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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