Graham Perry, who died just a few weeks short of his 80th birthday, was a driving force behind the creation of Didcot Railway Centre, now one of the major tourist attractions in South Oxfordshire.

Mr Perry was born in Norwood Green, Southall, west London, on 1 April 1944.

He recalled that his interest in railways must have started when he was a toddler and his mother used to take him to the footbridge over the railway in Southall to watch trains.

In 1957 Mr Perry began to study at Southall Technical College and rediscovered the footbridge at Southall as a location for trainspotting.

READ MORE: Puppies seized from caravan park 

Early in the 1960s British Railways were replacing steam engines with diesels and in April 1961 Mr Perry and three of his 16-year-old trainspotting companions decided to buy one of the soon-to-be-scrapped steam locomotives.

So they wrote a letter to The Railway Magazine inviting donations.

In August that year Mr Perry and a few of his pals went on a trainspotting expedition around Scotland, armed with permits to visit all the engine sheds.

But they returned early after some got sick through a diet of steak and kidney pies in railway station buffets, plus a visit to a café in the Gorbals where there were dead flies in the sugar bowl. 

Now 17 years old, Mr Perry’s interests were changing.

“I decided to give up trainspotting, just got fed up with it”, he recalled.

Then on the train journey back from Scotland the friends bought a copy of The Railway Magazine and discovered that their letter had been published.

When they got home there were replies, including one from an academic at St John’s College, Cambridge, offering £10.

The four schoolboys realised their lives were taking a new dimension.

With a focus beyond trainspotting, Mr Perry became treasurer of the organisation they formed, the Great Western Society.

Money slowly accumulated and by the beginning of 1964 they had raised £750 to buy their first locomotive, No 1466 which had been built in 1936.

To store the engine, they had found a private siding at Totnes, Devon, where No 1466 was delivered in March 1964.

Just about to leave their teen years, they were the owners of a full-size steam locomotive.

Early in April 1964 Graham and three companions travelled from west London by car to Totnes to view their new acquisition.

Oxford Mail: Graham Perry with Princess Anne in 2003They had planned to clean the paintwork, but decided to steam it instead.

People came running when they heard the engine’s whistle – some of them were railwaymen who knew how to drive it.

Success in buying one locomotive opened the floodgates – more members of the society, more money, more engines.

In 1967 came the offer of the redundant engine shed at Didcot and the society set up its headquarters there.

Early in 1968 Mr Perry, who had been the society’s treasurer from 1961, swapped roles and became the chairman, a post he was to hold for the next 33 years.

With more and more locomotives and rolling stock arriving, the strategy was devised to make Didcot the definitive collection of the Great Western Railway in preservation.

The first public open days were held at Didcot engine shed in 1969. 

It became a popular venue from the start and has continued to be so ever since.

As the fame of the Didcot collection grew, Hollywood came knocking.

In 1971 an epic film about the early life of Winston Churchill – Young Winston – was being planned.

It needed an engine to play the art of the armoured train in the South African war sequence when Churchill was captured by the Boers.

Mr Perry now took the lead in negotiating a deal with hard-bitten movie moguls including Carl Foreman, the producer, and Richard Attenborough, the director.

Consequently the society’s first engine, No 1466, spent the summer of 1971 on a South Wales hillside masquerading as South Africa – the initial £750 investment in the locomotive was repaid.

Oxford Mail: Graham Perry in the bowler hatThis was the first of many film contracts which have brought A-list stars to Didcot.

During the years with Mr Perry in charge the original engine shed expanded into the Railway Centre we now know.

Historic railway buildings were brought from locations around the railway system and re-erected to create branch line stations of the type that were swept away during the Beeching closures of the 1960s.

New buildings included the carriage shed to protect the wooden-bodied coaches and the locomotive works for restoring the essential steam engines.

Apart from what must have been almost full-time voluntary input to the Great Western Society, Graham had a career in local government and later with a marketing agency in Ardington close to his home village of East Hendred.

In April 2001 Mr Perry retired as chairman.

Two years later he was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2003 “for services to railway heritage”.

He was a guest that year when Princess Anne visited Didcot Railway Centre.

In 2008 Mr Perry and his schoolboy companions, now in their 60s, told their own story in The Last Days of Steam, a Timeshift production for BBC Four.

Mr Perry died on February 9. He leaves Linda, his wife, daughters Rebecca and Emma, and four grandchildren.

Mr Perry’s funeral is at 1.15 pm on Thursday, March`14 at South Oxfordshire Crematorium.

Help support trusted local news 

Sign up for a digital subscription now: 

As a digital subscriber you will get: 

  • Unlimited access to the Oxford Mail website 
  • Advert-light access 
  • Reader rewards 
  • Full access to our app 

About the author 

Andy is the Trade and Tourism reporter for the Oxford Mail and you can sign up to his newsletters for free here. 

He joined the team more than 20 years ago and he covers community news across Oxfordshire.

His Trade and Tourism newsletter is released every Saturday morning. 

You can also read his weekly Traffic and Transport newsletter.