Frances Yeo is curator of Steam, Swindon’s museum of the Great Western Railway. The museum is running a special exhibition marking the 90th anniversary of the Swindon-built King George V loco’s promotional visit to the Fair of the Iron Horse exhibition at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Frances, who lives near Didcot, also curates Lydiard House

FRANCES Yeo surveys King George V and the other locomotives of Steam with an engineer’s pride as well as that of a curator.

“King George V is all about engineering excellence.

“It was the absolute pinnacle of that engineering excellence in 1927 when it was built. It came from a long line of fabulous locomotives that had come out of the GWR, and the GWR had worked hard to improve aspects of it – to make it more powerful, to enable it to carry more weight –and this was the top of that tree.

“It was all done in Swindon. All of the parts were manufactured in Swindon, and I think that for me it really puts into context all of the hard work and effort, the knowledge, experience and expertise, that was held within the Swindon Works during that period.

“It was a very special, very forward-thinking locomotive.”

Frances’ mother was a geography teacher and her father a mechanical engineer.

“I was born in Oxford and I grew up in a little village just outside Didcot — so another railway town, not very far away!

“I grew up knowing about the Great Western Railway and was always being told about Didcot being a railway town.

“My grandfather on my mother’s side was a train driver – a locomotive driver — so it’s always been something I’ve had an awareness of. Even from the very early days I was told, ‘It’s not a train, it’s a locomotive.’ I’ve been drilled in those sorts of things from a very young age.

“It’s because of my dad’s engineering that I decided to go to university to read engineering.

“That’s partly what leads me to working with these huge locomotives, that interest in engineering and that interest in history.”

Frances studied for her first degree at the University of Manchester.

“I then realised that engineering itself wasn’t necessarily for me.

“As I’ve said, what inspired me to go into engineering was my father, and what I really realised was that what inspired me was his stories, all the things he was involved in and how exciting it all sounded.

“I realised it was partly what he was doing — but it was the fact that he had done these things, it was in the past and it was a story.

“I realised that the story telling and the finding out things about the past were what really, really inspire me.”

Frances returned to university, studied History of Science and began her curatorial career at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

Then came a stint at the National Museums of Scotland as curator of modern science and computing.

The exhibits included Wylam Dilly, second oldest locomotive of its kind in the world and similar to the oldest, Puffing Billy.

Before coming to Swindon in late 2015, Frances managed collections and exhibitions at three South Yorkshire museums.

“I’m now living back in the home that I grew up in, so I’ve come full circle.

“I think that museums are an essential part of our community.

“It’s something I feel very strongly about in terms of teaching people about their past – their own past, the past of people they have a connection with, whether it’s people who lived in their house or lived close to them or their families, etcetera.

“I think that by learning from the past and about the past we learn something about ourselves, and we can take that forward and be inspired by it.

“I think a good museum needs to do three things. It needs to attract your attention – you need to have a reason to go there.

“It needs to hold your attention – you need to enjoy the time you’re spending in it.

“You need to be able to spend enough time to hold that attention, whether it’s through the exhibits, the interpretation or the activities that are done there.”

And the third?

“You need to be able to take something away from it. That’s not necessarily a physical thing, although sometimes it can be a physical thing. It can be a feeling, it can be an inspiration, it can be a thought – a thought that you want to come back and see something else, a thought that you want to visit another museum.”

Frances is especially proud of securing the transfer of King George V and City of Truro from the National Railway Museum in York in in time for last year’s Swindon 175 celebrations.

Her feelings when she surveys the exhibits are complex.

“There are lots of thoughts that go through my mind.

“I think part of it is about the history that comes through this place.

“You’re not just looking at the artefacts themselves as you would do in some other museums – you’re looking at the building and the setting of the building.

“For me, that is all a part of what makes this museum very special.

“It takes the whole history of this site and encompasses it in one building with the locomotives that were a product of this building and this site.

“The other thing you notice, of course, especially on a day like today in the school holidays, is the number of visitors that are coming in to enjoy that history, to enjoy the activities, to see the locomotives that were built here, to understand their own history and to really take something away – perhaps to become the scientists and engineers of the future.”

The interview was conducted in an upstairs display area overlooking an activity zone, where children were discovering ways to make model cars travel faster and further.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing that was inspiring the engineers of 1927 to build King George V.

“Things change and yet they stay the same.”

The museum’s website is