Ann Middleton is commercial manager of Didcot Railway Centre

LIKE all specialised professions, the railways had their own words for many aspects of their work.

My main sources of information for this article were the books Signalman’s Morning and Signalman’s Twilight by Adrian Vaughan, which came up with most of the following.

In the early days signal arms were made of wood. As a result they were called 'boards' and were said to be 'on' (stop) or 'off' (all clear).

The expression 'The boards are off' probably goes back to the early days of disc and crossbar signals, when the board was literally lifted off the post to give an all clear indication.

A distant signal – which gave advance warning of the need to stop – was a 'back board'.

Signalmen were called 'Bobby' or 'Officer', harking back to the days when signalmen gave hand signals to passing trains and were sworn constables with the same powers as Sir Robert Peel’s 'Bobbies', the original policemen. You can see a replica Bobby’s hut on the Broad Gauge at Didcot Railway Centre and we operate the signals the old way on selected days. Next year The Signalling Centre will open, covering nearly 200 years of railway signalling.

As railways spread in the early days, they largely superseded horse-drawn road coaches, and some of the men who used to work with the coaches and horses went into the railway service. Quite a lot of expressions to do with steam engines hark back to coaching days and language linked to horses. An engine working hard was said to be 'in the collar', the part of the harness through which the horse’s power was transmitted to its load. Engines, like horses, took water from troughs, though unlike horses they did it while running at high speed. Trains were 'stabled' on a siding.

Pick-up goods trains (a train that stopped at every station to pick up or deliver goods wagons) were sometimes known as 'The Fly'. The name originally meant a one-horse cart used to make quick deliveries of light goods. The nickname must have been given ironically, because 'The Fly' took all day to get from Swindon to Didcot or vice versa, stopping at all stations between.

A newcomer on the railway was described as a 'strapper' after the boys who, in coaching days, would climb up on to the coach roofs to strap down luggage. An engine and brake van was known as a 'horse and trap'. A collection of engines was known as a 'stud', and an engine with large wheels was called a 'high-stepper'.

The language is yet another aspect of railway history that we aim to preserve at Didcot Railway Centre.