The Merchant Venturer and Me


Fred Peskett.


            One of the titled trains introduced by British Rail for the Festival of Britain was the “Merchant Venturer” on the Western Region, running from Paddington to Weston-Super-Mare via Bristol and return. It was still running in 1957 and I made good use to travel on this service during part of my National Service with the Royal Air Force, however, my recollections was more of a Merchant Misadventurer for at least two trips. I was stationed at R.A.F. Rudloe Manor, a small unit on the outskirts of Bath, near the Wiltshire village of Calne, famous for Bowyers Pork Sausages. I was able to go home to London for most of the weekends, a 13/6d Forces return fare would take me from Chippenham to Paddington then the Underground to Charing Cross and the local Southern Region service to Welling in Kent.

            The Merchant Venturer stopped at Chippenham then ran as an express to London, One Friday evening the bus from Calne to Chippenham was running late, and I just managed to get to the station, buy a ticket and get on the platform only to hear the whistle being blown for the departure, I raced along the platform and just managed to get into the last coach before it started off. I really should have noticed that I was the only passenger in the coach, and when I went to use the toilet I found the end door locked, that alone should have rang a few alarm bells, but I settled back in the seat and watched the scenery go by as the train gathered speed, it should now be non-stop to London, at least it was until the train started to slow down a mile or so outside of Swindon, and then came to halt at Swindon railway station, most unusual I thought, after a few minutes I looked out of the window, sure enough, the coach was in the station but the rest of the train was missing, I later found out that the last coach was a “slip-coach” and was dropped off before entering a station so that it would coast to a halt, the coach was later picked up by another locomotive ready for the next journey.     I had over two hours to wait before another London bound train stopped at this station. I made a resolution never to ride in the last coach of a train again, but thank goodness there was one occasion due to a similar late running service that I did get into a last coach and it probably saved my life.

            My next encounter with the Merchant Venturer was on the Paddington to Chippenham journey. After a long weekend at home and perhaps a few pints the night before. I was back on the train with sufficient time to get to Chippenham, catch a bus to Rudloe Manor change into uniform and be on duty by 3pm. I remember it was a rather hot day, the carriage was full and I was very, very sleepy and long before reaching Reading I must have dozed off. When I woke up I noticed there were different people in the coach, and the man opposite looked at me and said, “Were nearly there” As the train pulled into a station I found out to my horror that it was Weston-Super-Mare, the end of the line, some forty odd miles further than my destination, hence by the time I reached my camp I was some four hours absent without leave, put on a charge and got five days “Jankers”, moral, don’t fall asleep on trains!

            I mentioned earlier that getting into a rear coach probably saved my life. It was also in 1957 and I was doing a course at R.A.F Cherhill, near Marlborough, Wiltshire, There were no railway stations near to the camp, which in fact was just a couple of wooden huts nestled below one of the “White Horses” of Wiltshire, but there was a rather rickety Coach Operator called “Ace of Cards” who ran a weekend service to Victoria Coach Station for around 1Q/- return for Servicemen. There was one unique feature about the service, when the coach started the journey the driver would keep the speed at around 30 mph. but if you started rattling coins in a hat as a tip the speed would increase relative to the noise of the coins jangling in the hat I It was a foul evening on one trip, very foggy, and the coach was quite late getting into Victoria Coach Station,

            I managed to get the Underground from Victoria to Charing Cross, where I found the train I wanted was still waiting to leave for Welling. I boarded the last coach in case the train departed before I reached the front coaches, the coach I was in was packed with standing room only so there was no chance of getting further along the train via the corridor, I always tried to get into one of the first two compartments since they were nearest to a footbridge for the exit when the train stopped at Welling Station.

            The train was late in leaving Charing Cross due to the thick fog, when it reached St Johns Station, after leaving New Cross it suddenly lurched with a tremendous bang, and came to a sudden halt the passengers in the coach were thrown all over the place, including me. What had happened is now history, It was the Lewisham Train Disaster, over thirty people in the front two coaches of the train I was on together with over a hundred people in two other trains were killed. Had the coach arrived at Victoria on time and I had arrived at Charing Cross early I would have been in one of those coaches for sure! The train I was on had collided with the rear of another train, the front two coaches had jack-knifed upwards under a rail bridge which had a train crossing at the time. Part of the train crossing the bridge fell on to the coaches below causing such a tragic loss of life.

            The bridge was shored up in the weeks following the crash with a massive selection of R.S.J.’s, these are in fact still there supporting the bridge, whenever I travel on the Dartford Loop Line I feel shudders when the train goes under this bridge.

            British Rail published a series of leaflets to promote the Festival Trains, the one shown is for the Red Rose, that linked Liverpool to London, others in the series were The Norfolkman, The Royal Wessex and the Kentish Belle, the one for the Merchant Venturer seems to be very rare.


© Exhibition Study Group 2013