God’s Wonderful Railway


The Railway Station by William Powell Frith (Paddington station)

This week’s 52 ancestors theme is ‘transport’ so I’m focusing on two families who worked for the Great Western Railway – or God’s Wonderful Railway as it was known to some. This theme also ties in nicely with an online course I’ve recently completed called Working lives on Britain’s railways – highly recommended!  

Henry Shayler was born in 1830 and was my great great grandfather. He started his working life as an agricultural labourer, which is what his parents and grandparents had done before him. After a brief stint as a publican, Henry worked for the Great Western Railway for most of his working life. In the censuses of 1871, 1881 and 1891 he is described as a railway labourer and by the time of the 1901 census he was a ‘retired railway pensioner’. The pension must have been one of the main advantages of working for GWR; agricultural labourers generally carried on working until they dropped or were not capable of working any more. In Henry’s case, he lived until 1912 when he was 82, so I’m sure that railway pension was very helpful in his later years. 

Henry came from the village of North Moreton in Berkshire and in the 1830s the Reading to Swindon section of the railway cut right between the villages of North and South Moreton. It must have been quite a shock to the villagers to have trains passing so close to their quiet village but at the same time it gave them new opportunities. It was a far cry from living in one of the major industrial cities like Manchester or London, but the railway was a slice of the industrial revolution right on their doorstep in rural Berkshire.   

Henry’s oldest son was Thomas Shayler and he also worked for GWR for most of his life. Starting as a platelayer (laying the railway track) he then became a ganger – a supervisor of a group of labourers. Gangers could be responsible for up to 40 or 50 men so this was probably quite a demanding job. Thomas’s younger brother George was a platelayer and their brother Heber was also a railway labourer for a period of time before becoming a gardener, so it is possible that they were both supervised at work by their older brother. 

The photos above show some of the broad gauge track used by GWR with a platelayer’s trolley at Didcot (left) and (right) a platelayer’s hut where the men could shelter on their journey up and down the stretch of track for which they were responsible.

It was probably because most of the men in the family worked for the railway that the Shaylers moved to Northbourne, which was then a small hamlet near Didcot and is now part of the town of Didcot. They lived at Busby House (which is still there – now a dentist’s surgery) which remained in the family for some years. Didcot expanded significantly because of the railway and now hosts a GWR railway centre as well as the glorious Didcot Parkway station!   

In another branch of my family tree, two of the extensive Welby family worked as railway clerks for part of their working lives. As the railways expanded in the 19th century, vast numbers of clerks were employed to keep track of engineering, timetables, ticketing, accounts and many other kinds of paperwork. The railways were very hierarchical employers and being a clerk was seen as a step up from jobs like platelayers and gangers. You had to pass written tests before being taken on in these roles and you sat at a desk rather than being outside in all weathers.  

George Welby worked as a school master in his native Canterbury before moving to London and working as a railway clerk. The 1861 census shows him living in Paddington so it is most likely that he worked for Great Western Railway which was based at Paddington Station. After the death of his first wife, George remarried and relocated to Canterbury. He had 10 children altogether, five with each of his wives. He ended his working life as a Relieving Officer for the Canterbury workhouse. 


Paddington Station, 1904

George’s brother Charles Welby was also working as a clerk for GWR and living in Paddington in 1861.  Like his brother he didn’t stay with GWR but he did remain in London where he worked as a wine cooper and grocer after leaving the railway; and like his brother he also had a large family of nine children.

Great Western Railway was well known as the ‘Holiday line’, taking many people to holiday destinations in Wales and the South West of England, such as Torquay, Penzance and St Ives. 


GWR poster from 1928

I like the fact that people from both my Mum’s and Dad’s side of the family worked for the Great Western Railway.  It connects the two halves of my family and shows that the railways were massive employers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Photo credits (all via wikimedia)

The Railway Station, by William Powell Frith [Public domain]

Broadguage track and platelayer’s trolley – By Geof Sheppard – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6869496

Platelayer’s hut – By OLU, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13869533

A Great Western Railway postcard showing the departure platforms at their London Paddington terminus in 1904. Great Western Railway [Public domain]

Cornish Riviera Poster – By Louis Burleigh Bruhl – Great Western Railway, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61980938

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