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Short stories from the history of Britain's railways 


Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Charlie Walton, of the North East branch of the Friends, has written a reflection on the memorial the Friends commissioned at Locomotion to commemorate the employees of Shildon Wagon Works.

Remembrance Sunday is a time for reflection. Even in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important that we do not forget the ultimate sacrifice that was made by those who died in the First World War. The Friends of the National Railway Museum North East Branch at Locomotion decided that it in order to acknowledge the contribution the employees at Shildon Wagon Works made to the war effort, the museum should have an appropriate memorial to remind us of those who served in defence of the realm. They therefore commissioned a display featuring their names. It is positioned next to the 9 plank NER wooden bodied hopper wagon which Shildon Wagon Works built in their thousands. In gathering information about the display some of the branch members who worked at the works and others whose families could recall stories about the works provided us with some interesting anecdotes about the site during the WW1. These included the tale of when the works was plunged into darkness by a quick witted employee who hurried arranged for the lights to be extinguished when he observed in the night sky the menacing shape of a German Zeppelin. As the Germans had built most of the industrial infrastructure in the nearby Gurney Valley, doubtless they had a good idea where the works was situated. Fortunately, the Zeppelin we believe passed over without incident as its intended target was in all likelihood the various railway bridge crossings on the Haggerleases Branch and Tees Valley.

By Charlie Walton

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Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Northenden Junction signal box

The latest additions to the Film Archive of Railway Signalling and People (FARSAP) can now be viewed. These films have proved to be very popular when details were posted on several Facebook signalling groups. The star of the show this time has been the signal box at Northenden Junction on the route between Altrincham and Stockport Edgeley Junction. As you can see from the picture it is a very tall eyrie of a box which has an 1881 Cheshire Lines Committee 25-lever frame and, to reach it from ground level, a long internal staircase with 42 steps. In the feedback, signallers who worked there in the past talked of lowering the single line token over a pulley using a long piece of rope with a home-made hook at the end so that train drivers could easily reach out and get the token. They also talk of the box having the smallest toilet in the world and some very fit rats which climbed the 42 steps. Several stressed the importance of checking they had everything to hand when coming on duty as you didn’t want to negotiate those steps more than was necessary. Some spoke of leaning a plank of wood against the ground-level door at nights so that any out-of-hours visitors opening the door would displace the plank and the noise would wake you up and, it is said, give you plenty of time to get out of your sleeping bag! One signaller rebuilt and re-assembled his rally car engine in the box between trains - and later wished he hadn't given the trouble he had getting it out again down 42 steps….. It beats “The 39 Steps” hands down one supposes!

Moss signal box

Also very popular has been the film of 12 locations between Selby and Doncaster on the East Coast Main Line. Film was shot in 2014 and 2015 before some of the crossings were changed from hand-operated gates on a 125 mph line to what are defined as "MCB-OD" crossings - literally translated, this means "manually-controlled barrier operation with obstacle detection", although it should be pointed out that these crossings actually operate automatically: they are initiated by approaching trains and have no direct signaller involvement when working normally, apart from them monitoring the process. This film includes the North Eastern Railway style box at Moss and the crossing at Balne. There are now around 170 signalling locations shown on the free-to-view films in the FARSAP archive. Additions are made when the films shot by volunteers from the Friends of the NRM and Signalling Record Society are edited. Helpful primers about signalling subjects cover some of the technicalities, and signallers recount their memories. Just search online for FARSAP – there’s a lot to see. 2-1 “Train out of section”.

Former crossing equipment at Balne

By Mike Peart

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As some may know there is a project to create a new railway museum at Leicester North station on the Great Central Heritage Railway (the old Belgrave and Birstall station on the former GC route through the East Midlands). This is currently mothballed but not before over 100 hours of oral history recordings have been made. These are now safely within the NRM archive and also the East Midlands Oral History Archive at Leicester.

A Great Central poster from the 1920s promoting travel over GCR routes to Stratford upon Avon. Photo: NRM, SSPL library

The recordings mainly cover interviews with those who had some connection with the old route from Sheffield to Marylebone. Some were passengers, railway employees at various stations, or local historians. Several interviews cover footplate crews who worked at one of the three Motive Power Depots (MPDs) on the route – Annesley, Leicester (Central) and Woodford Halse. Most of these men were young enough to become firemen or ‘passed’ firemen at the time of steam’s demise so they tell interesting stories of what it was like to work with steam locomotives, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s.

It’s particularly interesting to contrast the MPDs mentioned. Annesley, in North Nottinghamshire was in a coal mining community and largely staffed by those whose fathers didn’t want them to be miners. Leicester Central was a fairly typical central-city depot whose inhabitants often had side-lines close by – garden allotments, pig breeding, for example. Woodford Halse, in what was rural Northamptonshire, was a small agricultural hamlet until the Great Central arrived in the 1890s, transforming it into a railway town. With local labour supplies limited, the depot was a good place to transfer to if you were a teenager in a bigger shed, whose promotion prospects were limited because of the older men but who might advance more quickly by moving to Woodford Halse. Many did, and their stories of life in complete different surroundings to their previous homes make interesting listening.

The London terminus of the Great Central Railway with the magnificent extant façade, seen in the early 21st century. Photo: NRM, SSPL library

The closure of the route was controversial at the time, and remains so for some today. It generates emotional responses in a few of the recordings and reminds us of how passionate people were about ‘their’ railway long after nationalisation. Some still are, referring to the pros and cons of the LMSR and LNER, and even the GCR and the MR.

The glory days of the Great Central encapsulated in this colour-tinted photo, date and location unknown. Photo: NRM, SSPL library

As the current situation changes I am hoping to collect more histories and, with the NRM’s help, make them all available to researchers.

By John Swanwick

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