Life of a railwayman

Derek V. Soames
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

I was born in Langcliffe in 1930 and left school at 13 since my 14th birthday fell in the summer holiday period. I started working as a delivery boy with a bicycle for the Langcliffe Co-op, a job which in winter resulted in frozen hands at the end of the day. I got tired of this and decided to apply to the Settle stationmaster for a job. The railways were short-staffed in 1945 as a result of the war so I was told to report to Glasgow immediately for a medical check-up. Now for a lad who had never travelled far from Langcliffe this was a long way and a difficult journey, at a time when the question was asked ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ The stationmaster managed to arrange instead for a medical at Carlisle, which still meant getting up early and cycling to Giggleswick station. As a result I started as a junior porter, joining a staff of seven at Settle station - stationmaster, ticket clerk, two porters, goods clerk, goods porter and wagon driver.

My dad was not best pleased, reckoning that changing jobs was not the done thing, but a job on the railways was recognized as a secure job for life.

I was expected to do all sorts of jobs at Settle but the main task was taking parcels to shops in Settle on a two-wheeled barrow, and taking fruit and vegetables on a four-wheeled barrow to Lord’s shop in Upper Settle. On Fridays I went to the bank with a special barrow to bring money back to the Station to pay the wages for all the men in our district, from Hellifield to Gargrave. The money was forwarded in special locked wooden boxes.

The Dawson family at Langcliffe Hall had riding horses brought to Settle for the summer, to graze on fields farmed by the Towlers. Everything required by local industry arrived by train - coal for Langcliffe cotton mills and the Settle gas works, and cattle feed and Proven (for Settle Farmers and Thornbers for example).

Later that summer of 1945 I was moved to Gargrave - there was no choice, you just did as you were told. This was a very busy station serving the Johnson and Johnson mill for which all the raw materials came in by train. Articulated three-wheeled road wagons were used to deliver to the mill by backing an empty trailer up to the rail wagon so that we could load it while the driver took a loaded trailer down to the mill. When it got to dinner time I went with a loaded wagon to the mill for a cooked lunch at the works canteen because I had already eaten the packed lunch my mother had made for me that morning. Later in the day the process went into reverse when hundreds of parcels were delivered to the station to be sent all over the country. Thousands of chickens were sent out from Sharps of Airton and cattle were brought in for farmers including Spensley at High Gate Farm. Local shows restarted, for which the animals arrived by rail. The wagons then had to be cleaned out for the return journey.

In March 1946 I was sent to Hellifield as relief porter to cover stations as far apart as Garsdale, Kildwick, Bolton Abbey, Morecambe and Heysham. Hellifield was very busy, being at a junction of lines from Manchester, Liverpool and Blackburn, and serving trains to Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. There were a lot of parcels to sort out - including rabbits for Manchester, which were from the Lazonby area. These rabbits were notable for their red feet, stained by the local soil. Work was different at every station I was sent to and I had to find my own way there from Langcliffe using bicycle, passenger and goods trains. An engine driver would agree to let me off at Hellifield on the way home but the train only slowed and I had to jump. At Garsdale I helped passengers off main line trains on to the Hawes branch trains. I had to help turn engines on the turntable and take and deliver parcels. August was a busy month when the first grouse were sent to London. At Ribblehead sheep and cows had to be loaded on the annual sale day and telegrams received over the railway wires were delivered to local farms. Helwith Bridge served the local quarry and the number of wagons in and out had to be counted, maybe 20 to 30 a day. The signalman had no access to drinking water except for a spring in the quarry - perhaps it is still there - so the porter was expected to go to the quarry and fill a two-gallon can for his use.

At Gargrave, taking cattle off the trucks into a pen I inadvertently let a bull out into the rest of the rather jumpy cattle in the pen and this led to the pen being broken, letting cattle loose all over the main line. The signalman had to stop trains while we rounded the beasts up.

Kildwick was notable for parcels, chickens, milk and on one occasion a lion. The circus sent their animals to London for shows and once a lion caused trouble (it was in a cage!). The cage did not load easily and I reached down the side to pick up a piece of wood to use as a lever. The lion just missed patting my head with its paw. The lady lion keeper spoke fiercely to the lion which cowered in a corner, knowing who was in charge. On being asked another time to deal with four elephant’s feet in separate bags I assumed I was being leg-pulled. However, inside were elephant’s feet. The poor elephant had electrocuted itself in London by pulling down cables with its trunk and for some reason the feet were being returned to the circus owner.

In contrast Bolton Abbey was not a busy station. Various parcels and especially fish were destined for the Devonshire Hotel. There was a set of white steps here used by the King to get on and off the train - he visited for grouse shooting. Embsay was also small and quiet but notable for hides that came in for the tannery and because I worked for 12 hours a day for six days I earned 10. At Cononley all I had to do was help the signal man to open and close the crossing gates. I was there when the church got on fire - the gates were opened for the fire engines from Skipton and all trains were stopped.

During the winter of 1947 all grades of staff were used for snow clearance along the line.

I went to Morecambe on Saturdays in summer to help with all the passengers going and returning from holiday. Cases had to be taken from the train to taxis at the front of the station. Or if not a taxi, a lad with a pram. Tips of 6d were usual on arrival but only 2d when people were leaving, having spent up during the week.

One day I earned 1 in tips which I showed my dad who had never earned so much in a week. Wages then for me were 1 - 13s a week.

I was called up into the army in December 1948 and came out in June 1950. My employment with the railways had been kept open and I asked to train as a signalman. I trained at Long Preston and became temporary signalman there in September 1950. There were about 60 to 70 trains in a daytime 8 hour shift and 45 to 50 at night. One day a goat arrived by passenger train from St. Ives and the Stationmaster asked me to milk it in its hour of need. Coal for Jackmans and wool for the warehouse in the village were taken into the sidings. Thursdays and Fridays were auction days. Foster of Little Newton farm used to go to Scotland to buy cattle at Dingwall and send them back by train.

Stainforth sidings in 1950 were used for stone from Helwith Bridge which was then taken out by road from Stainforth since there was then no road into Helwith Bridge Quarry. Some paper came in by rail for the John Roberts paper mill.

I spent time in Hellifield signal box as train booking lad. This was a very busy box because of engines going in and out of the loco-shed and wagons being tripped between sidings. A lot of cattle movements took place to the Auction Mart.

Still as Junior Porter I was the telephone and messenger boy at Lancaster for a while - Lancaster and Morecambe were the only places to have electric trains in our area at that time.

I was relief signalman at Horton-in-Ribblesdale signal box which was very busy because of the Horton limestone quarry and kilns. Two or three full trains went out daily with lime for steelworks in Scotland, 30 to 40 wagons per train, and the same number of empties came in. Coal was brought in for the lime burning kilns.

At Clapham, also as Relief, there was not much to do because the Ingleton branch had closed but many trains were put into the sidings as Irish traffic to wait for room for them at Heysham. This was a nice box to work in because of the views west up onto Burnmoor and east to Ingleborough. As well as Irish traffic we had oil trains from Heysham refinery and ammonia from the ICI Heysham plant. The Heysham Boat train was the most important train of the day, leaving Hellifield at 10.20pm and running non-stop to Heysham for the midnight sailing. Any freight train in the way had to be shunted aside.

Eventually I got the chance of becoming Signalman at Settle Junction, after so many years in so many different places and difficult journeys to reach my place of work. This was one of the most important signal boxes for regulating trains for Carlisle and Morecambe up and down. I spent the last 23 years of my working life here.

Derek Soames with a goat

Derek Soames with a goat