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The Ironstone Trains

Above: A heavy train of loaded iron ore tipplers has stopped at the crest of the 1 in 40 descent to Highdyke so that the Guard can pin down the handbrakes on a proportion of the wagons to retard its progress.  The lamp on the left indicates the stopping point for the locomotive, and in the background is the ½-milepost from Highdyke.  Fireman Roy Vinter glances up from the cab of O2 No. 63987 towards the photographer at the top of the cutting, as this everyday scene on the High Dyke Branch is captured on film.  The driver was George 'Grandad' Coy.  Photograph taken by Colin Walker on Saturday 6th April 1963.

by Roy Vinter


At Highdyke, four miles south of Grantham, there was a freight-only branch line to Stainby and Sproxton, its sole purpose being to serve the many ironstone quarries in the locality.  From 1916 until 1973 men and locomotives from Grantham Loco brought wagons of ironstone down the branch to sidings beside the main line, marshalled them into trains approaching 1,000 tons in weight, and then hauled these ponderous loads to steelworks in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire.

The east coast main line has a nearly continuous descent for 20 miles north from High Dyke, and it is said that once these trains were rolling they would keep going as far as Newark with little effort from the locomotive.  In fact it was difficult to stop them, for usually there were no brakes on the wagons that could be applied by the driver or the guard while on the move.  Once under way the only means of keeping speed in check were the vacuum brake on the locomotive and its tender and a manually operated brake on the guard’s brake van at the rear.  The driver could communicate with the guard, more than 200 yards behind, only by sounding the locomotive’s whistle.  This was like trying to retard a heavy lorry with nothing more than a handbrake.  Such trains were restricted to quite low speeds, but even so they required anticipation and skill from the men on the footplate, and coordination between driver and guard, to maintain control.  The men knew ‘the road’ and the effects of its gradients and curves on these trains very well, so running past a signal unexpectedly showing danger was rare - but not unknown.  Signalmen played their part too, by trying to avoid checking these trains' progress on the gradient except when it became essential for the safe working of the railway.

Up the Branch

Tablet catchers were fitted to four of the Grantham O2s so that, being a single line, we could run non-stop through Colsterworth, where there was a small ground level signal box and tablet catching gear.  The ‘tablet’ was a stiff leather pouch with a metal loop on top, and the one from High Dyke only gave us permission to go to Colsterworth.  The pouch contained a brass key to operate the equipment in the signal boxes.  We'd give up one, and pick up another tablet at Colsterworth to take us to Skillington Road box, where we'd stop and get the ‘staff’ (not a tablet as such) to either Stainby or Sproxton, as the line forked to one or the other there.  Nos.63929/30/31/32 were the engines so fitted, although other ‘tangos’ were used as well.  I only remember O2s up the branch, but I believe there were others in earlier years.

Here is a link to a photograph taken on the branch of No.63930, one of the locomotives equipped with a tablet catcher.  You can see it projecting from the side of the tender.

An interesting story: one Saturday (it was spring bank holiday), I was up the branch with Driver Jack Bottomley and, being bank holiday, the little engines of the ironstone companies had filled the sidings at Stainby chock-a-block, and even put three of four in a short ‘cripple siding’.  We went in to pick them up with our heavier tango, and bump, bump, bump, we were off the road on the sleepers.  I had to get on the shunter's bike to take the single line key to Skillington Road box so that the breakdown train could reach us.  I remember the fitters pulling the bike up into the carriage when it arrived.  I also remember the platelayer boss testing the gauge of the engine wheels (trying to blame the loco?), but it turned out the wooden chocks in the rail chairs were rotten and had given way, the rails splaying out.  Hefty lumps of wood were skilfully and carefully packed under the wheels, and the breakdown engine (another tango - needless to say) pulled us back on at the first attempt; but it took some time to get set up.

Jack and I were worried that we would miss our booked job the next day (Sunday) because of the 12-hour rest requirement for enginemen, and the time was getting on, but we made it.  It was a trip to Skegness, a very coveted turn as you were paid all day, with a day at the sea thrown in!!  Being bank holiday, and nice weather, the train was packed.  It even made a mention in The Grantham Journal (spring '61 or '62).  They added two or three coaches to us at Boston (imagine that today!).  God knows how many we had on.  It must have been a pull out of Boston, up over the sluice bridge which, incidentally, was weight restricted.  Heavy RA9 engines (all LNER pacifics and V2s) were not allowed.  We had one of our Grantham B1s of course ...anyway, a rather interesting weekend.

At High Dyke loaded trains for Frodingham [a steelworks near Scunthorpe, Lincs.] were marshalled by the branch engines.  We had two of these on days and two on afternoons, six days a week.  Sometimes there was one engine [and a guard] on nights too.  The branch engines were always ‘tangos’ in my time and they always faced south, so as to keep the firebox crown covered with water on the 1 in 40 bank away from High Dyke.  I think we used to bring 14 loaded wagons at a time off the branch, being assembled at High Dyke sidings into trains of 28 to go to Frod.  I’ve seen photos of loaded trains at Skillington Road (on the branch) with 18 or so wagons on, which sort of blows my theory of 14! …although rules were bent all the time ‘up the branch’, so it could still be that 14 at a time was the rule.

The crew of class O2 No. 63987 have 'stopped to pin down brakes' at the start of the 1 in 40 descent to the sidings at High Dyke. The change of gradient is quite noticeable in the shot. The guard is walking back to the distant signal, having applied the brakes on the rear half of the train by pushing down on each wagon's external brake lever and inserting a pin to hold the brake blocks against the wheels: you can see that the angle of the brake levers changes after about the eighth wagon. This will assist the train crew to control a train weighing several hundred tons.  The guard will next communicate that the train is ready to the signalman at Highdyke box, as described in the Instructions below.  On receiving the signalman's reply the guard will indicate to the driver and the train will set off down the bank.
Photograph taken by Colin Walker
Instructions for working trains off the branch are laid out in this official document of June 1956.  The distant signal and the marker light both appear in the photograph above.
From British Railways Eastern Operating Area, No. 1 Supplement to the General and Sectional Appendices (Dated 1st November 1947).

John Pegg, who worked Highdyke signal box in the early 1970s, recalls that "On odd occasions during the time that I was at Highdyke I did receive the 6 bells so, because of the chance that this situation might arise, it was always a good idea, if possible, to route trains that were terminating at the yard into the bank or brake sidings, both having a rising gradient."  More of John's signalling recollections of Highdyke and other boxes in the Grantham area can be enjoyed here.

Two Class O2 locomotives pass through the station in June 1962 on the up main line, southbound for Highdyke. The north facing one, No.63935 nearer the camera, will be going to pick up an ironstone train for Frodingham. The south facing one, equipped with a tablet catcher, will be heading up the branch, chimney first ascending the bank from Highdyke yard.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson.

An L1 loco would take a brake van from Grantham between 1pm and 2pm each day with changeover crews for the branch engines.  It was usually an L1, but sometimes they used any engine that was available; I have heard of an A3 being used, believe it or not.  The engine on the changeover duty sometimes returned to Grantham Loco coupled to south facing O2s or a Frodingham WD which had just disposed of their ironstone empties. The branch engines returned to the Loco, with the guards, at around 9.30pm.  In the last year or two, when the L1s had gone, we had a 350 hp. shunter to go up to High Dyke with the changeover crews.

It's around 1 pm on Tuesday 26th September 1961 and this L1 loco, No. 67757, and brake van is at Great Ponton heading for Highdyke Yard, taking the afternoon shift of locomotive crew for the High Dyke Branch up from Grantham. It will return with the early shift staff.

Near Colsterworth the branch crossed the Great North Road (A1).  Sometime in the late 1950s the bridge which carried the branch over the A1 was replaced.  I couldn’t remember this because it probably happened during the two years I was away at King’s Cross, so I asked an old railway friend (bumped into him in town) who was a few years my senior on the footplate.  It appears that the original bridge (steel girders on brick abutments) was on a steep hill on the A1 which the road engineers wanted to ease, at the same time widening the road.  A new cutting was made for the A1, parallel to and east of the old road.  This reduced the gradient of the A1, but there was then a much deeper and wider gap for the railway to cross, resulting in a longer and stronger new bridge for the branch.  The Grantham bypass was started a couple of years later, beginning a couple of miles north of Colsterworth near Great Ponton.  So maybe the A1 realignment and new bridge at Colsterworth for the branch was done with the bypass in mind.

We worked one stone train a day from Belvoir on the Nottingham line.  Colwick men worked the others I suppose. They also worked the branch from there across towards Denton for the quarries around Harlaxton.

Here is a link to photographs of High Dyke and the branch in the era of diesel traction.

Here is a link to a photograph of High Dyke signal box.

Out on the Line

At that time the route we took to Frodingham was: the down main line from High Dyke through Grantham to Barkston South Junction, then off through Sleaford and Boston (stopping there for water) and on towards Louth, which was the farthest Grantham drivers would go.  Most wouldn’t go past Burgh le Marsh, where we would go just over the level crossing and set back into the siding on the down side, the fireman getting off while setting back to mash a brew in the 'box.  We then waited for Frodingham men to arrive from the opposite direction with empties.  We would change over footplate crews, pull forward for the guards to change over, then set off back home.

We would arrive in the up slow road at Grantham and be relieved, walking back to the Loco to sign off, calling in at the brake van to pick up the driver's ‘bill’ (the guard used to fill it in so the times would match).  The relief crew took the train on to High Dyke, return light engine to Grantham and usually turn the engine and clean the fire ready for the next trip.  We always went tender first to High Dyke to pick up the Frod trains.  Engines used were always Grantham-based ‘Tangos’ (O2s – heavy freight engines) or Frodingham-based austerities.  I don’t recall any other in my time.

'Austerity' locomotive No.90189 brings a loaded ironstone train through Grantham station in June 1962.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson.

On the way out with the loaded trains I can recall very occasionally being ‘put inside’ at Saltersford loop.  In fact I remember once sliding past the signal there, after frantically whistling for the guard to help with his brake!  It was a surprise to be turned in there because we almost always got a clear run through Grantham to Barkston, and the drivers would just let 'em roll as fast as they dare.  I also remember once sliding past Barkston South Junction's home signal, at red because of an up train approaching and blocking our crossover path.  We managed to set back to ‘right side’ of the signal, get on ‘the blower’ to the bobby, and got away with it.  I was with driver George Lancaster that day I think.  How common that sort of thing was I don't know, but I do seem to have experienced quite a few incidents in my 6 years on the footplate!

Between Barkston and Sleaford there was Ancaster bank both ways.  There we could be dragging close on a thousand tons up a 1 in 100 going out to Frod.  The O2s were 3-cylinder engines, and powerful enough so long as they could keep their feet.  I don't recall ever having a problem up Ancaster bank, though we would have a good run at it: check that Honington's distant signal was off and then go for it!!

It was a bit of a struggle returning with the empties sometimes.  I believe there was a train of thought that the Frod men didn’t bother too much with cleaning the fires for the return trips to Grantham (clinker had to be shovelled out the firehole door and then out the side of the cab, remember).

We were invariably stopped at Honington's home signal until there was a suitable gap for us to join the main line.  We would then have to carry out Rule 55 (the fireman's rule), where the fireman must walk to the box, sign the book, and make sure the signalman has put a collar on the lever for your signal to remind him you are there.  It was the only place you would frequently have to do this.  Setting off from Honington or Barkston East Junction, round the curve up onto the main line to Grantham, was quite a drag and often with a mucky fire.  I don't remember ever having to stop for a ‘blow up’ though.

Class O2 locomotive No.63931 (equipped with a tablet catcher for use up the High Dyke branch) brings ironstone empties through Grantham station on 27th June 1963.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson.

There was another ironstone job we did at Grantham in the early '60s.  This was a fully fitted train to Aldwarke, Rotherham.  Formed of brown painted tipplers, all vacuum brake fitted, we ran much faster – Class C, or No. 1 speed, with headlamps over R.H. buffer and in the middle.  It was a late evening job leaving High Dyke, turning off the main line at Doncaster, time for a mashing and snap at Aldwarke, then back with the empties doing a circular route to re-join the main line southwards at Retford North, arriving back at High Dyke in the early hours.  I can’t remember the exact route once off the main line as it wasn’t a regular job for me, but I recall we were ‘under the wires’ on part of it in the Sheffield area.  It was in a higher link, a No.2 link job I believe.  Grantham provided the engine and crew, including the guard who we picked up on the up platform on our way to High Dyke, tender first, to pick up the train.

There has been quite a lot of conjecture about stone trains to Aldwarke on internet forums, but the one above is the only one I personally can remember.

A3 No. 60106 Flying Fox pulls out of Highdyke Sidings for the Main line with a Class 'C' fully fitted ironstone train for Aldwarke. The date is not recorded.
Photograph taken by Colin Walker

We had a Grantham A3 engine in my time, not an A1 or V2 as some suggest but which may be right of course in some time periods.  It seems that on some diagrams crews changed over at Retford, and there have been other suggestions which I don’t remember happening and must have been in earlier years.  But I do remember that I went a few times with loose-coupled (Class F, No. 4 speed) ironstone trains to Doncaster Decoy Yard with a trusty ‘Tango’, uncouple and go to the Loco, turn and usually come back light engine, but sometimes travel back passenger.  Now that train could well have been bound for Aldwarke, I don't know.

A fully fitted (with the automatic vacuum brake) ironstone train from Highdyke to Aldwarke, Rotherham, rattles past Grantham North signal box on the evening of Saturday 6th October 1962 with Grantham shed's A3 No. 60056 Centenary at the head. This locomotive was based at Grantham continually from 1953 until1963.
Photograph taken by Tom Boustead.

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3 thoughts on “The Ironstone Trains

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Tim,
      Many thanks for getting in touch. We are very fortunate to have the support of a number of photographers and owners of photographic collections. As you’ve seen with Roy Vinter’s page about the Ironstone Trains, we are introducing new pictures into the website to support existing pages, while at the same time developing new pages which will showcase some of the collections more specifically. So thank you for your encouragement, and keep a lookout for more new photographs.
      John Clayson

  1. Chris Webb

    I well remember the iron ore trains when I lived in Louth 1955-58. Our house was next to the East Lincs line on Wood Lane and the house used to shake when they went through, quite a few at night.
    A fascinating article, thanks.


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