Railway signalling is perceived by many as a Cinderella subject but in the early 90's the National Railway Museum in York had a surfeit of signalling equipment creating serious storage problems. This came about largely because of John Howard Turner.
Professionally, a mechanical engineer working for the Ministry of Defence, he was also a highly respected railway historian with a particular interest in signalling. He was an adviser to the British Transport Commission and worked with John Scholes on the signalling collection of the Clapham Transport Museum in the 60's.
The 1968 Transport Act directed British Railways to work with the Science Museum to establish a national railway museum and Turner was one of the group of experts who would recommend which artefacts should be designated to be of sufficient interest to warrant preservation as part of the national collection when they were no longer required by British Railways.
The 60's and 70's was a period of major signalling projects in each of the five railway regions so there was a great deal of historic equipment being replaced throughout the country. Turner was a knowledgeable and enthusiastic collector but obviously did not accept that the resources available to the museum dictated that not everything designated could be accepted for interpretation and display. His personal system was to attach to each piece of equipment he considered had a unique history, a 'designated plate' directing that it should be sent to NRM York for preservation when no longer needed by BR. The result was a steady flow of signal posts, signal box frames, switches and crossings, points machines, relays and instruments arriving, often unannounced, from all parts of the country. The physical scale of the materials created increased storage space difficulties and the nature of the subject meant there was only justification for the exhibition of a small proportion of the growing collection. Sadly Turner died in 1990 before the discussions on priorities had been completed.
Because of the storage problem, the NRM Advisory Board suggested that a working group of members of the Institution of Signalling Engineers should consider the situation. This group recommended that the key elements of the historic development of railway signalling in the UK should be documented and used by the museum curators to determine the size and shape of the national collection.
This was the genesis of HADORS (History and Development of Railway Signalling) the series of five volumes commissioned and published by the Friends of the NRM
By Frank Paterson
Read about Friends contributions here