by John Clayson
Above: a southbound express fish train rushes through Grantham station on 24th May 1962 hauled by class B1 locomotive No. 61303 of Hull Dairycoates (50B) shed.
The East Coast Main Line through Grantham was once the principal route for fish landed at Aberdeen, and other ports in North East Scotland, consigned daily to markets in the south including London's famous Billingsgate.
Here are a few lines from an article titled simply Fish Traffic which appeared in The London & North Eastern Railway Magazine of October 1928:
Fish is, perhaps, the most perishable food commodity that is despatched by rail, and its liability to deteriorate in quality after leaving its natural element - the water - makes it necessary that it should have a quick transit after leaving the port, and this fact is fully realised by the railway companies.
In the year 1927 there were over 1,073,000 tons of wet fish landed by British and foreign vessels direct from the fishing grounds to the ports in Great Britain, of which 385,000 tons were landed in Scotland.
The L.N.E.R. rightly claims to be the largest carriers of fish by rail, and it is interesting to note that between 3,500 and 4,000 trucks are loaded at L. & N.E. fishing ports every week...
V.M. Barrington-Ward, GN Section Superintendent
The Background to this page
To manage their business effectively the railways developed management structures and communication systems based on military practice. Information and instructions were committed to paper. Every day Stationmasters up and down the country sent out hundreds, possibly thousands, of written or typed memoranda to staff under their control. Circulars were issued across a wider area by District Officers. Copies were made and distributed by clerks to everyone who might need to act upon them.
We are fortunate that a collection of nearly 200 memos and circulars received at Grantham Yard signal box during the period 1900-1945 has survived as an archive.
Signalmen were key to ensuring that the railways' capacity was used to its full potential for the benefit of the various types of traffic, and thus the profitability of the company. Working under the direct supervision of the Stationmaster their overriding priority was the safe operation of the line, but signalmen were also expected to ensure that trains were prioritised in their running as required by the principal operating officer, the grandly titled 'Superintendent of the Line'.
Several of the memos and circulars in the collection give us an insight into the importance of the Scotch Fish Trains to the East Coast Main Line in the early decades of the 20th century. We've illustrated them in the order in which they were issued.
1. Tuesday 11th February 1913
The Stationmaster instructs that train No. 924, one of the fish trains from Aberdeen, should be given priority over another service, No. 926.
A Word About Train Numbers
Each train service on the railway (passenger or goods, regular or special) has an identification number or code although unlike, say, airline flight numbers, train numbers in Britain are not generally used in public timetables.
For example, if in the early 1960s you took the 10:00 departure from London King's Cross to Edinburgh, The Flying Scotsman, your driver, guard and everyone who signalled it along the route would know it as train '1A16'. From the early 1960s most main line diesel and electric locomotives were fitted with large four-character roller blind indicators at both ends, so that train numbers could be displayed to signalmen and others. Today, signalling is largely achieved electronically rather than visually, and train numbers are displayed on screens in signalling centres.
2. Thursday 18th August 1921
Fish trains 922 and 924 are to be sent ahead of 918, which was an express passenger and mail service.
3. Friday 19th August 1921
Sent the following day - emphasising the point!
4. Monday 30th July 1923
The three Aberdeen to London fish trains are identified by their numbers - Nos. 922, 924 and 930. This circular is a reminder from the Superintendent of the importance of ensuring 'the best working possible'.
It's summer of course, so delays don't just mean that the consignments might be late for market. In warm weather there's a greater risk that the fish will go off because ice packed into the vans at the start of the journey will melt more rapidly. There's no on-train refrigeration, and we are not yet in the era of insulated fish vans.
William Clow's early career was with the Midland Railway and the Midland & South Western Junction Railway. In 1902 he moved to the Great Central Railway, where he became Superintendent of the Line in 1910. His portrait appeared on the front cover of the GCR Journal.
The Fish Vans
Drivers disliked following the fish trains because sometimes the rails were made slippery by the mixture of meltwater and fish oil dripping from the vans.
5. Friday 1st August 1924, 7.50pm
It's summer again, and the Superintendent is getting worried about the fish going off in the heat.
The memo below is written in manuscript on a telegram form and it's not so easy to read, so here's a transcription of the main message:
From S. [Stationmaster] Grantham
Supt. [the Superintendent] wires "Working 922, 924 and 930 up unsatisfactory. Ure. 919 must not be allowed [to] delay these trains." Walnut. Moselle.
'Ure', 'Walnut' and 'Moselle' are railway telegraph or telegram shorthand codes which mean, respectively:
- Ure: 'It is important for following reason that undermentioned trains should be worked punctually. Do all that is necessary, so far as you are concerned.'
- Walnut: 'Make all necessary arrangements, as far as you are concerned.'
- Moselle: 'Give matter special attention.'
Train No. 919 carried express parcels and fish. The telegram bears the stamp of Stationmaster William Bradley.
Monday 4th August 1924
This message authorises signalmen to give the fish trains priority over a second service, No. 918, even to the extent of delaying it for up to five minutes.
6. Tuesday 30th September 1924
The message below was sent from the District Superintendent's Office to Stationmaster Bradley. It's about the running of No. 924 Up Fish Train on a specific day, Saturday 16th August 1924, about 2 weeks after the memo above (No. 5) was written; there may have been a query raised about another train, No. 910, being given priority on that day.
A partial transcription:
924 up Fish August 16th 1924
The working was in order in this case.
No. 910 up should be regarded as of equal importance to the Aberdeen fish trains.
Please note and return papers.
7. Thursday 7th May 1925
The memo below provided for a brief stop at Grantham by one of the fish trains on Saturday nights, to set down a returning Grantham locomotive crew who would otherwise have had a long (and costly, for the railway company) wait at York.
Grantham 'Loco' and the Scotch Fish Trains
I haven't found anything in the period covered by this collection (1900-1945) which suggests that Grantham-based men or locomotives played a part in the operation of the Scotch fish traffic. Stops appear to have been made at York and at New England (Peterborough), possibly because vans were sometimes detached there for local distribution (see No. 8 below).
In Mick Grummitt's time as a Telegraph Lad at the South Box, 1959-62, two southbound express freight trains, No. 257 (carrying fish from Aberdeen to King’s Cross) and No. 259 (meat from Aberdeen to King’s Cross) regularly stopped on the goods line at South Box to change crews.
John Pegg recalls that "During my time at the South Box, as Telegraph Lad with signalman Len Hall, I remember that whenever the fish train arrived in the up slow to get relief Len would be scurrying around doing all he could to prevent the train from being delayed. On its departure he made sure that I reported the correct time to Control promptly and, of course, to signal boxes in advance. Thinking about it now I remember there was for some time after a lingering smell of fish."
Is anyone able to say whether men or locomotives from Grantham played a greater part in the fish traffic at any time?
At peak season, when the full timetable was being operated, four Scotch fish trains departed from the ports of Mallaig and Aberdeen between midday and 2.10pm to travel via the East Coast route to London. Grantham was not reached before nightfall so they seldom appear in photographs taken locally. Here is an evocative image of a fish train accelerating out of Edinburgh in the late afternoon, taking the route to Berwick and the south. Locomotives were changed at several points en route.
8. Wednesday 3rd February 1926
This Circular from the District Superintendent's Office at King's Cross identifies revised maximum loads when double headed (i.e. hauled by two locomotives) for six London-bound express freight trains which carried important perishable consignments.
This is the first of these documents to identify the times of the trains' departures:
- No. 840: 10.40 a.m. ex Aberdeen (Scotch meat train)
- No. 922: 1.10 p.m. ex Aberdeen (Scotch fish train)
- No. 924: 1.45 p.m. ex Aberdeen (Scotch fish train)
- No. 930: 2.10 p.m. ex Aberdeen (Scotch fish train)
- No. 61: 12.00 noon ex Mallaig (Scotch fish train)
- No. 905: 9.25 p.m. ex York (North East [of England] Ports fish train)
We can infer that the Scotch meat and NE Ports fish trains (840 and 905) would normally stop at Grantham for a locomotive and/or crew change, but the four Scotch fish trains ran through to New England.
An accident involving the meat train, crewed by Grantham footplatemen, is the subject of another page here.
Below is another extract from Fish Traffic, the lead article in The London & North Eastern Railway Magazine for October 1928 quoted previously, which describes the running of the express fish trains and the locomotive power used on the part of the journey through Grantham:
9. Friday 16th July 1926
Fred Warriner, District Superintendent, again. He's still concerned about unsatisfactory working of the three Scotch Fish Trains and reminds signalmen that they should be given priority over No. 918 (Express Passenger and Mails, from York) and No. 919 (Express Parcels and Fish, from Doncaster).
The New Superintendent, Fred Warriner
10. Thursday 14th April 1927
From this memorandum of the following year we gather that not all the fish trains in the timetable, Nos. 922, 924 and 930, would run year-round. The Scotch fish traffic varied seasonally, peaking during the longer days of summer.
Signed by Grantham Stationmaster Harry Dennick.
11. Saturday 2nd March 1929
Another of Harry Dennick's memos, quoting the Superintendent's concern that the Scotch fish traffic could be lost to the West Coast Route (i.e. the LMS) unless the working of the trains is improved.
The intense competition between the two routes for supremacy in Anglo-Scottish passenger and mail traffic has been well documented. In the 19th century there were the so-called 'Railway Races' of 1888 and 1895. After 1895 speeds were moderated, by agreement, to allay the public's understandable fear of an accident. In 1928, however, the rivalry between the two routes surfaced again when each tried to outdo the other by being the first to operate a passenger train between London and Edinburgh or Glasgow without stopping. The LMS achieved it first, late in April, but it was a 'one-off' special effort which could not be repeated daily. From 1st May, on the East Coast Route, The Flying Scotsman became established as a regular summer London to Edinburgh non-stop service.
Here, the following year, Fred Warriner is reminding his staff not to rest on their laurels, because traffic other than passengers might be vulnerable to the LNER's competitor.
Below is a paragraph from 1907 describing the West Coast Route's Aberdeen to London express fish train. The West Coast Route was at that time operated as a partnership between the Caledonian Railway in Scotland and the London & North Western Railway.
12. Wednesday 13th March 1929
Less than two weeks later and it's Stationmaster Dennick again, quoting once more the instruction on page 176 of the Southern and Northern Districts Working Book, as transcribed:
924 Up Fish 10/40pm ex York
930 Up Fish 11/5pm ex York
It is of the utmost importance that these trains receive a punctual working, and no braked goods trains of any description must be allowed to delay them.
13. Friday 29th March 1929, 5.30pm
Another fortnight has passed, but clearly there is still some clarification required about the priority of the fish trains over other traffic. Trains 918 and 919 have been noted before in item 9 above (16th July 1926).
From S [Stationmaster] Grantham
Commencing forthwith nos. 924 & 930 Up Fish Trains must have preference over all other Trains including 918 & 919 Up Mails which must be put on one side in Time to Prevent delay to these fish Trains running to time or not. Walnut.
'Walnut' is a railway telegraph or telegram shorthand code which means 'Make all necessary arrangements, as far as you are concerned'.
This is the last message in the series which relates to the fish traffic on the main line.
Fish landed at Scottish and English east coast ports continued to be taken south by rail until the early 1960s, when a combination of factors including the adoption of industrial seafood processing at ports, a greater dependence on the import of processed fish products, and the availability of door-to-door refrigerated road transport travelling via the UK's expanding motorway network, led to the rapid disappearance of wet fish traffic from British Railways.
There is film of Billingsgate Fish Market, London in 1950 here. Fish boxes marked 'Aberdeen', 'Fleetwood' and 'Peterhead' appear.