As soon as well-meaning people get organised and commemorate something, a grouch comes along and says: 'You got it wrong!' At certain stations from Thurso to Carlisle, plaques have been unveiled to mark the centenary of the almost-legendary train that ran between London Euston and Thurso in the latter stages of the first world war, carrying naval personnel to and from the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow in Orkney. It ran via Preston, Carlisle, Perth and Inverness, scheduled to take 22.5 hours for the journey north and a full 24 hours southwards. At 707 miles, it was the longest-distance train in the country, which gave it a certain grim prestige.
These plaques are a good way of reminding us of the railway's contribution at times of all-British national effort. Unfortunately, they convey false information, stating that the train was commonly known as the 'Jellicoe Express', after Admiral Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet. A photograph of the admiral accompanies the plaques. But this train was never called in its time, even as a by-name, the 'Jellicoe Express'. Indeed, that would have been a nonsense.
The service was introduced in February 1917, and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe had relinquished command of the Grand Fleet to Admiral Sir David Beatty in November 1916. To the companies who operated it, the London & North Western, Caledonian (at first, then the North British when the train was routed via the Forth Bridge to serve Rosyth as well), and Highland Railways, it was simply 'the Naval Train' or 'Naval Special'. To the sailors who travelled on it, it was known as 'The Misery', perhaps especially on the northbound route, when they were heading back to duty. These names are well attested from documents of the period. 'Jellicoe Express' is not to be found.
Yet there really were 'Jellicoe trains', which can be found in the historical record. Humble but strategically vital, they ran from August 1914, carrying steam coal from south Wales to Grangemouth docks, to keep the Grand Fleet fuelled. This was an unusual traffic for the Welsh coalfield, which normally exported via Cardiff and Newport, and these trains were often referred to as 'Jellicoe Specials', since Admiral Jellicoe depended on them to keep his steam-powered ships in action. Coastal steamers carried the coal onwards to Scapa Flow.
During the second world war, the Royal Navy was oil-fired and the coal trains were not needed, but the Naval Train was reinstated and the still-apt name of 'The Misery' was soon revived. There is no evidence at all that the term 'Jellicoe Express' was used by anyone at that time. What appears to have happened in much more recent years is a confusion in people's minds of the first world war coal trains with the second world war personnel train, resulting in the fabricated name of 'Jellicoe Express'.
Does this matter? The trains were real enough. But when the small details of history are tweaked, larger issues can become shaky. The plaques make no mention of the notorious discomfort of the journeys. Popular history-creation comes up with a name which never was, and an admiral is commemorated rather than the thousands of ordinary sailors who endured the long-haul and gave the train its actual by-name. The Jellicoe family's involvement in the plaque programme may suggest a natural urge to celebrate a distinguished ancestor, but is scarcely a reason to hijack a train. 'Jellicoe Express' may have a grander ring than 'The Misery', but that is not the point.
A further plaque is to be unveiled at Forsinard Station this month. Those responsible might like to re-consider its wording. And there is a final consideration: while the myth of a 'Jellicoe Express' is puffed in popular imagination, the men who ran the real 'Jellicoe Specials' are forgotten. There is no commemorative plaque at Grangemouth.