Misery on the Jellicoe Express

Throughout 2 world wars, the Jellicoe Express ran between London Euston and Thurso, linking the South of England ports with the Royal Navy’s Orkney anchorage in Scapa Flow.

The train was named after Admiral John Jellicoe, Commander of the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The first Jellicoe Trains ran from August 1914, carrying steam coal from south Wales to Grangemouth docks near Edinburgh, to keep the Grand Fleet fuelled.

Travelling was usually a nightmare – invariably overcrowded, and most passengers were unlikely to get a seat. On its twenty-one hour, 717-mile journey, only the shortest of passengers could hope to get any sleep by lying in an empty wire luggage-rack.

“The memory I have was of being confined to the train and living on pies for about three days, with an occasional wash by putting our heads out of the railway carriage window to catch the raindrops.”

The Jellicoe Express departs London Euston Image © IWM (D 18904)
On a busy platform at London’s Euston station in 1944, women and children wave goodbye
to their loved ones. Image © IWM (D 18904)

London & North Western, Caledonian, and Highland Railways ran the service. To them, it was known as the Naval Train or Naval Special. To the sailors who travelled on it, it was called The Misery, especially the northbound route, when heading back to the northern climate of The Flow. An estimated 500,000 military personnel from all the services experienced The Misery:

“The air was dense with smoke and smelt more like a ship’s bilges than a train; but the thought of having a window open, even if one could get to it, was out of the question and asking for trouble. Little or no heat was provided by the train and it was a case of putting up with any discomfort to keep warm.”

Unveiled by Cllr Pam Minshall on behalf of Crewe Town Council, Crewe Railway Station houses one of a number of plaques that provide a permanent memorial to the Jellicoe Express. Crewe served as a welcome refreshment stop, where over 300 women volunteers worked around the clock to provide refreshments in a canteen on Platform 6.

“It must have been steeped in the intense emotions of the thousands who used it: fear and apprehension of those about to start a tour of duty; relief and joy, of those returning for leave.”

The route from Euston, through Crewe, Preston, Carlisle and Perth, was later switched via the former Waverley route to Edinburgh and Inverkeithing, where sailors alighted for at Rosyth naval base.

Plaques have already been erected at Edinburgh Waverley, Inverkeithing, Perth, Inverness, Dingwall and Galashiels, with many of the ceremonies attended by Johnny Jellicoe, grandson of Sir John Jellicoe.

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