With the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s funeral being marked at the end of this month, there are many delightful stories about the war leader’s fondness for the railways – told in my most recent book Steaming to Victory.
In particular, he encouraged a unique sense of humour among railway staff that was often brought to bear when things seemed grim. Signalman William Squibb told the National Railway Museum’s Oral History Archive of the day he encountered Winston Churchill while on duty at Dauntsey station in Wiltshire. Squibb was told to expect a train from Bristol containing some VIPs, but when it arrived one of the platform staff shouted that they hadn’t finished their discussions. Squibb answered: “Well you can tell them from me that they’re not going to finish their discussions on the main line. I’ll set the road for them to come back into the siding”. As the train reversed past the signalbox the dining saloon window was open. “And sat in the coach around the table was Mr Churchill, Mrs Churchill, General Smuts and Mrs Smuts and two or three more. And as he slowly went by I said: ‘ It’s all right for you people in there. You’ve got plenty of food and no work. I got plenty of work and no food.’ But I never said it with any intentions that Winston Churchill should hear it. The train got back in the siding and in walks a very tall waiter with a white cloth over his arm, a tray in his hand. And he put the tray on the table and he said: ‘ With Mr Churchill’s compliments.’ Afterwards the waiter came back up in the box to get the tray. ‘Oh,” I said. “Will you do something for me?’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’. I said: ‘When you get back up in the train, will you thank Mr Churchill very much for supper. And tell him to come back soon!”