Summary: The story of the late Horace Gamble, Leicester railway enthusiast. . . . . .
Browsing through the latest railway literature to arrive via my electronic post box I came across a recent obituary of Horace Gamble, who died in February, this year. I imagine that most of us will have famous names associated with railway history down the years, some known across the UK, and others more locally. In my own part of the world, the East Midlands and particularly Leicester, Horace Gamble features prominently and I hope you will forgive a brief diversion on these posts to Horace’s story.
Horace was an avid collector of locomotive numbers and places in his early years, continuing through much of his life. In 1939 he co-founded the Leicester Railway Society, which continues to this day. He had a keen interest in art and photography too and many of his photos appear in books and articles, as well as local newspapers and magazines. He contributed regularly to the ‘Mr Leicester’ page of the Leicester Mercury newspaper.
In 2017 my colleagues, Bridget and Paul Masters, had the good fortune to catch up with Horace and record his memories. It’s a recording littered with locomotive numbers and places, interspersed with accounts of various railway events in the Leicester area over the years. In one sequence, Horace talked about his experiences at the beginning of World War II.
‘Was trainspotting allowed when the war broke out?’
‘Not really,’ Horace replied. ‘The government rules were no photos of railway premises. I took some pictures of railway engines at Wigston (south of Leicester) but my film was confiscated. I was warned about this on the previous Saturday so, when asked, I said I thought locos were OK but the police said locos were on railway premises so not allowed. Pity really, there was a ‘Baby Scot’ on the film’.
‘But you founded the Leicester Railway Society in 1939, when the war was starting?’
‘Yes, some people said it was a bad time but we were just interested in railways and engines. Anyway, we didn’t start the war….’
Horace went on to join the Local Defence Volunteers (Home Guard), signing on at the police station and being posted to Belgrave Road, Leicester, not his favourite place. ‘You didn’t get a choice over where you were sent. We guarded bridges, that sort of thing. We had rifles but no ammunition. I suppose we might have borrowed a few rounds if it came to it.’
In one incident the platoon was instructed to mount an invasion of some premises to test the ability of the defenders to prevent it. The site was Leicester Central shed and Horace and team had no difficulty entering the shed and ‘occupying’ it!
Like so many other recordings, Horace’s reminiscences take the older listener back in time to the days of one’s youth. It would be easy to dismiss these as casual ramblings of older people, sometimes humorous, sometimes recounting dangerous events, but such recordings are the small threads of history which, woven together, give a much bigger tapestry for history. They are often valuable because of this. Most stories cover the post war years so it is particularly interesting to hear about ‘trainspotting’ (as Horace freely calls it) pre-war and during the war. It wouldn’t be difficult to assume the war put a stop to spotting activities but it seems more to have been a matter of ‘keeping a low profile’ – no cameras, for example. On the other hand, perhaps notebooks and numbers would have been of use to the enemy? (On the other side of the Channel at that time, there are accounts of people being shot for keeping a list of train numbers, so perhaps actual occupation made the difference?)
After listening again to Horace’s stories, my thoughts go back to that day when five ‘spotters’ from Birdcage Walk in Leicester (overlooking the Midland shed) got together and, in a burst of optimism about the future, founded a railway society. History then – though it wouldn’t have seemed so at the time.
Horace’s obituary can be found here. Some of Horace’s photos are in ‘Railways Around Leicester: Scenes of Times Past’ (1989) published by J D Anderson, though this is hard to find nowadays.
John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. After returning from a management career interspersed with travel around the world, John settled down to develop a more extensive interest in railway history. After completing a Masters degree in Heritage Interpretation/Museum Studies at Leicester University, John began collecting oral histories for the proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The outcome is a series of recordings held in the archives of the National Railway Museum and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester.
The human interest in historical material is a particular interest for John and has led to writing several books and articles drawing on such material. John has also written several books about his travels and is currently researching and writing about trees in the landscape of Yorkshire and Leicestershire.
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