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Signalling Tales

Summary: The stories of Ted Cook, Leicester signalman. . . . . . .

Photo: Leicester Mercury archive. On July 11, 1968, Leicestershire was counting the cost of one of its worst and most widespread storms for many years, during which about three inches of rain fell in 24 hours. This is an aerial shot of the A46 at Syston, where it passes under the railway

Well, you know how it is. It’s a cold November morning but in Ted’s kitchen it’s quite cosy, especially over tea and biscuits. So I get the recorder out, he signs the forms and Ted tells me his story. And by now, readers, you’ll know this is a story which is more about what really went on, rather than what should have done.

Ted started out signalling on the Southern (Region that is, not Railway), met a girl from the East Midlands, moved to Leicester and married her. Unusually, he managed to take with him some elements of seniority and went to a fairly basic box at Thurmaston, Leicester. That closed in 1973 and so Ted slowly progressed to be a relief signalman in the Leicester area and eventually a signalman at the new Leicester Power Box in 1986 until it, too, closed. Ted rummaged around in a drawer and produced a piece of tile, a souvenir of the PB, cherished as if it was part of the old Berlin Wall.

Leicester North SB, 1986-7 Bernard W Morley

Ted introduced me to a lot of points I hadn’t thought about when it comes to signalling. Thurmaston signalmen had 4 lines to deal, two of them freight and worked by ‘permissive’ signalling. Coming from the Southern with few freight only lines, it was a shock when Ted could see trains following each other slowly towards the box under ‘permissive working’ rules. ‘I was used to one train, one sector on the Southern,’ he added. ‘Then there were the words used. ‘Boards’ meaning signals, that sort of thing.’

Ted began to write his memoires in quiet moments in the various boxes, slowly transferring these to computer and book form. Rather like several men I spoke to, Ted speaks at various events, telling stories and explaining the old ways of signalling. He writes fiction too – the ‘Lady Train Managers’ detective stories, ‘humorous and a bit raunchy’. One of his wife’s friends read one; ‘Where’s he get this stuff from?’ she asked.’ Who knows what’s in his head,’ was the reply.

The interview was turning into a highly entertaining morning, punctuated with occasional calls on Ted’s mobile phone. Probably another lady train manager, I thought. I asked him about some of his signalling stories. ‘Well, I used to bike to work and, of course, as a relief signalman, you had to carry your stuff around with you. I got to work really soaked one day. Wigston North, it was. I had to strip off, to my underpants. But then I wanted to go to the toilet so I had to go downstairs and outside. I put the overcoat on and some wellies and while I was out I could hear this clomp, clomp, on the stairs. It was the local bobby and when I got back up I could see on his face he’s never seen a signalman in an overcoat, underpants and wellington boots before!’

Photo: Leicester Mercury archive. Soldiers guarding a signal box south of Leicester during the national railway workers' strike in 1911

‘I once got called out in the early hours, to Knighton Box, biked there and then realised I couldn’t open the box and start because I’d forgotten my keys. I walked around the box and it was all thick glass, pre-war stuff, you know? I found one that was easier in the end, smashed it, got in and opened the box.’

‘The local pub had seen the lights in the box and the sound of glass smashing and the next thing I knew, there were all these flashing blue lights and a police sergeant at the door

asking who I was and to let him in so I could be arrested. I explained why I couldn’t let him in so he got in through the window too. He asked what I was doing and I said ‘working’. He looked doubtful so I said to call my mate at Wigston North who would verify who I was. They got through to Alan. ‘Do you know this man?’ they asked. ‘Never heard of him,’ Alan said. So I took the phone and said to stop messing about as I was about to be arrested. Eventually all was well and the police sergeant said could I let him out? I explained that I’d told him once that I couldn’t – not until 6 am when the next shift started. So he got back out through the window.’

Ted’s interview for the oral histories collection is typical of so many – a mixture of stories, some funny, some quite frightening, and some recounted at countless evening presentations to small groups up and down the country. There are books and articles. It’s a thriving industry, a reaching out to grasp some semblance of ‘the old days’, a mixture of the real and the embellished (just a little). But together they add up to a kind of ‘peoples’ history’, rich in detail and the unexpected. The Russian writer Maria Stepanova comments that we so love history and nostalgia because we know it can’t come back and hurt us. And I think that’s true too. The result is a wonderful tapestry of the past.

Ted is an entertainer and I hope that, after a pandemic, he still is. But he is also a thought provoker, and a man who offers glimpses of a fascinating past. I’d like to go back and get an update from his kitchen but I suspect he’s on his computer now, compiling the next story of the Lady Train Managers series.

Ted’s story appears in ‘Sussex Signalman: The Ted Cook Story (2011), Buggleskelly Books. There is also ‘Junior Porter at Arundel’ in ‘Backtrack’ 25:6 (June 2011). ‘The Lady Train Managers’ (2017) is available on Kindle or Paperback through Amazon. The oral history recording is in the NRM collection though not yet available to the public.


John Swanwick

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[E15, H01]

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