Public service: serving the public
Pullman car veteran Tom Harding talks to John Jackson about his meetings with the famous
At 93, Tom Harding, a Mason for more than 50 years, is as sharp as when he dealt with Royalty and other VIPs on the famous luxury Pullman cars, where passengers were served their meals at their tables – no first or second sittings in restaurant cars for them.
Now living in the Masonic Housing Association home at Prebendal Close, Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, Tom still has vivid memories of his childhood. He was born the year the First World War began, and was brought up in the desperately poor area of Neath in south Wales, and so came to London, aged 14, to seek work.
Little did he know then that he would rub shoulders with some of the world’s most powerful and famous people – royalty, statesmen, film stars and other celebrities.
He recalls: “There was only one telephone in the village and that belonged to the local doctor. To see a motor car was a luxury. It is difficult to explain that to people today.”
Tom recounts how he came to work on the railways. “When I left Neath the whole village turned out to see me off. I had a board round my neck with my name on it and I was met at Paddington station and found work in various hotels and restaurants.
“One of the places I worked at was the Butler’s Head in the aptly-named Masons’ Avenue in the City of London. We would work there in the evening, often at Masonic events, for an extra sixpence plus a meal.”
Tom joined a club in Soho which was largely a meeting place for people seeking work, and vacancies would be posted on a board. He met one man who, through ill health, had to give up his job on the Pullman cars. Why not apply for his job, the man suggested?
After being taken on for a trial period, not knowing when he would be asked to leave, Tom adds: “It so happened I stayed 44 years.”
And, he has a large illustrated memento in his flat signed by the many senior railway figures who came to his farewell party.
But he had never forgotten his attendance as a waiter at Masonic festive boards, and in the 1950s became a Mason himself with Sprig of Acacia Lodge No. 3318 at Barnet in the Province of Hertfordshire, of which he is now an honorary member. Then, in 1979, he moved to Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire and joined a Lodge there. In addition, he was in Mark, Royal Arch, Mark Mariners and the Knights Templar.
But all this time he was travelling on the Pullman cars, on trains now legendary for their luxury such as the Brighton Belle, the Golden Arrow, which went from Victoria via the boat train to the Gard du Nord in Paris, and the Orient Express. His time on the Pullman cars ran from 1934 until his retirement in 1979.
During those years he met many famous people. “You read about them and saw their photographs in the paper, but being with them was an amazing experience. With the Royal family you were there as a servant of the Crown.”
Among his fondest memories are shaking hands with US President Harry Truman and meeting President Jimmy Carter, and receiving a menu card from Haile Selassie, known as the Lion of Judah, then Emperor of Ethiopia. Foreign royalty included King Baudouin of the Belgians and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. Other VIPs he met included General (later President) Eisenhower, Anthony Eden, then Foreign Secretary but later Prime Minister and another occupant of 10 Downing Street – Neville Chamberlain.
He would often, as the chef, prepare meals for these VIPs, and later ran the luxury cars himself. He adds: “You were never supposed to ask for autographs, but I did break that rule once. Churchill was in a carriage and had thrown a number of papers on the ground.
I picked them up and handed them back to him. Then I asked for his autograph.
‘Certainly not’ said Winston and returned to his work.”
Sadly, but with pride, he recalls how many years later he looked after the Churchill family when Sir Winston’s body was carried in a Pullman as part of his journey back to Bladon, in Oxfordshire, where he is buried.
But one of his most memorable occasions was when he arranged for five Pullman trains to escort the numerous VIPs to the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales by the Queen at Caernarvon Castle in 1969.