You might think that the memoirs of a 19th c railway officer would be a tedious read, but you could not be more wrong. For nearly five decades, George Neele, as a regular attender at Railway Clearing House meetings had a ringside seat to record every major development in railway operating, telegraphs, signaling and braking systems. These were not mere po-faced gatherings either. Conviviality accompanied the “sherry and sandwiches”, no meeting could be regarded as complete unless Mr. Salt and Mr, Pepper had been “mustered” and these responsible gentlemen, at a time when smoking anywhere on board a train was illegal, would prop the most cadaverous looking member of their group up in the corner by the door to their compartment, with his jaw tied up with a handkerchief, to ward off any “civilian” passengers, so that pipes and cigars could be enjoyed en route to meetings.
Look at George Neele’s portrait. It is the face of a strong competent man, but there is more than a hint of humour evident in the eyes. He could never pass a certain memorial bust in the Shareholder’s Room at Euston without having a quiet chuckle, because of its unfortunate inscription. “Admiral Moorsom, Late Chairman LNW Railway. Executed at the desire of his friends”.
As Superintendent of the Line, Neele was in effect Chief Operating Officer, and solely responsible for all aspects of the passenger business, timetables, provision of guards, efficient movement of G.P.O traffic, signaling, publicity and the promotion of tourism. Freight traffic was the responsibility of the Chief Goods Manager, of great importance later, but in the early days of Neele’s career, very much an also ran. When first approached to accept coal traffic, the response of the London & Birmingham railway was one of horror. “Coal! They will be wanting us to carry dung next!” Coal was reluctantly accepted, provided that the wagons were sheeted over, so that passengers could not see what they contained.
Neele greatly appreciated unorthodox solutions to problems. There was a location where sidings on a downward gradient terminated just short of a canal, and shunters regularly failed to slow wagons sufficiently, with a high casualty rate amongst buffer stops, and “drowned” wagons. Even substantial concrete blocks failed to prevent the carnage, so the engineer decided to provide – nothing at all! Once the shunters could see that nothing would prevent wagons ditching, if they lost control, the problem ceased. The book is full of anecdotes of this type, and of graphic descriptions like walking the entire length of the single line tunnel at Blaenau Ffestiniog, with an officer from the Railways Inspectorate, behind a carriage towed along with the doors on both side propped wide open, to ensure that passengers would be able to escape from a train in the event of an accident.
For three decades, Neele was intensely proud of the fact that whenever Queen Victoria traveled on the LNWR, he was the “Officer in Charge” with the responsibility of sorting out any problems which might interfere with the smooth operation of the journey. In later years, he was accompanied by Charles Park, Carriage Supt. from Wolverton Works, before him, by his predecessor, Richard Bore. While on LNWR metals, George Whale usually travelled on the locomotive, for technical support. Once on another company’s line, their Officers would be in attendance, but usually deferred to Neele, as the LNWR provided the train. Apart from various shorter trips, the Queen made two return journeys, usually overnight, to Balmoral from Windsor, the Isle of Wight or Euston every year. Neale recorded them all, and they were no sinecure. The Queen was a fussy old puss, who when she wanted something, wanted it there and then. There were no bellows connections between the vehicles (that had been tried when the day saloon and the night saloon had been separate vehicles. HM refused to use the bellows when the train was moving, which rather defeated the object of the exercise). The two saloons were then mounted on the same under frame, and the opportunity taken to install modern gas lighting. The Queen would have nothing to do with it, insisting that the candles and oil lamps were restored. With no connection to adjacent vehicles, transfers of Ladies in Waiting or Dressers often had to be made in pitch darkness, by means of ladders in the middle of nowhere. Communication from the Royal Saloon was by means of a limited electric bell code including “Stop”, “Go Faster” – rarely used and “Go Slower” – frequently resorted to. Any suspicion of speeding would result in a “Stop” signal, and Neele would make his way back along the ballast, to be confronted by an angry bearded Highlander (John Brown) “The Queen says the carriage is shaking like the De’il!”
Conventional sleeping berths were provided for the servants who would not be required during the night, but Neale and the “Gentlemen of the Royal Suite” who might be required, travelled fully dressed in saloons with sofas. The party consisted of Sir Arthur Bigge, HM’s Private Secretary, Dr. Jenner, (later Dr. Reid), Queens Physician, one or two Gentlemen in Waiting, and a Government Minister in Attendance. As the train rumbled interminably through the night at the Queen’s preferred 40 mph, this little group would while away the hours, smoking (forbidden in the Royal Presence!), yarning and no doubt enjoying the odd dram. We can tell from his memoir that Neele was a gifted raconteur, and when his duties permitted, he was flattered to be invited to join this select group, all no doubt looking forward to breakfast at Perth – the customary 19th c spread, supplemented now they were in Scotland with fresh salmon, porridge and Arbroath Smokies.
It is with something of a shock when reaching the end of the section on Royal Journeys, to discover that not once in 30 years had Victoria spoken to Neele, or even apparently acknowledged his presence when joining or leaving the train. There might be a few words of appreciation from Sir Arthur , or a day or two later a note “I am commanded by Her Majesty to express her appreciation of the arrangements carried out in connection with…” but nothing personal, until his last journey as Officer in Charge.
Neele was ushered into see Her Majesty, who expressed her regret at his retirement and thanked him for his service. She indicated a large framed print of a painting of the extended Royal Family gathered at the time of the Golden Jubilee in 1887, which she hoped he would accept as a token of gratitude. On later examination, he found that this print, copies of which could be bought for a few pounds, was not even signed. There is no doubt the Neele’s feelings were hurt by this. If you want to know what happened next… Read the book!
In my opinion, it is one of the best railway books ever written. The amount of detail is staggering apart from the entertaining anecdotes. My copy was given to me by the late Ken Hoole some 50 years ago, and you can probably tell from some of the faults in the scanning, has been almost read to pieces. I dearly wish that I could have met George Neele!
PREVIEW BELOW – MAY TAKE A WHILE TO LOAD.