Frank Prevett’s memoir entitled ‘Memoirs of a Railwayman’ is a thorough account of his life working on the railway through his numerous promotions and changes of station. He was compelled to write these memoirs due to suffering a sudden illness prior to his 59th birthday. Frank opens his memoir with a brief preface outlining his path in life. Generations of his family worked in the railway before him and ‘many other members of the Prevett family, both male and female followed in the family tradition’ of working in the railway’ (1). He left school at the age of fourteen, which he acknowledges left him with little opportunities though he did not realise this in the first years of his working life. He began working for a local butcher’s but a disagreement with the butcher’s wife ended that arrangement after two weeks. At the age of sixteen, he began work on the railway, a career he would continue for forty-five years.
Frank was born in Brighton in 1904, one of three children and the only son. His father was stationed at Brighton as a ‘booking clerk’ and ended his career as a Passenger Guard. His father was one of six children, with three brothers who all worked on the railway in some capacity. Frank interestingly chooses to quote his father’s own words from his diaries to explain his working life up until 1892 ‘where his father’s pen ceased.’ Frank then summarises his father’s life up until his death at the age of 61.
Frank’s memoir goes into precise details of the events that took place during his forty-five years of service working on the railway. Frank also provides insight into his family life with his wife Florence, although he does not mention her name at any point throughout his memoir, and their twin sons Peter and John, born in 1933.
Frank goes into immense detail regarding his role as a stationmaster. However, significant family events often only get one sentence and then he swiftly moves on. Frank never mentions that his daughter-in-laws are pregnant just that they have given birth. His extended family receives little mention. Before becoming a husband, he describes life living with his parents and his sisters. However, after his wedding, which took place 3rd September 1930, there is little mention of his family. He describes in passing significant events, be it the death of a relative, a wedding, birth of a niece or nephew, but the reader receives little insight into their personality or Frank’s opinions on his relatives.
A reason for this is that he drew upon his diary entries from the previous thirty years to help him write his memoirs. His memoirs are more of a day to day account, so the emphasis is clearly on his career and his immediate family.
A strong message that is prominent throughout Frank’s memoirs is the idea of perseverance. A main motivation for writing these memoirs was that Frank hoped ‘to establish in simple terms how an ambition or goal can be reached with perseverance and sufficient effort and hard work’ (1). This is a sentiment he instils into his sons and rather apparent following one near death experience. During one of his periods on annual leave, Frank and his family were walking along a country lane when they noticed a tree becoming unstable. They quickly ran past the tree and following this Frank notes that ‘we were all pretty shocked realising we had only just escaped being buried beneath the large branches. There was not another person in sight and recovering from the shock, we thankfully continued our journey home’ (117). Through these memoirs it is apparent that Frank does not look for sympathy. Highlighting another aspect of Frank’ character is his concern for others. After nearly getting crushed by a falling tree, he does not dwell on this. However, accidents on the railway that cause fatalities produce emotions that are rarely expressed throughout his memoir.
Frank ends his memoirs on Boxing Day 1968 due to the sudden death of his wife, Florence. He delivers an emotional account of the events of that day. He finds slight comfort from the doctor’s words that there was nothing he could have done to save his beloved wife of 38 years. Frank writes that his ‘only consolation was that she suffered in no sorrow in parting, and I can only hope, no great distress, because she would never have shown this for fear of giving me shock. I was also grateful that I was present, in the lounge reading my book and to know that there was nothing I could have done’ (345).
An emotional end to a riveting memoir that represents working class values and demonstrates the mindset of a generation that lived through both world wars.
‘Frank Prevett’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:638.
Prevett, Frank. ‘Memoirs of a Railwayman’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection
Addiscombe Station, early 1950s – John L. Smith
Olde Star Inn, Alfriston C. 1921 – Francisfirth.com
Mr and Mrs Prevett – ‘Memoirs of a Railwayman’