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Bridge of Sighs

A structure that saw many changes. . . . . . . . .

“Hall” class 5926 “Grotrian Hall” on the up relief line passing under the 1877 footbridge over Southall’s running lines and sidings with an express passenger service. Photo: Mike Peart.

Venice has its famous “Bridge of Sighs”, built in 1603, connecting the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to a former prison. It was given the name from the sounds of sighing prisoners passing over it on their way to trial or execution. Chester claims one, too, with a late 18th century bridge between a prison and a chapel. St John’s College, Cambridge University also has an elegant version built in 1831, and admired by Queen Victoria. Oxford University, not wanting to be left out, had theirs built in 1914. It was so named as it resembles the bridge in Venice, although it also doubles as Hertford Bridge. No such glamorous thing was built over the Great Western Railway (GWR) line at Southall in 1877, but this footbridge certainly accounted for a lot of “sighs”. It replaced an earlier 1838 version which took an established footpath, once believed to have been an old coffin route, over Brunel’s new railway line towards Bristol.

Brunel’s broad gauge from Paddington to the west passed under it until 1892. Suburban services from the days when the GWR also occupied part of London Victoria station passed under it too. Steam locomotives, railmotors, auto-trains and streamlined diesel railcars housed at Southall shed passed under it as they went about their work. And night and day, express and suburban passenger, parcels and freight services rumbled under it. Trainspotters, photographers and parents with children spent hours on it taking engine numbers and taking pictures. More adventurous users of the footbridge looked out for approaching trains and stood over the tracks trying to get covered with smoke and sooty, yet fragrant, steam in the process. The floorboards were tarred thick wood planks which rattled as you walked over them. There were occasional – and rapidly extinguished - small fires caused by cinders thrown up from passing locomotives. The men of the adjacent Southall East Station Signal Box were the fire watchers. Reinforcements, new flooring and other safety measures were put in when the Heathrow Express overhead wires were installed in the late 1990s.

My first ever railway photo taken from the Southall footbridge in 1959 with a Brownie camera. It’s an unidentified “Castle” class loco with an up express train. Lots of period interest – gas lamps, water columns, fire devils, the fogman’s hut and a “Cordon” gas wagon in the bay. Photo: Mike Peart.

So, where does the sighing at Southall come in? We might assume that railway enthusiasts generally prefer the type of traction they were brought up with and, probably, its original company or region. With the rapidly changing times of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a whole lot of enthusiasts’ sighing around BR’s Western Region, although probably not from the enginemen changing over to cleaner and less exhausting work. For steam enthusiasts, the rot started to set in during 1958 when the first D600 (Class 41) and D800 (Class 43) “Warship” diesel hydraulic locos started to appear. Then three years later they were joined by the D7000 (Class 35 “Hymeks”) and D1000 (Class 52 “Westerns”). Steam was slowly vanishing and the remaining locomotives were getting dirtier and less well cared for. At the same time, the exhaust fumes on the footbridge were getting much less pleasant. Those with steam in their veins were already sighing deeply.

There was more even sighing on the footbridge in April 1961 when the British Transport Commission announced the list of steam locomotives to be officially preserved for the National Collection. There were ten former GWR types on the list and, in the eyes of enthusiasts frequenting the footbridge, a lot of omissions. One such was the 0-4-2 14XX tank engine used to work with auto-trailers on push/pull branch line services across the GWR network. The idea of preserving one privately was born in Spring 1961 with a group of us on the footbridge at Southall. Four enthusiasts, including myself, started a society to raise funds to buy a 14XX locomotive and auto-trailer. The 14XX class had already featured prominently in the 1953 film of “The Titfield Thunderbolt”, and the locomotive “Oliver” in the Rev Wilbert Awdry’s “Thomas the Tank Engine” was a member of the class. At the time, little or no thought was given to what we’d do with them when we had raised the money, but youthful enthusiasm won the day. An appeal letter in the August 1961 “Railway Magazine” brought the first cheques and postal orders showing that there was considerable interest in the project. By February 1964 the cash for the locomotive – price £750 delivered - had been raised and number 1466 was bought and taken in steam from Taunton to a private siding in Totnes, Devon. The auto-trailer W231W bought for £300 arrived the following year. 1466 has since starred in the 1972 film “Young Winston”, albeit clad in plywood to represent a locomotive from the Boer War era.

Locomotive 1466 and auto-trailer W231W at Didcot Railway Centre in 1994. Photo: Mike Peart.

A lot of water has flown under a lot of bridges since those original purchases. 1466 and W231W are now part of the large GWR collection housed in the former Didcot motive power depot in Oxfordshire, built and extended by the GWR in 1932. Here there are well over 20 working and stored locomotives, more locomotives under construction, a railmotor, a GWR diesel railcar, an original gas turbine locomotive, over 40 coaches and over 50 historic wagons, along with other vehicles and a small artefacts museum. A section of broad gauge track, two running lines, a signalling centre and two signal boxes, coal stage and functioning turntable add to the working nature of the site.

What of the footbridge that started all this? Due to the works associated with Crossrail/The Elizabeth Line, the 140 year-old structure was removed in 2017, and work on its replacement is almost complete. A section of the original footbridge was donated to Didcot Railway Centre by Network Rail and, 60 years on with the help of a stepladder, I was able to tread its boards again at Didcot.

The section of the old Southall footbridge newly arrived at Didcot Railway Centre in 2017. Photo: Great Western Society.

Mike Peart

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