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A Signalling Life

The story of signalman Iain MacKenzie. . . . . . . .

Several people I met while collecting oral histories mentioned ‘Iain’ as someone with detailed knowledge of all the signal boxes on the old Great Central route. Eventually I tracked him down, far from the old GCR, to rural Dorset and we spent a happy hour or two as Iain told me his story.

It began with a derailment at Rugby, where he lived. He had always liked trains and in the 1930’s his father took him to see the locomotives on Rugby shed. During the derailment, the signalman invited the mesmerised young Iain to sit in the box with him for a while, until everything was sorted out. He started drawing a track diagram and soon he was doing his homework there, in between drawing more track diagrams, under the watchful eye of signalman Wilson. Then the stationmaster, Mr Potts, asked him to draw some more diagrams for the boxes under his control. By the time he retired he had a track diagram for every box on the old GCR route, from Killamarsh to Grendon Underwood. Today they are priceless records.

Iain eventually joined the railway in 1946 as a cleaner at Woodford Halse where he was ‘passed’ as a fireman by the famous Richard ‘Dick’ Hardy. ‘Proud to have known him,’ Iain added. After 3 years cleaning it was conscription and after that he managed to transfer from the locomotive side to signalling.

We talked about different layouts and signal positions, then graduated to ‘incidents’ and ‘personalities’, the seasoning that always goes with reminiscences. Various boxes had good or bad water, a toilet (or not), the nearest stationmaster was known as “Napoleon’, and so on. Coal for the box fire would come from passing locomotives, maybe a pheasant, a rabbit or some vegetables would change hands. Iain recalled Lutterworth box where you entered ‘by invitation only’ – including footplate crews. It was a well kept box with a carpet and the signalman in slippers, so woe betide hobnail boots trampling on the coverings. In fact, the signing book was taken to the footplate crew, not the other way around. (Another interviewee told me it was important to stay on the right side of signalmen. If not, they could stop you in pouring rain and wait until, under rule 55, you had to get out of the cab and call them from the signal post. Soaking wet you were then told ‘Yes, it’s OK, sign the book and I’ll pull it off for you now’(!).

Spalding signalman. On Bulb Festival day, 1983, the No 2 bobby steps into brief sunlight to take stock of locos and coaches.

Iain loved the job but thought that some of the bigger boxes would be too much for him. Rugby Midland number 2 had 182 levers. Instead he moved to the Drawing Office at Crewe in the late 1950’s, to help draw up the signalling for the west coast electrification scheme. He still visited boxes from time to time and one day he met his old mentor and friend, Mr Wilson, in Rugby number 7 box.

In my own way, I have stood in the box at Loughborough on the heritage GCR and watch the working between the footplate crews, the signalman and all the other people involved in running a railway. From time to time one of Iain’s stories would come up in my head and I would imagine him drawing the layout, glancing up at the diagram above the levers and watching the lights move with the trains. There would be bells ringing out in code, a phone

call to a colleague down the line, perhaps, and then, time permitting, maybe a bit of polishing – windows, levers, whatever. ‘It was about pride,’ said Iain, ‘not for a competition’.

Looking back, what strikes me from the stories of Iain and others is how primitive many signal boxes were – and remained so right up until closure. The job was important, the surroundings sometimes idyllic (imagine being in the box at Dent Head on a summer’s day) but there’s no denying most signalmen were in a glorified wooden box full of a growing number of instruments and levers as the years went by and technology advanced. It’s tempting to think of Iain and his colleagues out in the country with few to bother them, but they were also part of a team running a railway. Indispensable, at times idiosyncratic, recorders of passing trains, movers and shunters, theirs was part of a team effort, often without seeing the rest of the team. Theirs was a world governed by important rules and regulations and Iain could quote chapter and verse without any need for a book. After an hour or so the light was fading from our meeting and it prompted him about signal lamps - ‘lit after sunset’ and not ‘when dark’.

Iain’s story is told in ‘Great Central Signalman: One Man’s Passion for Signalling in the 1940’s and ‘50’s’ by Iain MacKenzie and complied by P J Wortley : ‘Working Lives’ series from The Nostalgia Collection (2005). If you can find a copy it’s a good read – with lots of diagrams!


Read more about Film Archive of Railway Signaling and People here

John Swanwick.

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