This historic 1947 New Year’s Eve sound recording in a signal box at Reading, Berkshire, 36 miles from Paddington mentions that it was a few minutes before midnight. Midnight that night was the time at nationalisation when the Great Western Railway became the Western Region of British Railways. The bell code of four beats consecutively (“Is line clear for an express passenger train”) received from the next box down the line can be heard. It is answered with four consecutive beats. We then hear the two beats on the bell for the train entering the signal box’s block section, and this is answered with two beats. The two beats on the bell plunger inside the signal box can be heard and this acknowledges to the signal box which sent it that it was received and correctly repeated. The sounds of signal levers being pulled and replaced in the metal frame can be heard. That cast iron frame would have been made in the Great Western Railway Signal Works at Reading which provided much of the company’s signalling equipment. We don’t, though, hear the next bell code which would be two – pause - one beats for the train leaving the signal box’s section. Reading was an important station and junction and there were a lot of signal boxes in the station area such as Kennet Bridge, Reading Main Line East, Reading General Middle, Reading Main Line West and Reading West Junction. There was plenty of round-the clock work for signalmen here every day of the year. You had to be good at counting the sounds of the bells, for example 9 – pause – 5 – pause 5 beats either meant that a lampman or fog signalman was needed. The lampman would be needed to refill or re-light an oil signal lamp, vital in hours of darkness, or if it was really foggy a fog signalman would need to be stationed by an important signal with a red/green/white oil handlamp, flags and a supply of warning detonators. If the signal was at danger, warning detonators would be placed on the rail and would explode loudly if a train passed over them. The train driver would know to stop – quickly! If the signal was clear then the detonators would be removed until the train had passed.
Out of interest, the last Great Western Railway train ever to leave Paddington station did so at 11.50 p.m. on 31st December 1947. This was the overnight service to Plymouth via Bristol which was hauled by “Castle” class locomotive 5037 "Monmouth Castle". It was a sad time for some, and the train left the station in virtual silence. At Reading, it would have been the 12.40 a.m. departure after its first stop there. Back at Paddington at 12.05 a.m. on 1st January 1948 on the new nationalised railway, the first British Railways Western Region train left to a few cheers and the sound of exploding detonators. This was the Paddington to Birkenhead train hauled by “Castle” class locomotive 5032 "Usk Castle". These two locomotives are pictured in British Railways days in photos taken by Mike Peart. The double-chimneyed “Usk Castle” is seen in the yard at Old Oak Common engine shed, London in spring 1962. This loco was withdrawn and scrapped in September the same year with 1,288,968 miles on the clock after 28 years’ work. Then “Monmouth Castle” is seen in the yard at Swindon Works at Easter 1962. It still has its single chimney after a heavy intermediate overhaul, it has just been repainted and is waiting to be re-united with its tender. This locomotive lasted until scrapping in March 1964 with 1,500,851 miles on the clock after a working life of 29 years.
Listen to the original sound recording at Reading mp3 Cometary is by Maxwell Taylor. Courtesy of the BBC.
Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of“History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994.