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By Alison Kay on

New finds from the Wolverton Works archive

Exploring the Wolverton Works archive, held at the National Railway Museum, reveals a darker side of rail transport.

Hi, I’m Alison, Project Archivist at the National Railway Museum. For the next six months, I’m cataloguing the archive of Wolverton Works. Wolverton, located on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, was the London North Western Railway company’s (LNWR) carriage works.

The works produced all kinds of rolling stock, including highly decorated and luxurious carriages for the very wealthy. Lacking standard aisles and seats, these looked nothing like the trains we travel on nowadays, coming complete with private dining rooms, servants’ quarters, baths and sometimes even a typing room – with typist. The Royal Trains kept here at the Museum were produced at Wolverton using documents from the archive.

But the Wolverton collection shows a darker and less glamorous side to railway travel during the period.

While sorting through reams of (so far) unprocessed archive material, I found this engineering drawing. Dated 1915 (just over one year into World War I, and six months before conscription began), it shows the design for ashtrays that were to be provided ‘1 per bed or 20 per car’ – on ambulance trains.

Ambulance trains built by Wolverton were used in both World Wars to transport wounded soldiers from the front. The carriages were clinical, bare, heavily sterilised: open carriages with bunk-style beds down each side. Some ambulance trains even contained operating theatres. Injured men from all walks of life, traumatised from the front, would travel home in these bleak, jerky railway carriages – and, incredibly to us nowadays, would be allowed the small luxury of a smoke.

The Wolverton collection sheds light on many aspects of life during the last two centuries. I’m looking forward to discovering and sharing more gems with you – and making the Wolverton Works collection available in Search Engine for you all to see.

22 comments on “New finds from the Wolverton Works archive

  1. I shall look forward to the outcome of your work with great interest. Wolverton documents appear to be mostly scattered and uncatalogued, so this work will be a great step forward. I touch on Wolverton’s railway past often on my own blog.

    1. Thank you for your comment Brian. I am just looking at your blog which is full of useful information about the works. Look out for future updates on the project!

      1. Alison. i am a vounteer at milton keynes museum and i have been scanning in all the work idex cards and photo’s. Do you know if they are any wolverton works accidents book at your museum as the ones that mk museum holds only go up to 1955 and i am trying to find if my grandpa is in one of the books in 1976/1977 as he had an heart attack whilst working at the works this is all part of me tying to find out more about him.
        If you can help in any way Please email me on this is my museum email

        many thanks

        Philllip webb

  2. Where is the evidence that these trains were ‘bleak and jerky’ ? Were they any bleaker than an ordinary hospital ward of the time ? Why would they be ‘jerky’ ? I imagine that as in the Second World War they were handled by the train crew in as smooth a way as possible.
    What was one of the first things you’d do for a wounded mate in the Great War ? Give him a fag. The comfort of a cigarette to a wounded man is something which should not be viewed with affected horror from the perspective of the 21st century. I can assure Alison that us old folk who’ve been around a while certainly do NOT view the idea of being allowed to smoke in an ambulance train as ‘incredible’ . It is a historical fact.

  3. “Where is the evidence that these trains were ‘bleak and jerky’” David, where is your evidence they were not? I would imagine that when you’ve got bits missing every join in the track would be felt. You come across as a very cynical old man (no offence to non cynical older persons).

  4. @Adrian Murray; Cynical? No, he dosen’t, on the contrary, he sounds a realist.
    As the war progressed, the incumbents of these trains would become increasingly grateful at having survived and perhaps have sustained a “Blighty One”…an injury severe enough to preclude a return to active service at the front.
    Few of those who survived their wounds long enough to make it onto an ambulance train having been through the unutterable hell of the Western Front would have been in a frame of mind to complain about the standard of train service, the very idea is an absurd misunderstanding of the expectations and the conditions endured by men of all armies during the Great War, as it was known at the time

  5. We have NLR four compartment first No 111 which,we belioeve,may have been converted by Wolverton to run in an ambulance train but was never used and went into store.We also know of others,all in the Gloucestershire area so,anything you can turn up in the Wolverton records in this respect would be very welcome The Minute book of June 1917 apparently makes reference to 50 NLR coaches being converted.We need the numbers of those.

    1. Thank you for your question about the Wolverton archive -i will look into this for you and reply to you directly.

  6. im trying to find out about american airmen based at the works in world war 2 as 1 of them ismy real grandad he came from texas nick name buddy he lived in the railway carriages while they did work on the planes. any help would be great including any pics from the county arms dances around this time. many thanks.

  7. Shane,

    Thanks for your comment. This sounds like a fascinating story, it must have been quite an experieince living in a train during the war. The NRM’s Wolverton archive collection does contain some information on planes built during WWII and some staff time books for British employees , but no detailed information on American airmen.

    Milton Keynes Museum has some staff records so they may be worth a try – Another really good place to try would be Wolverton Living Archive, it holds photographs, oral history interviews, film and documents relating to the area, so they may be able to help you with County Arms dance pictures.

    I hope this is helpful, good luck with your search!

  8. Alison, thanks for that information on Ambulance Trains. In 1939 my mother was a trained Red Cross nurse and attached to No 32 Ambulance Train. I know very little about it except that it was never deployed to France, although I have a handful of photos of the nurses and others, a doctor and some civilians it seems, who made up the team. Only one carriage is shown, but it is prominently labelled “No 32 Ambulance Train”, has what I take to be a carriage serial number of 6630, and the nickname painted on the end, “The Flying Flea”.

    If you were able to point me to any source material on this I’d be grateful, many thanks. I could send you the photos if you want.

    Richard Essberger

  9. Hi Richard,

    Thank you for your post. I have had a look at the archive catalogue and can find no specific information regarding No. 32/6630. The archive does hold technical drawings of ambulance trains; however in this case there does not appear to be any for this vehicle. Cataloguing of Wolverton drawings is still being carried out, so there is a possibility that something may come to light when cataloguing has finished, so i would enquire again in about 6 months.

    The archive does however hold a few series of in depth files and correspondence that may contain information about when the train was built, when it was decommissioned and where it was moved to, however there is unlikely to be anything hugely specific and the files do not mention names of staff on trains.

    If you would like to come in and inspect these files please email to book an appointment in our search rooms.

    A number of works made ambulance trains during World War One and World War Two, so there is a possibility that No. 32 was not constructed at Wolverton. Our library contains some useful books that may be able to help you with this, follow this link to the catalogue .

    Have you had a look at the Wolverton Living Archive Websites and Milton Keynes Museum (links in above post)?

    I would also recommend searching the National Archives catalogue as this is the place most likely to hold records of staff on trains, as well as specific information about the train itself, follow link

    the British Red Cross has an archive that may contain records relating to ambulance trains

    have you seen this website?

    I hope this information is useful, I hope that you find out more information about ”The Flying Flee”, what a brilliant name!

    Best wishes


  10. Alison

    Please can you give me some pointers on how to research Wolverton in the 1870’s… My Great, Great Grandfather came from his home town and is on the 1871 census living in New Bradwell at working at Wolverton. We knew that he was a master carpenter and built railway carriages but that is about it, other that his son also worked on the railways and went to America to help build the railway there in the early 1900’s. Is there information at The National Archives in London or is it all with you in York?

  11. Hello Chris,

    Whilst do not have the ‘official’ staff records here at the NRM there is information about Wolverton staff contained in records such as reports and time books. You can search the catalogue here – under ‘Wolverton Works’ at the bottom of the page

    See page seven of the catalogue for a more detail about staff records in the archive.

    We also hold publications about Wolverton in the library, you can search the library catalogue through this link

    This archive is available to view in the NRM archive and library ‘Search Engine’ seven days a week.

    LNWR staff records are held at the National Archives, it is also worth contacting Milton Keynes Museum as they hold works record cards, see page 19 of the catalogue for a list of archives that may be able to help with your search.

    If you have any further questions or would like to book an appointment to view archive material please contact

  12. Hi I was evacuated to New Bradwell in1940 and lived in the area until 1957,I attended the Wolverton Grammar School from 1945 to 1950 and was employed at the Wolverton works ,first as an apprentice and later in the Planning and Jig & Tool drawing office. There were several thousand employees then and the town of Wolverton revolved around the Works .
    During my time there, the first all steel 60ft coach was being built at the rate of 5 per week and 45 wagons per week. A very exciting time for a budding engineer. Regards W.S.Anderson

  13. Hi Alison
    I wonder if you have uncovered any information about the Model Lodging House for the railway apprentices at Wolverton. It stood on the site where the Church Institute was later built. All sorts of interesting incidents; a stabbing, thefts etc., etc.


    John Taylor

    1. Hi John,

      The Wolverton archive held at the NRM contains mainly technical records about the construction of locos and carriages/wagons.

      You may find further information at The National Archives, you can search their catalogue here, I had a quick look and found this which look like a deed of some kind.

      I would also try The Centre for Bukinghamshire Studies and Cheshire Archives and Local Studies

      You could also try the local press reports from the time if you haven’t already.

      Good luck with your search!


  14. Alison I really hope you’re still involved in this project and can help me with a “family myth” that I never believed, but only in recent weeks I’ve found to be true……there I got you interested then didn’t I?
    My Grandad told me that his father, my great-grandad was “in charge of the Royal Train”. I thought he meant he was a steward for LMS or something, but the truth is way different. My great-grandfather was E F Merrett, Works Manager at Wolverton from 1931 until his retirement and I believe he oversaw the design and build of LMS 798 & 799 for King George VI. This information has only come about in the past few weeks and I’m now frantically searching for more.
    I have no pictures, sketches, drawings, anything to back this up to my children, but I’m really hoping there’s something in the archives that can assist.
    Your help would be hugely appreciated!
    Mark Venables

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