Go back to article: Flying Scotsman: modernity, nostalgia and Britain’s ‘cult of the past’

The nostalgic Flying Scotsman and Britain’s ‘cult of the past’

Pegler’s acquisition of Flying Scotsman helps illustrate wider emerging themes in the 1960s concerning nostalgia and the preservation of the past. The ‘increasing cult of the “national heritage”’ was a largely British phenomenon leading, as David Cannadine has noted, to ‘unbridled (and often uninformed) nostalgia’ (Cannadine, 2002). Pegler himself was an avowed nostalgic and proud of Britain’s engineering heritage. In 1954 his investment ensured the longer term survival of the recently reopened tourist line the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales and he further raised his profile by organising a number of special charter trains hauled by historic locomotives. His rescue of Flying Scotsman not only increased his profile in heritage railway circles but now gave him national exposure. In January 1969 he appeared on the popular BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs.[10] The presenter Roy Plomley asked if he had chosen his records ‘nostalgically’. Pegler confirmed that he had: ‘I would like from a nostalgia point of view to recapture memories of earlier days.’ He was, he continued, ‘unashamedly a terrific sentimentalist…’. It was a subject he would turn to again when choosing his final record ‘When Britain Really Ruled the Waves’ from Gilbert & Sullivan’s opera Iolanthe: ‘I make no bones at all about being a sentimentalist and I make no bones at all about being, I suppose, very patriotic… I love England and I am proud that I’m English. I know that all these things are very unfashionable these days but nevertheless I do have these feelings…’

The 1950s and 1960s may have been decades of great change but they also witnessed a growing interest in preserving Britain’s social and industrial heritage. This was seen in the work of people like the museum director Frank Atkinson who strove to establish an open air museum in the North East of England in order to prevent the loss of ‘everyday material’ (including machinery) and present it ‘on a vast scale before it was too late…’ (Atkinson, 1999). Beamish would eventually open in 1971 but not after Atkinson had faced considerable opposition from those ‘who disapproved of the idea of an open-air museum in general and of industrial heritage in particular’ (Brown, 2009). Similarly, the engineer and writer Tom Rolt had focused on preserving canals and railways and the ways of life associated with them. In the 1940s he founded the Inland Waterways Association and the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, leading to the preservation of many derelict canals and inspiring the railway preservation movement.[11] The impact of the work of Rolt, Atkinson and others on focusing attention on often neglected areas of Britain’s heritage should not be underestimated.

In 1974 the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Director Roy Strong remarked on the wider appeal of Britain’s heritage as representing ‘some form of security, a point of reference, a refuge perhaps, something visible and tangible which, within a topsy and turvy world, seems stable and unchanged’.[12] The phenomenon was nothing new. Industrialisation and the growth of Empire had led to significant changes to British ways of life in the nineteenth century too. The fashion for ‘restoration’ of historic buildings to an appearance they had never actually had led William Morris and others to form the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877. It is with this movement that the phrase ‘a national heritage’ – the notion that historic buildings were an inheritance to be protected – started to be widely used.[13] The notion would spread beyond the built heritage to other historic survivals too, physical, cultural and spiritual. This pattern was certainly seen in the 1950s and 1960s, a time which witnessed a great rise in the number of preservation societies ranging in diversity from the Victorian Society (1958) to the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (1963). The mood was captured perfectly in popular music such as the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), with its music hall inspirations, and more overtly through the Kinks’ 1968 album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. On the album’s title track ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’, the band’s lead singer and songwriter Ray Davies damned office blocks and skyscrapers whilst eulogising ‘Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards‘. The Kinks may have been part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s that men like Alan Pegler found so unsettling but these were sentiments that he could easily relate to. As Davies plaintively sang: ‘Preserving the old ways from being abused… What more can we do?’

A growing sense of nostalgia was seen in other aspects of popular culture at this time, from the renewed interest in the music of Gilbert & Sullivan (Pegler and Harold Wilson were fans) to the television programme Dad’s Army, which nostalgically looked back to a recent but swiftly vanishing past (the programme was first broadcast less than a fortnight before that last British Rail main line steam run in 1968). Preservation, nostalgia and a pride in the past were not just seen in popular culture or the emergence of new preservation societies. The most significant heritage body at this time was the National Trust. Established in 1895 the Trust began in the 1960s to move from its pre and post war focus on acquiring country houses and estates to engaging with the wider social and economic heritage of Britain. In 1963 the Trust decided to extend its preservation to industrial monuments, including canals and railways. This was in large part due to the work of Rolt and others and was a huge shift in focus from an organisation that had emerged in the late nineteenth century as a response to the Industrial Revolution which had hitherto been viewed as ‘an unmitigated disaster’ (Cannadine, 2002). This change of emphasis chimed with the national mood and membership swelled from 23,403 in 1950 to 157,581 in 1965 (rising to over 539,000 in 1975) (Cannadine, 2002 p 235; Newby, 1995). During the late 1950s and particularly in the 1960s, railway preservation – with its roots as far back as the 1840s – also enjoyed a huge surge in interest as people responded to the introduction of new technology, the imminent ending of steam hauled operations and the closure of nearly six thousand miles of railway track.

Preservation societies were formed to secure the long term future of representative examples of steam locomotives and to reopen branch lines as heritage attractions. The first of these, Rolt’s Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, had been founded in 1949 but it was in the 1950s and 1960s that the movement enjoyed its most significant growth. This rise in interest led to the formation of the Association of Railway Preservation Societies (ARPS) in 1959 with a remit to co-ordinate the activities of the various societies. The ARPS grew to have over 100 member groups (Biddle, 1997). The first closed British Railway’s branch line to reopen was the Bluebell Railway in Sussex in 1960. Many of today’s best known preserved railways, such as the Keighley & Worth Valley, the Severn Valley and the North Norfolk were set up in this decade. Moreover, the proposals to demolish significant pieces of railway architecture and infrastructure attracted a more varied audience also, notably Nikolaus Pevsner, the most prominent architectural historian in the land, and fellow members of the Victorian Society, including Britain’s most popular living poet, the well-known rail enthusiast John Betjeman.

For the architectural preservationists the controversial destruction of the celebrated Euston Arch in the early 1960s – an act of ‘malice and philistinism’ according to one architectural historian (Stamp, 2007) – particularly galvanised the Society. In 1964 the Society had presented to the Ministries of Transport and Housing and Local Government a list of sixty railway stations ‘specially worthy of preservation because of their architectural merit or historical interest’ (Stamp, 2010). In 1967 the Society played a crucial role in preventing both London’s King’s Cross and St Pancras stations from being demolished and rebuilt as a unified station in modern brutalist fashion (Stamp, 2010). Such high profile campaigns saw membership of the Society rise from a mere 28 in 1958 to more than 1,800 by 1970 (Filmer-Sankey, 1998). The interest in railway preservation wasn’t confined to historic railway architecture and routes. As British Railways’ modernisation programme gathered pace so the future of celebrated steam locomotives became more uncertain. Not only that but long established locomotive building works began to close after struggling to adapt to the production of the new diesel and electric locomotives, including such famous names as Gorton, Beyer Peacock and the North British Locomotive Company (Kynaston, 2015). The end of steam was becoming reality.

British Railways did inherit a responsibility for an historic collection of locomotives and other railway artefacts displayed in the British Transport Commission’s museum in Clapham, which opened in 1962–63. This did not sit easily with a company trying to project a modern image and Beeching sought to ‘dispose’ of the collection. Concerned by this move various senior transport experts, including the President of the Stephenson Locomotive Society, the Chair of the Consultative Panel for the Preservation of British Transport Relics and the past President of the Newcomen Society, sent a letter to The Times in August 1964 arguing that the country’s main transport museums should be brought under the Department for Education and Science as the only way ‘to ensure the continued maintenance of these collections, which are beyond doubt a vital part of our national heritage’ (The Times, 1964). Such pressure helped lead to British Rail transferring responsibility for these historic railway artefacts to the Science Museum as part of the 1968 Transport Act, in turn leading to the creation of the National Railway Museum (NRM). But this was not all. As well as the Gresley A3 Preservation Society the 1960s saw a number of similar groups emerge to secure the preservation of significant locomotives not earmarked for the National Collection. Amongst the societies established were the Princess Elizabeth Preservation Fund (1963), the Sir Nigel Gresley Locomotive Preservation Trust (1965) and the East Anglian Locomotive Preservation Society (1967). The preservation of locomotives and lines relied heavily on a huge band of dedicated enthusiasts and a small number of private individuals like Pegler and Billy Butlin, who acquired eight locomotives to display at his holiday camps, including the ex-LMS Pacific Duchess of Hamilton now in the National Collection (Gwynne, 2011). Here the ARPS, under the chairmanship of Peter Manisty, was also extremely important in negotiating with BR for member societies to ‘make their bids for B.R. relics which could not be accommodated in the national and publicly-owned museums’ to ensure that ‘nothing is left in steam which the next generation will miss’ (Railway Magazine, 1968).

The modernisation of Britain’s railways can therefore be argued to have had a profound effect on the railway preservation movement. In response to the end of steam Betjeman, long known through his radio broadcasts and poems for his love of all things railway, wrote and narrated Railways For Ever!, a documentary produced by British Transport Films and featuring the last British Rail steam hauled service in August 1968. The poster advertising tickets on this train, titled ‘British Rail runs out of steam’, also played the nostalgia card promising as it did ‘314 nostalgic miles, 10 ¾ happy hours’ (Gourvish, 1986). The occasion was of such moment that ‘police and staff had difficulty in controlling the crowds’ while the driver and fireman signed autographs for hours after the train had terminated (The Times, 1968). Once again The Kinks captured the mood in their 1968 song ‘Last of the Steam-Powered Trains’. Railway preservation was becoming an integral part of Britain’s national heritage. In May 1968 Flying Scotsman even hauled a charter train in aid of the ‘Save HMS Victory Fund’ and the National Trust’s Enterprise Neptune scheme (Railway Magazine, 1968).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160507/003