Should you ever make it to furtherest point on the South West Trains mainline you’ll find yourself at Weymouth. It’s a nice enough seaside town with it’s olde worlde charm and twenty first century problems. In summer it heaves with flocks of sunseekers, disembarking from trains on the three platforms that bring them in from far flung places. Well, from London by South West and from Bristol on the Great Western service. Chances are, you’ll walk through the station without casting it a second glance. It’s not one of the Victorian gems that seem to almost litter the line, but a more modern building. The huge old terminal building was done away with decades ago, along with steam engines, most of the platforms and the goods yard.
But should you ever make it there, perhaps you might cast your eyes about for a moment. If platform three is empty, then you’ll notice a small blue and white porcelain urn attached to the wall on the far side of the track, just where the rail comes to an end. It is just a small urn and easy to miss. Those with sharp eyes and a sense of curiosity have been known to ask of its story. The common reply will be that the urn contains the ashes of Benji the station cat. It’s a believable story, especially if you’ve also noticed the plaque in Benji’s memory on the wall next to the ticket office window. But the urn doesn’t contain the ashes of a cat. Benji went to the vet one day in 1991 and did not return. Not in body, not in an urn and, judging by the number of rats running loose, he did not come back in spirit either.
So how do we explain the presence of the urn on that wall? Well let me tell you the story of Benny. Not a cat, but a railwayman. An affable fellow, born between the wars, he joined the railways as soon as he left school. And he couldn’t leave school quickly enough, truth be told. Let’s just say that he was not the sharpest tool in the box. Quite the opposite. He lacked any form of academic ability and frankly wasn’t much better with his hands. But you’ll never find a man with a more cheerful disposition no matter how long and hard you look. He woke every day with a beaming smile which he wore on his face till bedtime. It was a rather lopsided smile though, so much so that most assumed that it was linked to an underlying reason for his simplemindedness.
He got his job on the railways in part because of that pity inducing lopsided smile. In part because any man of quality at that time was fighting in the war. And in part because, in the words of the man who gave him his big break, “there’s always a place for a useful idiot on the railways”. Those who worked with him over the next forty or so years were usually honest enough to say that only half that sentence applied to Benny. But were kind enough not to mention which half. It was impossible not to like the chap. Which was just as well really, given the number of scrapes he’d need help getting himself out of. Benny worked in maintenance with a regular gang, fixing things up and down the track. There was an almost infinite list of things that could go wrong on the railways. With Benny about, the length of that list doubled.
But every day of his working life, Benny would turn up with his lop sided smile and a lunch packed by his doting mother, a war widow. He was cheerful and eager and willing to try his hand at anything. The trouble was, his team weren’t so eager to let him. Any other simpleton would be assigned simple jobs to match their simple mind. But that system did not always work with Benny. For example, any old lump can be gotten to stand on the bottom rung of a ladder leaning against a wall whilst his buddy clambers up to do his work. But you need to be sure that the fellow at the bottom isn’t going to be distracted by a woodlouse in the brickwork and wander off to see where it lives. That was Benny’s third day on the job and resulted in his buddy breaking his ankles when he fell. If ever you asked Benny about the incident in the years that followed, he’d only really ever be able to recall that he never did find out where the woodlouse lived.
From then on, Benny was assigned jobs based not so much on simplicity but on consequence. As a result, he spent forty years making the tea or carrying small items from A to B. But his most common job was something called ‘Keep well back, Benny’. It took him a bit of practice, but he got the hang of it in the end and his mastery of this role probably saved his life on a fairly frequent basis. In 1988 Benny was to turn 60 and retire. His last big job was working with a team who were helping to electrify the last part of the line, from Bournemouth to Weymouth. He wasn’t happy about having to retire. But he’d been told it was for his mum’s sake as much as his and the team’s. She was getting on in years and Benny’s frequent dalliances with danger were, frankly, adding years to his colleagues lives too.
On his final day on the railways, Benny stood at the side of the track just outside of Weymouth station with half a dozen of his chums. They were awaiting the first electric train to come through. The proof that their hard work, and that of many others, had paid off. The train was a little late which had someone wondering if anyone had remembered to put 50p in the meter to turn on the leccy. Benny’s vacant eyes lit up, just for a moment. He stepped forward, licked his finger and….well. There were cries of, “Benny, get back!”, which were sharply cut off by a loud bang and crackle. The air filled with the smell of burning flesh. Benny the railwayman was no more.
His funeral was an economical bake and wake affair. His colleagues had a whip round for a decent casket and they managed to wangle a special railway discount at the crematorium. On account of the railway having got the job half done already. They took turns to say something about their fallen comrade. First up was someone to recount his successes on the railway. It was a short speech. He made many fine cups of tea. He did keep well back. Most of the time. And he did, it must be said, successfully prove that the line was indeed live. He omitted to mention how good Benny was at taking things from A to B. Benny did often unnecessarily involve C to Z in the task, after all.
Another chap recounted his final words. “This is how I check batteries at home”. Next up was a chap who’d forgotten his notes. He just stared for a moment and then stated that it was a miracle Benny had gotten this far through life in one piece. Benny was one of a kind and thank God for that. Last up was his tearful mum, who knew something bad was going to happen that day. He hadn’t taken his packed lunch with him. He always took his lunch. Always. There were those who suspected Benny met his end as a matter of choice rather than by accident. He was very attached to the railway. Very. Perhaps leaving it just wasn’t for him. It was decided that the best place for his ashes to spend eternity would be where he loved to be the best. Another round up of cash was organised, a small blue and white porcelain urn purchased and a little private ceremony at the station was held.
You might think that the story ends here. Well, you thought wrong. Ever since that fateful day, every now and again, things go wrong on the railway line between Bournemouth and Weymouth. Sparks fly. Trains grind to a halt. The railway is paralysed. Engineers come and puzzle over the problem. But if you go and check Benny’s urn, you’ll find the lid off. Every time. It’s a mystery how. But the assumption is that Benny is back out on the track checking the third rail has proper current. Just pop the lid back on. And Benny will go back to having his well deserved rest. Until next time.
So that is the story of the urn at Weymouth train station. You can probably now understand how it’s just quicker and easier to say its the final resting place of a station cat.