by John Clayson
A centenary is a good opportunity to review the past and to look forward to what the future may hold. The looking forward can be especially edifying if recollections of the immediate past are clouded by conflict.
This was the situation in Britain in the early 1950s as people anticipated a new post-war era. In terms of transport, the newly nationalised industries - railways, road haulage, docks, ferry services and inland waterways - were trying to establish confidence and continuity. The railways were looking for ways to mark their contribution to society in the past and to show how their passenger and freight services could support the country's aspiration for a better life.
A century before, the early 1850s had seen the end of a speculative frenzy, the so-called 'Railway Mania', which had taken hold of financiers and promoters in the mid-1840s. It led to some highly impractical, overambitious schemes, but there were also some vital routes which today, more than 160 years on, are still doing the job they were built for. One of these is the main line of the Great Northern Railway, the southern section of the East Coast Main Line which links London with York, Tyneside, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In 1852 the GNR's main line was effectively completed with the openings, in August, of the 'Towns Line', from Peterborough via Grantham and Newark to Retford and, in October, of the new London terminus at King's Cross.
The centenaries, in the late summer and autumn of 1952, of the Towns Line, including Grantham station, and of King's Cross station seem to have been recognised by the management of British Railways Eastern Region as an opportunity to take stock of how the southern end of the East Coast Main Line had shaped the communities through which it ran, and also to look forward to the role the state-owned railway might play in plans for a modern, forward-looking Britain.
The anniversaries were marked by three exhibitions and a special high-speed commemorative train.
1. Railway Centenary Exhibition in the Ballroom at Grantham Guildhall, from 28th July 1952
Below: Ivatt Atlantic No. 62822 departs from King's Cross station on 26th November 1950 carrying the train headboard seen on the right of the exhibition display above.
The Grantham Journal of 1st August 1952 carried a feature about the exhibition:
Humphrey Platts recalls the exhibition:
I was a member of the Grantham Model Engineers and had a hand in the Grantham Guildhall exhibition. We knew the Borough Librarian, C P Willard, quite well. The Mayor, who opened the exhibition, Stanley Foster, was well known in the town as the proprietor of a newsagent/tobacconist shop and gents hairdressing business in the same premises on High Street, close to Barclays Bank (now a pub). I also remember Norman Baines who appears in one of the exhibition photos. He was extremely proud of his hand-built model of an A3 which is also in the pictures.
2. The Towns Line Centenary Exhibition at Retford, 24th to 27th September 1952
The exhibition was opened on Wednesday 24 September by Sir Ronald Matthews, the last chairman of the London & North Eastern Railway. He travelled by the morning train from King's Cross to Retford, hauled by the locomotive which carried his name, class A4 No. 60001 Sir Ronald Matthews. At stops en route they picked up civic representatives of 'the Towns', at Peterborough, Grantham and Newark.
3. The Centenaries Express, Sunday 28th September 1952
This special train marked the centenary of the opening of both the 'Towns Line' and the terminus at King's Cross. It was scheduled to travel to York in 3 hours 15 minutes, the fastest time attempted since 1939 which demonstrates the detrimental effect the war and its legacy had on the railways' performance. On the day it bettered that time by nearly 1½ minutes, achieving a top speed of 87½ mph travelling uphill at Little Bytham (information from the Six Bells Junction website).
A particular post-war difficulty was the supply of steel for track renewal. You can see in the photograph above that the Down line, on which the train is travelling, has been renewed using modern flat-bottomed rail, contrasting with the old bullhead rail still in use on the Up line. It would not be until the early 1960s that all bullhead rail was replaced on the main line in the Grantham area.
4. The Centenaries Exhibition at King's Cross Station, 13th to 18th October 1952
King's Cross station opened on 14th October 1852 and this exhibition was held there to mark that occasion, along with the centenary of the Towns Line. The main attractions apart from the station itself, the façade of which was floodlit, were two preserved GNR locomotives No. 1 and No. 251. They were brought south from display at the then York Railway Museum. World speed record holder No. 60022 Mallard which had more than 10 years' main line service ahead of it before retirement, completed the line-up.
The two veteran GNR locomotives can be seen displayed at King's Cross in a photograph here . No. 1 is in the photograph from Getty Images below.
Caption: a train driver points out some of the details of the Stirling single wheel 'High Flyer' locomotive to a young fireman. It is part of an exhibit to celebrate the centenary of King's Cross station, London. October 10, 1952.
Below is a British Railways advertising panel from The Grantham Journal which includes, at bottom right, a notice about the exhibition.
The transfers of the two preserved GNR locomotives from York to King's Cross, and back again afterwards, were recorded in The Railway Magazine: