The earliest accounts we've found of signalling at Great Ponton relate to two collisions which took place inside Stoke Tunnel in very similar circumstances in December 1853 and March 1854. The accidents, both on the Down line, happened when poorly braked trains of the period were following one another, travelling north and descending the gradient towards Grantham. In both cases what was described as a coal train (though most likely to have been empty coal wagons returning north) collided with the rear of a more slowly moving train. Under the regulations then in force there was no requirement to ensure that the line was clear for a safe distance ahead before a second, or indeed a third, train entered a tunnel.
After the first accident on Thursday 15th December 1853, in which Guard George Ellis was seriously injured, the GNR undertook to set up telegraphic communication through Stoke Tunnel:
However the company failed to act upon their proposal before the second accident less than four months later, on Tuesday 7th March 1854. This brought some pointed remarks from the Board of Trade in a letter to the Company Secretary of the GNR which accompanied the Board's report into the 1854 accident:
This must have stimulated the desired action from the GNR because the following statement appears in a press report of the inquest into a fatal collision involving a GNR coal train which happened inside Clarborough tunnel, near Retford on the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, soon afterwards on 11th April 1854:
…since the collision which took place a few months back in Stoke tunnel near Grantham, on the main line of the Great Northern, the directors of that railway have caused a proper complement of signalmen, furnished with magnetic signals [i.e. telegraph instruments], to be placed at the ends of all their tunnels, and no train is allowed to enter any of them until notice of the preceding train having passed out has been received. (from The Evening Mail, April 12-14 1854, page 7)
The station, and subsequently the signal box, at Great Ponton probably remained responsible for signalling trains through Stoke Tunnel until Highdyke signal box opened in 1882.
Signal Boxes at Great Ponton
The first signal box at Great Ponton, installed around 1862, was replaced by a larger box in 1874 when the Up Goods line from Grantham reached Great Ponton. This is the box identified on the map above. It served until July 1942 when another new box was commissioned, sited a little further south right at the end of the station platform. It's this, the third signal box that appears in many of the photographs on this page.
After 1874 at Great Ponton there were Up and Down Main lines and an Up Goods line. The signal box controlled all three lines and connections between them (the number and nature of which changed over time), and also access to and from a goods yard on the Up (east) side and a short siding on the Down side. After Saltersford box closed in 1932 there was an automatic stop signal on the Up Main line in Little Ponton cutting to the north, and an associated automatic distant signal in advance of it at Saltersford. The signalman at Great Ponton could return the auto stop signal to danger when necessary (which would return the auto distant to caution).
Great Ponton station closed to passengers in 1958 and was demolished soon afterwards. The goods yard on the Up side remained open until 1963, for the final two years being very active in its role as a terminal for bulk cement supplies for the construction of the A1 Grantham bypass. The signal box was taken out of use early in 1972 during a programme of resignalling of the Grantham area. A panel signal box (in which the points and signals were operated by switches on a large illuminated panel) at Grantham replaced all the boxes between Highdyke and Claypole. This new facility was located in the former Grantham Yard signal box, renamed 'Grantham', from which the old mechanical frame had been removed.
The 1874 Signal Box
We haven't yet found photographs showing this box, which was replaced in 1942, but the following two pictures were taken from it in the late 1930s.
The next photograph dates from 1921 and it shows five platelayers realigning the Up Goods line near overbridge No. 232, south of Great Ponton station. This was an accommodation bridge which was removed many years ago. The presence of the bridge necessitated pairs of co-acting arms on the two signals which are seen beyond the men, the starting signals of Great Ponton signal box for the Up Main and Up Goods lines.
The 1942 Signal Box
Down at ground level, this is the view of the new box from the station platform:
The 1942 Signal Box: design influences
In the 1930s the LNER was an active exponent of contemporary design. Its streamlined trains and locomotives, along with striking publicity artwork, captured the attention of the public, the press and the up-and-coming broadcasting media. Where new stations were needed they were of modern appearance too, as at Otterington near Thirsk.
Someone in the company believed that the appearance of functional buildings alongside the railway could also do with what we might today call a makeover in support of the image of modernity which the LNER wished to project. In fact this impetus came from the top. Sir Ralph Wedgwood became the LNER's Chief General Manager on the company's formation in 1923. When he retired in March 1939 a tribute in The LNER Magazine included the following:
Sir Ralph has always been keenly interested in what might be called the aesthetic side of railway work. Quick to realise the effect on the public mind, he has encouraged the adoption of new ideas in station design and decoration, and the high standard of the L.N.E.R. pictorial poster art has owed a great deal to his prompting. Always eager to test new theories, he has consistently encouraged experimental and research work in all departments. To give one example of the success of this policy, his hearty co-operation with Sir Nigel Gresley brought into being the high-speed trains which have earned widespread publicity.
The approach extended to the humble signal box. The architecture of Great Ponton's new box was inspired in part by elements of Art Deco industrial design seen in prominent new buildings of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Fort Dunlop in Birmingham and Battersea Power Station in London.
However, given that it was opened nearly three years into World War 2, the main influence on the design was protection from enemy action. Incorporating ARP (Air Raid Precautions) specifications, it was built entirely of fireproof materials, the curved rear wall designed to withstand blast better. The lever frame and block shelf were placed next to it, at the back of the box, for greater protection. At the front a central reinforced concrete pillar, as well as providing some shielding for the signalman, supported the thick concrete roof which was specified to withstand a direct hit from a small bomb.
Many of a signalman's duties involved observing what was going on outside the box. Hence their large windows which, necessarily, needed to be cleaned regularly and in all weathers. For window cleaning most traditional signal boxes have narrow, overhanging, poorly protected balconies round the sides and front. You were at least 3 metres above track level, often more. At Great Ponton the front windows had horizontally sliding central panes, so they were very easy to clean from inside.
Having cleaned windows from the outside I would say that the men undoubtedly found this preferable. The little cleaning balconies on older boxes were a death-trap even when they were in good order. You had to hang on with one hand and try to do everything else with the other hand. If you slipped you were off. If the wooden boards were in bad order they could give way in use. (Andy Overton)
There were a few similar signal boxes elsewhere, for example at Conington North in Huntingdonshire (also opened in summer 1942). The design was used as a pattern for new boxes built post-war by British Railways (Eastern Region), the LNER's successor. They were similar in style but without the ARP specifications (so they had a less substantial roof and a brick, rather than concrete, central column). An example was at Crowle, Lincs. (1955). There were larger versions in a similar style at Doncaster, commissioned in 1949 Doncaster North and Doncaster South and Doncaster South.
During the 1920s and 1930s examples of modern railway infrastructure, such as colour light signals, upper quadrant semaphore signal arms and the huge coaling plant at Grantham Loco. (engine shed), had begun to appear in the Lincolnshire landscape. However, Great Ponton's third signal box was the only example of the LNER's modern approach to the architecture of railway buildings to appear in the Tracks through Grantham area.
Working Great Ponton Box
Mick Grummitt and Ray Phillips, having trained as Telegraph Lads, were promoted to their first posts as Signalmen at Great Ponton.
Mick Grummitt was a Signalman at Great Ponton in the early 1960s:
I started on the railway at Great Ponton station as a Lad Porter. Between 1959 and 1962 I was a Telegraph Lad in large, busy boxes at Grantham and Peterborough. Ponton was a very compact box compared to the three I had worked in at Grantham (South, Yard and North) and the three at Peterborough (Westwood Junction, Spital Junction and Crescent Junction). It had no running water and no electricity. Water was delivered in churns by the daily pick up goods train from Corby Glen. Cooking was by paraffin stove, and lighting by Tilley lamps (pressurised paraffin lamps which had an incandescent mantle, like a gas lamp). At least there was a good stove to keep you warm in the winter and a plentiful supply of coal, usually courtesy of drivers and firemen who you got to know.
Inside, behind the concrete front panel, was the desk for the train register with lockers underneath and two lamps hanging on the wall for light. An unusual feature was that when working the levers in the frame, and the block shelf, you had your back to trains passing.
Though there was a concrete wall at the front of the box, sighting trains was not a problem. If a train was stopped on the Down, to speak to the crew you usually went out the door and stood on the top of the steps. On the Up road, when it was nearly at the inner home signal pull off and hold a red flag out the window near the door. Most moves were done from that end of the box.
The short spur at the back of the box had a wagon turntable in it to send wagons to the goods shed for unloading. Locos were banned from going on the turntable due to weight limits. Sometimes the spur was used to get a light engine off the Down Main if a express was close behind (make the crew a mash and get half a ton of coal in return!).
The down starter was about a quarter mile north and was made the first colour light signal in the box, around 1962/63.
Cement trains from the south delivering loaded wagons into the yard at Great Ponton for the Grantham bypass would arrive on the Down Main line nearest the box, move forward to the starting signal then set back through a crossover, across the Up Main line and onto the Up Goods.
Ray Phillips was a Signalman at Great Ponton from 1968 to 1972:
I started on the railway as a Telegraph Lad at Grantham South in 1965. The experience I gained at the South Box helped me to get a Signalman's position at Great Ponton in 1968. The vacancy was that of Terry Steptoe who had interesting service, likewise his brother Derek and their father Albert also.
One Sunday evening at Great Ponton box all was quiet when I heard a relay drop and saw the Overlap Track Circuit from my Down Starting Signal showing 'Occupied'. A telephone call to my colleague at Grantham South (Stan Richardson) went very faint and we both came to the same conclusion: the telegraph wires were being cut, probably at Little Ponton where the wires ran almost at ground level.
A Grantham Station Inspector, Jack Wright, came through on an Up Express. Jack had been the Guard on the train derailed in the Conington South Disaster in 1967. We spent all night using the Control Phone - we signalled trains by phone on the basis of Absolute Block. The traffic had to be kept moving, there was no replacement bus service in those days.
Highdyke Box was closed on Sundays, so Great Ponton was switched through to Stoke. It then became Ponton's role to regulate Up traffic, bringing freight arriving on the Up Goods out onto to the Up Main to pass through Stoke Tunnel. When Highdyke was closed its Main Line signals were all set at 'clear', and in the Down direction there was insufficient braking distance for a train to stop if cautioned only by Great Ponton's Down distant signal, which was situated on a gantry well beyond Highdyke box. So if it became necessary to stop a down train at Ponton on a Sunday it would be checked (brought nearly to a stand) at the Stoke starter. When the signal was cleared it was a 'double peg' through the tunnel (both the Stoke starter and the Highdyke distant below it showed 'clear'), but the driver would expect to find Ponton's distant ON (i.e. at 'caution').
The official lighting for the box was a Tilley lamp although, entirely unofficially, we also used a one-bulb inspection light clipped to the ceiling, the wiring brought up through a trapdoor into the box! From the veranda you could see the red hazard light on the Waltham TV station mast 10 miles away. It became a landmark for me again, during my later career as a Driver, when I worked from Peterborough to Leicester and Mountsorrel (it was always a pleasure to work over those routes).
The white hut with the green door in some of the photographs was the lamproom where, every week, signal lamps were refilled with paraffin and the wicks trimmed or replaced. The lampman cycled from Swayfield (he must have been well on in years) and just asked for the kettle. Despite an offer to sit in the box he would politely decline and go and sit in the paraffin-reeked hut.
I closed Great Ponton box for the last time on Saturday night 5th February 1972, and Grantham South worked through to Highdyke after that. I was booked in on the Sunday, just in case of any issues. There were none, so I decided to take the keys to the Grantham Station Inspectors' Office early on the Monday, deep in reflection on all the signallers who had operated there.
I transferred to Ancaster, where you had to put a lamp on the platforms at dusk. It was not busy enough for me after the Main Line, and in 1973 I went to Corby Glen box. After that I had a spell in the S&T (Signals and Telecommunications) and in 1975 I transferred to the footplate, becoming a Driver in 1982 until retirement beckoned in 2016.
It does feel that this is an era and generation that will never happen again, but I was grateful for the experience.
Saltersford Up Main Line Auto Signals
After the signal box at Saltersford closed in 1932 the southbound main line, coming up the bank from Grantham, remained divided into two sections for signalling purposes by an Automatic Block Section which consisted of a home (section) signal and its corresponding distant signal.
Normally these signals were operated automatically by the trains activating track circuits as they moved along the line. When necessary, the signalman at Great Ponton could override the automatic operation and put the home signal back to red, the distant following it to yellow. Mick Grummitt says: I had to use it a couple of times; the telephone on the post came through to Ponton so you could inform the loco crew what was happening.
Below are some photographs showing the Saltersford auto signals. Initially they were motor-operated semaphore signals. At some point the distant was converted to a colour light signal. In 1961 both signals were replaced and relocated to facilitate the higher speeds attained by diesel locomotives.
There are some short film clips of trains passing Great Ponton signal box in about 1964 here (go to Film 2).
With thanks to Mick Grummitt, Andy Overton and Ray Phillips for contributions and advice.
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