Oliver Betts

Oliver Betts

Dr. Oliver Betts is the National Railway Museum's Research Lead. He oversees the academic and research profile of the museum and has a deep love of all things Victorian and Railways!

Location York


  • What a fantastic story! Thank you for sharing Susan!

  • @JudiBoutle What a kind thing to say Judi! That's made my day!

  • Thank you for digging these out Hamish! Shamefully I had forgotten I'd even written these!

    I'm afraid the Prezi was put together to accompany a talk I gave at the Museum, so lacks the context of my speech, but does give you some good images from Enginorum, so might be of interest.

  • A lot of great comments about the abbreviations! Almost certainly, as Kirstie says, these would have had a double-edged reason for inclusion: test practical knowledge (lots of low-level clerk work involved writing to people and using their formal titles) but also weed out people who weren't educated enough to know what a King's Council was.

  • I'm afraid FL is a little bit fussy with quiz answers. Marjorie put USA on the form herself back in 1930 and this was marked correct, but I'm sure United States of America would have been acceptable too!

  • A great question! I'm not sure - the quoted one was for an entry-level position. My guess would be that a lot of promotion took place from within, and more standard references would have been used for those entering at high levels from outside the railways!

  • One of these days it would be great to tell the Red Star story and look at c20th railway workers!

  • I certainly imagine there must have been some difficult clerical moments around the recent delays with the Suez Canal!

  • Hi All, exactly! Hats were both about marking status and about showing off. A bit like how they've made all the office juniors sit cross-legged at the front of the picture!

  • Hi All,

    Lots of great questions about why we've lumped engineers, draughtsmen, designers, etc in with the clerks here. Its a question we'll address in the final video, but the shorthand is:

    1. We were limited to four weeks for the course and clerks was a useful "catch-all" term that worked better than "back of house" or "office workers".

    2. Whilst...

  • @CaroleSturgiss Hi Carole, as other people have pointed out, it could have been a mishearing of "banksman" by the registrar. Railways did maintain their own brass bands, though, so it could be that too!

  • It was my absolute pleasure to show you Coppernob - one of our most beautiful locomotives but one which would have been a rough, tough, workaday machine at its prime!

    People have already helpfully linked the collections page for Coppernob, but just to pin it...

  • For those with a railway ancestor in their family history, Dr Mike Esbester's Railway Work, Life, and Death project is a great place to find out more about working conditions men and women faced on Britain's railways:


    There are few more poignant symbols of the danger of the job, to my mind, than the existence of...

  • He was certainly interested in railways (and technology more generally), and helped push Victoria into using the railways.

    Interestingly, though, we think it was her aunt (the then widowed) Queen Adelaide who was the first royal to travel by train.

    You can see her adapted early carriage...

  • Welcome everyone! Thank you for joining us - as Kirstie says, it's lovely to have such a mix of people.

    We'll try to answer questions as best we can!

  • Dear Jean, thank you for sharing - it must have been a very different experience as you say! I wondered if you might like to see this image of Letchworth Station from our collection c1912:


  • Hello Keith - if Walker was employed in the main Nottingham Station in the 1870s he would have most likely worked for the Midland Railway who owned it. Their staff records are, in part, held on various family history websites like Ancestry and also at the Midland Railway Study Centre. They are a lovely bunch and may be able to help you more:...

  • Hi All,

    If you are having trouble seeing the detail on the painting [always hard when filming in stores] you can see a copy here:


  • We are really lucky at the Museum to have both a great conservation team and a lovely group of volunteers who help out.

  • Hi everyone, I thought all the suggestions are great, and really speak to the struggles and skills of the engine drivers, but there's something in this particular trio that really seems to capture the essence of the hard, hands-on, world of steam driving.

  • Hi Keith, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick has the archives of all the major trade unions so might be a good port of call. I'm not sure if membership roles ever made it onto sites like ancestry, but they might be a place to stop and look? Interestingly he would have predated the specific railway clerks union, which later became the TSSA,...

  • Thank you for a useful comment Frank. Accidents like Sonning Cutting were certainly important, and we talk about some in later weeks. I'm sure you may have read it already, but if not LTC Rolt's 'Red for Danger' is a very good book on the significance of accidents for Victorian railways.

  • Thank you for you comment Norman - yes, ideally I'd have loved to put in some of the earlier pre-steam railways but you have to draw the line somewhere. And yes, a good suggestion for a post-lockdown visit.

  • @ChloeLittle I do love M Shed - such a special place and so imaginatively laid out. Hope you aren't missing it too much

  • Hi Beth, thanks for joining us from so far away. Hope you find the course interesting!

  • Dear Len - thanks for coming on board. Hope you enjoy the course!

  • Dear Jean - thank you for sharing that little snippet of family history. So many people find they have railway connections that have located their family in a particular place. Hope you enjoy the course!

  • Hello Esther - thanks for joining us from so far away! Hope that you find this course exciting, and very glad to hear you've visited the Museum of course!

  • Hi Nina, thanks for signing up. We've got some interesting bits of women's history in our course. Have you read Helena Wojtczak's book on Railwaywomen? Here is a nice summary: https://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/2005/10/helena-wojtczak-railwaywomen-exploitation-betrayal-and-triumph-in-the-workpace/

  • Hi Michael - thanks for signing up. Yes, its a hard fact to get your head around isn't it? I try to put it into context for current visitors by equating it to the NHS, where most of us know someone working in or for that organisation.

  • Dear Christine, how interesting! We talk a lot about drivers and a little about stationmasters (we wish we'd had more than four weeks to build this course around!). I hope you find the course useful!

  • Hi Nils, thanks for signing up! I think some of the processes and jobs would have been the same as in Germany. There was a lot of exchange of knowledge and people between Britain and Europe as railways grew. I hope you find the course interesting.

  • Dear Denise - thanks for signing up. How interesting that you have a family connection to the railways. Hopefully this course will help you explore some of the background.

  • Hi Edward - how interesting that you have a railway family connection! The railways moved people around in all sorts of ways in c19th Britain, and we talk a little bit about some of that in the week on Navvies. Hopefully you'll find this course interesting! Thanks for signing up.

  • Dear Louise, unfortunately there aren't lots of jobs out there in the railway heritage world at the moment. But hopefully this course will be interesting and might help you make connections with people in the comments from that world!

  • Dear Stephen - what an exciting career and travels! And how interesting that you remember the old museum in York pre-NRM. Hope you enjoy the course!

  • Hi David, thanks for signing up. Hope you find it interesting.

  • Dear Amna, thank you for signing up. I hope you find it interesting!

  • Dear Clive - suspect you aren't the only crisis sign-up we'll have on this course! Thanks for coming on board. Hope you enjoy it!

  • Hi Lorna, lovely to have you on board. Hope you enjoy the course!

  • Oh yes. Thanks @LindaRobertson how interesting. I'll pin this comment for the others.

  • Hi Jill. I'd love to know too but as navvies were often hired via contractors and were very mobile and temporary very little survives like that. They do sometimes pop up on the census though as we were discussing elsewhere.

  • A great question. I'm not sure either. I've heard of other settlements called things like Klondike after the gold rush towns in the US and South Africa. Supposedly because there was so much money to be made working as a navvy.

  • Thank you @JanetP and @HelenSegebarth . I've not seen that resource before. Great quote!

  • Thanks Janet - I had forgotten about that Time Team episode. And yes, it seems like we'll never shake that stereotype sadly.

  • Hi All. Thank you for engaging with the story of Holmes and the Thirsk crash despite its tragic details. As people have been pointing out, apportioning blame seems very wrong to us given the overall tragedy and mesh of circumstances that led to the crash.

    We wanted to ask you to reflect on blame, though, as this is what the jury was asked to do at the...

  • Thank you @BarbaraLister - so interesting to get a comparison from another industry

  • Thank you for sharing your insight @JohnAddyman. I didn't know he stayed on the railways. Do you know where I could find details of that? I'd be much obliged!

  • Certainly an interesting possibility. I've not heard that before but it seems very plausible.

  • Hand signals very much are in the rulebook although in many cases just as a last resort. Interestingly all Museum staff are trained too for when vehicles are shunted around the site!

  • Thank you @LornaGleasure for sharing this and also @AdrianCotterill for the excellent summary. The press coverage of the disaster was very graphic indeed and certainly helped shift public opinion.

  • Thank you both for a really helpful thread of ideas. Lots of things I haven't seen. Have either of you heard of the early Indian film Miss Frontier Mail? Shot in 1936 with a fight on top of an actual moving train. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Frontier_Mail

  • Hi Peter. Indeed! Even after more recent tragedies at Hatfield and Potters Bar there wasn't a major dip in public appetite to travel by train.

  • Thanks Helen. Simon Bradley makes a very good point in his book that until the nature of track playing changed after the war that "clicketty clack clicketty clack" of wheel on rail joint would have been universally recognised!

  • Thanks Mark. I think its a great attempt, as you say, to pick out that mechanical rhythm.

  • Indeed. One of our aims with our Piston, Pen and Press project is to uncover these poems. Especially those written by workers themselves.

  • Hello both, I agree it is obscure, but @PaulJordan is right, Reynolds is using the sailing metaphor to talk about route knowledge. It might make more sense if I tell you Reynolds had pretensions to be a serious writer, and liked a good literary flourish in his works.

  • I think there also seems to be a sense of ''pride'', ''aware/alert'', and ''brave'' coming through here, which is very interesting to read.

  • This timeline - and the previous one - are here to provide a point of reference. Please don't feel the need to try and learn them by heart. They're just here to give some context.

  • Hi Everyone - thank you for these interesting comments. To answer John's original question, we're not singling drivers out as the only heroic workers. As you point out, there were so many brave men and women working in all sorts of tough conditions. What we're touching on is the public belief that drivers were heroes of the steam age.

  • Hi Barry - great to hear you've enjoyed some of the content offered through the University. Really hope you enjoy our course too.

  • Hi Tony - thanks for joining us and the kind words. I hope we don't disappoint. Great to hear you are working on the heritage railways and helping keep that important part of railway history alive.

  • Hi Alan, thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoy the content.

  • Hi Helen - thank you for joining us on the course. We hope you'll enjoy it.

  • Hi Eleanor - thanks for joining us on the course. And thank you too for your kind words about our colleagues - the Search Engine team do us proud. Are you aware of the Railway Work Life and Death project we are working on with History Academics at the University of Portsmouth? They are building a database of railway workers injured or killed in accidents:...

  • Hi Graham - thank you so much for signing onto the course. Always great to hear from another Curator - I hope we don't disappoint!

  • Hi Mark, thanks for joining the course and thanks, too, for the kind offer to promote it among colleagues. Its always really useful to have the experiences of current rail staff to compare with. Hopefully there will be lots of exciting content here for you.

  • Hi Chloe - as one of your PhD supervisors I'm obviously very happy to see you signed onto the course! Hope you enjoy it!

  • Hi Diane, thanks for joining the course. Isn't it amazing how important those sensory experiences can be to forming our memories?! Hope you enjoy the content.

  • Hi Declan- thanks for joining the course. I always think following Arthur's steer is a good idea. Hope you enjoy the course.

  • Hi Sue. Thanks for coming on board. Fascinating to hear about your ancestors - are you aware of the Railway Work, Life and Death project the Museum is running with History Academics at the University of Portsmouth? We are building a database of those killed on the railways while at work: http://www.railwayaccidents.port.ac.uk/

  • Hi Do, glad to have you join us on the course. I'm afraid our course is mainly focused on workers but we do cover some of the technical changes as well.

  • Hi Susie, thanks for joining us. Glad to hear you've enjoyed visiting the Museum. I'm always amazed by how little studied the railways are despite their vital importance and legacy as you point out...

  • Hi Nethmi. Thank you for joining us. I hope we continue to offer exciting relief from your technical studies!

  • Hi Vicki. Thank you for joining us. There was a lot of exchange of ideas and people between British and Australian railways, so hopefully you'll find lots of useful content here!