A reader’s letter in a national rail magazine 60 years ago set off a chain of events that led to the opening of Didcot Railway Centre.
Jon Barlow wrote to The Railway Magazine saying he was thinking of launching a campaign to buy a British Railways’ steam tank engine and preserve it in running order.
It was 1961 and plans were afoot to phase out steam locomotives in Britain and replace them with diesels.
Readers responded enthusiastically to Mr Barlow’s idea and the Great Western Society was born.
Now, in an article in the September issue, writer Chris Milner recalls the society’s history and the part The Railway Magazine played in it.
The society’s first success was to buy steam locomotive No 1466 from British Railways for £750 in 1964.
It was at Taunton, Somerset, at the time and the new owners needed somewhere to keep it. They chose a disused cattle dock siding at Totnes quay.
By April 1966, the society had four locomotives, including No 6998 Burton Agnes Hall, an engine formerly based at Oxford, which had run on the last day of steam on the Western Region three months earlier.
Another locomotive acquired by the society was tank engine No 6106 stabled at Taplow, Buckinghamshire.
The society’s arrival at Didcot came after two British Railways’ officials on board a train spotted No 6106 and one said: “I thought we’d scrapped all those.”
Rail officials opened discussions with the society to make steam engines less visible on the network.
After all, diesel was the future – and the result was an agreement to share Didcot locomotive shed with British Railways.
No 6106 was the first to move in, in November 1967.
At first, the society was allowed to use one of the shed’s four ‘roads’ and hold one members’ day and one open day a year.
But when British Railways finally pulled out in 1970, the society took over the whole site and began its expansion which has continued to the present day.
Mr Milner writes: “With an authentic four-road steam shed dating from the 1930s, a 70,000-gallon water tower, a coaling stage, a lifting shop and a pit ready for a turntable, there was plenty of scope to create a working museum.”
The centre, now covering 25 acres, is one of Oxfordshire most popular tourist attractions and it and its staff and volunteers have won many awards.
Many visitors are expected at the centre’s 60th anniversary gala on October 23 and 24 when historic locomotives will be in steam.
Mr Milner concludes his article: “What has been achieved by Great Western Society members over the past 60 years is nothing short of remarkable.
“Had it not been for that letter in The Railway Magazine asking for money to save a tank loco, this comprehensive collection of GWS locomotives may never have materialised.”
For more information about events at the railway centre visit didcotrailwaycentre.org.uk.