by John Pegg
I joined the railway in 1957 as a Lad Messenger (there were no vacancies for Telegraph Lads) at Grantham station. It was not a very auspicious beginning to what was to become a 47-year career. Reporting for duty on the morning of the Wednesday following the Easter bank holiday weekend, I was immediately called into the office of the Station Master (Mr Scampion) and ordered to explain why I had not reported for duty on the Tuesday following the bank holiday Monday, and why was I a day late? Luckily I had the letter instructing me to report for duty on the Wednesday in my pocket.
My wage was 39 shillings per week, that's £1.95 in today's currency. My desk was situated in the admin room, next to the enquiry window. Access to the Station Master's Office (the inner sanctum) was gained through the admin office. The Admin Staff comprised of Chief Clerk, Roster Clerk, General Clerk, Typist and me. My duties included some paper work, taking enquires from the public and running messages throughout the station area and in the town. The Station Master’s presence, complete with bowler hat, was always expected on the platform when important trains, like the Pullman The Master Cutler, were due.
A few months later I was appointed to a Telegraph Lad’s vacancy at Grantham South signal box. My duties there included:
- sending and receiving telegraph messages between signal boxes and offices equipped with the necessary instruments. Messages usually consisted of train reporting numbers and passing times;
- keeping a record of all bell signals sent and received by the Signalman, together with any other information regarding incidents on the line which had to be written in the train register;
- answering all telephone calls and reporting to Control as required.
- window cleaning, floor polishing, and of course the lever tops had to be regularly polished;
- finally, the most important duty of all that had to be carried out on time and without fail was to provide the Signalman with his cup of tea.
In addition to the regular Lads in the South and North boxes there were rest day and general purpose relief Lads who worked in both boxes. On a few occasions, when no relief was available, I worked some shifts at the North box.
Steam had begun to be replaced by diesel locos and what a sight it was when the blue prototype Deltic began its trial runs, although its speed through Grantham platforms was restricted due to its width.
Barkston North Junction
My first signalman’s post (1962) was at Barkston North. The box was situated adjacent to the Marston sewage farm. To set the scene I should explain why it was called a sewage farm and not a sewage works. In those days the sewage (from Grantham) was allowed to flood onto the fields and was left to soak in. The nearest field so treated was adjacent to the box. Can you imagine what it was like in the summer? Phew!
The box lighting was paraffin lamp, there was a coal fire for heating, and water was delivered, sometimes daily, in metal containers by the pickup (a train that stopped at all stations and signal boxes if required). It was best to boil it before drinking. Coal was also delivered in this way, although if we were running short it could be acquired from most trains that needed to stop at the box. There’s nothing like steam coal for keeping the fire burning bright. I remember once I had to caution a down train, and when I requested coal the obliging fireman tipped an enormous lump off the tender, remarking "It's too big for me to break - you have a go!"
Barkston North Junction box controlled junction points round to Barkston East Junction and also into the up main line loop; Barkston South Junction controlled the exit. That’s the loop, by the way, where Mallard started its record run; a bit before my time though!
Over previous years the ground between the north curve and the Allington line had been used as a dumping ground for ashes. Some, no doubt, were still hot when deposited and for many years the whole area could be seen smoking. Occasionally bushes and small trees would burst into flames and on the night shift it could be quite a spectacle. Sometimes trains would have to be cautioned due to the smoke; it also prevented me from using the up loop until the fire was extinguished. A few years after I left Barkston North a concerted effort by dumping water on the site was successful in extinguishing the fire permanently.
Here is a link to a photograph which shows Barkston North Junction signal box in about 1949.
Hougham was my second box. Unfortunately the station had closed, but the goods shed was still open for the pickup to attach and detach. The down loop was used regularly by slower freight trains; we had regular heavy brick trains from Fletton heading north which often had to detach wagons with hot axle boxes. About two miles to the north of Hougham was Westborough box, a small ground level box which had crossing gates for a minor road which is now just a bridle way. To the south was 142 farm crossing, manned by a crossing keeper who had to request permission to open the gates from Hougham box.
Hougham box closed on the weekend of April 29/30th 1972, the same time as Barkston North and South Junctions.
In the mid-1960s I was at Honington box, which worked to Barkston East in the west, to Ancaster in the east on the Sleaford line and to Caythorpe and Leadenham on the Lincoln branch - until the infamous Dr Beeching closed the line. A gate wheel was used to close the gates over the busy A607 Lincoln road.
When I transferred here it gave me the chance to start using the telegraph regularly again. I didn’t use it much at Barkston North and Hougham, but at Honington there was a distinct shortage of telephones. One was to the boxes on either side and to the crossing keepers at Frinkley Lane and Hough Lane crossings (who had to request permission to open their gates from the box); the only other telephone was to Control. All administration for the box and the crossings was via the telegraph. We also received, from time to time, messages for the RAF depot situated adjacent to the station goods yard. On occasion the royal train was stabled overnight at both Honington and Leadenham.
One incident that comes to mind happened one really foggy morning about 8am. After receiving ‘train entering section’ from Ancaster for a class F freight train I closed the crossing gates and cleared my signals for the train to proceed. A few minutes later there was an almighty bang, and upon investigation I observed that a car had crashed through the up side gate and had come to rest on the crossing, with the gates closed behind it. After placing the signals to danger and sending the appropriate bell signals to Ancaster and Barkston East I left the box, collecting the three emergency detonators on the way out (they were always hung near the door). Once on the track I saw that the car driver had got out of his car and I shouted to him to get off the track, before setting off at a gallop in the thick fog towards the approaching train. Eventually I laid the detonators and stopped the train. When I returning to the box I was greeted with “What did you run off like that for? I thought my accident had frightened you.” Then, after asking the driver how he had managed to crash through the gates he replied, “Going too fast, couldn’t stop, didn’t expect the gates to be shut. I’ve been going to Lincoln at this time of day for the last two years and have never seen a train here at this time.” The careless treatment of rail crossings hasn't changed much - it's still the same in 2014.
Honington Box closed on 29th July 1984.
In the 1970s I was back on the east coast main line, this time south of Grantham at Highdyke box. Working to Great Ponton on the north side and Stoke box to the south, with Colsterworth on the branch line for the ironstone mines. Highdyke box had a very heavy frame. Setting the road from the up slow over the up and down main lines to the branch line was particularly hard, especially in the cold weather of winter. Unlike the other boxes, where I had led a solitary existence, there were other staff about: Yard Inspector, Shunter, Examiner and various train crews. By this time, of course, the era of the steam engine has passed and all we see are diesels. Two class 31s are the pilots for bringing down the iron ore from Colsterworth, Stainby and Sproxton for marshalling in Highdyke yard. The engines were fitted with single line token catchers to enable them to drop off and pick up tokens at Colsterworth without stopping, due to the gradients.
During my period at Highdyke in 1972 I did see another steam engine. Pendennis Castle was booked to travel up the branch to Stainby and then onto the private railway to Market Overton. Unfortunately when it arrived at Highdyke, adjacent to the signal box, it was short of water. “So now what do we do, chaps?” Well, we can attach a hosepipe to the tap in the Shunters’ cabin, and let’s ask the Signalman if he’s got a few buckets that we can fill from the box tap, and then we will form a chain down the box steps and pass them from man to man. We just need a volunteer to pass the buckets up to whoever is on the tender. What, no volunteer? Looks like the supervisor travelling with the loco will have to do it. I can’t remember who he was, but he turned out to be very long suffering. Well, after a couple of hours and dozens of buckets of water, a flooded signal box floor and the supervisor wet through to the skin, Pendennis Castle was using more water ticking over than was being put in the tender. The task had beaten us and the loco was retired to a siding to fight another day.
Highdyke box closed on 24th October 1977.
Here is a link to a photograph of No. 4079 Pendennis Castle standing next to High Dyke signal box.
In the mid-1970s I was at Grantham Panel (Grantham signal box, located in the building of the former Yard Box) working with Claypole to the north, Peterborough to the south, Allington Junction on the Nottingham branch, and Barkston East on the Sleaford branch. The Signalman had a Railman to answer the telephone (though not signal or point phones), report trains to Control and keep the train register up to date (no, not a Telegraph Lad). There were no heavy levers to pull in this box, just switches to turn, but the area of responsibility was much larger.
We still had a Yard Foreman and a Shunter working with a pilot engine, organising various wagons throughout the up and down side yards. A siding was laid to give access to Read’s factory on Springfield Road. The factory manufactured cans and twice a week wagons of tin plate would arrive from Wales, having come via Peterborough. The up/down goods line was extended at its south end to accommodate empty oil trains from Colwick; the engines needed to change ends before proceeding northward on the East Coast Main Line.
In 1978 to carry out track work, first in Stoke tunnel and then in Peascliffe tunnel, temporary single line working without a pilotman was implemented for about three months. The track work was to facilitate the passage of Freightliner trains carrying the larger continental containers - see the press announcements below.
Grantham panel box closed in May 1980.
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