Great Western Railway Widows' and Orphans' Benevolent Fund

Whilst investigating the links between Culham Station and Nuneham Park, we found that the Park hosted a fête in aid of the GWR Widows' and Orphans' fund no fewer than five times. This caught our interest and so it was decided to find out a little bit more about where similar fêtes had been held.

Whilst it is not intended to become a history of the fund, that would be a huge and complex task, we include a few contextual notes for background interest. We would be very happy to hear from anybody reading this who may have anything to add or correct.

A brief introduction

Collecting box

During our research we found the fund referred to by various, similar, names. This is possibly because the scope and constitution of the fund appears to have changed a few times during its life. The fund no longer exists as a separate entity, and we think that it was amalgamated with other similar funds during the 1970s and finally became part of the overall Railway Pension arrangements in the 1990s. It has proved difficult to determine when the fund came into being, but one press report suggests it was constituted in 1842 whilst the GWR was under the chairmanship of Charles Russell, who was also M.P. for Reading at the time. There are some suggestions that Daniel Gooch may have been the first chairman of the fund which was initially for the benefit of salaried staff only. Funds were raised in a number of ways, the GWR made annual grants, the public contributed by way of concerts, special church services, organised outings, and other similar fund raising activities organised at a local level, or by bequests. Employees could choose to contribute 2p per week for two years, after which time they were considered to be 'fully paid up' members of the fund.

By far the most important method of raising funds was the annual Grand Fête. When one reads of attendances of 10,000 to 30,000 it is easy to appreciate the income generated. It wasn't all plain sailing though, as in 1876 it was reported in several newspapers that the annual fête would not be taking place that year. In the event, at least one local fête (at Ashton Park, near Bristol) and the 21st Grand Fête (at Oakley Park, Cirencester) did take place. However, in 1877 and 1878 a fête wasn't held at all due to a dispute over the Company proposing to pass on only a proportion of the proceeds from the sale of special rail tickets. It was argued that any reduction would render the fêtes unsustainable. This issue was resolved and they restarted in 1879 at Blenheim Park but this appears to have been a final swan-song as no reference has been found for subsequent company wide Grand Fêtes. Reference has been found to large annual fêtes held at Malvern in 1883 and 1884 in support of the fund, but these were locally arranged. It was felt that the annual Grand Fête had become too large and disruptive to the normal operations of the railway and the Company undertook to make payments in lieu following the 1879 one at Blenheim.

Enamel badge

The Railway Servants' Orphanage

The fund made payments to widows and orphans, either via the local station or by Postal Order, but did not operate any form of accommodation. The Railway Servants' Orphanage was founded on August 5th, 1874 in Derby and grew in size until by 1887 it could accommodate a total of 300 boys and girls. It is possible that grants were given to this home as it accepted orphans up to the age of 12 from all over the country. Children had to leave upon reaching the age of 15 however. A full and illustrated history of this home can be found on the The Railway Servants' Orphanage web page.

This enamel badge from our collection depicting the GWR coat of arms, still attached to its original but undated backing card, implies some measure of support for the home in its fund raising by the GWR.

Collecting dogs

Station Jim at Slough
Station Jim at Slough

One seemingly unusual method of eliciting small public donations was that of using collecting dogs. In fact, collecting dogs became quite an institution in Victorian and Edwardian times and served as collectors for many charities, and other less genuine purposes, as trained collecting dogs could be hired by anybody wishing to make a collection for whatever cause they wished. Donation boxes would be attached to a special harness and the dogs were left to wander and many performed tricks or barked in recognition of coins being placed in their box. Official station collecting dogs became well known and liked characters at their station, both with passengers and the station staff who looked after them, some becoming quite famous and featuring in newspapers of the day.

The Great Western Railway Magazine in 1939 records Bob the Collecting Dog who worked at Gloucester station had raised £370 for the GWR Widows and Orphans Fund since he started working in 1928. The same magazine reported in its April 1911 edition that Prince at Reading station had collected £104 6s.11 1⁄4d. in just over two years for the fund. Paddington had Tim and Swindon Bruce, but possibly the most famous was Station Jim who was at Slough from 1894 until his sudden death in his harness on the platform on the evening of November 19th 1896. Like many other station dogs Station Jim made the occasional excursion by train turning up at Paddington, Windsor and even Leamington stations. He made such an impression on the staff and passengers that they subscribed to have him stuffed and mounted in a display case with a collecting slot and inscription describing his life story. At the time of writing Station Jim could still be seen in his glass cabinet on platform 5 at Slough.

Other collecting dogs were similarly preserved and displayed. Several have been found new homes in museums, most notably a couple can be seen in the private museum at Fawley Hill near Henley.

Oxford concert advert - 1888
Jacksons Oxford Journal - 1888
Yatton concert ticket - 1889
Ticket for a concert at Yatton - 1889

Balls, outings and other locally organised events

Many local events were arranged throughout the GWR in aid of the fund, some one-offs and others taking place more often, sometimes annually. These ranged from special excursions and picnics, church parades and services, concerts, and large fêtes (such as those at Malvern), being too numerous to list even a representative selection.

Of particular local interest however, was the annual Ball held for many years each January in the Oxford Townhall. Our page from the Illustrated London News from 1860, seen below, refers to it as being the eighth annual ball so implying the first took place in 1853. At the time of writing, reports can only be found for balls up to 1864 but it is possible that they continued to be held after that date. As a point of interest, these balls would not have taken place in the building as we know it today. The present building was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1897. The previous building, dating from 1752 and on the same site, would have hosted the balls, it was demolished in 1893.

The Townhall also hosted at least one fund raising concert, with one known to have been held on Friday 22nd February in 1884. A new Corn Exchange was built behind the Townhall and opened in 1863. It had a relatively short life however, as it too was demolished in 1893 when the whole site was cleared for rebuilding. The Corn Exchange provided an alternative venue for functions and hosted a fund raising concert on Thursday 29th November 1888.

You can read more of the history of these buildings and see pictures of the Townhall before it was demolished on this page of the OxfordHistory.org website.


The annual Grand Fête

Poster for Beckett Park - 1874
Poster for Beckett Park - 1874
Courtesy of Shrivenham Heritage Society

As previously mentioned, the biggest single fund raising event in any year was the annual Grand Fête. These would be held in large private parks with reasonable access to a GWR station by the kind permission of the owner who tended to be associated with the Company, a local politician, or a local philanthropist (possibly all three). Many extra trains would be laid on to convey visitors from far and wide, with special all incusive tickets being produced to cover both the train fare and entry to the fête. Such trains were provided to the organising committee free of charge by the GWR, all proceeds from ticket sales going to the fund, with tickets only being valid for use on the fête specials.

Aldermaston fête ticket - 1868
Aldermaston fête train ticket - 1868

These Grand Fêtes were initiated by one held just outside Cirencester in 1856, and the second one was held in 1857 at Nuneham Park with special trains being run to Culham station. There were a couple of years that a Grand Fête did not take place, and the last known one, being the 22nd, was at Blenheim Park in 1879.

These fêtes grew to be very popular indeed with local towns treating the day as a holiday, and featuring in both the local and national press, sometimes with illustrations. Vast amounts of food and drink were consumed and some of the special trains grew to enormous lengths, albeit with (probably) shorter four wheel coaches. Unfortunately, on occasion, the anticipation of a fête was ill-founded as the summer weather sometimes played havoc with the best laid plans and so dampened the enthusiasm of potential visitors on that and the following year. In 1871 an outbreak of small-pox caused many to stay away. Catering arrangements were often carried out by local business and hotel owners who presumably stood to make a good profit, but also had to carry the loss for any unsold stock. We have seen an advertisement for the auction of traders' pitches at the Abingdon Horse Races, and it is possible that similar arrangements were entered into for the various stalls and sideshows at the GWR fêtes. Entertainment in the form of bands and popular artistes from the Crystal Palace, London theatres, and Music Halls was paid for by the organising Committee, but was sometimes given gratis.


Click or tap on any thumbnail of a print from our collection to see an enlarged version.

Hamstead Park
1858
The Illustrated London News
August 14, 1858
Beckett Park
1870
The Illustrated London News
July 16, 1870
Nuneham Park
1872
The Graphic
July 20, 1872
Blenheim Park
1873
The Graphic
July 26, 1873
Oxford Townhall
1860
The Illustrated London News
January 21, 1860


Click or tap on any fête year below to read a transcribed press report.

  1. 1856 - Ten Rides, Wednesday 6th August special stop near Hayley Woods four miles outside Cirencester on the Gloucester line
  2. 1857 - Nuneham Park, Tuesday 4th August Culham station
  3. 1858 - Hampstead Park, Tuesday 3rd August special stop at Hampstead crossing
    1858 - alternative report
  4. 1859 - Basilon Park, Tuesday 26th July Pangbourne station
    1859 - alternative report
  5. 1860 - Hungerford Park, Tuesday 24th July special stop by park gate, Hungerford
  6. 1861 - Beckett Park, Tuesday 30th July Shrivenham station
    1861 - alternative report
  7. 1862 - Englefield Park, Tuesday 22nd July Theale station
  8. 1863 - Nuneham Park, Tuesday 28th July Culham station
  9. 1864 - Aldermaston Park, Tuesday 5th July Aldermaston station
  10. 1865 - Wokefield Park, Tuesday 1st August Mortimer station
  11. 1866 - Beckett Park, Tuesday 17th July Shrivenham station
  12. 1867 - Englefield Park, Tuesday 23rd July Theale station
  13. 1868 - Aldermaston Park, Tuesday 7th July Aldermaston station
  14. 1869 - Nuneham Park, Tuesday 6th July Culham station
  15. 1870 - Beckett Park, Tuesday 5th July Shrivenham station
  16. 1871 - Englefield Park, Wednesday 5th July Theale station
  17. 1872 - Nuneham Park, Tuesday 9th July Culham station
  18. 1873 - Blenheim Park, Tuesday 22nd July Handborough and Woodstock Road (Kidlington) stations
  19. 1874 - Beckett Park, Wednesday 29th July Shrivenham station
  20. 1875 - Nuneham Park, Wednesday 21st July Culham station
  21. 1876 - Oakley Park, Tuesday 15th August Cirencester Town station
  22. 1879 - Blenheim Park, Tuesday 19th August Handborough and Woodstock Road (Kidlington) stations
    1879 - alternative report

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