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A humble railway vehicle that had a valiant role

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After the 1914–18 war, Britain’s railways began to gear up for peacetime operations with the end of their wartime role as troop carriers. In 1919, the South Eastern and Chatham Railway introduced a new type of luggage van to carry passengers’ cases and trunks, and small items of freight, on long journeys. The van would run with all types of passenger rolling stock.

The prototype of the new van was given the unromantic name of “Van 132”. However, it was to find itself in the limelight on more than one occasion.

At the outbreak of the war, a nurse, Edith Cavell, had been in Belgium organising nurse training. After Belgium was overrun by Germany, Nurse Cavell and some of her colleagues were allowed to remain to treat wounded soldiers. She became involved in underground resistance, helping British soldiers to escape. She was caught and shot by the Germans.

After the war had ended, it was decided that Edith Cavell’s body should be returned to England for burial at Norwich Cathedral in her home county. The coffin was brought from Belgium on the destroyer HMS Rowena to Dover, where it was placed on the brand new Van 132 for its journey, first to London for a service at Westminster Abbey, and then to Norwich.

Luggage vans of the pattern of 132 were known for many years as Cavell vans.

The prototype Van 132 was also used to repatriate the body of Captain Charles Fryatt, master of the steamer Brussels, which was owned by the Great Eastern Railway. When a German U-boat ordered him to stop, he attempted to sink it by ramming it. He evaded the submarine but was subsequently captured and shot by the Germans. His execution caused international outrage.

The final ceremonial duty of Van 132 was to convey the body of the Unknown Warrior to London for burial in Westminster Abbey.

This historic vehicle is now preserved by the Kent and East Sussex Railway Trust.

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