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Great Ponton Signal Box

Introduction

There have been three signal boxes at Great Ponton station.  The first, 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 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 remained 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.

There's a brisk easterly wind at Great Ponton on the afternoon of Friday 1st March 1963, as one of Grantham's class O2 heavy freight locomotives lifts a train of empty iron ore tippler wagons up the goods line towards the yard at Highdyke. The centre of the train is passing a crossover from the Up Goods to the Up Main, which would be signalled by the central, shortest signal post on the bracket structure beyond the train.
Spring 1963 marked the end of one of the coldest winters on record, and it seems that the signalmen at Great Ponton are taking no chances with their fuel supply - the huge heap of coal extends right under the steps.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram 
In this aerial view Great Ponton signal box is the building on the left of the main lines, just off the north end of the white-edged station platforms.  Its curved rear wall is evident.
The previous box had been near the very top of the picture, just before the bridge which takes Dallygate Lane beneath the railway.
The rectangular building behind the signal box was the goods shed, accessed by a wagon turntable from a short spur off the Down main line.

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.  

In a traditional design of signal box windows extended in a continuous run along the front of the box. Here the architect has included a full height section of wall on the front façade.
Clearly it wasn't necessary always to have the stove on the go at Great Ponton box. On this sunny day the door and windows are open and, in the event of a few minutes' lull in the traffic, there's a comfy chair out on the landing to catch the afternoon sun.  Perhaps with a few more years' growth the row of young trees seen behind the steps will inhibit the sunbathing!
Photograph from the Great Northern Railway Society (GNRS) collection, sourced by Graham Cloxton.

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 be built in the Tracks through Grantham area.

Great Ponton signal box on Saturday 24th June 1961 with class A3 No. 60111 'Enterprise', based at Grantham shed, passing on the Down Main line.
The curved rear wall is evident (traditional signal boxes are invariably rectangular in plan) and there was a built-in nameboard position at each end of the flat roof.
The cleared area in the foreground is the site of the north end of the Down side station platform.

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. 

The cement trains 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.

On Thursday 28th September 1961 a train of cement wagons has arrived for Great Ponton Yard from a cement works in the south. From the Down Main line on the right, the locomotive, class A1 No. 60150 'Willbrook' based at York, has passed the signal box and set the train back over the crossover to the Up Goods line. It is continuing to reverse along the goods line, as far as points located where the figure in the distance is standing, to gain access to the goods yard on the left.
The first three wagons are of the steel-built 'Presflo' type, 22 tons capacity, of 1950s design. The rest are aluminium 'Cemflo' wagons of 27 tons capacity built in 1961.
Cement wagons of both 'Presflo' and 'Cemflo' types, on the left and right respectively, are stabled in Great Ponton goods yard on Saturday 17th June 1961. In the right background is the unloading terminal, where the wagons' contents were discharged into road lorries for delivery to the Grantham bypass worksites.  The small hut housed the machinery of the goods yard weighbridge.
Passing the signal box on the Up Main line is train 1A17, the 12:10 from Newcastle Tyne Commission Quay to London King's Cross, 'The Norseman', hauled by Brush Type 2 (class 30) No. D5602.

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 1965The 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.

The East Coast Main Line near Little Ponton on 25th July 1961 as 'The Flying Scotsman' tears by southbound with Deltic D9003 'Meld'. It was in this area that the low-hanging telegraph wires were cut one night when Ray Phillips was on duty at Great Ponton.
Photograph taken by Noel Ingram.

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 distant signal (which was situated on a gantry well beyond Highdyke box).  So if it became necessary to stop a down train at Ponton 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').

Great Ponton's Down Distant signal, the lower arm on the left hand post on the gantry at Highdyke, is 'on' in this photograph dating from 1969. The picture was probably taken on a Sunday, with Highdyke box closed, because train 1A16 was a Pullman service on weekdays and Saturdays, and the coaches seen here are not Pullman vehicles. It's the 10.20 from Bradford (10.50 ex-Leeds) to London King's Cross.
© Copyright Peter Kazmierczak and licensed for reuse under creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0

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.

A view north from Great Ponton signal box on a sunny Tuesday 26th September 1961. Class A4 No. 60014 'Silver Link' approaches at speed up the bank with an express. Leaning well out of the window at the south end of the box, the edge of the central concrete panel partly obscures the view down the line.
K3 No. 61896, from Colwick shed, is on the Up Goods line, most likely on the down pick up goods train and waiting to cross over back to the Down Main line and away to Grantham.
The cement trains delivering loaded wagons into the yard at Great Ponton for the Grantham bypass would normally arrive on the Down Main line, nearest the box, continue around the curve towards the starting signal, then set back through the crossover in the distance onto the Up Goods. The locomotive would stop where No. 61896 is, then run round and draw back further before placing the wagons in the sidings for unloading.
It's around 1 pm on Tuesday 26th September 1961 and this L1 loco, No. 67757, and brake van is heading for Highdyke Yard, bringing up from Grantham the afternoon shift of locomotive crew for the High Dyke Branch. It will return with the early shift staff.
The two fence posts on the left are roughly where the previous signal box at Great Ponton was situated.

Film Clips

There are some short film clips of trains passing Great Ponton signal box in about 1964 here (go to Film 2).

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Mick Grummitt, Andy Overton and Ray Phillips for contributions and advice.

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6 thoughts on “Great Ponton Signal Box

  1. Derek Steptoe

    Great stuff, thankyou. I had the pleasure of working with Ray when he was at Corby Glen and I was at Stoke box. We then worked together again on the S and T doing 12 hours day and night shifts.
    There were a few occasions when my brother Terry was on duty in Ponton box, my dad as inspector at Highdyke and me at Stoke !!
    I visited Ponton regularly but could not get my head round the frame facing away from the tracks.

    Reply
    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Thanks Derek. It's been really interesting to gather all the information, especially the memories of Mick and Ray who worked the box.
      John

      Reply
  2. Nev Chamberlain

    Reg? Harris from Gt Ponton also worked in the box in the late 60s.
    I remember being in the station yard aged 7 or 8 with a few other similar aged boys from the village. When a downpour of rain came he shouted us over into the box to shelter!
    He knew us all as his wife was our teacher at the village school.

    Reply
    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Thanks for remembering Signalman Harris, Nev. It's personal insights such as this which bring people and places on the railway to life for us.
      John

      Reply

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