‘”You have to spend so much time down here, you might as well work for the railway!” pronounced Blakesley stationmaster Eddie Blandford. So I gave it my consideration and successfully applied for a job as porter at Towcester station. ‘
Previously to this on leaving school Bob had worked for Mrs Bartholomew at Blakesley Hall. She was the widow of C W Bartholomew, a pioneer of British miniature railways. Bob had many odd jobs to do, he remembers that he had to clean the shoes of visitors including the three Bartholomew granddaughters when they came for holidays with their grandmother in the summer. Bob had to visit the station at least twice a day to collect Mrs Bartholomew’s morning and evening papers which were especially dispatched by train from W H Smiths from Northampton Castle station and that’s how he came to know the stationmaster and ultimately how he got the porter’s job.
But there was another regular and more strenuous task that took him to the station. Blakesley Hall’s miniature railway was more or less redundant as a pleasure line by now, the Wyatts were no longer at the Hall and the remaining locomotive ‘Blacolvesley’ was tucked away in store in its shed, but anthracite was still required for the producer plant and it was often Bob’s task to bring it from Blakesley Station siding. ‘Usually there would be two or three of us, when a wagon came in we would manually propel the little tipper trucks from the Hall to the station. The miniature railway siding crossed the station yard roadway then sharply turned to the right running for a short distance next to the main line siding as it approached its buffers. We would then have the job of loading the tippers from a main line truck. When we had finished we had to push the loaded trucks one at a time all the way back to the hall. If there were a few of us we would load one tipper, then say a couple of us would push that back to the hall while the others filled the next one. It wasn’t too hard work if there were two of us pushing a truck and it was much better if there were three pushing. I don’t think that the miniature railway siding was ever worked by a locomotive, I think that the trucks were probably hand pushed in earlier days too, there was no run around loop at the far end either ’
‘When I went to Towcester I took over as a porter from Eric Pickles, who I believe became a shunter. I had to sweep the waiting rooms, clean the toilets and often had to go on foot to deliver parcels to people in the town. Cecil Smart was a signalman there in those days but of course he was later to become Blakesley stationmaster. I didn’t stay there that long because I became a signalman at Blakesley. There was a war on by now and my training was short. I just helped out for a few shifts and when they considered I had learnt the ropes it was off to Euston for my signalling exam and my eyesight test. After that I was a full time signalman.’ Blakesley’s signalbox controlled just 6 main line signals (2 of them fixed distants), a ground signal which looked like a miniature version of a home signal for the siding and 4 sets of points. There was a crossover over the down loop line, passed over by shunting movements from the up line to the siding, there was also a short headshunt. (see the diagram). ‘ Most shunting movements during my day took place from ‘up’pickup goods trains, the main train being left on the ‘up’ main line while the train engine did the shunting. Ted Botterill’s coal wagons were dropped off by the ‘down’ pickup goods but there was not a lot of shunting done by this train as a rule.’ (The layout at Blakesley favoured shunting from ‘down’ trains – see the map)
‘When I began as signalman at Blakesley there were 3 shifts which meant the line was open day and night. The shifts were 6am – 2pm, 2pm -10pm and the night shift from 10pm – 6am. Often during the war we only had two signalmen available to carry out the shifts and when this happened if we couldn’t have a relief we had to switch to 12 hour shifts. The main problem was coping with boredom even with the line under heavier wartime use there were long gaps between the trains. A responsibility we signalmen had was to maintain all the signal lamps and the platform lamps as well. There were two fixed distant signals: the ‘up’ was near Plumpton Wood; the ‘down’ was near Kirby grounds. It took a couple of hours to prepare the lamps and to walk about a mile to each of the distant posts, so we had an arrangement. One day a week, when all this took place the signalman on the 2 -10 shift would come in at 12 noon, so that the signalman on the 6-2 shift could see to the lamps. Although the station lamps were unlit during the blackout signal lights had to be lit.’ ‘Blakesley’s box actually controlled just four mainline signals, the homes and the starters. You see the distants never moved they were fixed on caution which saved us a hard pull. They just needed their lamps filled once a week. I think there were ten levers all told, but I’m not sure. There was a ground signal controlling the siding and all together there were four sets of points.
The staffs for the Morton Pinkney and Towcester block sections were long things almost two foot, you had to take care handling them. ‘ In his book ’Off Northampton Shed’ Derek Mutton, ex- Northampton fireman, describes his first attempt at catching hold of the Towcester – Blakesley staff in the dark and receiving a vicious blow to the face from it! He had just handed over the Blisworth – Towcester token which was a much smaller affair and had just not been prepared for it. ‘Blakesley’s box had three token staff machines: Blakesley- Towcester, Blakesley to Morton Pinkney and Blakesley – Woodford West. This was because there were special arrangements to switch out Morton Pinkney box at night. At about 7pm the Morton signalman would send me a special bell code message of 7 rings. This I would acknowledge back by repeating the code to show that I knew that he was closing the box. From then on a much longer section from Blakesley all the way to Woodford West would come into use. There were separate staff tokens for this long section. Of course when Morton box closed in the early 50s this long block section as far as Woodford West was used all the time. I remember some of the regular bell codes: 3-1 was for a passenger, 4-1 for a goods, 2 rings was ‘train entering section’ and 2-1 ‘train out of section’.
Although only a small box Blakesley was never switched out even though Morton box and the much more important Byfield box were. During the Second World War the SMJ routes, although never busy, were of strategic importance. Bob doesn’t remember any troop trains , they may have passed when he was not on shift, but I know that my own father, Harry Bodily, passed through Blakesley on such a working while serving in The Northamptonshire Regiment during the conflict. What Bob does recall were the mysterious munitions trains that sometimes passed through en route to or from Kineton Depot during the night shift. If one was due the station staff would be notified by a circular. Bombs, ammunition and all manner of explosive materials were stored in metal boxes within the vans to cut the risk from sparks from the engine. There were other regular night time trains coming through using the Towcester – Olney section. Some trains were double headed by 4Fs, other were worked by the new 8Fs. There was a special bell code for these double header freights. During the war the line was open 24/7 with munition trains often running on Sundays.
Milk churns were loaded from the platform onto a van on the ‘down’ morning pickup from Blisworth and conveyed as far as Byfield . There they would be loaded into another van which had brought more churns from the Stratford direction which would be transferred over to the Great Central at Woodford, then attached to an express for Marylebone and eventually to Express Dairies. This arrangement went back to Pre-Grouping days. The ‘up’ morning pick up would return empty churns to Blakesley. There were many dairy farmers within a few miles who took their churns to Blakesley so it was quite an important collection point for this traffic until lorries, eventually tanker lorries took over.
The sections from Blakesley to Towcester and from Blakesley to Morton Pinkney were looked after by two linesmen, they had storage access to a platelayer’s hut just past the signalbox among others. ‘Arthur Reynolds was one of the linesmen. He used to walk the line to Morton checking the track. He carried a long handled hammer to knock back any loose wooden keys . At the end of his shift he would travel back to Blakesley on a train. Arthur had twin sons, Reg and Ray, who worked for a while as bricklayers on the railway and another, Cliff, who worked on the Central at Woodford for a time, as well as Frank who was signalman at Towcester. When Arthur retired a Morton man took over the length, so he used to walk the line in the opposite direction to Arthur. The Towcester to Blakesley lengthsman was Bill Tucker and he travelled back to Morton Pinkney on a train after walking the line from Towcester to Blakesley. The lengthsmen were also called out to lay detonators at the fixed distant signals during foggy weather.’ Blakesley’s single siding was being well used especially in the sugar beet season. Local farmers Messrs Boot (of Maidford), Osborne and Tarry all specialised in growing this crop for the war effort as not much if any sugar was being imported . Often during the harvesting period several movements of beet trucks would take place in a single week. The farmers would have to load the wagons themselves but it was one of Bob’s jobs between trains to securely sheet over the open wagons. Another job he had to do from time to time was to paint the edge of the platform white. A foot wide strip was painted , this was as a safety measure during the blackout. If any paint was left over stones bordering the flower beds would also be painted white to ensure that people didn’t trample on them in the darkness of the blackout, but that was strictly an unofficial practice! A further important export from Blakesley’s yard was pit props for the coal mines. These props originated from Plumpton Wood. Such extra wartime movements put a strain on Blakesley’s single siding. ‘All too often there would be a couple of coal wagons blocking the way when the beet or timber wagons were to be moved in and out and this would involve quite complicated manoeuvres with coal trucks being temporarily left on the main line while shunting went on.’ ‘After the war I don’t recall the cattle dock being used that often. The Davies brothers at Kirby Grounds had their sheep brought in and taken out by cattle wagons and another farmer, Mr Summer, sometimes had trotting horses conveyed by rail. An unusual service that Blakesley station provided was for the Milk Marketing Board. Their man lived at Bradden and used to visit all the dairy farms locally with his motor bike and sidecar to regularly collect samples of milk for testing. These would be taken away by train for analysis’. Bob also recalls the banana trains. ‘The empty trains sometimes were held up at Blakesley waiting for the line to clear.
We would have a quick look inside the vans but we only ever found the occasional useless small green banana. There were also trains from Avonmouth Docks to Turvey on the Northampton to Bedford line’ (These took grain to Quenby Price’s depot, they were wholesale grain and animal feed merchants.)
Cecil Smart took great pride in the station flowerbeds. He had a small holding with a few beef cattle that he saw to in his spare time. There was an arrangement with Miss White who lived in a big house in the village. Cecil’s cows provided all the manure that her gardeners needed for her large vegetable garden and in return Cecil received all the top quality bedding plants that he wanted for the station flower beds. But all was not rosy on the railway. ‘The passenger trains finished and the three shifts were soon reduced to two, I could see that further cuts were on the way, it was time to get out.’ Bob was offered the chance to work with a tarmac gang comprised of friends from his own village. It was too good an opportunity to turn down.
Did Bob have any regrets at all about leaving the railway I asked ? ‘I would have loved to have kept one of those token staffs after the railway closed if I had still have been working for them.’
With special thanks to Bob Salmons for giving up the time to reflect on his career and also to the late Doug Blake for allowing the use of his researches too.
Dick Bodily (2010)