From March 2022 to July 2022, Faris Al Ali and I were volunteer researchers on an exciting project to find out more information about a WHSmith bookstall which was located inside London’s Waterloo station from 1922 until 1978 when it was dismantled. In his separate blog post, Faris outlines how he discovered the bookstall we were investigating was known as ‘Waterloo Loop’. My aim in this post is to give you some idea about the people who worked there.
Like the hundreds of other WHSmith railway station bookstalls once dotted throughout the country, the one at ‘the Loop’ was staffed by a bookstall manager and assistants. But who were these people and what were they like? Trying to find out this information was somewhat daunting because the WHSmith Business Archive held at the University of Reading’s Special Collections is huge. Where should I start? Was I looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack?
Luckily, the project team comprising staff from the National Railway Museum, the University of Reading’s Special Collections team and a PhD student came up with lots of useful suggestions. After giving it some thought, I decided that a promising avenue of research would be to read issues of a Smith’s monthly publication for staff—the Newsbasket—as well as review branch lists, photographs, microfiche cards, press cuttings and projector slides.
A handwritten branch list for Waterloo Loop told me that a Mr C.W. Olney managed the Loop bookstall from 1919 until 1936, at which point he moved on to manage other Smith’s bookstalls located at London railway terminus stations (see Fig 1). He was therefore the manager of the Loop bookstall when it was installed in 1922 to replace one which was originally fitted in 1862. My interest was piqued—here was ‘our’ bookstall’s first ever manager. I wanted to find out more about him, so I turned my attention to the Newsbasket.
Whilst reading the Newsbasket two things kept cropping up about Smith’s staff: (i) their lengthy service with the company, and (ii) the problem of thefts from railway station bookstalls. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to discover that not only was Mr Olney a Smith’s staff member for over 50 years, he was also one of their best catchers of shoplifters.
An article from the February 1939 issue of the Newsbasket refers to Mr Olney’s “second sight in the matter of book snatchers” (see Fig. 2). He is recorded elsewhere as “having been instrumental in arranging interviews between 60 book thieves and various magistrates, and all the 60 have been either suitably fined or sent to repent in prison” (Newsbasket, May 1943). If a shoplifter was caught by Mr Olney they therefore faced a definite fine or a prison sentence because he achieved a 100% conviction rate.
By the 1940s Mr Olney had moved on from the Waterloo Loop bookstall to manage the Smith’s bookstall at Charing Cross station. It was whilst working here in 1943 that he was photographed being congratulated by the Station Master on the “completion of 51 years’ service at railway bookstalls” (see Fig. 3). Despite being eligible for retirement in 1943, Mr. Olney planned to stay on as a bookstall manager at Charing Cross for the duration of the war, probably because Smith’s were short-staffed due to the war effort.
My research had unearthed a lot of information about Mr Olney and I had quite a detailed mental picture of him. He was a very popular figure at Smith’s and much admired by those who knew him. It felt a little strange that my archival research made me feel somewhat attached to a person I never even knew. I began to understand much better the emotional reactions of guests on the BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?. Similar to many of them, I too had become emotionally engaged with the subject of my research.
It was therefore with some sadness I discovered that Mr Olney never got to enjoy a well-earned retirement. Just a year after being congratulated on his long, dedicated service with Smith’s, he was killed in an air raid in June 1944 along with his son, Ron, who was home on leave from war service. Mr Olney was 66 years old. His wife survived (see Fig. 4).
I can think of no better tribute to Mr Olney than what one of his bookstall assistants said of him after learning about his death: “I can say no more than that the Firm and his family have lost a fine man, a man for whom it was a pleasure to work, someone whom honest people love and whom the dishonest feared” (Newsbasket, August 1944).