20th April 2017

In January 2016 quite by chance I saw on the BBC News that research was being undertaken to find relatives of people who passed through ‘a long closed Cambridgeshire railway station’ and who had signed books in a Temperance Cafe. On clicking through to the second page the words ‘Peterborough East’ appeared. I knew more than most about that station as my great grandfather had been it’s Stationmaster, and my grandmother and numerous great aunts and uncles once lived in the station house.  This is my attempt to give some insight into the man who’s station hosted the Temperance Café some 100 years ago.

Let us begin by looking at what then went into becoming a Stationmaster.

In the early years of the 20th century most places of note, and many places hardly on the map, had a railway serving them. The railway station would often be the main focus for the commerce of the area, particularly if goods were coming into a large town from the surrounding countryside, or if the local producers of both agricultural and industrial goods needed them to be distributed around the country in order to sell them. This process contributed both locally and nationally to ‘what made Britain great at that time.

All this needed rigorous organisation. Someone was required to take charge of all the operations in a town that would contribute positively to the local economy, so that everything ran smoothly and efficiently. There had to be goodwill on the part of both the businessmen of the town and the people working for them, enabling them to make a satisfactory level of profits from the distribution of what they were producing.  If a good working relationship existed the town benefitted and it’s reputation could be enhanced. It was as important as that.

So what was required?  Well, it needed a good team of railway workers, of varying ranks including Goods Agents, and one most important part of this team was the Stationmaster. He had to be very practical, experienced and dedicated, and had to have the respect of both those employing him and those who were using the facilities offered by the railway.  The railway, in this case the Great Eastern Railway, needed a particular type of person to fill these positions. It was a process of learning by experience on the job, often starting as a very young clerk and gradually working up to say assistant stationmaster if that was one’s ambition, and climbing up the ladder as one got older. The level of general education was much lower than it is today, and by the start of World War I the most experienced railwaymen would have been born in the mid 1800’s, leaving elementary schooling at say 13 or 14 years of age, if not earlier, with higher education being out of the reach of the majority.

One would not expect railwaymen to be University graduates, this being the realm of the often aristocratic Board members and the leading engineers designing the infrastructure and the locomotives. The railways created their own practical education system. Any line was required to carry a wide range of products, many of which were perishable, others breakable, others alive such as farm animals, others essential such as coal, and others dangerous such as explosives and chemicals. All these needed practical skills in handling otherwise trouble would occur and people lose money or suffer damaging inconvenience.

Not only that but the railway company could lose business and it’s reputation be tarnished. The railway workers would have to sit exams on a very wide curriculum of practical and commercial issues, so that they could, for example, discuss on even terms with local businesses how goods should be handled and transported and be able to come up with solutions to problems. Promotion would depend on exam results for many roles. All this was only part of the Stationmaster’s job, and essentially he had to know totally how to run every task on the station and have the authority of personality to deal with all the station workforce, the travelling public, and the local business community.

Arthur Harry Ellis would have been just the man to be on top of all these responsibilities. It is not surprising that in old photographs the Stationmasters often look important and imposing, because quite simply that is often how they had to be. It required a particularly gifted type of individual, with intellect and practical skills and a very organised and meticulous approach to his job. After all, on a railway sloppiness and carelessness are very dangerous.

The following may give some insight into how Mr Ellis fitted the role of Stationmaster at an important station like Peterborough East during the First World War, and when the Temperance Cafe was functioning. Mr Ellis was born in 1854, and had the advantage of having a father, John Erskine Ellis, who already by that early year had been working on the railways in East Anglia for some time. He was the stationmaster at Bentley on the border of Essex and Suffolk and died while in office. Our Mr Ellis was the youngest of five brothers, four of whom worked on the railways in a variety of jobs including stationmasters and main line drivers. Their railway house still survives in excellent condition 150 odd years later beside the main line from London to Ipswich.

The family were Wesleyan Methodists and Arthur’s most notable brother was Robert Powley Ellis, one of the best respected railwaymen of his era, who rose to become Superintendent of the Line for the Great Eastern Railway for much of Edward VII’s reign. He was ‘the last railwayman to shake the hand of Edward VII’. R P Ellis had to make all the arrangements for Royal Trains from St Pancras to Wolferton (Sandringham) and often travelled on them supervising. The King died shortly after one of these journeys. R P Ellis and his daughters worked hard on enabling the Railway Mission to be successful in the GER catchment area in the early 20th Century. He was head of the entire workforce of the GER, which I believe exceeded 50,000 employees.

Thus our man, Arthur Harry, had just the pedigree to be a success as a railwaymen, and to aim for the highest level of position on the staff. He joined the railway as soon as he could (he and R P Ellis when they retired were among the longest ever serving members of staff with about 50 years each), and progressed through various stations in his career, including Harlow Mill, Long Melford, Mark’s Tey, Chelmsford, and on to Peterborough East.

On a personal note he had been born when his mother was 39, and his own wife, Ellen Mary Meggs, bore him twelve children while she was between the ages of 28 and 46. Only one of these died as a child, aged 9. This redoubtable woman lived to the age of 86, and I’m very glad that one of her children turned out to be my grandmother. Arthur Ellis was a Methodist local preacher in his younger days and therefore I am sure he would have supported temperance and that it would be entirely appropriate for him to have been in favour of the Temperance Cafe.

He had been at Peterborough East since 1906, and in 1911 my grandmother Ethel Mary Ellis was married at Wentworth Street Wesleyan Church. Very helpfully an excellent photograph was taken showing all the Ellis family who were present on that occasion, and there was a report in a local newspaper. The photograph included the six of his children that I have personally known in my life. The census return for that year shows that seven of Arthur’s children were living at the station, and the bride was away in Somerset that night with her in-laws and not at home in Peterborough.

Arthur’s children were a feisty group, and did not follow their Wesleyan origins. The girls made light of being born into a chauvinistic society and generally followed the practicality of their father. Daisy became C and A Modes first ever woman buyer, and eventually married the Chairman of West Suffolk County Council. Mabel owned a string of milliners shops, Grace married the managing director of Cow and Gate and was doing handbrake turns in her sports car in her mid 70s and also had George V’s chaplain as a brother-in-law. Sybil ran a teashop and when she was a secretary entered her boss into a competition resulting in a new beer being named ‘Watneys Red Barrel’. Herbert was the next to last Stationmaster at Lavenham, and features in the railway display in Lavenham Guildhall Museum. Daisy and Mabel worked together in Woolwich Arsenal during the first World War.

On the theme of the First World War, one of his nephews, Captain E S Ellis, won the Military Cross for shooting three Germans dead with a revolver.  When our Temperance Cafe was created Arthur Ellis was at the height of his experience doing one of the most important jobs in the town. He would have recognised the caring element involved in looking after those serving their country, providing welcome sustenance without including alcohol.

Contemporary photographs show that the Peterborough East station buildings were impressive, reminding us that the railways themselves were at a pinnacle of importance at that time. It is such a shame that they no longer exist although I understand that a goods shed remains somewhere on the site. To see how splendid some of the GER’s stations were Norwich Thorpe and the recently cleaned Bury St Edmunds stations are well worth visiting.

So I hope that I have given some idea of the substantial man Arthur Harry Ellis, my great grandfather, who was overseeing what was going on when the Temperance Cafe was running. Amongst other support he was giving to this project was the supply of coal for the stove heating the cafe, for which he charged £1–0–0 (i.e. 20/- ) a ton, or 5p for 112lbs, sending invoice letters to Mr Bodger, the man who paid the bills. These letters and the invoices for all the expenses of the Cafe are a wonderful local history resource about traders and prices in Peterborough during the Great War. The GER letters are signed by Arthur Ellis in his accomplished handwriting. It was a thrill for me to find one of these almost exactly 100 years after he handled it on March 31st 1916.

Andrew Johnstone –  Great Grandson of Arthur Ellis.Station Master Ellis's Family

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