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A Brief History of the Society.

A Brief History of the Retired Railway Officers’ Society.

The moving spirit behind the formation of the Society in 1901, who can properly be termed its founder, was one Edmund B. Ivatts, a native of Bristol, whose railway career concluded as Goods Manager of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland. Born in 1834 he entered the service of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway at the age of 17. In 1854 he became Goods Agent at Conway on the Chester & Holyhead Railway, and in the following year was Station Agent at Stourbridge on the Oxford, Worcester and Wolverhampton Railway. He did not stay long in any of these early posts, spending a year as Chief Assistant to the Traffic Manager of the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railroad, before returning to join the London & North Western Railway in 1859 as a Traffic Canvasser in Liverpool and then an Accountant at Camden. In 1862 he went to India as Goods Manager of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in Bombay, returning in 1867 to take up the post in Ireland, from which he retired in 1891 at the age of 57. Rapid promotion when young and frequent moves, ending with early retirement, are evidently not recent phenomena. Ivatts was also an author, in 1883 publishing a textbook on Carriers Law and in 1885 another on “Railway Management at Stations”.

In July 1901, when he had already been retired for 10 years, Ivatts wrote to a number of his fellow retired officers: “one or two retired Railway Officials have conceived the idea of associating together as the Old Railway Boys for an annual dinner or other gathering in London to revive old memories and the official Brotherhood. The idea is to confine it to Chief Officials. Of course the Old Boys would not exclude the present men in harness as guests. No details have yet been discussed or defined.”

The first meeting of the Society was held at the Railway Clearing House on 12th November 1901, with Ivatts in the chair. Some preparatory work had been done and the present title was decided on, in place of the less dignified but perhaps more picturesque “Old Railway Boys Association” as initially suggested. By July 1902 Ivatts was confirmed in the Chair, Rules were adopted, subscriptions had been fixed and a Committee formed. The three stalwarts on which the Society was built were Ivatts, Josiah Medcalf (late District Goods Manager of the GNR) and George P. Neele.

Neele was a significant figure in Victorian Railway History and published his Reminiscences in 1904. Born in 1825 he joined the Eastern Counties Railway aged 20 and at 22 was appointed Superintendent of the South Staffordshire Railway. When that line was taken over by the L&NWR he became its District Superintendent in Birmingham. Ultimately he became Superintendent of the Line, a position he held for 33 years until he retired in 1895. He died in 1921 aged 96.

Josiah Medcalf was Outdoor Goods Manager at King’s Cross Goods. Born in Southwark in September 1832, he first entered railway service, aged about 19 in 1851. Retiring from the GNR in 1897, he died at Enfield in 1932 on his 100th birthday. He published reminiscences of his time at King’s Cross in the Railway Magazine in 1900. Medcalf succeeded Ivatts as Chairman in 1904 and continued in that office until 1910, when Neele became President. Ivatts meanwhile also covered the Secretarial role for the Society’s first 10 years but died in 1911.

Following its launch the Society held monthly afternoon social meetings, usually at the Charing Cross Hotel. At one of the earliest meetings a deputation was appointed “to wait upon the General Managers at the Clearing House and ask for the Privilege of quarter-fare tickets”, from which it would appear that retired officers did not in those days enjoy even that elementary facility. The attendance at early meetings was not large by current standards, often 20-30 people and total membership numbers did not exceed double figures before the First World War. In 1908 it was minuted that although it was known that there were at least 150 retired officers in the country, many were out of touch with younger men and living at some distance from London.

Early records of the Society are not informative about the content of meetings, as it appears that members wanted them to be private, so Minutes are little more than a record of those present and a notification of the next date. Indeed in 1906 it was noted that “members distinctly object to their Society or its proceedings being noticed in the Public Press, in books, or in any printed matter outside the Society’s own documents”. Early meetings were seen as essentially social and unofficial in character but often with talks given by members. Annual Outings also became a feature of the Society’s programme and apart from an early venture to Calais seem to have been confined to the Home Counties. In 1908 monthly meetings moved to the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street. In the early years a Luncheon was provided prior to the AGM, the first special such event with guests being held in 1911. Subsequently other venues than the Great Eastern have been used for what are now arranged twice a year. Outings are still arranged on at least an annual basis.

George Neele held the office of President for 10 years while the role of Chairman began an annual rotation in 1911 at the instigation of Medcalf. In 1928 it was agreed to substitute the office of President for that of Chairman, with the election of W.S. Jepson, and in 1929 the roles of Secretary and Treasurer were split. The Rules, as drawn up in 1902, have remarkably changed very little since, though Special Meetings have been called to effect amendments from time to time, particularly to reflect changes in the circumstances under which the Society operates. Throughout the Society’s history there has been a noticeable reluctance to increase subscriptions when its finances are in a healthy state. Subscriptions began at one Guinea, with a similar sum as a joining fee. Needless to say, both have crept upwards since, but there have been long periods of stability.

In the early days, with only a small number of members, their names and details were recorded in the Annual Reports, with the Secretary maintaining a card index. As numbers grew it became clear that methods had to change and a printed Directory of Members was first produced in 1975 and later issued annually. Originally sold at a price it is now provided as a part of the subscription. The records were computerised by Ken Green as Secretary in 1995 and since included as a feature of the Society’s website, introduced in 2003 and later upgraded.

The records show limited but steady growth in membership from the formation of the Society to the end of World War 1. Between the Wars the same steady but unspectacular growth continued but the pace stepped up markedly from the 1960’s. In 1909 albums containing photographs and career histories of members commenced, an idea originating with Alfred Powell, former General Manager of the Metropolitan District Railway. There are 14 volumes lodged with the Public Record Office at Kew, forming a unique collection of railway biographies. More recently proposals for membership include career summaries which appear in the meeting agendas, and with the Minutes, these are now archived, and lodged with the National Railway Museum in York. It also planned to augment the website with such information in future. Society membership has also mapped the established railway tradition of sons following fathers into the industry, and there are several cases of such patrimony over the years.

Attendance at meetings or events has consistently been from around 20% of the membership, but attention has always been paid to maintaining contact with those too distant or elderly to attend. Traditionally this has been done through the medium of printed Minutes posted to members, but with the rise of the internet in the last 20 years more immediate methods have become possible. The privatisation of BT Hotels prompted a move to 222 Marylebone Road for meetings, but when that too was no longer practicable, a new home was found at the Union Jack Club in Waterloo. The practice of holding provincial meetings, to cater for a more dispersed membership, was also established, the most regular such venue being York, where the North Eastern Railway HQ building, now a hotel, allows members to meet in the former NER Boardroom.

With a 120+ year history, the Society has seen significant national events, but some of these do not appear to have made their mark on the Society’s business. Of the First World War there is little mention, while one of its consequences, the Grouping of the Railway Companies, does not seem to have generated much heat. In the Minutes for 1921 there is a terse statement that there was a discussion of the Railways Act, but no clue as to how members viewed this defining piece of legislation. The May 1926 meeting had to be cancelled “because of the difficulties in transit caused by the General Strike”. The Second World War caused more disruption to the Society’s programme, and attendance at meetings was drastically reduced. Frequency was cut to bi-monthly and the subscription rate was temporarily halved. Remarkably even less is recorded about the Society’s reaction to nationalisation. Perhaps sheer managerial exhaustion after the gruelling years of wartime operation created a climate in which little debate was prompted within the Society and like the Grouping it came to be viewed as legislation that was both logical and inevitable after periods of Government control. Besides most railway officer jobs continued much as before.

The same cannot be said of railway privatisation from 1993, a debate in which the Society has played a major part, and a topic for discussion at many meetings. This was a clear move away from the Society’s passive role in political matters and Government policy. There were perhaps three main reasons for that change: concern for an industry that represented a lifetime’s work for many members; making the voice of professional experience heard amid a battle of political dogma; preservation of conditions in respect of pensions and travel entitlements. The Society gave evidence in Parliament, and it can fairly be said with some success, certainly on the latter matters. The Society has also contributed with the creation of an oral archive of interviews on the privatisation process, now held by the NRM under the title “British Rail All Change”. The Society also needed to adapt its membership criteria to take account of the new industry structure, with a variety of different constituents, all with differing management grading systems. The founders only aimed to recruit from retirees of railway companies, at home or abroad, whereas today this can extend to more disciplines and include a range of railway suppliers, while keeping a status requirement.

The most recent event to impact the Society was the Covid pandemic from 2020. This forced the suspension of meetings and events, which were eventually resumed as before. While the Society was already exploiting the opportunities of the internet, using a website and e-mails, the pandemic led to the introduction of virtual meetings and once in-person business resumed, recording it for subsequent viewing by those unable to attend.

One of the aims of the founders was to develop the esteem in which the Society is held and as its scope became better known “membership may be sought by those who may retire from the railways of the UK, as well as Indian and Colonial Railways.” The other objective was that, in addition to talks by members themselves, speakers of standing in the industry would be willing to address a meeting or luncheon in advance of their retirement. There are records of such talks by Sir Josiah Stamp and Sir Nigel Gresley, both of whom died in office. Other guests include Sir Ralph Wedgwood and Sir Herbert Walker, described as “the doyens of British Railway management who have retired”, though there is no evidence that they became members. An earlier speaker was Felix Pole of the GWR, and he is included in a list of past members below.


Some Notable past members:                                                    *= Past President

Edgar Anstey O.B.E.  1907 – 1987               Director, British Transport Films

W. H. Austen   1878 – 1956   Manager Colonel Stephens Light Railways (1931-48)

Sir Michael Barrington-Ward KCVO, CBE, DSO 1887 - 1972 Divisional GM LNER

Miles Beevor  1900 – 1994  Chief Legal Adviser  & Acting Chief GM LNER, MD Brush

David Blee  1899 – 1979  General Manager LMS

G. J. Churchward C.B.E.  1857 – 1933   CME GWR

G. L. Darbyshire C.B.E.   1883 – 19?  Acting President LMS, Chief Regional Officer LMR

Ashton Davies  C.V.O., O.B.E. 1874 – 1958  Vice President LMS

R. M. Deeley  1855 – 1944   CME Midland Railway

Sir John Elliot 1898 -1988     Chairman Railway Executive,  London Transport & Thomas Cook

G. Ellson C.B.E.   Chief Engineer SR

K. W. C. Grand  1900 -1983  Member BTC

Sir Sam Fay  T.D.  1856 – 1953   General Manager Great Central Railway

Sir Henry Fowler  K.B.E. 1870 – 1938    CME LMS

*F. D. M. Harding  O.B.E.  MD Pullman Car company

G. Hughes  1865 – 1945   CME L&YR / LMS

H. A. Ivatt  1851 -  1923    CME GNR

H. G. Ivatt   1886 – 1976   CME LMS

Sir Henry C. Johnson K.B.E. 1906 - 1988 Chairman BRB (1968-71)

R. E. L. Maunsell C.B.E.  1868 – 1944   CME SR

*Sir Charles L. Morgan C.B.E  1855 – 1940    Chief Engineer LB&SCR, Director Southern Railway

Sir Charles H. Newton  1882 -1973  Chief General Manager LNER

Sir Peter Parker L.V.O.  1924 – 2002  Chairman BRB (1976 – 83)

Sir Felix J. C. Pole  1877 – 1956   General Manager GWR,  Chairman AEI

Sir Robert B. Reid C.B.E.  1921 – 1993  Chairman BRB (1983 – 90)

R. A. Riddles C.B.E.   1892 – 1983  CME BR

S.W. Smart C.V.O., O.B.E.   Operating Superintendent SR

C. E. Spagnoletti   1832 – 1915   S&T Supt GWR

*Sir William A. Stanier F.R.S.  1876 – 1965   CME LMS

A. W. Szlumper   1858 – 1934  Chief Engineer SR

*G. S. Szlumper C.B.E. 1884 – 1969  General Manager SR

D. C. Urie 1886 - 1963  (son of R. W. Urie)   Loco Engineer Highland Railway & LMS

Sir Arthur Watson C.B.E. 1873 – 1954   General Manager LMS

J.K. Welsby C.B.E.    1938 – 2021  Last Chairman of BRB

Sir William V. Wood  1883 – 1959  Vice President LMS

This history is based on that written for the Society’s Centenary in 2001 by Bill Hall, Hon Secretary 1989 -95.

 Augmented by Richard Malins,  Hon Secretary 2002 -23.

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