The library has received many donations of books and manuscripts over the centuries, but my favourite so far is not the most obviously expensive or impressive. It consists only of four boxes of material collected by the Rev. H.P Hart, Rector of Ixworth, near Bury St Edmunds. The book covers are worn smooth by use, because they were used every day: they are the working manuals used by railway workers in the second half of the nineteenth century. There are timetables, signal manuals, and even notes of special arrangements for Christmas Eve trains. They’re a favourite of mine because they tell us how things were done, in a detail that even includes the names of the men working that Christmas Eve 1857 on the Devon and Exeter line.
Anyone who knows Charles Dickens short story “The signalman”, will feel a shock of recognition at this illustration from the signalling instructions issued by Great Western Railway in 1857
Dickens’ signalman was haunted by a similar apparition who stood by the red light at the entrance to the tunnel, signalling danger “For God’s sake, clear the way!” And less dramatically, Dickens’ signalman had his duties similar to those listed in these handbooks. “He took me into his box, where there was a fire, a desk for an official book in which he had to make certain entries, a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken … Once he had to stand without the door, and display a flag as a train passed, and make some verbal communication to the driver. In the discharge of his duties, I observed him to be remarkably exact and vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable, and remaining silent until what he had to do was done.”