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Grantham’s Place in Rail History

by Nick Pigott

Grantham’s importance as a rail centre stemmed from its strategic position just over 100 miles north of London on the Great Northern Railway’s main line (although Grantham’s first station, opened by the Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston & Eastern Junction Railway in June 1850, was situated alongside the basin of the Grantham Canal).  The Great Northern route opened in 1852 and, 10 years later, locomotives began working through from London to Grantham on a regular basis, necessitating engine-changing and enhanced servicing facilities near the station.

As the importance of the railway grew and freight and branch line traffic increased, the town expanded in size and the GNR opened more lines, including ones to Sleaford and Lincoln in 1857 and 1867 respectively.  A passenger service to Leicester via Bottesford commenced in the early 1880s (partly in conjunction with the London & North Western Railway) and the extra traffic generated by those branches saw Grantham station ultimately provided with five platforms, four of which remain in use today.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered speed, Grantham became an important manufacturing and engineering town, boasting huge factories such as Ruston & Hornsby and, later, Aveling-Barford.  Those firms possessed private railway systems, and their products were almost invariably transported from the town by main line train, generating yet more business for the local goods yards and engine sheds.

The discovery of ironstone in the rolling countryside around the town and the growing demand for steel began to generate much extra freight traffic in the area and necessitated the opening of several freight-only branches.  The most notable of those was the High Dyke branch, a single-track line opened by the GNR in 1917/18.  It left the main line just north of Stoke tunnel and ran to Colsterworth, Stainby and Sproxton, where there were extensive ironstone quarries. That line alone generated enormous amounts of activity for Grantham men, who worked trains of ironstone to steelworks in Scunthorpe and the North Midlands and hauled the wagons back again as empties.

To provide motive power for the varied workings the locomotive depot became home to locomotives of all shapes and sizes, but it was as a base for the fastest and most powerful engines in the fleets of the GNR and its successor, the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) that it became famous (including Mallard between 1943 and 1947 and Flying Scotsman for all but two months of the 1953-1957 period).

Top-link footplate crews were naturally required to handle those thoroughbred machines and some of the most skilled engine drivers in the country made their homes in the Grantham district over the years.  Some, such as Fred Burrows, even went on to become the town’s Mayor.  At the time of nationalisation in 1948 more than 60 locomotives and 120 sets of footplatemen were allocated at 'the Loco', plus numerous cleaners, fitters, engineers, boilersmiths and clerical staff – enough men to warrant the area having its own District Locomotive Superintendent.

The depot escaped relatively unscathed during the Second World War bombing campaigns - surprising in view of the proximity of a major armaments factory just a few hundred yards away!  Grantham continued to be an important engine-changing point and freight loco depot for the first decade of British Railways’ existence, but once the first main line diesels had begun to appear in the late 1950s and early 1960s the writing was on the wall.  The increased mileage range of the new form of traction meant that it could work beyond Grantham and by the time that BR’s Dr Richard Beeching produced his notorious closure ‘remedy’ for a huge proportion of the nation’s railways, in March 1963, it was already clear that shed '34F' would be one of the victims.

The depot officially closed over the weekend of September 8/9 1963, although it was still servicing express engines until the end.  The last steam locomotives left on the Saturday.  The buildings were razed to the ground in 1964 (the coaling plant requiring explosive charges to bring it down!) and the enginemen’s signing-on point was transferred to offices at the south end of the station’s up platform.  Diesel locomotives were stabled in a small yard near the north end of the down platform and diesel multiple units ('railcars' to Grantham men) were simply parked in the former carriage sidings.

The Mallard 75 Festival on September 7/8 2013 fittingly saw Mallard positioned in part of the up goods yard next to the engine-change siding on which A4s and A3s used to stand in the heyday of steam.  It constituted Grantham’s first official heritage era open event and added an important new chapter to the town’s already rich railway history.

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