Railways and rifles. . . . . . .
Historically, you wouldn’t normally associate operating railways with the use of firearms, although nowadays armed police are sometimes seen at our stations. But years ago it happened for a variety of reasons.
The 18th August 1911 saw the start of the first national railway strike over pay and conditions. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith threatened action by all civil and military forces and 58,000 troops were mobilised on the orders of the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. A mass picket at Llanelli station in South Wales took place, stones were thrown at trains and there was looting. This level of disorder resulted in the Riot Act being read by local magistrate Henry Wilkins. The picket was given one minute to disperse, but not all did and two men were shot dead by troops from the Worcestershire Regiment. The strike ended with a negotiated settlement after two days of looting and disorder.
Declaration of war in the summer of 1914 led to considerable nervousness about the vital railway infrastructure being damaged by hostile acts. In this early part of the Great War, army sentries were posted at what were considered to be key vulnerable railway installations. Incidents soon happened. On 17th August 1914, two Great Western Railway (GWR) carriage cleaners going to work at the large Old Oak Common carriage sidings in west London were challenged by the recently installed military sentries. They failed to respond when they were challenged and were fired on. One of the men received a bullet wound to one ear, but the other escaped unharmed.
Perhaps there were hostile forces at work. On 5th November 1914 in the early hours of the morning, a sentry on duty near a GWR signal box at Reading West heard sounds from the signalling wires that suggested they were being tampered with. He went to investigate, saw a man getting up from the ground next to a run of signal wires, challenged him and the man ran off into the darkness. The sentry fired several shots which missed. The sound of fire attracted other soldiers who were on sentry duty nearby. Shots were also heard by three Reading police constables who then joined in the search for the person concerned. An extensive search of gardens, buildings and the Reading Water Works failed to find the intruder. People were clearly on their guard, and the night before on the GWR main line five miles away at Twyford a sentry had actually been shot at by one of his colleagues!
The sport of rifle shooting in Britain had taken off during the 1860s. Previously, such things had been the preserve of the aristocracy and their gamekeepers. In 1898, the Montgomeryshire Volunteers asked the GWR for an unadvertised single platform halt, Penarth Halt, to be built between Newtown, Mid Wales and Abermule to serve their rifle range. It was built for £35 and was used on a very limited basis. The stationmasters at Newtown and Welshpool were responsible for telling train crews if they had to stop at the halt. The sport was growing in popularity and in January 1915 Viscount Churchill, GCVO, GWR Chairman, opened a new rifle range for GWR salaried staff which had been approved by the Directors. Why it was limited to salaried staff isn’t clear, and one wonders if there was official prejudice against the wages grades handling weapons? The range was on the roof of the extensive Paddington Goods offices, and a GWR Paddington rifle club was also established at the same time. Equality came in 1935 when an outdoor rifle range was opened for all staff at the GWR Athletic Association ground in Swindon.
The Great War placed enormous demands on railways at home and at the front line. Motive power was in short supply in France, and British railway companies contributed locomotives from their fleets. In September 1917 eleven new GWR 2-6-0 “Mogul” locomotives were ferried across the English Channel to the Royal Engineers’ Railway Operating Division locomotive headquarters at Audruicq in the Pas-de-Calais region. These were numbers 5319 to 5326 and 5328 to 5330. All were made at the GWR Swindon Works and cost £3,783 each for the locomotive and tender.
Number 5322 is still with us today and is preserved at Didcot Railway Centre. The brackets to hold the driver and fireman’s rifles are still in the cab roof. These mixed traffic locomotives worked supply trains weighing up to 1,000 tons between Rivière Neuve, Calais, the marshalling yard at Les Fontinettes near Calais and the strategic railheads in the Hazebrouck area to the west of Armentières and Lille. In March 1918 “Mogul” number 5325 was working a train with troops going on leave when it was machine-gunned from the air and bombed for four hours. The passengers couldn’t fire back as, while they had their rifles with them, they had no ammunition because it had been taken from them before they went on leave! On return to the depot at St Pol the locomotive tender was found to have nineteen holes, with another hole in the injector delivery pipe. The holes in the tender were plugged with wood and held until the locomotive was returned to the GWR when hostilities ceased.
For civilians, don’t even think of it! In December 1929 a 16 year-old boy from Box in Wiltshire appeared in Bath Court. He had been arrested on a train to Box by two detectives after being seen firing a pistol on the platform at Bath station and on the train. Fortunately, it transpired that the pistol only fired blanks and emitted sparks and smoke. To make his case, the pistol was demonstrated in court by the prosecuting solicitor who fired it! The magistrates agreed that taking explosives on a train, firing a pistol which emitted sparks that could cause a fire, and firing it in a public place “might do harm to nervous folk”. The boy was fined £1.
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[K07, K11, Q01A]