·  LMS  ·  GWR  ·  LNER  ·  Misc  ·  Stations  ·  What's New  ·  Video  ·  Guestbook  ·  About

LMS Route: The Shakespeare Route

Memories of the Stratford Midland Junction Railway

and other local lines or industrial railways

John Jennings' Memories

The Railways of Stratford upon Avon in the 1950s

John R Jennings, SMJ Archivist

Although I was not from a 'railway family' I developed an interest in the local transport scene from a very early age. This interest grew into that of a life time railway enthusiast which I am pleased to recollect meant much of what I saw in my early years was a unique snapshot of the end of the steam era before road transport developed a stranglehold. The railway was still a very important part of the life of our English market town and until the end of the decade the working methods and the men involved were more or less the same as they had been in the previous thirty years. I am aware that it is easy to confuse the casual reader by making references to once familiar places by more than one name. This is because the evolution of the railways saw changes of location names and company names often perpetuated long after they had technically disappeared! The names used by railway employees often depended on their age and length of service. Some locations were known by a local name although that name was never officially given. I will also not dwell on railway technicalities to any great extent as they are well documented in various publications. In my writings on the Stratford area I will attempt to use the same names wherever possible and there follows a paragraph or two that will set the scene.

Until 1952 Stratford had two passenger stations, Stratford upon Avon General was the title used by the Western Region of British Railways to identify the ex GWR station adjacent to the cattle market on Alcester Road. The title appeared in official BR WR documents in a haphazard way throughout the fifties and sixties and did appear on some ticket stock. The station signs were never changed possibly because the other station closed to passengers in April 1952. This station was the one that most Stratfordians and railwaymen always called 'Old Town' although with one very late exception the title was never conferred officially. It would also be referred to as the LMS or the SMJ. Sited at the end of College Lane this station had been owned by several different companies since 1864 but the most affectionately remembered was the Stratford upon Avon and Midland Junction Railway. Always known as the SMJ this company was the final legal amalgamation of various predecessors. The SMJ only existed from 1910 to 1922 when the 'grouping' forced upon the railways by the Government took place. From 1922 until nationalisation Old Town station and the former SMJ route between Blisworth and Broom Junction became part of the LMSR and after 1947 was part of the London Midland Region of British Railways. I will normally refer to the ex GWR station simply as Stratford and to the ex SMJ station and the surrounding yards as Old Town.

Key locations that I knew well have changed in appearance over the past fifty years. Evidence of railway ownership on the SMJ route and on the GWR route south of Alcester Road Bridge are now almost eradicated except for the bridges and major earthworks. Landmarks in the text should be noted as follows. In the north to south direction on the GW line. (In railway terms this was the “down” direction).

Great Western Railway

Bishopton Bridge. This was a hump backed brick bridge taking Bishopton Lane over the line about a mile & a half north of Stratford station. It has now been replaced with a modern structure. There were clear views of the line over open country in both directions from the top of this bridge.

Stratford East Signal Box. Normally open continuously this box controlled the goods loop and junctions to the north end of Stratford station. It also controlled access to the goods yard adjacent to the gas works, the Ministry Cold Store and the locomotive shed.

Canal Bridge. There were two parallel bridges over the Stratford canal about a hundred yards past the East Box. One carried the main running lines, the other carried the goods loop and a carriage siding. In the centre waste ground on the station side of these bridges was a WW2 air raid shelter and a single story wooden mess hut used by goods guards waiting to change shift on through freight trains. The GWR had owned the Stratford Canal and the large iron pipe carried along the running line bridge was to convey water from the canal to the various locomotive watering towers.

Cold Store. Situated at the rear of Platform 3 in its own compound was a Wartime Ministry Cold Store and associated buildings. This area is now a supermarket.

Locoshed. A small, two track, brick built engine shed was situated on the eastern side of the goods loop between the canal and the land at the back of Western Rd. There was a large water tower on top of the loco coaling stage on the shed site. An additional siding lay along the western side of the shed.

Stratford Station. Still in use but now a terminus since the closure of the Honeybourne line south of Stratford upon Avon in 1976. The substantial brick building and canopies erected by the GWR on the central platform has been demolished. The GWR built footbridge and buildings on Platform 1 survive.

Stratford West Signal Box. Not normally open at night this box was situated on the west side of the line immediately under the Alcester Road Bridge. There was a large water tower adjacent. The box controlled access to the south end of the station and a long carriage siding that ran parallel to the up line as far as the second Shottery Fields Crossing.

Shottery Fields Crossings. Between Alcester Road Bridge and Evesham Road Crossing were two public rights of way both starting in Albany Road and leading to Shottery Fields these crossed the railway on boarded crossings protected by “kissing gates”.

Evesham Road Crossing. A fully gated level crossing controlled by an adjacent signal box on the town side known as Evesham Road Crossing. The box was replaced with a large modern structure alongside the original as a result of modernisation works in 1959-60. It was open continuously.

Sanctus Road Bridge. This was a humped brick bridge taking the road over the line. It has been replaced with a modern structure that now carries Sanctus Road over the road that has been built on the track bed.

S M Junction Signal Box. About 100 yards south of Sanctus Rd was the junction that allowed traffic to interchange between the Old Town station yard and the GW line. It was more often referred to as “Sanctus Road Box” although the title was unofficial. It was only manned for a few hours a day and closed completely in June 1960. Although it was demolished within weeks of closure it appeared in official working timetables for at least two years longer!

SMJ Bridge. About a quarter mile from S M Junction the Old Town – Broom Junction line crossed the GW on a single span steel bridge.

Racecourse Platform. Immediately after the SMJ Bridge the GW line was provided with rudimentary cinder and wood platforms to allow trains to stop whenever there was a meeting at the adjoining racecourse. The southern junction of the 1960 chord line making a through route from Old Town Station to the south was situated just past the end of the Racecourse Platform.

The Stannells. The final landmark within Stratford as the line went south was the substantial iron bridge over the river Avon.

Stratford & Midland Junction Railway

Clifford Sidings. Running from East to West the SMJ single track became double line just before the town boundary at Clifford Sidings Signal Box. This was about a quarter mile east of where the line passed under the Stratford - Oxford trunk road and the footpath that was once the route of the Stratford and Moreton Tramway.

Avon Bridge. The substantial brick bridge adjacent to Lucy’s Mill carried the SMJ over the Avon and into Old Town Station. Strengthened during the works associated with the 1960 chord line this bridge now carries a road.

Old Town Station. Looking west the main buildings were on the northern side and the locomotive shed and water tower behind Platform 2 on the southern side. The present road passes more or less between the platforms. These were further apart than was normal. Traces of Platform 1 were extant in 2001.

Grain Silo. There had been a long siding into Lucy’s Mill since early times but during WW2 a large grain silo was provided by the Ministry on land between Old Town station and the Mill.

Old Town Signal Box. An older box survived on Platform 1 as a store but the box that was in use in the fifties up to June 1960 was off the end of that platform. It controlled all movements associated with Old Town station and yard. Looking west the SMJ line to Broom reduced to single track and carried straight on up the grade over SMJ Bridge. The through connection to the GW line at S M Junction swung to the right (north) through the goods yard. In 1959-60 a direct chord line was built diverging left (south) just past the signal box to connect with the GW line just past the Racecourse Platform. Opened in June 1960 this chord provided through running from the SMJ line to Cheltenham and South Wales. The line to Broom closed when this chord was opened.

SMJ Bridge. Already identified on the trip along the GW line this was a stiff climb for Broom bound trains as they climbed up over the GW only to run downhill again towards Luddington with Stratford Cemetery on the right.

Great Western Railway

My observations at Stratford station had started in the late 1940s when my Grandmother took me on outings there to observe the activities. By 1953 I was visiting the station regularly on my own and without the need to always buy a platform ticket there were a number of vantage points. One was looking through the fence at the end of Platform 1 immediately adjacent to Alcester Road Bridge. There was an engine water crane on the platform end and several times an hour a locomotive would be taking water here. The fireman would often lean against the fence whilst waiting for the tank to fill and pass the time of day with any train enthusiasts present. The railways were still legally a 'common carrier' and this meant that they had to accept all traffic offered to them. Stratford station handled passengers and parcels but heavy goods traffic was dealt with at the goods depot in Birmingham Road and at Old Town. There was a steady stream of railway goods delivery lorries in and out of the parcels office loading area that was situated in the centre of the buildings on Platform 1. Some larger parcel traffic was brought up from Birmingham Road depot as there was little time to unload it from railway vehicles on the busy through route of Platform 1. At the far northern end of the buildings on that platform were two iron gates that were constantly in use by Royal Mail vans. My Uncle Bill was a postman and he would often reverse his red Morris van up to these gates to exchange mail traffic that the porters had piled onto the sturdy four-wheel platform trolleys. Mail was carried in the guards’ compartment of passenger trains and bags for nearby towns such as Birmingham or Leamington could be loaded at relative leisure because those services would sit in the back platforms for a while once the loco had run around and cleared Platform 1.

It was a different matter with the through services calling at Stratford on their way to the West Country or South Wales. They were only booked to stop for a couple of minutes but if there were a lot of mailbags this could hold them for longer. There was one Birmingham – Cardiff express that called at around 4.20pm that was regularly held up with the locomotive blowing off steam under the Alcester Road Bridge while mail traffic was dealt with. If I was at the vantage point mentioned above I would often hear the driver call to his mate that there was no need to hurry up with the locomotive watering because those bloody postman have got barrow loads again! This was the first time I could recall hearing a broad Welsh accent as on alternate weeks this train had a Cardiff crew. The common carrier requirement occasionally produced some interesting traffic. There was a loading dock siding next to Platform 1 that terminated just before the post office gates. Road access was by driving straight ahead past the booking office into the paved yard that was next to the cattle market boundary. The porters would often tip me off that something special was coming to this siding and on more than one occasion I witnessed the unloading of circus animals that were visiting the town. There would be regular horsebox traffic particularly on race or hunt meeting days. Scenery vans for touring theatrical companies and British Railway's own publicity cinema carriage also used this busy siding. At certain times of the year the guards’ compartments of local trains arriving from the Birmingham area carried seemingly enormous quantities of pigeon baskets. It was a traditional and lucrative trade for the railway because all they had to do was unload the baskets onto the station trolleys, wheel them to the platform end where they were clear of the canopies and then open the baskets to allow the pigeons to fly home. Each basket had its owner's name on it and detail of the return station to send back the empties. Part of the service was that the porter had to fill in the release time on the card label. The porters were often glad of the willing help offered by someone like myself particularly when there were dozens of these baskets to attend to.

Passenger traffic was heavy with regular local trains to Evesham, Worcester, Leamington Spa and Birmingham. In order to appreciate the way of working I will describe the typical traffic of the station. Local passenger trains normally consisted of two or three non-corridor coaches hauled by an ex GW tank engine. All trains from the north had to arrive at Platform 1 regardless of whether they were terminating or running through. On the terminating trains the locomotive would have to 'run round' its train and be shunted over into the Back Platform ready to form a return service to where it had come from. The Back Platform was split numerically into Platforms 3 & 4 although it was all one long platform. Two local trains could be easily held in its length often with one heading south to Worcester and another waiting to go north to Birmingham or Leamington. Running a loco round its train involved cooperative work and slick operation by the signalmen in both East and West boxes. If the main up platform (Platform 2) was clear the loco would uncouple, run forward under Alcester Rd to a point just before the first Shottery Fields crossing. The West Box crossover would be set to cross the loco to the up line and it would run the length of the station to a point near the canal bridge. The East Box crossover would then be set to pass the loco back to the down line and to run into Platform 1 to couple up to its train. It was now sat pointing the 'wrong' way in Platform 1, which, as the only available down arrival line was always busy. To clear this train into one of the back platforms the signalmen would either let it propel back under Alcester Rd again and repeat the crossing procedure to the up side but this time with the West Box setting the route into the back line, or, if there was no arriving train held waiting to access Platform 1, it was more convenient to pull forward through the East Box crossover and then reverse into the Back Platform line.

The advantage of the latter was that only the East Box was involved in the proceedings and there was less work on the instruments and booking register entries in the two boxes! A local arriving from the south and terminating would usually be directed into the Back Platform. There was a special type of signal mounted on the gantry just outside the West Box that indicated to the driver that he could proceed with caution into the Back Platform but that it was not clear as another train was occupying the northern half of it. The procedure was known as 'calling on'. There was a separate loop line around the rear of the Back Platform so as long as Platform 3 was clear the loco from a Worcester arrival could draw forward and then run round this rear loop. This avoided using the down main line through Platform 1. All of this activity was discharged at a very quick pace with the loco buffering up to its train whilst the fireman was stood in the track waiting to couple up, it looked very scary to those unfamiliar with the procedure but I never saw or heard of an injury. Until about 1957 all local trains were steam hauled except for the occasional visit of one of the ex GWR AEC diesel railcars that sometimes turned up on the Worcester services. They were regarded as a novelty by railway watchers who then had no idea of the changes that were imminent.

Although most local services terminated a few ran from Worcester to Leamington via Stratford as through trains although they did not call at all of the smaller Halts en route especially between Stratford and Worcester. Apart from the express services a most important train was the daily Worcester Shrub Hill – Birmingham Snow Hill semi fast via Stratford. It was used by professional commuters to the Birmingham area and left Stratford for many years at 8.32am. It ran via Solihull rather than taking the more usual route via Henley in Arden in order to take advantage of the quicker running on the four track main line north of Lapworth. The station staff would always be anxious to get this train away on time and it was the one non-express working of the day that regularly got the Stratford stationmaster out on the platform. The corresponding return working was booked away to Worcester at just after 6.30pm in the evening. Many of the regular passengers on this train were high ranking regional British Railways staff who worked in the offices at Snow Hill or New Street and the station staff were well aware of the consequences of causing them inconvenience!

The through express trains consisted of services to the west of England and South Wales. In winter months there was one 'Cornishman' train a day that commenced at Wolverhampton and called at major stations all the way to Penzance. It conveyed a restaurant car and often loaded to over ten coaches. In the summer months weekday traffic was heavier and a second train followed the main service at about a twenty minutes interval. The destination for this service was Torquay and Kingswear and it relieved space on the main train. The down “Cornishman” left Stratford at around 10.15am and the up working at around 6.25pm. The South Wales trains started at Birmingham and called at the main stations to Cardiff via Stratford and Gloucester. Depending on the time of year there were two or three in each direction daily and they had a buffet car rather than a full restaurant car. Before describing the scene on a busy summer Saturday I will now put the freight traffic into the picture as Stratford was a very busy through route for several traffic flows. To understand the operational problems faced by the local railwaymen the physical nature of the GW route needs further description. The approach to Stratford from the south was on a fairly easy gradient as the line crossed the Avon at the Stannells and swept over the flood plain, past the racecourse and on into Stratford. At the end of Platform 2 the grade changed and as the line swung round and over the canal it was on a stiff climb all the way to Wilmcote and continued to climb at a lesser rate almost to Danzey on the North Warwickshire route. The line to Leamington diverted at Bearley West Junction and was not so severe. All trains going north that were in excess of a certain load were entitled to be assisted by a 'banking' locomotive pushing them at the rear end. In the case of passenger trains unless there was some malfunction with the main train loco the banker would buffer up at the rear of the train whilst it was stopped in Platform 2 and when the lead loco was ready to set off he would sound a series of 'cock crows' on his whistle, the banker would then literally push as hard as possible for about the first mile or so to give the train a good start off.

The banker was never coupled up to the train he was pushing so he dropped off before leaving the area under the control of Stratford East Box and then drifted backwards usually stopping opposite the box so that the signalman could shout across instructions for the next job. If there was a 'sick' locomotive on the front of a passenger train the banker would stay with him all the way to Wilmcote and in the case of freight trains it was normal for them to be banked to Wilmcote or even Bearley West Junction. Until the late 1950s there was one locomotive allocated solely for banker duties whilst another was provided for shunting the goods yard at Birmingham Road and running interchange trips to and from Old Town Yard. In order to be ready for its next duty the bank loco would normally wait in the short overrun to the carriage siding outside the West Box. As soon as a train requiring assistance had cleared Alcester Road Bridge the bank loco could be released to move into position at the rear of the train. There was often no great hurry as the train loco nearly always needed to take water from the water crane situated at the northern end of Platform 2. It was this constant blocking of the up platform that also caused variations in the way local trains were run round. At night if the West Box was not in use (switched out was the official term) the bank loco could not access the rear of the train requiring assistance in the way previously described. If a heavy freight were to stop for water at Platform 2 it would be difficult if not impossible for it to restart on the curving gradient without the banker so they ran through and came to a stop for water at a water crane that was situated at the side of the up line to the north of the East Box, this crane was fed from the tank at the entrance to the goods loop. This meant that the rear of the train would be clear of the crossover just north of the platforms and the banker could run across from the down line at that location all under the control of Stratford East. After about 11.30pm there were no passenger trains to hinder freight operations and I can recall many still nights lying in my bed at Eastfield Close and listening to the whistle crowing and exhaust beats of both locos as they set off towards Wilmcote. I could hear the change in the sharp exhaust notes as they briefly muffled under Bishopton Bridge by which time they were well in their stride up the bank.

Many freight trains consisted of a variety of trucks, closed vans, flat wagons and tankers and carried all manner of goods. Others were dedicated to just one load and going south most days I saw several trains of steel hopper trucks filled with orange iron ore. These had originated in the quarries of Northamptonshire or Oxfordshire and were bound for South Wales. There was an equivalent number of empties going the other way of course. It took me some time to understand why coal seemed to be taken in trainloads in both directions. Apparently it was all to do with the suitability of certain grades of coal for specific jobs with Welsh coal heading north to the furnaces of the Black Country and the softer coals from the Midlands collierys heading south and west for the domestic market. Stratford was a destination for several grades of coal with the demands of the gas works, the locomotive shed and the house coal merchants. Wharburton's coal merchants unloaded their house coal from a siding at Birmingham Road Goods depot whilst Dingley's and the Co-Op handled their coal at the Old Town Yard. I never saw any sort of mechanical aid used for unloading, the coal was shovelled by hand into strong hessian sacks that were placed on a large set of Avery scales. When full they would be lifted by hand on to a flatbed lorry for local deliveries. Some of the trucks that had brought coal into town were used to take away coke from the gas works and ash from the locomotive shed. Ash and cinders had commercial value and large quantities were sold for public works use. The last remaining commercial user of Clifford Sidings was an ash merchant who obtained his supplies from Leamington loco shed after Stratford shed closed in the early sixties. There was at least one dedicated parcels train that ran from Birmingham to Swindon and back overnight and spent some time exchanging parcels traffic stood at Platform 1 while the loco took on water.

British Railways operated the classic three shift system that went back to the early days of the railways which were 6.00am – 2.00pm; 2.00pm –10.00pm and 10.00pm – 6.00am. By allowing a little bit of welcome overtime at the beginning and end of the day the station staff only worked the two day shifts with each man working one week late and the next early. After the last passenger train at night had been dealt with the foreman would lock the booking hall and parcels gates but leave open the post office gates so that the Royal Mail could continue to operate with the overnight parcels trains. The signalmen, loco crews and goods guards all worked the three shifts system. Each man had his grade and promotion within grades was governed by seniority based on length of service as much as ability. I estimate that around four hundred men were full time railway employees based in the Stratford area in all departments. There was only one Station Master, a position held at the time by Mr Bright, who normally seemed to work daytime office hours but would pop in to the station during the course of an evening several times a week. I believe the booking office staff were salaried and came under the direct control of the Station Master as did the refreshment room ladies. The busy booking office had a head clerk who appeared to work a similar pattern to his boss plus at least two other clerks one of whom was a junior. I nearly joined British Railways in 1960 in that then vacant junior job. In addition to the issue of tickets the booking office staff made up and issued the wage packets to the non-salaried men in all grades in the area. There was a second ticket window in the small booking hall and at the end of the week there would be a steady stream of men calling there to collect their wages. The practical running of Stratford station was in the hands of the two shift foremen who supervised a team of ticket collectors, porters, parcels office staff, shunters and cleaners. Passenger guards signed on at the station but all locomotive grades reported to the loco shed. I believe that the small messing shed adjacent to the Stratford East starting signal near the air raid shelter served as a signing on point for the Goods Guards. The road transport drivers reported to Birmingham Road Goods Depot. In the yard opposite the loading dock were several huts and timber buildings used by the platelayer gangs.

Another full time job was that of Bill Poster. This man was responsible for the pasting up of the many advertising and weekly notices on hoardings throughout railway property in the town and on some of the nearby rural stations. In the summer he would have his work cut out as seaside excursions would be a weekly affair and the 'zbills' as they were always called had to be kept current. I remember overhearing one of the foremen ticking off the Billposter one afternoon following a complaint. I gathered that one of the Birmingham office commuters that used the 8.32am was in the Railway Commercial Dept at Snow Hill and noted any outdated or torn posters on the wayside stations during his journey. On this occasion something was not to his liking at Wilmcote and he had tipped off the foreman that morning! One thing that was evident to a regular observer was that despite such small irritations all of the railway men got on well together and seemed to like their job. It was still only ten years or so since nationalisation but on the Western Region little had changed. Stratford station was still in all but name a creature of the GWR with the old pride in the job very much in place. All of the men like their colleagues on the Royal Mail wore a full uniform and whilst the platelayers and loco men would often of necessity be dirty the grades that faced the travelling public were always immaculate with polished footwear and spotless uniforms. The ticket collectors and passenger guards often sported seasonal buttonholes taken from their own gardens. In addition to the older, ex GWR men, by the late 1950s there were several younger men in their late twenties who had become railwaymen on leaving their enforced two years period of National Service. Some had come from a railway family so had just followed tradition but many had been recruited in their pre de-mob weeks by a British Railways employment team. They found the offer of a secure, uniformed job with a pension an attraction in the late forties and early fifties but by the end of the decade things were changing. As I grew up and was able to grasp more of the contemporary scene I realised that by the late 1950s many of the familiar faces around Stratford station were disappearing, there was the odd death in service but the main reason was that the old hands were retiring and the young men were leaving the Railway service because of the attractions of higher wages and shorter hours being offered in the factories of Coventry and Birmingham. By 1959 this shortage of labour particularly in the skilled grades was having an effect on the operation of services. There was another event that also contributed to the local railway labour problems and I remember being told of the complex history behind it by one of the ex SMJ men.

After the cessation of passenger services into Old Town the loco shed there had been retained for freight duties and a team of goods guards plus the signalmen and goods yard staff all 'signed on' for duty as before. The loco shed at Old Town was finally closed in 1958 when the few remaining loco responsibilities were transferred to the GW shed. The men based at Old Town were told that they would be transferring to similar duties on the Western Region at Stratford GW. Now with the labour situation as it was this would seem to be a good move by the railway management but it caused a lot of ill feeling and problems. I have already mentioned that railway jobs were heavily dependent on 'seniority' or less politely 'dead man's shoes' whereby promotion was slow and regulated by complex agreements between employer and unions going back many years. Some of the younger men at Stratford GW had just started to see some promotion when suddenly a group of men with much greater service were transferred into their ranks. The cosy atmosphere that had existed at Old Town meant that the ex LMS and few remaining SMJ men were long serving and immediately filled the more senior grades. Some of the GW men were demoted back to jobs (and pay) that they thought they had left behind whilst others could see a longer wait for promotion. It would have been bad enough if the newcomers had been from another part of the ex GW system but these were LMS men and that really poured salt on the wound! This event accelerated the departure of several of the younger fit and capable men out of railway service for good.

I have included the previous two paragraphs to set the scene before describing the events that took place on a typical Saturday in summertime at Stratford station. There were a number of enthusiastic observers of the railway scene at that time. I was one of about six local schoolboys all in our early teens plus several adults including railway photographer Tom Williams. We would all eagerly await the publication of the summer time table that came into force for the period between Mid June and early September each year. In addition to the 'Cornishman' service being split daily with separate trains for Penzance and the Torbay line there would be additional services on Saturdays between the Midlands and the West Country going directly to destinations such as Newquay, Ilfracombe, Weston Super Mare, Pembroke and Minehead. In the busiest four or five weeks over July and August most of these trains would be duplicated with an unadvertised relief train following the advertised one as soon as the railway operating authorities could find a path for it. The outbound trains would originate at either Wolverhampton or Birmingham and the first departure from Stratford was at around 7.30am with a steady stream of southbound trains following all morning. By 2.00pm the first northbound train would be due through, usually a morning departure from Weston Super Mare quickly followed by a procession of trains many often running late and with more carriages than the allocated locomotive was supposed to haul over the Cheltenham - Birmingham route via Stratford. The southbound traffic was handled very efficiently by the platform staff who had to get large numbers of Stratfordians with their heavy luggage onto the trains as quickly as possible. Most of the passengers were families taking their annual holiday and many of them were working class people well known socially to the railway men. The atmosphere on Platform 1 was very light hearted as each express train was cheered in by the children and luggage loading and locomotive watering completed in record time. On a sunny morning the engine men faced a pleasant outbound job as the run from the Black Country down through Warwickshire and Gloucestershire was a fairly easy one with favourable grades as far as Bristol where most of the crews handed over to West of England men and after a break would crew a north bound train back to the Midlands in the afternoon. The routine local trains still had to be dealt with as normal and by 2.00pm when the shift changed the morning men had certainly earned their wages but under pleasant circumstances. By contrast the 2.00pm – 10.00pm shift was definitely a poisoned chalice.

The incoming foreman nearly always found that he was short of staff. This was because there were now vacancies that remained unfilled and the 'relief' men that had been scheduled for work did not always turn in for this unpopular shift. In the days when the pubs closed at 2.00pm for the afternoon and 10.30pm in the evening there was little incentive for men to work on a Saturday late shift. In earlier days draconian discipline would have been applied to malingerers but those times had gone, the foreman had to make the best of it. If he were lucky one or two of the early shift men would agree to stay on and finish at 6.00pm which would give them the maximum continuous time allowed on a shift and still get them into the pub for the evening. There were several reasons for the unpopularity of the shift. The main one was the fact that they would be dealing with passengers returning from their holidays on overcrowded, late running trains that often lacked a buffet car. Arrivals from the south were discharged onto Platform 2 and the porters would be expected to be ready to assist passengers with their heavy luggage. The favoured method of handling it was not to try and carry it over the footbridge with the individual passengers but to load it all onto the four wheeled post office barrows and wheel it the full length of Platform 2 onto the boarded crossing and back down Platform 1 to the booking hall exit. Very often a delay to this would occur because the locomotive would have drawn forward to take water and was fouling the crossing. The crew, now nearing the end of a long shift, would be busy preparing the locomotive for the heavy climb out of the station and it was not unknown for these trains to spend up to 15 minutes stood at this spot while steam was raised in locomotives that were not now getting the standard of maintenance that had been the norm in past times. If a local train was due out of Platform 3 the signalman would allow it away in front of the express as he knew the express crew would appreciate the break and there was no point in delaying the local. In the meantime tired families would be waiting impatiently for their suitcases with the prospects of a tip for the porters diminishing rapidly. Many of these returning holidaymaker trains were 'strengthened' by the railway authorities at their departure point to try to ensure there were enough seats.

Old carriages that only ever got used for excursions were added to the normal train with the result that with the loco stood at the water crane there could be up to three coaches stuck out of the end of Platform 2 under the Alcester Road bridge and even past the West Signal Box. Any passengers needing to alight at Stratford from these coaches had to force their way with luggage and children up the corridor full of standing passengers until they got to the first door that was next to the platform face. At least the delays mentioned above meant they had no worry of the train leaving with them still on board! There was also the matter of the banking locomotive. Passenger trains could normally expect a quick shove for a mile or so and then they were on their own but the driver of the train loco on these occasions knew that he was up against the odds very often with the combination of a badly steaming engine and poor quality coal. Whilst the fireman attended to the water the driver would use the telephone provided in a box near the home signal to ask the signalman to let the banker push him to Wilmcote. Unfortunately there were several potential problems to make a refusal more likely than consent to this particular request. Although Wilmcote Signal Box was supposed to be open, the shortage of signalmen meant that in fact it was often closed and therefore the first place at which the bank engine could shut off and be turned back was Bearley West Junction. With the strong possibility that a down local train could be in the section to delay its return the banking engine could be lost for up to an hour and might need to take water when he did get back. Such was the procession of returning holiday trains that it was not unknown for one to be waiting in Platform 2, one to be held at Milcote and another to be held at Long Marston. (For technical reasons prior to the summer of 1960 it was not permitted for a passenger train to be held at Evesham Road Crossing although in the unlikely event that S M Junction Box was manned one could be held there). With every train needing the bank engine losing it for an hour or more was a doomsday option, however with no facilities for a following train to overtake, the signalman could not risk letting a poorly performing locomotive forward if it was likely to stall on the bank and block the route for a long period. So the driver who made the most noise down the telephone sometimes got his way and the following trains were further delayed.

There was also another situation that occurred more often than it should due to the extra length of the trains. If things were going to plan every time the bank engine pushed a train out he would be quickly run back to sit on the West Box carriage siding so that once the next train stopped in Platform 2 with a quick change of the points he could be let out to buffer up to the rear coach and await the whistle from the lead engine to commence the push. Unfortunately these extra length trains often fouled the points and the bank engine was trapped. The West signal man had to get the station staff on the phone to go and tell the lead engine driver that he would have to try to ease his heavy train forward when ready, a task that very often was not possible as they just sat with wheels slipping on the adverse grade. The only option then was to find another loco to couple onto the front to assist the train to come forward a short distance. In the mid fifties most of the local trains were steam hauled and it was no great problem to get the loco of a waiting local to give assistance but by 1959 many of the local trains were in the hands of diesel railcars so that option was not always available. In one extreme case the only method of resolving the situation was to allow the next waiting express to leave Milcote under a special operating rule and when it got to near the West Box the loco uncoupled from its train (the rear of which remained astride Evesham Road crossing) and went forward to push the stalled train clear of the points. It then ran back to its own train to allow the bank engine out of the siding to do its job. All of these activities provided hours of interest to the observer but a desperate amount of work for the railwaymen involved. On the very busiest summer Saturdays a locomotive would be sent from Tyesely depot to stand by at Stratford to assist any northbound train in real trouble by coupling onto the front and “double heading” the train through to Birmingham. Once it had been used it would be at least two hours before it would arrive back so in reality it only assisted a couple of the trains. There were many occasions when these overloaded trains would arrive hours after their booked time because of problems with their locomotive before they even reached Stratford.

The Stratford locomotive shed was a sub depot of the large ex GWR shed at Tyesely in the Birmingham suburbs and was run by a charge hand and staffed by a fitter and one or two labourers although there were always vacancies. The Stratford based footplate men 'signed on' at the shed including the increasing number who by the end of the decade had finished with steam engines and were driving the new railcars. The traditional role of the shed was to provide overnight servicing for the tank engines that would head the first local trains of the day to Leamington and Birmingham. It was also the base for the bank engine and the shunting engine that normally worked the Birmingham Road Goods Yard. Only light servicing was carried out so the two latter engines would return to Tyesely at intervals for attention and be replaced with freshly serviced locos. There was a pool of around six of the ex GW 2251 class locomotives based at Tyesely that rotated on these duties. After the SMJ shed at Old Town closed the locomotive that worked the daily pick up goods train over the SMJ route would turn up for coal and overnight accommodation. Occasionally an excursion train would terminate at Stratford bringing visitors for a theatre matinee. The locomotive would visit the shed to take coal and await its return duty. These excursions were often full length express trains with a large passenger locomotive, sometimes of a type not normally seen at Stratford. They were not popular with the shed staff because the small coaling stage was a totally manual operation. Trucks of loco coal were shunted up the ramped track at the rear of the stage and the labourers had to hand shovel the coal from them into 'tubs' with small metal wheels that were then pushed by hand out onto a ramp that was shaped so as to cause them to tip up and discharge the coal into the waiting locomotive tender. The tubs held about 5 cwt and were supposed to be kept filled at all times. A large visiting engine could devour the contents of all of the tubs with ease. Filling the tubs on a warm day was not a pleasant task, I did it often as an unofficial duty in return for being allowed to ride on the footplate of the banking engine.

By the late 1950s the workload of the shed had declined as many of the local trains were being run by the new green diesel railcars and competition from road transport was having a big impact on the goods traffic to Birmingham Road yard. I don't remember exactly when but the provision of the shunting loco ceased at some time around 1959 due to a combination of less work and shortage of crews. Any shunting required had to be done by the bank engine in between its normal duties. The bank engine was booked as a twenty-four hour job except on a Sunday but it was often used on the Sabbath to haul track repair trains for the local gangers. Most weekends in 1959 and winter/spring of 1960 there was a lot of additional locomotive and engineering train activity connected with the construction work going on at Old Town and along the line to Fenny Compton in connection with the upgrade of the western end of the ex SMJ route.

Glossary of Railway terms used.

Locomotive, loco, engine, banker and bank(ing) engine all refer to any type of individual steam locomotive.

Signal Box. A control centre from where track routes and their associated signals were set by means of mechanical levers grouped together. The signal men communicated with each other by various electro mechanical instruments, bells and telephone.

Water Tower or Tank. A large oblong steel tank set on a tower or suitable building approx 40 feet above ground to provide good pressure. Water would be fed into this at a constant rate until it was full.

Water crane. These were situated wherever locos needed to take water. They were connected to the water tower by large bore iron pipes. A horizontal delivery pipe was swung out over the loco filler hole and water was discharged at a very fast flow rate to minimise delays.

Ganger. A railwayman employed to maintain the track.

Shunter. This word had two meanings. 1. A shunting locomotive. 2. A man who was employed to couple and uncouple trucks in a busy yard. He might also supervise loading and recording of freight. At passenger stations where running round was a regular job one of the porters would be designated porter/shunter, a separate grade that carried slightly enhanced pay.

Driver T Hine

Driver T Hine poses for the camera as he looks out from the footplate of ex-LMS 4F 0-6-0 No 43924. Driver Hine started his railway career with the SMJ just before the outbreak of the First World War. He wrote in the book by Dick Riley and Bill Simpson on the line's history the following:

'I passed as a driver in March 1924. after starting as a lad cleaner of sixteen In 1912. In my working turn on every third week I used to work from 6.00 pm until 9.00 pm on Sunday night. I never cared for this much especially In summer seeing people out enjoying the evening strolling by the river. In winter I was alone in the shed until another cleaner came on at 9.00 pm. Then the shed man would light up the stationary boiler which was at the bottom of the shed. It would then be the job of us two cleaners to carry shovelfuls of fire to the fire- boxes of each engine. The shovels became very hot before we had finished. Our staff was nine drivers, nine firemen, two fitters, with two apprentices. There was also a boilersmith and his mate. The original turntable at Stratford was moved to Towcester when the larger one was put in. I was told that it would be used to turn GCR engines at Stratford but I never saw this done.

The SMJ was busy line for horse boxes with the Stratford race meetings and local Hunts. By far the busiest time of the year was the Towcester Races on Easter Monday. Every available engine and man was in service that day with the concentration of traffic between Blisworth and Towcester. One horse box working that we regularly did was to pick up the box at Kineton. or more than one. and take them to Fenny Compton to join the GWR. which delayed us quite a bit as no time was allowed for this. All along the line we were shunting horse boxes and cattle wagons into passenger trains. Another grand occasion was the Stratford Mop Fair on October 12 and there were quite a number of passengers from all the stations on market days. Particularly heavy passenger traffic between Byfield and Northampton.

I remember too the Edge Hill light Railway engines coming to Stratford shed for boiler washouts. They were brought out of steam on one of the trains. When the Edge Hill Railway first started a set of men from Stratford would man the engines and I think would bring them back to Stratford. Later they were worked by men employed by that Company but only working on the EHLR. I do remember them once working on the SMJ during the strike of 1926 when they worked passenger trains between Kineton. Stratford and Broom Junction.'

Porter, Eric Pickles

An Audio Memory

Eric started work as a junior porter at the age of 18 in 1941 on the former Stratford Upon Avon & Midland Junction Railway at Towcester

View of the exterior of the original Stratford on Avon station prior to the building in 1909 of the extension   View of the exterior of the original Stratford on Avon station prior to the building in 1909 of the extension

Part One Six minutes 32 Seconds


Part Two Six minutes 32 Seconds

Fireman, Roger Morgan

I first Joined the railway in January 1961 as an engine cleaner and the first trip that I had over the SMJ was July 1964. I was covering for a fireman that was on holiday and I really did look forward to it I can tell you. Better than shunting up and down the yard at Banbury in a diesel shunter. The engine that I had was a Great Western class 28xx with the old fashioned type Churchward cab. The train was the ten o'clock to Llanwern Steelworks with ore that we picked up from the Oxfordshire Ironstone sidings. We took it from Banbury to Gloucester where we handed it over to Cardiff men. So that meant we travelled over the SMJ from Fenny Compton to Stratford-upon-Avon where we headed south on the new curve onto the line from Birmingham to Gloucester via Cheltenham, (The Blossom Route). We sometimes picked up a return working of a cattle train for Banbury stockyard. We only had the 28xx on Monday, the rest of the week the working was diagrammed for 9F 2-10-0s all of Banbury shed. Workings from Woodford shed over the SMJ were behind 2-8-0 'Austerities' then when Woodford shed closed in June 196S that was the end of that.

Our loads were usually twenty-six or twenty-seven of the ironstone 'tipplers'. My driver Al Church was a good old boy. We had to take care when we topped the summit near where the A422 road crossed over Goldicot Cutting because the train, which was loose coupled, meant that we would be required to stop and pin down brakes to hold it back on the bank. The 9F was pretty good that way as it had a steam brake but I know that there were some hair raising moments with the class 72xx 2-8-2 tanks when they tried them on this working. I remember the late George Clarke, who liked to run 'em, told me you had to get things under control for that last three miles or so to Stratford. Anyway one day he had a young nervous fireman with him who looked out of the cab as they ran down the bank and said nervously, "were running a bit hard aren't we George?' Oh no lad we're running away! A week later the fireman gave his notice in. One thing that I remember of the SMJ before the 9F's went on there was that they lowered all the track beneath the bridges for clearance and as we were going along I used to look up the line and swear that we would never get this huge engine under that tiny bridge, but of course we did. As we went on the branch we had to stop at Fenny Compton to receive the staff for the single line. Next was Burton Dassett, Kineton and Clifford Sidings where we went onto double track.

From those first impressions as a very young fireman I grew very fond of the SMJ. Once you had left the main line at Fenny Compton you seemed to go into another world. We forget how dark and silent the countryside was forty years ago with very few lights. The noise of that huge engine, the glare of the fire with just the two of us going straight into the darkness. It was a friendly dark though and after a while you would get used to the echoes of the engine across the fields, the sudden close rebound as we entered Goldicot Cutting. Near Ettington there was a long line of tall poplar trees and even though you could not see them you would hear the exhaust rebound then pass through the space then rebound again, about twelve of them, almost musical. One landmark we looked out for at night was a place called the white house on the Fosse Way. It was a lonely beacon shining through the night glinting on our thread of rail.

Author, RC Riley

On Saturday 5th April 1952 signs of local apathy were less evident on the railway. Pedestrians could be seen making their way to the SMJ station to see the last train, the 6.40 pm to Blisworth. The Town Mayor mounted the footplate of ex-LMS 4F 0-6-0 No 44525 of 2E to ride with the train of three coaches. After press interviews and general jocularity the Guard managed to make his whistle heard and Driver Ernest Smith of Stratford drew the train away with a farewell whistle. Passing Clifford Sidings we were greeted by ex-MR 3F 0-6-0 No 43277 standing on a goods train that gave three crows on its whistle. Then came the climb up to Ettington our whistle echoing among the Warwickshire hills. At Ettington the Mayor alighted from the engine after a rougher than expected journey and returned to Stratford in a motor coach. Passing by Burton Dassett we could discern still the trackbed of the Edge Hill Light Railway on its steep ascent. Leaving Fenny Compton we overtook an 'up' goods train on the section where the two railways run side by side. The driver of ex-GWR 4-6-0 No 6968 'Woodcock Hall' did not overlook the significance of the time as he saluted us with a fanfare on both whistles.

Byfield was where the engine crews were changed as darkness was closing in. There was now a scramble between the tracks and we all crowded into two coaches of the 6.50 pm from Blisworth headed by ex-MR 3F 0-6-0 No 43822 (21D) that was proudly bearing a Union Jack on the smokebox front. A number of people were present at Byfield and as we left at 7.40 pm with a single crow on the whistle we were answered by some halfhearted cheering. Two minutes later another crow sounded the departure of the Stratford train, realisation of the impending closure seemed to dampen the spirits of the passengers and apart from a couple of fireworks at Fenny Compton the journey back was made in complete silence. The train crawled into Stratford and the crowd of passengers melted away almost at once. Our engine No 43822 ran round the train to propel the coaches into the siding. Defiantly it made a long shriek on its whistle as it passed through the station. The station lights flickered out one by one and the passenger service of a proud little railway had finally come lo an end.

Stationmaster Mr G Holton

Interview between Mr G Holton former Stationmaster of Byfield and Colin Underwood 1st August 1974

Mr Holton joined the SMJ during the First World War, he started at Byfield and then went to Wappenham. Later he returned to Byfield as a clerk. His duties included spending three days at Byfield and three days at Ettington. During the Second World War as a result of the heavy traffic at Burton Dassett Camp a Stationmaster was required at Kineton and he took up this post. Later when the Stationmaster at Byfield retired he went to take up that position there and lived in the village. In ]LMS days most of the former SMJ staff were transferred to Euston. In the days of the Great Central Railway the GCR would send a light engine to Byfield shortly before the arrival of the first morning train from Stratford which conveyed the Marylebone through coach. The SMJ would uncouple allowing the GC engine to back on and take the coach away. The SMJ loco would then rejoin and take the train on to Blisworth. The GC also worked a system of shuttles connecting with the SMJ trains. The last of the day would convey the through coach from Marylebone to Stratford at 20.39.

During the period of the SMJ Byfield enjoyed a very busy time with goods trains. The local coal merchant, a Mr Russell bought his coal from Babbington Colliery, Bulwell, Nottingham, also coal came from Ansley Hall Colliery, Stockingford, Nuneaton and Baddesley Colliery at Atherstone. Mr Russell was also the village grocer and had bulk salt delivered on the railway in a special salt van vehicle from Salt Union, Bromsgrove, this company was absorbed by ICI in 1926. The salt was stored above the bakehouse to keep it dry and was used copiously in the surrounding area to salt pork and bacon. Large amounts of hay, straw and grain were moved on the railway, the hay and straw in open wagons loaded to the absolute limit of the loading gauge and sheeted down. Grain was carried in sacks inside covered vans. All the Stationmasters' along the line were agents for Hudsons the sack contractors. A large livestock sale was held at Byfield in 1916 when more than a thousand sheep and three hundred head of cattle were sold. All of these were shipped by rail in fifty cattle wagons split into three special trains.

The ironstone mines were opened circa 1915 with loop sidings one end for inwards, the other outwards. These were situated some two miles west of Byfield station. At times the iron ore receipts amounted to something in the region of £1,400 per month. Some measure of the advantage of this new traffic can be appreciated when it was known the the SMJ waited for the cheque for this traffic to pay the mens' wages! The following list is of the destinations for ore:

Sheltons Iron & Steel, Etruria
Frodingham, Scunthorpe
Normanby Park, Scunthorpe
Consett, County Durham
Port Clarence. Middlesborough
Bell Bros, Tipton
Roberts, Tipton
Midland Coal, Coke & Iron Co Ltd, Apedale

The Scunthorpe traffic went via Woodford and was worked from the sidings by a GCR locomotive. Whilst the Staffordshire traffic went via Broom. Business was so brisk that the sidings would overflow into Byfield goods yard. Another problem during the First World War was the severe shortage of wagons. At the station a gas engine supplied electricity and the station was virtually the first place locally to be lit by this power. This engine also pumped water from the reservoir to the header tank.

Ex-Woodford fireman Albert Fennell

Firing the Steel Trains Courtesy of Albert Fennell and Dick Bodily of SMJR Society (http://thesmjr.ning.com)

During the 1950s, previous to the closure of the Stratford to Broom Junction of the SMJR, five trains each way ran nightly along the SMJ ( Mondays – Saturdays) from Woodford yard to Broom conveying semi-finished steel products, ingots, billets and the like, from the North of England to South Wales.

One man who had much experience of firing on these turns is Albert Fennell. Albert followed his father Herbert into a railway career at Woodford and his experience on these night time steel trains came when he was a fireman in the No 4 link during the mid fifties. Several of his family, uncles and a brother, were also footplatemen at Woodford. While in this link Albert was unusually often paired with his own father who was at the time a driver in the same link and says that he really enjoyed working with him. Herbert passed on a lot of useful knowledge and skills in a kindly patient way to his son and they worked well together as a team. However Albert remembers that there was one period of three weeks when they didn't see each other as they were on opposing shifts.

These heavy trains were almost exclusively worked by WD 2-8-0s, engines from Woodford shed working through to South Wales to return on a return working the following day, sharing the work with Western Region WDs mainly from Welsh sheds, doing the round trip in the opposite direction. Albert recalls that many had shed codes beginning with 86 but can't remember what the letter was but its likely that they were Ebbw Junction allocated as Newport Pill only had one Aussie and Severn Tunnel junction only a limited number. Photos exist showing Cardiff Canton WDs on the SMJ as well, but these are post 1960 daylight shots. The Woodford crew clocked on just over an hour before departure to allow for preparation and to run light engine to the yard. They worked the trains through as far as the double track Broom South Curve near the still existing wartime concrete Broom South signalbox where they would pull up level with a return South Wales – Woodford train and exchange locos and trains with the Western Region crew, before returning to Woodford. This explains why the curve here was double tracked. The Woodford crews had to be signed as having learnt the route beyond Broom as far as Ashchurch just in case of a very late running return train making the Broom swap over impractical, but Albert says that only once did a Woodford crew actually get as far as Ashchurch and on that occasion the driver was his uncle George Fennell.

The first three nightly trains left Woodford Yard at 7.20pm, 8.30pm and 9.30pm, then there was a gap to the final pair at about 1.30am and 2.30am. What he particularly remembers is that on Saturday nights he had to sign on at 12.59pm for one of the workings, this one minute to midnight time being a ploy to insure that he got in 6 shifts that week before Sunday. The Sunday rate being one and three quarters of basic pay with these turns open to any crews. There were no trains on Sunday nights/ early Monday mornings as the SMJ was completely shut down from 6.00am on Sundays to 6.00am on Mondays. ( After the new link to the GWR line was put in at Stratford around 1960 sometimes the SMJ line from Woodford - Stratford was opened on Sundays.)

Albert particularly remembers his last night time trip along the SMJ route. He recalls that climbing Ettington Bank in either direction with one of these steel trains ‘was like going over a mountain!’ On this occasion the previous steel train driven by Walter Callow and fired by Harold Jones had failed at Stratford with a broken steam gauge but worse was to come with the WD that Driver Stan Harris and Albert were crewing. They had taken over the engine with one injector already failed but had struggled on only for the other injector to give up completely as a result of climbing the fearsome bank and eventually they had to reluctantly admit defeat and drop the fire to avoid a possible boiler explosion. Stan had tried to make it to Kineton where there was a passing loop but had only got to within about a mile of Kineton, so Albert set off on foot along the track towards Kineton where he came across father Herbert and another fireman crewing a relief engine sent out from Woodford shed. He says that on occasions such as these it was not unheard of for a duty shift to go on for 14 hours!

Albert moved on to a new career as a coach driver soon after this, one of his duties included driving the Byfield to Towcester Grammar School school coach service which had about a decade earlier been instigated as a replacement for the similar rail service over the SMJ. Albert's interest in steam was revived during the preservation era and he eventually became a driver on a preserved railway and proudly owns a splendid collection of photographs and DVDs showing himself driving many famous preserved team locomotives.

NB. After the new south curve was opened at Stratford in 1960 these steel trains and other through freights ran directly onto Western Region tracks near the racecourse and most traffic transversed the SMJ to and from Woodford during daylight hours. The Western Region who had acquired much of the line beyond Byfield by then had cut back the platforms at Ettington and Kineton and a wide range of ex-GWR and British Railways Standard classes from Welsh sheds began to work through freights on the SMJ.