front: secondly it threatened the large naval and military stores in the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel through which the allies had been supplying the Imperial Russian Army.

Under pressure from the UK and France, the Americans agreed to the necessity of deploying forces to support the Loyalist (White) Russian Forces in the hope that they would defeat the Bolshevik (Red) Russians and thus re-open the Eastern Front.

As part of this operation Naval and Military forces were sent to the White Sea, the mission was two fold: Firstly to protect the Naval & Military stores at Murmansk and Archangel, secondly to mount an offensive which was to unite with White Russian Forces and support them against the Bolsheviks.

Prior their arrival in the White Sea the military situation had changed dramatically hence the change in military priority. Not only were the stores threatened by the Bolsheviks, but a division of German troops had been landed in Finland, ostensibly to aid the White Finns (the more conservative forces involved in the Finnish Civil War), the British and French were concerned that if this force attacked Murmansk considerable supplies would be available to the Central Powers which could then be used against them in the West.

Last Campaign

Into this confusing situation sailed a task force of ships bringing a mixed military force of British, American, French, Canadian and Australian soldiers whose job it was to undertake the various tasks assigned to them.

Within the naval task force were a number of Railway ships headed by HMS Pegasus, originally ordered by the Great Eastern Railway in 1914 as SS Stockholm it was mothballed and 1917 the Admiralty bought the partially built vessel and fitted it out as a mixed aircraft carrier. Also present were two vessels from the Caledonian Steam Packet Company; TSS King Edward and PS Queen Empress, both were fitted out as Hospital Carriers. The North British Railway also contributed two Hospital Carriers; PS Edinburgh Castle from it’s own fleet, and PS Lord Morton from the Galloway Saloon Steam Packet Co., in which the NBR held a majority interest.

Thanks to the diary of Ethelbert Daish (www.ethelbertsdiary.co.uk) it is possible to trace the operations undertaken by the Hospital Carriers. It appears that they mainly operated in Archangel and the Northern Dvina River. On the 20th July 1919 Ethelbert encounters the Queen Empress at Bereznick. Caught out, presumably whilst taking on wounded, the ship was stranded due to the low level of water in the river because of the dry conditions. On the 30th of that month having transported his own cargo of wounded down river he comes across the Edinburgh Castle in Archangel. By 3rd of August, Ethelbert is again at Bereznik, where on the 27th he reports the departure of Queen Empress, two days later he records passing this ship as it had run aground in his own words he understood

“…there is not much hope for her as the water is falling again and the tugs cannot move her.”[1]

On September 2nd whilst still on passage to Archangel, Ethelbert’s vessel discharges it’s wounded to Lord Morton, he then proceeds to Archangel when on September 7th several of his shipmates are transferred to King Edward which was homeward bound.

Ethelbert then records that on September 24th

“Two of the river transports have been taken to the White Sea today and blown up…It can scarcely be said that these paddle steamers have justified the expenditure. Apart from the upkeep I understand that the fitting out of the nine hospital carriers amounted to £2,000,000. Some of them did practically nothing. None have done a great deal. It has been a mismanaged affair altogether.”[2]

The two vessels blown up were Edinburgh Castle and Lord Morton. Officially it was recorded that these vessels were destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy.

[1] www.ethelbertsdiary.co.uk accessed 28/5/2014

[2] www.ethelbertsdiary.co.uk accessed 28/5/2014

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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.

Continue reading

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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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