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Grantham South signal box – people and incidents

by John Clayson

We've gathered stories and photographs which illustrate life down the years at Grantham South signal box. There are reports from the local newspaper The Grantham Journal (which continues in publication today) and we’ve searched far and wide for photographs.  Most importantly, people who worked on the railway at Grantham have kindly shared their personal recollections of the job and of the people they worked with.

We're presenting what we have in chronological order.  Material is still coming to light and we will slot new items in as they are discovered.  If you have anything which adds to the story of the South Box at Grantham please let us know.


Danger in the Snow - 19th November 1893

During fog and snowfall permanent way staff were called out as 'fogmen' to perform additional duties to help keep traffic on the move.  In the case of snowfall at night they had to keep the coloured spectacle glasses through which the signal lamps shone ('the signal specs' mentioned in the report below) clear of snow, and the points free from snow and ice.

The report below from The Nottingham Evening Post describes a tragic accident which befell platelayer John James Peacock soon after midnight as he and a colleague were at work near the South Box.  In those days a 'Look-Out' for the safety of men working on the track was not obligatory.  Trains were running as normal.  Stationmaster Charles Wood said,  "[the men] were supposed to take care of themselves."

The Grantham Journal 25th November 1893, page 4
From The British Newspaper Archive

Death by misadventure means 'accidental death, not due to crime or negligence'.

It's likely that John Peacock, and the other 19 men, had already completed their day's work before being called out for these extra snow clearing duties.  The most basic assessment of risk would surely have highlighted the hazard of sending out tired men to work on the track, in exposed winter conditions, at night, in proximity to moving railway traffic and simply expect them 'to take care of themselves'.  Yet in those days this was routine practice in the railway industry.  It was not regarded as negligence by either the railway companies or the courts, but it resulted in the needless, avoidable deaths of hundreds of railway workers like John Peacock, and the maiming of many more.

During the 1890s the railway trades unions campaignied for legislation to prevent railway companies negligently exposing their employees (often referred to as 'railway servants') to such hazards, when steps could easily be taken to remove or reduce the danger.   Responding to this pressure, the government passed the 1900 Railway Employment (Prevention of Accidents) Act.  This, at last, forced the railways to provide a measure of 'protection to permanent way men when relaying or repairing permanent way'.  There followed the introduction of appointed 'Look-Outs', whose sole duty is to watch for approaching trains and to warn men working on or near the track to move clear in good time.

This is Ken Lee acting as Look-Out when maintenance was being carried out on the Down (northbound) main line through Grantham station on 18th April 1963.
Ken is carrying a set of flags under his left arm, on which he also has strapped an enamelled 'Look-Out' armband.  He is raising his arm to acknowledge that he has heard the driver of a train approaching on the Up line sound a warning.
The 'Look-Out' was, and still is, a vital role, the purpose of which is to keep watch for, and give warning of, approaching trains which might not be noticed by track workers, preoccupied with a maintenance task, on lines which are open to traffic while the work is being done.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson

"Horse running away on Wrong Line!" - 21st April 1898

This story has the ingredients of a silent movie chase scene.  A horse runs amok outside the station, smashing up the trap to which it is attached and pitching its occupant onto the ground.  It then takes to the main line railway, pursued on a locomotive by the stationmaster.  There's even a sequel concerning a cat!

The Grantham Journal 23rd April 1898, page 4
From The British Newspaper Archive

We wonder what the man on duty in the South Box that afternoon thought, as a very different type of 'light engine' travelled 'wrong line' past him, ignoring all signals.

The Grantham high Speed mail train derailment - 19th September 1906

This was the night of the dreadful accident at the north end of the station described in the equivalent page relating to Grantham North box.  A northbound overnight mail train, scheduled to stop at Grantham, ran past the South Box and then through the station at high speed.  It was disastrously derailed at the junction beyond Grantham North signal box.

Signalman Alfred Day was on duty at the South Box and was called as a witness to the enquiry.  Thirty years of age, he was born in Retford but attended school at Barkston.

When the disaster occurred Alfred had been a signalman on the Great Northern Railway for 11 years.  It was an important part of a signalman's work to observe every train that passes, looking for problems or irregularities.  Lt. Colonel von Donop of the Royal Engineers, who led the enquiry, wrote in his official report:

The first point at which the train came into the view of any of the Grantham officials was at the south signal-box, and signalman Day, who was on duty in that box, gave important evidence.

"I noticed the speed of the train and I thought it was going too fast to stop at the station.  I cannot be sure whether steam was turned off or not, but I feel confident that the brakes were not applied ... I can tell when the train passes my box whether the brakes are applied both by the sparking and by the noise of the wheels; and for both these reasons I feel confident that the brakes were not applied."


"I noticed the driver and fireman on the engine; they both appeared to be standing looking out of their respective glasses in front of them, but they did not seem to be actually doing anything.  I remarked to my lad that I did not think the train was going to stop at the station going at that speed ... At the time the train passed me I thought that the speed was about 50 miles an hour."

Thomas Wiliam Sellars was Alfred Day's 'lad', or telegraph lad, a trainee signalman.  Aged 19, he had worked for the GNR for two years, and as a telegraph lad at Grantham's South Box for about six months.  This is an extract from his evidence to the enquiry:

"I did not myself at first notice anything unusual with the train, but my signalman called my attention to the speed at which it was running.  When he did this I looked out of the window at the train and I then noticed that the brakes did not appear to be applied at all ... I did not hear any whistling from the engine at all.  I judge that the brakes were not on from the fact that I did not see any sparks and did not hear the usual noise."

Like the other railway staff on duty at Grantham that night, Day and Sellars were simply bystanders as the ill-fated train appeared out of the darkness and sped past them.  They bore no responsibility for the accident and were powerless to prevent it.

South Box beset by rioters - 19th August 1911

Setting the Scene: a National Strike on the Railways

In the summer of 1911 industrial unrest among railway workers culminated in the first National Railway Strike in Britain.  The action arose from longstanding disputes with the railway companies over long working hours, dissatisfaction with a slow-moving conciliation system and, a new trend for the time, a steadily rising cost of living.

An unofficial strike began in Liverpool and spread.  It was most strongly supported across the north of England, the Midlands and South Wales, prompting sympathetic action from dockers, carters and other transport workers.

The government was keen to ensure that the railways would not be shut down.  The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, told the railway companies that police and troops would be deployed to help keep the trains running.  The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, suspended the Army Regulation which required that, in normal circumstances, local authorities must request the support of soldiers before they were sent.

Four rail unions made the strike official on Friday 18 August 1911, by which time an estimated 70,000 workers (including 20,000 railway workers) were on strike and troops were mobilised.

At Llanelli in South Wales strikers blockaded the Great Western Railway’s main line.  It was a vital link with Ireland so, on account of the Irish Home Rule issues of the period, the blockade provoked the government to send in soldiers.  On the second day of the strike, Saturday 19th August, they opened fire with tragic results, killing two young men; subsequent rioting in the town led to four more deaths, though not at the hands of the police or the army.

The strike lasted for just two days; by the Saturday evening a negotiated settlement had been reached.  Though the strike received patchy support in some parts of the country, especially in the south, the unions’ show of strength was sufficient to force the government to set up a Royal Commission to examine and revise the ineffective Railway Conciliation Scheme of 1907.

The local situation

At Grantham, railway workers met on the Friday evening to consider their response to the stike call.  The 'prevalent feeling of the meeting' was to continue working until Sunday, when they planned to meet again.  However, on leaving the meeting the men were ‘confronted by a party of strikers, who had arrived in a motor car from Colwick, and their argumentative and persuasive powers had the desired effect…’

Pickets were stationed, and by the Saturday evening at Grantham two hundred men were estimated to have stopped work.  Nevertheless, the railway continued to function.  Passenger trains on the main line ran nearly normally, but services to and from Nottingham and Lincoln were seriously curtailed.  A notice posted on the goods shed read: ‘Owing to the labour troubles, no goods traffic can now be accepted for conveyance by rail.’

Reporting the situation, The Grantham Journal wrote:

Grantham was distinctly fortunate … in the fact that the conduct of the strikers was most orderly throughout, for, happily, in regard to the dispute locally, there was only one reprehensible incident … which … the railway men themselves were in no way responsible for.

A mob gathers around the South Box

The following report describes what happened late on the Saturday night.

The Grantham Journal 26th August 1911, page 4
From The British Newspaper Archive

There is a photograph of policemen and soldiers guarding the signal box at Clapham Junction North here.

The End of the Strike

As news of the national settlement became known, the strike at Grantham was called off at a meeting on the Sunday morning.  The Hornsby Prize Band led an evening procession of the strikers through the town and ‘normal service was resumed’ from the Monday.

The Grantham Journal reported:

The news of the settlement of the railway strike was received on all hands, at Grantham, with feelings of joy and relief, for, brief although the conflict had been, and almost infinitesimal the inconvenience here occasioned compared with other places in the immediate district and further afield, the townspeople were made to realise the dire consequences of the cessation of railway labour.

Railway Trades Unions Merge

The co-ordination of such widespread industrial action over a country-wide network was no mean feat, considering that four trades unions were involved.  No doubt this stimulated thoughts of amalgamation because in 1913 three of them, The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), The General Railway Workers' Union (GRWU) and The United Pointsmen and Signalmen's Society (UPSS), combined to form the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).

The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLE&F) continued its independent existence, as did The Railway Clerks' Association, later The Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA).

This set the pattern of railway trades union organisation in the UK through to today.

Some further reading about the 1911 strike:

1911 marked a watershed in industrial relations on the railways.  After the strike, trades unions were recognised and acknowledged by the railway companies to a much greater extent than before.

Much has been written about the strike and its influence.  For example:

A Telegraph Lad who went to War - 1917-18

James Goss was born in Gonerby in June 1895.  By April 1911 he was working for the GNR as a 15 year-old telegraph lad at Grantham South box.  Early in 1917 he married and joined the army.

The Grantham Journal of Saturday 9th November 1918 describes how James was injured on three occasions while serving with the colours:

Pte. J. F. S. Goss, Gonerby Hill Foot.

Pte. J. F. S. Goss, Royal West Kent Regiment, has just rejoined his unit after spending convalescent leave at home - Gonerby Hill Foot. Before joining the army Pte. Goss was a signalman in the G.N.R.  After leaving Gonerby School, he was employed in the South Box at Grantham Station, and was promoted to other boxes.  In March, 1917, he became a trooper in the 11th Hussars, and later was transferred to the Royal Fusiliers, with whom he crossed overseas in October, 1917, becoming attached to the R.W. Kent Regiment.  He was wounded, and spent five weeks in hospital abroad. In December, 1917, he was moved to Italy, where he was gassed last February.  He returned to France in March, and was knocked out on 8th June by shrapnel to his left arm and side.  After spending a month in a Calais hospital he came to hospital in England.

James must have continued his signalling career on the railway after the Great War.  He lived in Long Street, Great Gonerby, throughout the 1920s.  By 1939 we find him as a railway signalman with his wife and family in Worksop.

Grantham South Box Signalmen and Telegraph Lads, October 1939

In October 1939 a ‘Return of Staff’ was compiled for Grantham Passenger Station. It lists employees by name with their job and place of work, date of birth, their date of entry to the railway service and their rate of pay.

Here are the men who were working at Grantham South signal box:

William Sheffield
♦  born 25/5/1879; entered service -/10/1898; paid £3 10s per week
Arthur Chalkley (see the item on his retirement in a following section)
♦  born 6/6/1877; entered service 23/3/1892; paid £3 10s per week
Herbert William Burrows
♦  born 15/1/1889; entered service 1/6/1910; paid £3 10s per week

Relief Signalmen:
James Palmer
♦  born 17/2/1878; entered service 17/10/1892; paid £4 per week
Henry Charles Swallow
♦  born 6/6/1890 - entered service 19/4/05 - paid £3 10s per week
Bertie Sidney Brassley
♦  born 7/8/1897; entered service 27/10/13; paid £3 10s per week

Telegraph Lads:
George Edward Wing
♦  born 24/1/1920; entered service 25/2/1935; pay £1 15s per week
Douglas Henry Tindall (see the photograph below)
♦  born 2/7/1920; entered service 6/1/1935; pay £1 15s per week
Sydney Harold Speed
♦  born 24/9/1919; entered service 17/9/1934; pay £1 15s per week
Francis Arthur Wright
♦  born 9/11/1921; entered service 24/1/1938; pay £1 5s per week ('learning' is annotated at the name)

In the early 1960s Doug Tindall, identified above as a telegraph lad in 1939, was a Station Inspector at Grantham

Station Inspectors Phil Craft (left) and Doug Tindall near the south end of the Western platform on Thursday 15th August 1963. Doug had been a signalman in the Yard Box before being promoted to Inspector.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson

Staff serving with the Forces:
Cecil John Raymond Keys, Telegraph Lad
♦  born 4/4/1921; entered service 24/5/1937; paid £1 10s per week
Jack Leonard Harry Hall, Telegraph Lad
♦  born 1/5/1920; entered service 11/3/1935; paid £1 10s per week

Call Sign 'GX' by Peter Keys, South Box Telegraph Lad 1941


There's a really interesting article by Peter Keys in Steam World magazine for April 1998 ( Issue 130) on pages 8 to 15, titled Call Sign ‘'GX'.

The author began his working life at Grantham South box as a Telegraph Lad in December 1941.  In the article he describes his work and training, including shift patterns and mastering the many call signs and codes used on the railway to communicate efficiently by single-needle telegraph, 'GX' being the call sign for Grantham South box.

Peter explains the pressures of wartime on the railway, and he describes how he was fascinated to watch the locking fitters install signalling upgrades implemented in 1943, when the track layout was improved to better cope with the intensive traffic.  He describes how the track layout at Grantham enabled a varied range of moves to suit the demands of many types of through and terminating traffic, and consignments originating from local manufacturers and businesses.  Illustrations include clear colour photographs from the early 1960s, and there is a helpful schematic track plan though, unfortunately, its detail is far from accurate.

Individual copies of old magazines can often be purchased from The Vintage Carriages Trust, who are based at Ingrow on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire (other suppliers are available!).

Arthur Chalkley retires, 32 years a South Box Signalman - 1942

What wouldn't we give to have an opportunity to talk to men like Arthur Chalkley, born in Great Ponton, railway signalman, NUR local branch secretary, Town Councillor, and much more besides...

The Grantham Journal 17th July 1942, page 1
From The British Newspaper Archive

Below is a photograph of the Chalkley family taken in about 1919.

Arthur and Rosamond Chalkley on an east coast beach with their children, left to right Len, with George in front, Phyllis, Reg, and Cyril.
Photograph courtesy Mrs Pat Baxter (née Chalkley), daughter of Reg

Boys fined for trespassing - May 1943

A prosecution for trespassing appears to be going easy on what these three lads were up to.

The Grantham Journal 25th May 1943, page 4
From The British Newspaper Archive

A collision near the South Box, but the train goes forward to Edinburgh - 29th January 1946

There was only a 45 minute delay after three people were injured and four carriages damaged near the South box in the early hours of a Tuesday morning.  A Scotch express, the 10.10pm from King's Cross, was stationary near the South Box, while a preceding train was dealt with at the station, when the London to York parcels train ran into it.

The Nottingham Journal 30th January 1946, page 4
From The British Newspaper Archive

A shunting mishap - 25th August 1948

The photograph below shows an overturned goods brake van on the left, with the wrecked end of a passenger carriage behind.  Damaged in the centre is a concrete bunker, a store for fine grade ballast used by the platelayers for packing under sleepers to maintain the alignment of the track.

The Grantham Journal 28th August 1948, page 1
From The British Newspaper Archive

The site of the accident is the rail-built buffer stop seen - a decade later -  left of centre in the photograph below:

B1 61113 leaves Spittlegate siding with Aveling-Barford graders bound for Argentina on Wednesday 23rd April 1958.  The view was taken from Grantham South Signal Box.

The first accident at Grantham referred to by the newspaper had occurred just over three weeks before, on the morning of Tuesday 3rd August when a southbound parcels train ran into the rear of an empty ironstone train near the North Parade bridge.  It was a serious collision which, but for urgent warning whistles sounded by an alert Driver Percy 'Pedlar' Palmer on a locomotive that was nearby but not involved, would almost certainlty have resulted in the death of the guard of the mineral train.  His brake van was smashed to pieces by the locomotive of the parcels train, but he'd jumped out just in time.

Signalling staff at Grantham South Box, 1959-62 period

There were three Regular Shift Signalmen  along with their Telegraph Lads.  To cover absences there were two sets of relief staff: Rest Day Relief Signalmen and Telegraph Lads covered the regular men's rest days; General Purpose Relief staff covered holidays and sickness.

Former Grantham signalling staff have compiled a list of the signalmen and telegraph lads who worked the South Box:

Telegraph Lads
Regular Shift
Tom Charity ?
Albert Carter ?
Len Hall John Pegg
Rest Day Relief
Albert Steptoe Mick Grummitt
General Purpose Relief
? ?

Gerald Lambert was another of the Telegraph Lads.  Can you help fill the gaps?

There's a more detailed description of the shifts and duties of signalmen and telegraph lads in our page Signalling at Grantham – staff, shifts and training.

The Aberdeen Fish and Meat Trains

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.  On 15th December 1961 train 259, the meat train, was involved in a four-train accident in fog at Connington, Huntingdonshire.  The V2 locomotive turned onto its side and its Grantham crew, driver Benny Kirk and fireman Ken Exton, were injured.  There's a page about the accident here.

Ray Phillips - South Box Telegraph Lad, 1965

I started on the railway as a Telegraph Lad at Grantham South in 1965, travelling to the Signalling School at Retford via Leadenham, departing at 08.07 from the Up Bay at Grantham and returning late afternoon on the main line.

At that time, the signalmen at Grantham South were: Bill Munton, Graham Colbourne, Tom Hogan, Sam Richard, George Buckley and Stan Richardson.

All the experience I gained at the South Box helped me to get a Signalman's position at Great Ponton in 1968.  I worked the last shift there, one Saturday night in February 1972, and as I closed the box it was very thought provoking - thinking of all the men who had worked it over the years.  I transferred to Ancaster, but it was not busy enough for me after the Main Line.  In 1973 I went to Corby Glen box, then into the S&T.

In 1975 I started at Peterborough on the footplate, an almost unheard of change of career on the railway because at the time external recruitment to the footplate grade was very rare.  However, a generation was retiring and there was no one following through, so an advert for Second Men appeared in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph.  This was my opportunity.  I passed as Driver in 1982.  One Saturday night I was on a ballast train and pulled up right where Corby Glen Box had been - nostalgic!

At the start of my footplate career the Area Manager gave me 6 months' trial.  I lasted until 2016 - 31 years on the footplate and 41 years on the railway.


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