Harry who? you might ask. I had the pleasure of recording an interview with Harry at his home near Derby in 2016, aged 99. We were in the company of his son Martin and one of his former work colleagues, Paul Mosely, and it’s through them that we were able to talk through Harry’s life and some of his achievements. Harry was something of a Forrest Gump of the railways, seemingly being always in the right place at the right time. Read on.
Harry was born in Darlington in May 1917, the son of a railway inspector and the grandson of a driver on the NER. One of his earliest memories was being taken on the footplate of ‘City of Newcastle’, one of Vincent Raven’s Pacifics, almost new at that time. Harry subsequently joined the railway as an apprentice electrician and when World War II arrived Harry went to work with Robert Watson Watt and his mobile radar experiments. He later helped design proximity fuses for anti-aircraft shells.
After the war Harry returned to Darlington in the Testing and Performance Section of the works there, and in 1948 wrote a technical assessment of Bulleid’s controversial Leader Class locomotive. He was part of the locomotive exchanges in 1948, including being in the dynamometer car behind ‘Witherslack Hall’ (see FB posting of 19th January 2021) on the old GCR route. He was also on the trial behind 46236 ‘City of Bradford’ when it went through Peterborough North on the up line. ‘Peter (Howe) was on the footplate and there was a 20 mph speed limit. There was a misunderstanding with the pilot who was supposed to tell him there was a 20 mph speed limit – but didn’t…… Well, we didn’t actually come off but you could see the marks on the tyres where it had come up.'
In 1950 British Railways were looking for someone to send to Manchester, to a meeting about something called ‘computers’. Apparently, the CM&EE asked ‘well who do we known who knows anything about that sort of thing?’ ‘There’s Harry Walker at Darlington, he’s an electrician, we could send him.’ So it was that Harry met Alan Turing and John Hargreaves, (a BRB Research Department mathematician).
Transferring to Derby, Harry later worked on a number of projects and developed the ‘Walker curve’ which assessed the braking performance of BR’s new ‘Deltic’ locomotives.
Leafing through the transcripts and background information on Harry it’s not difficult to find a mention of almost every name and project on the railways during his career. By 2016 Harry’s memory was faltering but, prompted by Paul and Martin, I asked him about Mallard’s record breaking run in 1938. ‘We did some speed tests down the bank…… Essendine Bank, I think. 126 miles an hour…… I was in the (dynamometer) car at the time… they were Doncaster people… don’t know who the brake manufacturer was, Westinghouse, I think.’
For his ninety ninth birthday, many of his relatives and friends organised a special day out in a chartered train on the Great Central Railway hauled by – you guessed it – ‘Witherslack Hall’. And there they all stand for a photograph, frozen in time, in front of the train and the station fence, husbands and wives, engineers, a lifetime of experiences in a photograph.
Picture: Harry Walker (centre front row). Over 100 of Harry's railway colleagues and family members joined the train after a meticulously planned group photograph was staged at Quorn and Woodhouse Station.
Harry died on 17th August 2018, aged 101.
The dynamometer car from Mallard’s run is in the NRM’s Great Hall. On some photographs you can just about make out a youthful Harry Walker standing in the background.
From the hours of oral history recordings I have made, people sometimes ask which is my favourite. That’s difficult, but in terms of that sense of reaching out and almost touching the past, Harry’s would come close.
Harrys’ interview and accompanying notes contain many references to famous names and locomotives from the twentieth century history of Britain’s railways.Harry’s memory was faltering on the recording and I am indebted to Ben Doty for transcribing it.My thanks also to Paul Mosley for supplying extra notes about Harrys’ career and to his son, Martin, for nudging Harry when memory almost failed him.A great film of Harry’s birthday train on the GCR, made by Andy Bennett, is available on YouTube.
Together with that photograph of all the guests. The original Dynamometer Car used behind Mallard is in the National Railway Museum at York. Harry’s recording is in the archive at the NRM but not currently available to researchers.
By John Swanwick
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