Published 16th May 2013
The Wolverton Works 175th anniversary celebrations were started in spectacular fashion at the Milton Keynes Museum on May 4 with all seats taken, and every other bit of available space taken by a standing audience.
The request for current and former Wolverton Works’ staff and their families to search for any Wolverton Works memorabilia brought out some truly historical items. Malcolm Rose for example, brought in a pair of Whit Monday Wolverton Sports meeting programmes from 1895 and 1899, both held at the Wolverton Works Recreation Ground as it was then called.
Sporting competitions were held in running (including a steeplechase!) and cycling, no smoking was allowed in the changing room and any appeals to the results had to be accompanied by a 5/- or 25p today, deposit. Entertainment was provided by W. Salmon, who the programme claims, was a demon trick and musical cyclist – very appropriate as the ground had a velodrome. They were supported by ‘The Proveanies Troupe’ who it was suggested in the programme, were Monarchs of the wheel!
The prizes are also listed and for example the 120 yards boys under 12 handicap carried a 2nd prize of a cherry stick (value 2/- or 5p today). A fantastic link to the sports ground was also brought in to the museum in the shape of a pair of medals. These were struck by the London & North Western Railway to commemorate the opening of the Sports Ground on August 3rd, 1885, one was for staff and the other for directors of the company.
But predating these examples by over 50 years was a rolled linen-backed silk map detailing a proposed rail road between London and Birmingham. This showed the southern end of the line using the Great Western Railway’s Paddington as its London terminus. The map was undated but was probably no later than around 1834 and the whole route was illustrated in minute detail showing who owned the land the proposed line was to be built on.
The organisers had hoped for some signs and were overwhelmed by a Wolverton station illuminated platform nameboard measuring 1.5m long dating from the 1950s. This was exhibited alongside the nameplate from the Wolverton Works signalbox – both items in great condition and belonging to local collectors. Many smaller items such as Wolverton Works’ cast-iron wagon and carriage plates dating back almost a century were also exhibited.
The Wolverton Works Fire Brigade (WWFB) also served the town and therefore has a special place in local history so when a brass WWFB helmet badge and a lapel badge were brought in, they created considerable interest.
Although it is controversial to mention individuals in these circumstances, the Wolverton 175 team would like to acknowledge local collectors Malcolm Rose, Mark Peal and David Bone, who took the time and trouble to bring so many amazing relics in.
But, one item puzzled the finder and everyone else at the event. It was found at the location of the Victorian built Station Master’s house – now the location of The Secret Garden in Wolverton. What appears to be a giant brass or copper corkscrew was found in April but nobody can say for sure what it was used for. It is about 15cms long with a double curled handle made out of copper but is without any identification marks. If anyone knows what it is, please let Phil Marsh know via the www.wolverton175.co.uk website.
Queen Victoria made an appearance accompanied by a Lady in Waiting and enjoyed looking at the Victorian items brought in. She seemed particularly amused to read a magazine supplement from August 1838 detailing the opening of the London to Birmingham Railway who also built Wolverton Works. She was told that it would be reproduced in the official anniversary book to be published in September.
The Wolverton Town Brass Band played throughout the afternoon providing a celebratory atmosphere in the museum’s Transport Hall. Wolverton and Greenleys Council Chairman Hilary Saunders and Museum Director Bill Griffiths opened the evening’s Royal Train speaking event.
The Royal railway panel, Leo Coleman, Chris Hillyard and Phil Marsh, dedicated the evening to Stanley Butler RVM, who died suddenly a week earlier and who had been looking forward to taking centre stage. He was in charge of the Royal Train for 27 years and travelled 470,000 miles on it and the estimated 250-300 people at his funeral underlined the popularity of the man.
The panel took turns to reveal how the Royal Train came about over 170 years ago, what and why wartime changes took place in strictest secrecy. Chris Hillyard recounted some wartime stories told to him by older Royal Train staff involving taking the train into a tunnel if an air-raid was underway and how The King instructed the staff not to use a tunnel at one stage preferring to die in the open!
Interestingly, the RT was used for railway innovation and for example, electric lighting and air conditioning were introduced to Royal Trains through the ages and then introduced to ordinary trains. The audience was also told how the train operates today including once being held up by a preceding slow service!
Leo Coleman, 91 next month, stood and talked fluently for 15 minutes without notes about his Royal Train work from before the war to project manage building the current Royal Train in the mid 1970s. He described how he was summonsed in October 1974 by the Works Manager Geoffrey Tew to be asked if he fancied building a Silver Jubilee Royal Train for use from 1977. This task officially commenced as a full time temporary post in January 1975 on higher grade duty paid at an MS2 rate!
Also in the office were designer Sir Hugh Casson and a couple of BRB Directors. Mr Coleman described this as a huge honour and even though it was nearly 40 years on, publically thanked all the Wolverton staff and their families for their help on that project – several were present to hear these thanks.
Leo also recalled about how in the 1940s, Works apprentices slept in the King’s bed to gain kudos amongst colleagues. He also recalls policeman on every bridge and platform saluting the train during its journey and claimed it was never late on his watch! Leo’s talk was rounded off with a huge round of spontaneous applause.
Mr Hillyard was recruited by Mr Coleman 40 years ago and found himself working on, and running the Royal Train for 37 years travelling nearly half a million miles until three years ago from when Stan Butler retired in 1993. He recalled Mr Butler’s great send-off on retirement including gifts from the Royal Family and Mr Levitt the Works Manager.
He spoke about the new Royal Train carriages built 30 years ago by his team which are still in use today and still in mint condition. Mr Hillyard said that whenever anyone asked Wolverton Works about the Royal Train, its existence was always denied but they admitted there was a special train based there!
He described how his career nearly came to an abrupt end in November 1997 when Phil Marsh was instructed as a Railtrack Manager to privatise the Royal Train. The pair then revealed how they conspired in under five minutes not to privatise the train despite instructions and remained in contact ever since. The business case was constructed by Phil Marsh so as not to stack up which was accepted by the powers that were at that time, so the train was not sold.
Chris Hillyard when asked about what the train was like said that it was operated as a mobile mini Buckingham Palace, but without much of the luxury, and conceded that communications and security were very, very good!
The train has to be in constant contact with the Prime Minister whether on the move or stationary for example. Until the age of mobile communications, when the train was stabled overnight, a GPO technician had to run a temporary connection from the train to the nearest telegraph pole – which on some routes could be across fields a mile or more away!
The Queen also brought innovation to the Royal Train in the form of repeated questions to Mr Hillyard such as; Where are we? when stabled overnight. Mr Hillyard said that he provided route maps for the passengers along with timing cards, still used today.
Mr Hillyard admitted being left behind once while running an errand for the Prince of Wales’ staff and the Royal Train departed without him from Cumbria – with all his identification and paperwork on board! He had to scrounge, dressed in formal Royal Train style, a lift using trains to get to Perth. The Royal Train tie secured his free rides and on arrival he found the rest of the team in the pub led by Stan Butler!
Mr Coleman told stories about the Queen asking to see him with a snagging list after the first journey in 1977. This ended up with the new ironing board being replaced by the old one which was rushed from Wolverton to Glasgow overnight. On the way back from seeing The Queen, Mr Coleman described how he was stopped by The Duke of Edinburgh to be asked about where his old shaving mirror had gone to and that he wanted it re-installed!
There were many more Royal stories such as Mr Hillyard creeping through The Queens carriage in the dark (the royal lights had been turned off to save electricity!) after a communications’ failure at the other end of the train. He had been told she had retired for the night, only she hadn’t and was confronted by her, and her corgies - described as a mass of green eyes reflecting in his torchlight!!
Perhaps of interest to railway staff, on one trip, the Queen reported a funny smell in her saloon and Mr Hillyard was summonsed to get rid of said smell. He identified the smell as a dragging brake and told Her Majesty that he would stop the train and rectify the problem. He contacted the signalman, who blocked the adjacent line – in sight of a level crossing and then went trackside to readjust the offending brakepad.
“Look out” cried HMQ as she saw a yellow van crossing the line which she mistook as the front of a train approaching. Mr Hillyard can claim to be the only railway person who has had The Queen acting as Lookout for them.
In recent years Mr Hillyard spoke about how he became involved in a project to build a new Royal Train based on a Eurostar concept and being channel tunnel compliant allowing direct travel to and across Europe. Jasper Conran and Rowan Atkinson were mentioned as being involved in this plan which was not fulfilled despite a lot of work being carried out. The latter is very friendly with The Prince of Wales. It would have been built at no cost to taxpayers had the plan succeeded.
The audience were spellbound for the two hour session so much that a repeat performance has been requested by many at the event and this will take place to launch the official Wolverton 175 book on September 3rd. A donation from each book sold will be made to fund a War Memorial dedicated to the 213 Wolverton Works staff who gave their lives in both wars.
By common consensus, the Wolverton 175 launch event was over all too soon and a repeat will be made on September 3 when the official Wolverton 175 book will be launched.
A 175th anniversary book has been written about Wolverton Works and will be published in September to mark the anniversary. This will contain images from 1837 to 2013, many have not been seen for decades as well as never before revealed information about Wolverton Works.
It will cost £6.95 plus P&P and full details will be posted on www.wolverton175.co.uk.