This blog is written by Harriet Steers, one of our archive volunteers who is researching railways and the First World War.
We recently started a project to enhance the NRM’s list of 20, 000 railwaymen who died in the First World War. (We regularly update this list with new information, so keep checking our website and this blog for details.)
The project started by looking at Great Central Railway (GCR) journals printed during the period of the conflict. The 1915-1916 volume, which is available on the open shelves of Search Engine, contains a surprising Yorkshire based story reported by the railway company to their readers.
Lizzie the elephant, who belonged to a travelling menagerie, was conscripted at the outbreak of the war to help with the vast amount of munitions work that took place in Sheffield. Her duties included carting machinery, munition and scrap metal around the city.
She was reported to be able to remove and load vast quantities, her largest being 28 tonnes in 6 journeys from the station to the firm that she worked for, T. W. Ward Ltd. Her co-workers, specifically horses, were said to have not taken very kindly to their new competitor, even bolting in terror of their first meeting. Yet, with time her appearance became less of a worry for the other animals at work.
Although fed daily rations consisting of two buckets of mixed corn and half a truss of hay, Lizzie became well known fast as a great forager of food in the city. Stories such as stealing an apple from a lad’s pocket quietly with her trunk were soon heard of, and many of Lizzie’s visitors enjoyed bringing her edible treats.
One man fed Lizzie a whole basket of potatoes, which led to the elephant calmly confronting the man a short time after, with the now empty basket at the end of her trunk wanting more. Not only did she steal food, but was reported to have eaten a schoolboy’s hat.
She was said to have done very satisfactory work, and was more easily handed than the horses that worked there. Yet it wasn’t just Lizzie that contributed to the war effort. Camels were also used in Sheffield to pull heavy loads, with another elephant found in Surrey being used as a substitute for ploughing the fields and transporting the hay.
On the same page as this light-hearted story in the journal there is a list of eleven wounded GCR men, these Clerks and Railway Porters formerly based at locations such as Liverpool and Grimsby are reported injured in France, Egypt and Greece. A stark reminder of the reality of war, and shows how the railway companies attempted to highlight the lighter sides of wartime work whilst their men were away fighting.