Hellifield doubled in size when it became a railway village in the 1880s. What had been little more than a hamlet, with a population of 275, had by 1931 a population of 1,026. Its workers were as shift-conscious as a mining community. The island station blazed with lights all night long.
The walk to explore Hellifield’s industrial heyday began in the old village, within sight of what had been weaving cottages, and ended on the railway platforms. Derek Soames, who was in railway employ for over fifty years, spoke experientially of life at Hellifield station as he remembered it in his young days. There was also input from Bob Swallow and Ruth Evans.
The party heard of the time when the knocker-up went on his doleful rounds, announcing “Double-head to Carlisle” or “Relief to Manchester” (via the line known as Lanky). Lodging might mean time spent in the railway “barracks” at Carlisle which would not have qualified for even a single star. Members were taken along the road to the station, passing Midland Terrace, a row of 40 railway houses dating from the 1870s. In the terrace were some houses fashioned of concrete blocks. (Midland Terraces houses were eventually privatised at prices ranging from £250 to £500). A tract of tousled grass was once an area of allotments. Bungalows now stand where once there was a busy canteen.
A subway led to the island station. Bill Mitchell spoke of interviewing men like Jimmy Fishwick and John Holmes, who took up work at Hellifield in 1921 and 1937 respectively. At the age of 15, Jimmy had become one of 21 cleaners in the L & Y Railway’s shed. The sand used on locomotives to provide adhesion on slippery tracks came from Lytham St Annes, where the railway was overblown by sand from the dunes. After 43 years service, Jack Holmes retired with a pension of half-a-guinea a week.
The party stood under a canopy of iron and glass featuring the Wyvern, dragon-like emblem of the old Midland Railway. As a coal train thundered by on a journey between Scotland and the power stations, the visitors were told of the power stations’ voracious appetite, coal on a single train being reputedly used up in twenty minutes.
Thanks to the organizers of the walk were voiced by Dr Sylvia Harrop.