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Memories of working at Snow Hill North signal box


Memories of working at Snow Hill North signal box

Dan Shaw

STORIES on the Black Country’s old railways always generate a lot of interest among readers, and that was certainly the case with a photograph published in Bugle 1010. It was a picture of the interior of a signal box, sent in by Raymond Franks of Stourport-on-Severn, and we asked readers to indentify it. In Bugle 1012 we printed the responses of Alan Eatwell, Brian Till and Derek Twynham, who all identified it as Birmingham Snow Hill North signal box.

Birmingham Snow Hill North signal box c.1909
Birmingham Snow Hill North signal box c.1909

Now we have been contacted by Mr K. Steele of Daisy Bank, Walsall, who used to work in the signal box. He has supplied us with an earlier photograph and written of his time there in the late 1940s.

Mr Steele writes: “This excellent photograph of the interior of Birmingham North Box was given to me by my colleague Stan Cartwright. I would think it was taken when the box first opened. I thought your readers would like to see the interior, showing the lever frame, box diagram, block bells, block instruments, signal arm repeaters and the brass plate showing lever numbers and leads. The train recorder’s desk is where the signalman is standing with his arm resting on it.

“I read with interest the article in Bugle 1012 on Birmingham North signal box. I can confirm the photograph shows the interior of that box. The signalman looks very much like Alfred Duggan and the lad leaning on the locker, Brian Sutton; he was very tall for his age.

“The north box was opened in 1909 and the electric frame contained 224 German silver levers; the interlocking was the same as in the manual boxes, only in miniature, and was manufactured by Siemens.

“Owing to restricted space, the box was placed on girders 16ft 3ins above rail level between the up relief line and the entrance to the engine spur. Birmingham South box, as stated, was just off the end of platform 6. This opened in 1913; again the lever frame was supplied by Siemens and contained 96 levers. Hockley North box also contained a Siemens frame of 64 levers. That box opened in 1912 and stood between the up goods loop and the down relief line.

“Like Derek Twynham, I worked as a telephonist in the North box during that terrible winter of 1947. Snowploughs were employed to clear the snow off the tracks. A locomotive with a steam lance attached to a tap near the smokebox door was used to clear snow from points. The lance consisted of a long rubber hosepipe with wire wrapped around it for strength. The operator held a spade handle to direct the steam to clear the snow away and the platelayers would then scatter warm salt about and put hot oil on the point slides. If any of the point motors had frozen the signal linesman would soak cotton waste in lamp oil, put it close to the point motor and set fire to it; point heaters had not been invented, so this was the solution. Lamp oil was also used to wipe signal arms and the glass spectacles and the face of ground signals to prevent snow sticking.

“As rationing was still in force the signalmen and lads were entitled to 2oz tea, 2oz sugar, 2oz cheese and a small tin of evaporated milk once a month.

“The train recorder, or booking lad as they were commonly known, sat on a high stool in front of the desk; his job was to answer telephones, pass messages and record all bell signals sent and received in the train register. You always addressed the signalman as Mr and did as you were told.

“The north box was worked by two signalmen early and late turns and one man on nights, with a train recorder in each turn. It was the lad’s duty on nights to do the heavy cleaning. After the midnight to Paddington had departed you set to work cleaning all the windows inside and out, next night it was cleaning the brasses, the brass plate with the lever numbers of signals, points, ground discs and the leads (which levers have to be ‘reversed’ before certain levers can be pulled) was 37ft 6ins in length and took some cleaning. Also, the doorknobs, window catches, brassfronted train describers, brass plates under the block instruments and the block bells all had to shine to perfection.

“Another night you cleaned the gas stove, toilet, handwash basin and in the summer months, when no fires were required, you black leaded the two coal stoves and whitened the stone hearths. The last job as the week progressed was cleaning the box floor. You went across to the big pilot engine, usually one of the following locomotives, Lady of the Lake, Lady of Lynn, Lady of Quality, Rob Roy or Bibury Court, and carried back two buckets of very hot water across the tracks then up the steep stairs.

“You set about cleaning, starting at the Hockley end of the box, on your hands and knees, scrubbing the floor using red carbolic soap. You put down clean newspapers as you progressed towards lever no.112, the halfway mark. With the water changed you worked your way to the door. Some signalmen would fill in the train register for you; others would not, so you placed thick newspapers on the book to stop wet hands causing the ink to run (no biros). The lads cleaned up ready for each shift, by cleaning the coal stoves, making up the fires and emptying the ashes, filling the coal buckets, sweeping the floor and dusting the instruments, telephones and locker tops, then putting the kettle on a low light ready for the next shift.

“Arthur Hammond Elsden was the stationmaster at Birmingham Snow Hill and looked every inch a stationmaster of the Great Western Railway. He looked resplendent in his frock tail coat, which had black fancy lacing on each arm, and a black stripe on each leg of his immaculately pressed trousers, shoes polished, a butterfly collar with a diamond pin on his tie, and his crowning glory, his pillbox hat with gold braid round the peak and the cap badge GWR enclosed with laurel leaves. He came up the North box every day. On entering he would greet the signal men, ‘Good morning Richards, good morning Duggan,’ and the lad was acknowledged with a nod.

“He would take the gold fountain pen from his pocket and put on his pince-nez, look through the train register to see if anything untoward required his attention, and then he would write across the book ‘A.H. Elsden, 10.35am’, remove his glasses and put his pen away. On leaving he would say to the signalmen, ‘The air was a little blue about 8.30 this morning,’ it was the signalmen swearing at the shunters.

“The upside platform inspector would enquire if the ‘Red Necker’ was about. This train from Bewdley connected into the 9am Snow Hill to Paddington, which Mr Elsden was always on the platform to see depart. If the Bewdley train was running late his neck would go red, hence the nickname.

“A gantry spanned the tracks overlooking the scissor crossover roads. Access was up a ladder on platform 6, to the small hut used by the gantry man. His job was to inform the signalmen when trains were clear of the scissor crossings. Platform 8 could be blocked with a train, so a train for platform 7 could be routed via the up mainline and through the scissors to platform 7; the same if 7 was blocked, a train could depart from platform 8 onto the up mainline and the same applied to the down platforms and the down mainline.

“The gantry man was a green card man, a person not fit for normal duties owing to health problems. The railway always found them light duties, such as messengers, lift attendants or train announcers.

“Northwood Street carriage sidings was where St Paul’s tram stop is today, known as the Blood Tub siding, named after the Metropole Theatre where plays such as Maria Martin and the Red Barn and other blood curdling productions were staged.

“There was a turntable opposite the box together with the new yard sidings. The signalmen at that time were Jim Hollies, Jack Batchworth, Percy Bullock, Alfred Duggan and Ted Richards, the train recorders were Albert Taylor, Charlie Spooner and Keith Steele.

“Birmingham North and South boxes were replaced by multiple aspect colour-light signalling from a new panel box on 11th October, 1960. Hockley North closed 1st December, 1968.

“I wonder is Derek Twynham is related to Bill Twynham who was signalman in Birmingham North after I had left?”

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