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LMSS Masthead

A CAREER ON THE RAILWAY

Photo of The Grove, Watford The Grove, Watford pictured in the mid-60s when it was still in British Railways ownership.

An Autobiographical Account of One Man's Railway Career by Donovan Mitchener.

At the age of sixteen my school days came to an end I left with very little to show academically apart from a certificate from the Royal Society of Arts for a shorthand (Pitman's) speed test at 50 words per minute. There was much discussion regarding my future with my parents. I had fanciful ideas regarding my future such as going into politics, the theatre or something in the electrical world. The railway was not mentioned as I had shown no particular in such a career despite my father working for the London & North Eastern Railway. However, having an Uncle and a cousin working for the LMS Railway Company I begin to see that there was some sense in seeking work on the railway particularly as it would provide security for a life long occupation. Almost immediately arrangements were set in motion for me to take the entrance examination of this company and in due course I was called to the Offices at Broad Street Station to sit for the entrance examination and this proved to be a real revelation to me. I entered an office with high desks and stools to match, an open fire in the grate and two very kindly gentlemen who provided me with tea. I returned home with high hopes that I would be successful in being accepted on the Railway. This took place early in December 1939 and in January 1940 I received a letter from Mr.A.L.Castleman, the District Goods Manager, that I had passed the exam and to report to the Broad Street Offices as soon as possible. Wasting no time, I made my way to Broad Street and started my railway career as a Junior Clerk. I was at Broad Street for about three weeks before being moved to the offices at Camden Town Goods Station where I took up a position in the "Claims Tracing Office". Here I joined two other clerks, about my age and found that our task was to deal with thirty applications each day. It did not take long to discover which firm's invoices were kept at Camden so we were able to mark those which we decided were 'Not at Camden' and then deal with the rest. Now and again we were wrong and the application returned to Camden, but our initials were sufficiently disguised so that our boss had difficulty in deciding who 'was the guilty party'. All went smoothly for about three months when one afternoon having been summoned for an interview with Mr.Castleman I given instructions to attend for an interview at the Company's wartime HQ. The Grove Watford.

This I now realise was the real beginning of my railway career. I made my way to The Grove and presented myself to Mr.Firth. (Not that I saw him but his assistant instead who took me down to the first floor offices.) Here I found another interviewee who informed me that the 'job' was "in the bag" for him, so I was delighted when he came out from the interview and I heard a voice thanking him for attending which indicated to me that I was going to be lucky; this proved to the case. I was then ushered into a very large room with an equally large desk where the interviewer was seated. I must admit very little has remained in my memory of the initial part of the interview, however, what I do remember was being informed that I was taking up the appointment as a junior in the office of Sir William Wood the Senior Vice-President of the LMS Railway Company. The main purport being that I had to be 'courteous and well turned out at all times' as I would be working with 'a Knight of the Realm'. I then returned to Camden in a daze and informed them that I would be moving to The Grove on the following Monday morning.

As the junior clerk my duties were naturally mainly filing and running errands, and I also discovered that the rather severe gentleman who interviewed me was Mr. A. J. Pearson the Assistant to Lord Stamp and Sir William Wood; a rather taciturn north countryman but with an easy approachable manner. Apart from office work it being wartime I had to do "fire watching" duties at regular intervals and was allocated to being with the Fire Brigade. They were very kind to me and made sure that despite being on duty I had a good night's sleep, mainly tucked up under an office desk. The Second World War came more 'real' to me when the tragic news broke on the morning of April 16, 1941 that Lord Stamp together with his wife and son had been killed by a direct hit from a German bomb on his house at Shortlands, Kent. This was more poignant as he often stayed at night at The Grove. This also meant that Sir William Wood became the President of the LMS Railway,

My time working for the Railway came to an end in April 1942 when I was called up for military service and directed to make my way to Norwich. I duly arrived at Thorpe Station in Norwich and marched with others to Nelson Barracks and found myself in the Royal Norfolk Regiment. Here I was 'Trade Tested' which consisted of being shown a series of photographs and asked to say which the odd one out was. Following on from this, I was interviewed by the Adjutant at the Barracks, a Captain Gaymer who asked me for the name of the person I worked for on the Railway, naturally I said Sir William Wood. Apparently this was extremely effective as on my first army leave when I visited the railway office and my colleague Arthur Pearson asked me what I had been doing in the Army as the War Office had been asking about me! I did not think much about this remark until when I was back from leave, and having been posted to the 7th Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment and stationed in Northern Ireland I received a posting to Aldershot Barracks in England. What followed from this I realised that resulting from the mention of Sir William Wood it had been decided I was no longer 'cannon fodder'! At Aldershot I had a three week course in Army Office Routine and did rather well in the examination which followed and at a subsequent interview having turned down the offer of being trained as an Officer found myself posted for three months to a School in Islington for training in Army Office Routine. By now I had been transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps, and once again did rather well and found myself in the 9th Army Division as the Private Clerk to the CRASC (Commander, Royal Army Service Corps). Eventually in 1945 I was part of the Force which rescued the Channel Islands from German occupation. When this ended in 1945 and I returned to England and posted to London and spent my final days in the Army stationed at the War Office. Firstly for, I think about three weeks, as a Private Secretary to the Adjutant General to the Forces, but when they discovered I was due shortly to be demobbed was transferred to the main offices in Whitehall.

Following my demob on the 6th December 1946, I returned early in January 1947 to the Railway HQ Offices, still at The Grove, Watford. My old position in Sir William Wood's office was no longer available as Len Metcalf whose position I had filled following his 'call-up' had returned from the RAF. However, I was found a position in the office of The Chief Commercial Manger and was accommodated in Hut "A" in a section dealing with Ticket Irregularities. I found this a very pleasant change from army routine and being situated in rural surroundings and a pleasant walking area for lunchtime breaks either to the local Pub at nearby Chipperfield or collecting blackberries to take home. This idyllic sojourn came to an end in September 1947 when we returned to our London HQ in Euston House. Following the overwhelming Labour election in 1945 it was obvious that the Railways would be nationalised and thus on the 1st January 1948 the LMS Railway ceased to exist and became the London Midland Region.

With the change from the LMS Railway to London Midland Region where we left off last time apart from this change of title and being responsible to a Chief Regional Officer life went on as usual. In early April, I was summoned one afternoon to attend a rather secret interview at the HQ of the newly formed Railway Executive accommodated in the old Great Central Railway Hotel at Marylebone becoming more appropriately known as '222 Marylebone Road'. This led to me being appointed to a position in the office of the Chief Passenger Manager, Mr. L. Conibear under the direction of the Commercial Member Mr. David Blee. Once again I found myself as the filing clerk and general runabout. This was a very congenial period and lasted until 1954 when the Railway Executive was disbanded and new organisation created, The British Transport Commission. As a result I found myself redundant and thanked by the Chairman, Sir Brian Robertson for my help. It was then back to Euston House and once again in the Commercial Manager's department...

This was quite a shock but it stirred up my ambitions and I began to work my way up the Clerical Grades. I had a certain advantage to my position when at Marylebone I had been given me an increase of 25 to my yearly salary, so I was Graded 5/4. Shortly after my return to Euston a revision of the Grading System raised me to Grade 3. Whilst in this position my senior clerk was a Mr. Herbert Jackson, a supreme example of the 'old Railway Clerk'. He would arrive promptly at 9am smartly dressed and immediately took off his jacket, neatly folding it up and placing in his desk cupboard and then taking out an old rather stained one with its lapels covered in pins; this he wore all day, apart from lunchtime. I think he felt I was there to supersede him and sadly this happened as he developed lung cancer and died not long after. During this period a new Sales Section was formed under the direction of a new Chief Officer, Mr. George Dow and I managed to be appointed to a Class Two position on it. In this Section I made the progression to the rank of 'Special B' and made my debut as a Salesman visiting Traders for various discussions regarding their transport requirements. Two occasions remain in my memory one was with McVities at their Willesden Depot. Following a general discussion with the Transport Manager in which he mentioned they had problems in loading their wagons at Liverpool when it was raining. Their shed being small and the wagons being 'end door' the goods being loaded were damaged. I was surprised that nobody had suggested to him that side end doors at the rear of the wagon would probably solve the problem and I would arrange for our Engineer at Derby to come and discuss the matter with him. Evidently this worked as I received some complimentary biscuits in due course. The other case was with some pressure tanks for Brown and Polson who were getting rather fractious regarding the delay in their delivery. I managed to stir up the supplier at Worcester with satisfactory results.

In 1961 the Beeching Studies took place and I became the Secretary to the London Midland Region Study Group under the chairmanship of Mr. Ashby Johnson and I became the Secretary to the Euston Study Group. During this time it became clear that there would be considerable changes to the organisation at the Regional HQ. In fact when the Studies were completed I became redundant. It was my good fortune that a position was found for me in the Passenger Section of the London Division situated at Finsbury Square. Once again I felt like the odd man out not only being somebody from headquarters freight department but worse still a friend of the Divisional Manager who I had got to know when at the Railway Executive. However, I took the post up at the beginning of 1962 but in June relief came when a new position was advertised in the Vacancy List for 'Head of Market Research' in the new HQ organisation at Regional Headquarters. The general opinion of my colleagues at Finsbury Square was that it was 'made for me'. I duly applied for the job and being successful moved back to Euston House in July. I was surprised when I found. I was the only occupant of the position with no staff; only seven other employees who were redundant.

However, after a short period a new Chief Officer arrived to take up the position of Chief of Commercial Services, this was Mr. John Stewart from the ICI organisation. He duly interviewed me asking what projects I was engaged on and was nonplussed when told there were none and that my title did not mean what it said, and that I was a remnant from the past and knew where to find old papers etc. It was his first encounter with the odd way the railway worked. The result was an immediate change of my title to 'Freight Administration Officer' and the seven redundant people I had acquired became my staff. I was shortly after this that I was asked to work closely with him especially in connection with the revision of the Sales Force. I was in fact a Personal Assistant but not in name, as it would have meant far too large an increase in my salary! So for some months I accompanied him as he visited each of the Regional Divisions which was both interesting and quite hectic. The end product was the production of the 'Sales Organisation Report' in which I had a hand in producing and in which Mr.Stewart acknowledged my assistance. It also led to the appointment of Sales Managers and Salesmen. In April 1964 Francis Culpin (Assistant General Manager - Freight) called me to his office one afternoon and I was invited to attend a three month Management Course at the Derby School of Transport; this I readily accepted. My time lasted with John Stewart lasted until 1967 when he departed to the British Railways Board at Marylebone, The strain of five years working with him told on me shortly after he left Euston House and I suffered a minor breakdown which was reasonably quickly cured. In late 1968 I managed to progress to the BRB at Marylebone as a Marketing Services Officer.

My return to the British Railways Board came about through the re-advertising of a post which did not look as if I was really qualified to apply for especially as far as I could see the right person for the job was in my office at Euston. However, following the interviews it was re-advertised and one morning when crossing from Marylebone Station on my way to my office I was waylaid by a Senior Officer and told to apply for the post. This I did and in due course was interviewed and appointed. Although the advertisement stressed the need for some knowledge of Demurrage and Standage Charges there turned out to be much more to the position such as Secretary to both the Freight and Commercial Conferences. Also some items that used to be dealt with by the old Railway Clearing House, disbanded under the Beeching Plan. I also found that I was responsible for the Demurrage and Standage charges made on wagons held at longer than the agreed times. This responsibility also meant I had to dissolve the Demurrage Sub-Committee of which I as he Chairman. This I was able to carry out amicably with the Regional representatives, but it did allow me to visit each Division from time to time, getting me out occasionally from my office. Also I found myself co-opted on to the Staff Suggestions Committee which provided much interest and sometimes unintentional humour. At one meeting I attended it was suggested that a promotional gimmick in the form of 'book matches' would be helpful, unfortunately this was dismissed because it might encourage acts of arson!

In late 1980 I was called into the main office and when the Secretary to my Chief drew up a chair and offering me tea I felt something momentous was about to happen; and it did. Early retirement was about to be offered to me. I demurred from making an instant decision and asked to think it over. This was granted and I immediately contacted the Pensions Office to find out my financial situation. I was soon informed that I had completed 41 years and could retire with the full requirements of the LMS Railway fund to which I belonged. Thus in May 1982 I was able at the age of fifty seven and a half to retire on a full pension so ending my career in the service of the Railway.

By taking an early retirement, I was able to leave my years in the Railway Service before the Government took, for my thinking, the fatal step of privatising the industry without adequate consultation from railway sources.. We now have a collection of franchised owners running various railway lines who have to make a sufficient profit to run the trains and pay their Shareholders. The result has been pretty catastrophic and become a complete fiasco. Living here in High Wycombe I am fortunate in having Chiltern Railways, which may not be all we may wish for but does provide a good service not only to London but into the Provinces.

Donovan Mitchener. December 2007

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