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Great Ponton Signal Box

Early Days

The earliest records we've found of signalling at Great Ponton relate to two very similar collisions which took place inside Stoke Tunnel in December 1853 and March 1854.  The accidents took place on the Down line when poorly braked trains of the period were following one another inside the tunnel, descending the gradient towards Grantham.  Under the regulations then in force there was no requirement to ensure that the line was clear for a safe distance ahead before a second, or indeed a third, train entered a tunnel.  Both collisions involved a coal train colliding with the rear of a more slowly moving train.  

After the first accident the GNR undertook to set up telegraphic communication through Stoke Tunnel:

Extract from a Report by Lt. H. W. Tyler, Inspector of Railways, Board of Trade

The company failed to act upon their proposal, resulting in the following remarks in a letter to the Secretary of the GNR from the Board of Trade which accompanied the Report into the second accident just three months later:

Extract from a letter from Capt. Douglas Galton, Railways Department, Board of Trade.

The following statement appears in a press report of the inquest into a fatal collision involving a GNR coal train inside Clarborough tunnel near Retford on the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway soon afterwards, on 11th April 1854:

…since the collision which took place a few months back in Stoke tunnel near Grantham, on the main line of the Great Northern, the directors of that railway have caused a proper complement of signalmen, furnished with magnetic signals [i.e. telegraph instruments], to be placed at the ends of all their tunnels, and no train is allowed to enter any of them until notice of the preceding train having passed out has been received. (from The Evening Mail, April 12-14 1854, page 7)

The Board of Trade Reports into these accidents can be found at StokeTunnel1853, StokeTunnel1854 and ClarboroughTunnel1854.

The station, and subsequently the signal box, at Great Ponton probably remained responsible for signalling trains through Stoke Tunnel until Highdyke signal box opened in 1882.

Signal Boxes at Great Ponton

The first signal box at Great Ponton, installed around 1862, was replaced by a larger box in 1874 when the Up Goods line from Grantham reached Great Ponton.  This is the box identified on the map above.  It served until July 1942 when another new box was commissioned, sited a little further south right at the end of the station platform.  It's this, the third signal box that appears in many of the photographs on this page.

After 1874 at Great Ponton there were Up and Down Main lines and an Up Goods line.  The signal box controlled all three lines and connections between them (the number and nature of which changed over time), and also access to and from a goods yard on the Up (east) side and a short siding on the Down side.  After Saltersford box closed in 1932 there was an automatic stop signal on the Up Main line in Little Ponton cutting to the north, and an associated automatic distant signal in advance of it at Saltersford.  The signalman at Great Ponton could return the auto stop signal to danger when necessary (which would return the auto distant to caution).

Great Ponton station closed to passengers in 1958 and was demolished soon afterwards.  The goods yard on the Up side remained open until 1963, for the final two years being very active in its role as a terminal for bulk cement supplies for the construction of the A1 Grantham bypass.  The signal box was taken out of use early in 1972 during a programme of resignalling of the Grantham area.  A panel signal box (in which the points and signals were operated by switches on a large illuminated panel) at Grantham replaced all the boxes between Highdyke and Claypole.  This new facility was located in the former Grantham Yard signal box, renamed 'Grantham', from which the old mechanical frame had been removed.

The 1874 Signal Box

We haven't yet found photographs showing this box, which was replaced in 1942, but the following two pictures were taken from it in the late 1930s.

Great Ponton station in the late 1930s, viewed from the signal box.  Passing through with a northbound express is an LNER class A3 pacific.  In the foreground a siding leads from the main line to a short loading dock, passing over a wagon turntable which gives access to the goods shed on the right.  Prominent is Great Ponton's Down Main line home signal.  The new signal box which opened in 1942 was built at the bottom of the platform ramp.
Photograph from the Jim Chesney collection.
The approach to Great Ponton station from the north in the late 1930s from the signal box.  Approaching on the Up Main line with a southbound express, and crossing the bridge over Dallygate Lane, is an LNER class A4 streamlined pacific thought to be No. 4498 'Sir Nigel Gresley'.
Photograph from the Jim Chesney collection.

The 1942 Signal Box

There's a brisk easterly wind at Great Ponton on the afternoon of Friday 1st March 1963, as one of Grantham's class O2 heavy freight locomotives lifts a train of empty iron ore tippler wagons up the goods line towards the yard at Highdyke. The centre of the train is passing a crossover from the Up Goods to the Up Main, which would be signalled by the central, shortest signal post on the bracket structure beyond the train.
Spring 1963 marked the end of one of the coldest winters on record, and it seems that the signalmen at Great Ponton are taking no chances with their fuel supply - the huge heap of coal extends right under the steps.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram 
In this aerial view Great Ponton signal box is the building on the left of the main lines, just off the north end of the white-edged station platforms.  Its curved rear wall is evident.
The previous box had been near the very top of the picture, just before the bridge which takes Dallygate Lane beneath the railway.
The rectangular building behind the signal box was the goods shed, accessed by a wagon turntable from a short spur off the Down main line.

Down at ground level, this is the view of the new box from the station platform:

Great Ponton station on Saturday 15th October 1955, looking north.  Along with the new signal box at the platform end some of the signals have been upgraded, a modern upper quadrant arm replacing the the Down home signal's GNR 'somersault' arm, though still using the wooden post.  A tubular steel post features in later photographs.
Ascending the gradient to Stoke Summit with a southbound express freight is class V2 No. 60870 of Doncaster shed.
Photograph from the Jim Chesney collection.

The 1942 Signal Box: design influences

In the 1930s the LNER was an active exponent of contemporary design.  Its streamlined trains and locomotives, along with striking publicity artwork, captured the attention of the public, the press and the up-and-coming broadcasting media.  Where new stations were needed they were of modern appearance too, as at Otterington near Thirsk.

Someone in the company believed that the appearance of functional buildings alongside the railway could also do with what we might today call a makeover in support of the image of modernity which the LNER wished to project.  In fact this impetus came from the top.   Sir Ralph Wedgwood became the LNER's Chief General Manager on the company's formation in 1923.  When he retired in March 1939 a tribute in The LNER Magazine included the following: 

Sir Ralph has always been keenly interested in what might be called the aesthetic side of railway work.  Quick to realise the effect on the public mind, he has encouraged the adoption of new ideas in station design and decoration, and the high standard of the L.N.E.R. pictorial poster art has owed a great deal to his prompting.  Always eager to test new theories, he has consistently encouraged experimental and research work in all departments.  To give one example of the success of this policy, his hearty co-operation with Sir Nigel Gresley brought into being the high-speed trains which have earned widespread publicity.

The approach extended to the humble signal box.  The architecture of Great Ponton's new box was inspired in part by elements of Art Deco industrial design seen in prominent new buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Fort Dunlop in Birmingham and Battersea Power Station in London.

However, given that it was opened nearly three years into World War 2, the main influence on the design was protection from enemy action.  Incorporating ARP (Air Raid Precautions) specifications, it was built entirely of fireproof materials, the curved rear wall designed to withstand blast better.  The lever frame and block shelf were placed next to it, at the back of the box, for greater protection.  At the front a central reinforced concrete pillar, as well as providing some shielding for the signalman, supported the thick concrete roof which was specified to withstand a direct hit from a small bomb.  

In a traditional design of signal box windows extended in a continuous run along the front of the box. Here the architect has included a full height section of wall on the front façade.
Clearly it wasn't necessary always to have the stove on the go at Great Ponton box. On this sunny day the door and windows are open and, in the event of a few minutes' lull in the traffic, there's a comfy chair out on the landing to catch the afternoon sun.  Perhaps with a few more years' growth the row of young trees seen behind the steps will inhibit the sunbathing!
Photograph from the Great Northern Railway Society (GNRS) collection, sourced by Graham Cloxton.

Many of a signalman's duties involved observing what was going on outside the box.  Hence their large windows which, necessarily, needed to be cleaned regularly and in all weathers.  For window cleaning most traditional signal boxes have narrow, overhanging, poorly protected balconies round the sides and front.  You were at least 3 metres above track level, often more.  At Great Ponton the front windows had horizontally sliding central panes, so they were very easy to clean from inside.

Having cleaned windows from the outside I would say that the men undoubtedly found this preferable. The little cleaning balconies on older boxes were a death-trap even when they were in good order. You had to hang on with one hand and try to do everything else with the other hand.  If you slipped you were off.  If the wooden boards were in bad order they could give way in use.  (Andy Overton)  

There were a few similar signal boxes elsewhere, for example at Conington North in Huntingdonshire (also opened in summer 1942).  The design was used as a pattern for new boxes built post-war by British Railways (Eastern Region), the LNER's successor.  They were similar in style but without the ARP specifications (so they had a less substantial roof and a brick, rather than concrete, central column).  An example was at Crowle, Lincs. (1955).  There were larger versions in a similar style at Doncaster, commissioned in 1949 Doncaster North and Doncaster South and Doncaster South

During the 1920s and 1930s examples of modern railway infrastructure, such as colour light signals, upper quadrant semaphore signal arms and the huge coaling plant at Grantham Loco. (engine shed), had begun to appear in the Lincolnshire landscape. However, Great Ponton's third signal box was the only example of the LNER's modern approach to the architecture of railway buildings to appear in the Tracks through Grantham area.

Great Ponton signal box on Saturday 24th June 1961 with class A3 No. 60111 'Enterprise', based at Grantham shed, passing on the Down Main line.
The curved rear wall is evident (traditional signal boxes are invariably rectangular in plan) and there was a built-in nameboard position at each end of the flat roof.
The cleared area in the foreground is the site of the north end of the Down side station platform.

Working Great Ponton Box

Mick Grummitt and Ray Phillips, having trained as Telegraph Lads, were promoted to their first posts as Signalmen at Great Ponton.

Mick Grummitt was a Signalman at Great Ponton in the early 1960s:

I started on the railway at Great Ponton station as a Lad Porter.  Between 1959 and 1962 I was a Telegraph Lad in large, busy boxes at Grantham and Peterborough.  Ponton was a very compact box compared to the three I had worked in at Grantham (South, Yard and North) and the three at Peterborough (Westwood Junction, Spital Junction and Crescent Junction).   It had no running water and no electricity.  Water was delivered in churns by the daily pick up goods train from Corby Glen.  Cooking was by paraffin stove, and lighting by Tilley lamps (pressurised paraffin lamps which had an incandescent mantle, like a gas lamp).  At least there was a good stove to keep you warm in the winter and a plentiful supply of coal, usually courtesy of drivers and firemen who you got to know.

Inside, behind the concrete front panel, was the desk for the train register with lockers underneath and two lamps hanging on the wall for light.  An unusual feature was that when working the levers in the frame, and the block shelf, you had your back to trains passing.  

Though there was a concrete wall at the front of the box, sighting trains was not a problem.  If a train was stopped on the Down, to speak to the crew you usually went out the door and stood on the top of the steps.  On the Up road, when it was nearly at the inner home signal pull off and hold a red flag out the window near the door.  Most moves were done from that end of the box.

The short spur at the back of the box had a wagon turntable in it to send wagons to the goods shed for unloading.  Locos were banned from going on the turntable due to weight limits.  Sometimes the spur was used to get a light engine off the Down Main if a express was close behind (make the crew a mash and get half a ton of coal in return!).  The down starter was about a quarter mile north and was made the first colour light signal in the box, around 1962/63. 

The cement trains delivering loaded wagons into the yard at Great Ponton for the Grantham bypass would arrive on the Down Main line nearest the box, move forward to the starting signal then set back through a crossover, across the Up Main line and onto the Up Goods.

On Thursday 28th September 1961 a train of cement wagons has arrived for Great Ponton Yard from a cement works in the south. From the Down Main line on the right, the locomotive, class A1 No. 60150 'Willbrook' based at York, has passed the signal box and set the train back over the crossover to the Up Goods line. It is continuing to reverse along the goods line, as far as points located where the figure in the distance is standing, to gain access to the goods yard on the left.
The first three wagons are of the steel-built 'Presflo' type, 22 tons capacity, of 1950s design. The rest are aluminium 'Cemflo' wagons of 27 tons capacity built in 1961.
Cement wagons of both 'Presflo' and 'Cemflo' types, on the left and right respectively, are stabled in Great Ponton goods yard on Saturday 17th June 1961. In the right background is the unloading terminal, where the wagons' contents were discharged into road lorries for delivery to the Grantham bypass worksites.  The small hut housed the machinery of the goods yard weighbridge.
Passing the signal box on the Up Main line is train 1A17, the 12:10 from Newcastle Tyne Commission Quay to London King's Cross, 'The Norseman', hauled by Brush Type 2 (class 30) No. D5602.

Ray Phillips was a Signalman at Great Ponton  from 1968 to 1972:

I started on the railway as a Telegraph Lad at Grantham South in 1965The experience I gained at the South Box helped me to get a Signalman's position at Great Ponton in 1968.  The vacancy was that of Terry Steptoe who had interesting service, likewise his brother Derek and their father Albert also.

One Sunday evening at Great Ponton box all was quiet when I heard a relay drop and saw the Overlap Track Circuit from my Down Starting Signal showing 'Occupied'.   A telephone call to my colleague at Grantham South (Stan Richardson) went very faint and we both came to the same conclusion: the telegraph wires were being cut, probably at Little Ponton where the wires ran almost at ground level.

A Grantham Station Inspector, Jack Wright, came through on an Up Express.  Jack had been the Guard on the train derailed in the Conington South Disaster in 1967.  We spent all night using the Control Phone - we signalled trains by phone on the basis of Absolute Block.  The traffic had to be kept moving, there was no replacement bus service in those days.

The East Coast Main Line near Little Ponton on 25th July 1961 as 'The Flying Scotsman' tears by southbound with Deltic D9003 'Meld'. It was in this area that the low-hanging telegraph wires were cut one night when Ray Phillips was on duty at Great Ponton.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.

Highdyke Box was closed on Sundays, so Great Ponton was switched through to Stoke.  It then became Ponton's role to regulate Up traffic, bringing freight arriving on the Up Goods out onto to the Up Main to pass through Stoke Tunnel.  When Highdyke was closed its Main Line signals were all set at 'clear', and in the Down direction there was insufficient braking distance for a train to stop if cautioned only by Great Ponton's Down distant signal, which was situated on a gantry well beyond Highdyke box.  So if it became necessary to stop a down train at Ponton on a Sunday it would be checked (brought nearly to a stand) at the Stoke starter. When the signal was cleared it was a 'double peg' through the tunnel (both the Stoke starter and the Highdyke distant below it showed 'clear'), but the driver would expect to find Ponton's distant ON (i.e. at 'caution').

Great Ponton's Down Distant signal, the lower arm on the left hand post on the gantry at Highdyke, is 'on' in this photograph dating from 1969. The picture was probably taken on a Sunday, with Highdyke box closed, because train 1A16 was a Pullman service on weekdays and Saturdays, and the coaches seen here are not Pullman vehicles. It's the 10.20 from Bradford (10.50 ex-Leeds) to London King's Cross.
© Copyright Peter Kazmierczak and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

The official lighting for the box was a Tilley lamp although, entirely unofficially, we also used a one-bulb inspection light clipped to the ceiling, the wiring brought up through a trapdoor into the box!  From the veranda you could see the red hazard light on the  Waltham TV station mast 10 miles away.  It became a landmark for me again, during my later career as a Driver, when I worked from Peterborough to Leicester and Mountsorrel (it was always a pleasure to work over those routes).

The white hut with the green door in some of the photographs was the lamproom where, every week, signal lamps were refilled with paraffin and the wicks trimmed or replaced.  The lampman cycled from Swayfield (he must have been well on in years) and just asked for the kettle.  Despite an offer to sit in the box he would politely decline and go and sit in the paraffin-reeked hut.

I closed Great Ponton box for the last time on Saturday night 5th February 1972, and Grantham South worked through to Highdyke after that.  I was booked in on the Sunday, just in case of any issues.  There were none, so I decided to take the keys to the Grantham Station Inspectors' Office early on the Monday, deep in reflection on all the signallers who had operated there. 

I transferred to Ancaster, where you had to put a lamp on the platforms at dusk.  It was not busy enough for me after the Main Line, and in 1973 I went to Corby Glen box.  After that I had a spell in the S&T (Signals and Telecommunications) and in 1975 I transferred to the footplate, becoming a Driver in 1982 until retirement beckoned in 2016.

It does feel that this is an era and generation that will never happen again, but I was grateful for the experience.

Great Ponton signal box Up distant signals on Tuesday 25th July 1961.  Catch points were provided at intervals in the Up Main line to derail vehicles if they should run back down the 1 in 200 gradient towards Grantham.  The Up Goods line here has been re-laid with concrete sleepers.
Photograph by Noel Ingram.

 

Permanent way men stand aside near Little Ponton on Tuesday 25th July 1961 as 'The Elizabethan', non-stop from Edinburgh Waverley to London King's Cross, passes Great Ponton's Up distant signals and crosses the public footpath between Great Ponton and Woodnook. The locomotive is class A4 No. 60014 'Silver Link'.
Photograph by Noel Ingram.

 

A view north from Great Ponton signal box on a sunny Tuesday 26th September 1961. Class A4 No. 60014 'Silver Link' - again - approaches at speed up the bank with an express. Leaning well out of the window at the south end of the box, the edge of the central concrete panel partly obscures the view down the line.
K3 No. 61896, from Colwick shed, is on the Up Goods line, most likely on the down pick up goods train and waiting to cross over back to the Down Main line and away to Grantham.
The cement trains delivering loaded wagons into the yard at Great Ponton for the Grantham bypass would normally arrive on the Down Main line, nearest the box, continue around the curve towards the starting signal, then set back through the crossover in the distance onto the Up Goods. The locomotive would stop where No. 61896 is, then run round and draw back further before placing the wagons in the sidings for unloading.
It's around 1 pm on Tuesday 26th September 1961 and this L1 loco, No. 67757, and brake van is heading for Highdyke Yard, bringing up from Grantham the afternoon shift of locomotive crew for the High Dyke Branch. It will return with the early shift staff.
The two fence posts on the left are roughly where the previous signal box at Great Ponton was situated.
Great Ponton looking south from the signal box in 1961 or 1962. Approaching is class A4 No. 60014 'Silver Link' (once more!) with a northbound express.
In the right and left foreground is the site of the passenger station. The removal of the Up platform has allowed the realignment of the Up Goods line, third from right.
Photograph from the Jim Chesney collection.

Saltersford Up Main Line Auto Signals

After the signal box at Saltersford closed in 1932 the southbound main line, coming up the bank from Grantham, remained divided into two sections for signalling purposes by an Automatic Block Section which consisted of a home (section) signal and its corresponding distant signal. 

Normally these signals were operated automatically by the trains activating track circuits as they moved along the line.  When necessary, the signalman at Great Ponton could override the automatic operation and put the home signal back to red, the distant following it to yellow.  Mick Grummitt says: I had to use it a couple of times; the telephone on the post came through to Ponton so you could inform the loco crew what was happening.

Below are some photographs showing the Saltersford auto signals.  Initially they were motor-operated semaphore signals.  At some point the distant was converted to a colour light signal.  In 1961 both signals were replaced and relocated to facilitate the higher speeds attained by diesel locomotives.

Rail-Online: A3 4-6-2 &emdash; 2747 1932-09-03 Saltersford
The auto distant as a semaphore signal, located just north of the River Witham bridge.  LNER A3 Pacific No 2747 'Coronach', fitted with a cut-away smokebox in an experiment to improve smoke lifting, climbs away from Grantham with a Leeds to Kings Cross express on September 3, 1932.
This and other photographs are available from Rail-Online: left click on the image.
On the right is the same signal on Saturday 30th May 1959 as an under-hung colour light supported by the same bracket structure.  Several trains were coming up from Grantham and this one, hauled by No. 60114 'W.P. Allen', was catching up with adverse signals. The driver had shut off steam, causing the safety valves to lift because the fireman had prepared the boiler to deliver power continually during a further 4 miles or so of ascent to Stoke Summit.
© Photograph by Tom Boustead
This is the view north across the River Witham bridge on 7th September 1961 . Visible in the distance (see also the enlargement below) is the replacement Saltersford auto distant signal, relocated to increase the braking distance to the stop signal.
Photograph by Noel Ingram.

The relocated Saltersford Up main auto distant signal on Friday 12th April 1963.  Gateshead-based Deltic No. D9005, still to receive its name 'The Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire', approaches with train 1A35, the 10:00 Edinburgh to London King's Cross service 'The Flying Scotsman'.
The spire of St. Wulfram's Church is prominent above part of the Aveling-Barford engineering works.
© Photograph by Tom Boustead.
Class V2 No. 60875 passes Saltersford Up main auto home signal in Little Ponton Cutting on Saturday 8th August 1959.  The train is approaching a tall three-arched accommodation bridge which spanned the cutting.
© Photograph by Tom Boustead.
Another V2, No. 60862, has just passed the relocated signal, now a colour light and south of the bridge, with a southbound mixed freight train on on Saturday 13th May 1961.
© Photograph by Tom Boustead.

Film Clips

There are some short film clips of trains passing Great Ponton signal box in about 1964 here (go to Film 2).

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Mick Grummitt, Andy Overton and Ray Phillips for contributions and advice.

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6 thoughts on “Great Ponton Signal Box

  1. Derek Steptoe

    Great stuff, thankyou. I had the pleasure of working with Ray when he was at Corby Glen and I was at Stoke box. We then worked together again on the S and T doing 12 hours day and night shifts.
    There were a few occasions when my brother Terry was on duty in Ponton box, my dad as inspector at Highdyke and me at Stoke !!
    I visited Ponton regularly but could not get my head round the frame facing away from the tracks.

    Reply
    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Thanks Derek. It's been really interesting to gather all the information, especially the memories of Mick and Ray who worked the box.
      John

      Reply
  2. Nev Chamberlain

    Reg? Harris from Gt Ponton also worked in the box in the late 60s.
    I remember being in the station yard aged 7 or 8 with a few other similar aged boys from the village. When a downpour of rain came he shouted us over into the box to shelter!
    He knew us all as his wife was our teacher at the village school.

    Reply
    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Thanks for remembering Signalman Harris, Nev. It's personal insights such as this which bring people and places on the railway to life for us.
      John

      Reply

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