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The GNR Centenary Celebrations, 1952

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 refreshing 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

Some exhibits in the centenary exhibition held at the Guildhall in Grantham.
Photograph lent by Humphrey Platts.
More exhibits in the centenary exhibition held at the Guildhall in Grantham. The two circular boards are train headboards carried on special trains which ran in 1950.
On the left 'Great Northern Railway 1850-1950' including a portrait of the GNR's first chairman, Edmund Denison.  The special train to mark the centenary of the completion, on 7th August 1850, of the original route between London and York via Lincoln, ran on Sunday 16th July 1950 hauled by locomotive No. 60113 'Great Northern'.  This headboard is now at the National Railway Museum in York (ref. 1980-7147).
On the right the 'Ivatt Atlantic Special', marking the retirement of Ivatt Atlantic locomotive No. 62822 after hauling a special from King's Cross to Doncaster on Sunday 26th November 1950 - see photograph below.  No. 62822, which had latterly been based at Grantham, was the last example of a very successful design of steam locomotive, the first of which began work in 1902.
Photograph lent by Humphrey Platts.

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:

This report appeared in The Grantham Journal on 1st August 1952.
From The British Newspaper Archive


This report appeared in 'The Grantham Journal' on 1st August 1952.
From The British Newspaper Archive

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.

This report appeared in 'The Grantham Journal' on 19th September 1952.
From The British Newspaper Archive


'The Towns Line 100 Years' exhibition guide.
From the Local Studies Collection of Retford Library.


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).

The 'Centenaries Express, GNR 1852 - BR 1952, King's Cross - York'’ hauled by A4 No. 60007 'Sir Nigel Gresley' passing beneath Belton Lane on the approach to Peascliffe Tunnel at about 11am on 28th September 1952.
The train is accelerating from a reduction in speed to 15mph for track repairs at Grantham to a recorded 74 mph at Barkston South Junction.
Photograph taken by Humphrey Platts.

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 exhibition at King's Cross station in October 1952 as described in 'The Railway Magazine' of December 1952.

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.


An admission ticket for the King's Cross Exhibition.  Adults paid 1/- for admission, children 6d.

Below is a British Railways advertising panel from The Grantham Journal which includes, at bottom right, a notice about the exhibition.

The Grantham Journal 3rd October 1952, page 2
From The British Newspaper Archive


Locomotive Moves

The transfers of the two preserved GNR locomotives from York to King's Cross, and back again afterwards, were recorded in The Railway Magazine:

From 'The Railway Magazine' of December 1952. When photographed at Grantham on their return to York the hauling locomotive was No. 61207 of New England shed at Peterborough - see below - not 61200 of King's Cross.  There was most likely an engine change at Peterborough.


A special train of GNR Ivatt Atlantic No. 251 and Stirling Single No.1 in Saltersford cutting approaching Grantham from the south, returning to York Railway Museum after the Centenary Exhibition at King's Cross. The train engine is a very grubby B1 No. 61207. Note that the connecting rods have been removed from both historic engines and the coupling rods from No. 251, as normally required for towing over a long distance.
Photograph taken by Humphrey Platts on Tuesday 21st October 1952.
As the locomotives head towards the London Road bridge on the Down main line, a 'Tango' (class O2) 2-8-0 passed behind them on the Up goods line with a train of ironstone empties for High Dyke.
Photograph taken by Humphrey Platts on Tuesday 21st October 1952.

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2 thoughts on “The GNR Centenary Celebrations, 1952

  1. Chris Colverd

    Yesterday, June 18 2020, whilst sorting through the contents of a Wooden Chest in my Office, I came across two Tickets for the Kings Cross Centenary Exhibition, dated October 16,1952. One for an Adult and one for a Child, myself, then 8 years old.
    The Tickets are as new!! It says on the reverse "One May Retain this Ticket". We certainly took that advice!
    Is there any value to these great pieces of history?

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Chris. Thanks very much for letting us know about your tickets. What wonderful souvenirs they are of your visit to the exhibition. In terms of their historical value there's the National Railway Museum in York, or organisation called the Transport Ticket Society (, either of which may be a source of advice. If you mean monetary value, there are businesses that specialise in running occasional auction sales of railway memorabilia, usually including tickets, and these organisations will often provide guidance on value , whether or not you propose to sell the items. If you look for 'railwayana auctions' in a search engine you'll find a number of them.
      Best wishes,
      John Clayson


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