John had plenty of experience within the bus industry before and during nationalisation working for the Tilling group and the National Bus Company. He would use his knowledge with Buxted Chickens, Bulmers and Williams Cold Storage. John finished his varied career by becoming a signalman.
On the buses…
I went to the local grammar school in Spilsby in Lincolnshire, where I did O levels and A levels. I then did a degree in geography at Nottingham University. I always had an interest in transport whether it was road, rail or whatever, and I wanted to develop a career in transport. This is way back in 1960-61 and there wasn’t a lot of information available about transport careers.
By pure chance I had a seasonal job as a bus conductor in Skegness – because when one was at university you needed to earn money in your summer holidays. Being a holiday resort there were always vacancies for seasonal staff in various jobs and being a bus conductor paid quite well – they paid union rates whereas some of the other companies in the holiday industry didn’t pay as well. I did two seasons as a bus conductor, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was something different – gave me a good feel for that type of work.
One day the traffic manager of the bus company was on one of his local visits to Skegness – he went round all the depots periodically. I happened to get into conversation with him and said: I am interested in getting into the transport industry, could he give me any advice as to how to do it? The company was part of the Tilling group of companies, who owned a lot of bus companies in the country including Eastern Counties in Norwich at the time. He said they ran a management training scheme for people with the appropriate educational qualifications and suggested I went to work at their head office in Lincoln to see if I showed the appropriate sort of aptitude. If I did he would recommend me for the management training scheme. It is what I did.
So after having experience of a couple of seasons as a bus conductor I then went into the office and saw it from the other side of the fence. I must have met their satisfaction because after a year he recommended that I went onto the Tilling Group’s senior management training course. I went to London for the appropriate interviews, got accepted and they allocated me to Eastern Counties here in Norwich as a trainee. I got married in 1963 while working in Lincoln, and couldn’t afford to buy a house on a trainee’s wages – about £750 a year, I think. So that is how I came to be in Norwich for the first time – joining Eastern Counties Bus Company in 1964.
The head office was at 79 Thorpe Road. The building still exists. I’m not quite sure who has it now. At the rear between Thorpe Road and Cremorne Lane was the main engineering workshops where they carried out all the overhauls on the buses and that sort of thing. In those days Eastern Counties was a much bigger company than it is now. What the First Group now run is basically Norwich and Ipswich, but when I was working for Eastern Counties it stretched right across to Peterborough and Cambridge. We had large depots at Peterborough and Cambridge and our services stretched right across as far as Kettering.
The buses in Yarmouth and Lowestoft were run by the local authority – the local council. There was a small Lowestoft Corporation bus fleet which had only 17 or 18 buses, I think.
We had all the red buses. The total fleet was about 750 buses and coaches so it was quite a large and significant operation. We ran everything from very intensive city services in places like Norwich, Cambridge and Peterborough to little rural outposts where there was one bus parked up in the pub yard overnight and the driver lived locally. So you saw the whole gamut of operation and a range of coach services up to London and places like that as well.
We were still using drivers and conductors, though one-man buses were coming in about the middle of the 1950s, I think. We were gradually extending the use of those because, after the sort of post war boom in travel, passenger numbers were starting to decline somewhat particularly with the growth of private cars, the growth of television and that sort of thing. The evening traffic wasn’t there so we were seeing a decline in the use of rural services particularly, and that’s where the one-man buses were coming in.
I did two years as a trainee and the training programme really covered the three main departments of the bus company. There was an accountancy side dealing with the money, statistics, records and that sort of thing, which is very essential. The engineering side dealing with keeping the vehicles on the road, repairs, rebuilding and that sort of thing. The traffic department dealing with timetables, publicity, drivers’ schedules and duties that the crews carried out, that sort of thing, and the licencing of the services, because in those days all the bus services had to be licensed. Now of course you don’t have that.
Timetabling is quite an art and was my job for quite a lot of the time. For every bus you put on the road you need a driver and a conductor. Probably more than one because there tends to be an early turn and a late turn and probably a split shift as well. They’ve got to have meal breaks and that sort of thing, so you’ve got to have somebody to take it over when they come off for their meal break. Of course you had no computers to help you in those days. It was all done manually by people with sheets of graph paper and rulers and pencils and that was basically it.
We had paper tickets on the ticket roll. Before my time they had the old bell punch tickets where the conductor had the machine round his neck and he used to pull the coloured ticket in and press a hole in it. We had moved forward and had got the Setright machines which had the rolls in and actually printed the ticket when you turned the handle.
We started to get problems with traffic congestion causing delays to services. It was more difficult to run to time particularly on city services in morning and evening peak hours. That was starting to be a problem with the growth in private traffic. And the other big problem we had, not so much in Norwich, but particularly over in Peterborough and Cambridge was staff shortage, getting people to work on the buses. Because the rates of pay were not particularly high, I mean they were adequate but not excessive and it was shift work. We found a lot of people, particularly conductors, use it as a stop-gap measure. Be a bus conductor for a few months until I can find something better. So you got a big turnover of staff, particularly among the conductors. In those day you could walk into a job, so a lot of people in those days of full employment didn’t want to know about shift work.
Our largest depot was based at Surrey Street with about 220 vehicles. I did part of my training there, mainly on the engineering side because I had to spend six months with the engineering department and I did some of the time at the central works at Cremorne Lane and then they sent me out to Surrey Street to work with the fitters down there. So we did all the routine things like changing springs, changing wheels and all the routine maintenance carried out on them. You had to know how it was done, and the way you learnt was doing the job yourself.
I had to pass my PSV driving test too as they couldn’t have you managing them if you couldn’t drive them. It’s quite a skill learning to drive a double decker – in those days we didn’t have things like power steering and automatic transmission. It was all hauling it around corners by sheer strength. Gearboxes were the old crash type gearboxes where you had to double declutch up and down the gears so it was quite heavy work. When you had done an eight hour shift you knew you had done it.
All this training was packed into two years. I was able to maintain and drive a bus, ticketing, anything you can think of in the bus company we had a go at. It might have only been a week in certain departments, it depended how complex a department was. I spent quite a bit of time with the engineers at Surrey Street and in the summer season they sent me down to Great Yarmouth, because it was a lot busier in the summer than it was in the winter. I helped there on the administration of the depot.
In Yarmouth they had the railway line which was a bit like a tramway that ran along the front and they had occasional goods trains down there. I think the trams went before the war. I did my stint in a little kiosk on the seafront selling day tours and afternoon tours and evening tours. I remember selling the little afternoon tours, and we got an overload and the supervisor said, ‘We’ve got no-one to drive it. You’ve got a PSV licence, you drive it.’ So I finished up taking an afternoon tour to Wroxham and I always remember I got 16 shillings in tips from the passengers. I thought that was quite good.
At the end of the two years I was appointed to another bus company as a traffic assistant, which was the first rung on the promotional ladder. They sent me to Thames Valley which was a company based in Reading in Berkshire; it was about half the size of Eastern Counties. As a traffic assistant I worked in the traffic department with the traffic manager as his general dogsbody really.
I was purely on the operations side doing things like timetables, schedules, publicity, that type of thing, and what we called road service licencing, because all the different bus routes in those days had to have a licence. If you wanted to change a timing on a bus route, for example make your bus to Long Stratton ten minutes later, you had to put an application in to the traffic commissioners and anybody who wanted to object to it could object. If they did object you then had to go to a hearing before the traffic commissioner and all that sort of thing.
There had been an awful lot of cutthroat competitive way back in the 1930s and a lot of small operators were setting up and they were sort of leapfrogging one another along the roads and things were getting rather dangerous. So they brought in the 1930 Road Traffic Act which said that all road services had to be licensed. I think it was done away with in 1985, because traffic was declining and there wasn’t the competition between buses. They deregulated the services in the 1980s so nowadays the only control you’ve got on the services is on the maintenance standards.
There’s no control over what fares you charge or what times you run. That’s down to the operator to decide what he thinks is best, which is a lot easier and seems to work quite well in the present.
On the buses to Reading
I did two years in Norwich -1964 and 65 – and we moved to Reading on New Year’s Day 1966. I did about two and a half years at Reading and got promoted again. They made me chief traffic assistant at the Bristol Bus Company, which was a much larger company. That ran about 1200 buses and ran all the city services in Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Weston-super-Mare and all the rural services in between. I worked my way up there.
This was in 1967 and when I’d been there about 18 months the National Bus Company was formed. When I joined it was Tillings,who owned about half the bus companies in this country, and British Electric Traction owned the other half. In 1969 they decided to sell out to the government, which meant the country’s major bus companies were nationalised and became part of the National Bus Company. This gave me a little step up, because the Managing Director at Bristol was made a regional chairman looking after all the main bus companies in the South West of England and South Wales and he wanted a personal assistant. For some reason best known to him he chose me for it. So I became his personal assistant, which was very interesting because it meant you were not only dealing with about a dozen in this region.
We had some problems with industrial unrest. The industry didn’t have major strikes but certain depots were quite militant. It tended to be the more industrial areas where the competition for labour was tighter where you had more problems that could blow up quite quickly, if somebody wasn’t very happy with the way something was being done. We often used to say that when you were a bus driver sitting in the cab all day long driving your bus, you had a lot of time to think of the things you weren’t happy about.
I can only remember an overtime ban rather than a strike. Wages were negotiated on a national basis, and they occasionally got into a bit of deadlock. If I remember rightly, in about 1970, the overtime ban was about three months which did a lot of damage. Whilst you could run some basic services, we relied on a lot of overtime because we tended to be short of staff, with rest day working and that sort of thing.
We had quite intensive Sunday services at one time. Even into the 70s most routes had a semblance of a Sunday service but it declined later on. Funnily enough it is picking up again now because the shops are all open on Sundays. In my day with the bus companies it was just leisure traffic we had on Sundays. I’ve noticed that the services are picking up again.
When I was personal assistant to the chairman down there, one of the major tasks we were involved with was dealing with Exeter Corporation who ran their own bus service. They had their own corporation undertaking like Great Yarmouth did and they decided they wanted to sell it to the National Bus Company. They didn’t want to continue to run it themselves because they were losing money on it basically. They ran about 60 or 70 buses. So we negotiated with them and agreed to buy it from them.
On the buses to Exeter and Torquay
I was then asked if I would agree to move to Exeter as area traffic supervisor to deal with the merger of the two undertakings, which was quite interesting because having been run by the Corporation their working practices were quite different to National Bus Company’s operation. It was a different trade union. They were Transport and General Workers and ours were National Union of Railwaymen, who had some members in the bus industry. So we had a two union situation which always makes for interesting times.
We managed to get that all going smoothly and we took over the Exeter Bus Corporation on 1st April, I think it was, 1970. I was there for about six months to get that bedded in and we eventually managed to get the two unions talking to each other and kept the services running without too much problem. And then the manager of the company in Devon which we had attached Exeter Corporation to – he moved on by the way for promotion – and I was asked if I would take over as Commercial Director of the company which was called Devon General Bus Company which was based in Torquay but controlled Exeter as well. So I moved on to Torquay and I was there for four years which was a very pleasant place to live. The only thing was they kept moving me further west and I was getting a bit close to Lands End. Not much further I could go!
We had quite a large fleet of about 350 coaches in Torquay. In the summer they took all the holidaymakers out on their day tours, afternoon tours and evening tours. It always amused me that one of the most popular places was Dartmoor prison; they loved to go round Dartmoor and have a look at the prison. That must be some kind of macabre interest I think! But it was a very interesting place to work around Torquay because you got a great variation between summer and winter. It was very busy in the summer when we made a lot of profit and very quiet in the winter when we lost a lot of money in the winter season.
In the winter probably 40 or 50 of the fleet would be delicensed and stored in the garage waiting for the summer season. Obviously you could do maintenance on them and that sort of thing. It helped in that sense.
There were a lot of holiday coach companies taking people down to Devon on week and ten-day holidays and that sort of thing, which put quite a bit of business our way because they would all want their coaches cleaned, fuelled and this sort of thing. They used to come into our garage to draw fuel and to have the vehicles cleaned and serviced. So we made some money out of that as well. If they broke down we would repair their vehicles and probably hire them a coach to take their holiday-makers around while they were dealing with the breakdown. So it all brought a little revenue in.
Back to Reading
I was in Torquay in 1970 and left at the end of 1973. I was moved back to Reading as traffic manager of the bus company in Reading, which is where I had been in the late ‘60s. That was a difficult assignment for a number of reasons. They had amalgamated the Reading company with a company that was based at Aldershot and it was a little bit like mixing chalk and cheese. Added to which we had a chronic staff shortage in the area.
The Reading area is very close to London, Heathrow and places like Slough had full employment in those days. We recruited a lot of labour from the West Indies, India and that sort of thing. We built hostels at Maidenhead, High Wycombe and various places to house people, but we still were losing a lot of mileage because we just didn’t have the staff to man the buses. It was obviously very unsatisfactory from the passengers’ point of view, you wait for your bus and it doesn’t come. People won’t put up with that for very long, so passenger numbers were declining as well. British Leyland had great difficulties and a lot of our buses were manufactured by them, so you couldn’t get spare parts. So we had the Leyland vehicles off the road awaiting spare parts. Endless problems. It was a stressful time.
To be honest I wasn’t very happy with the way things were moving in National Bus Company. Passenger numbers were declining very quickly. Local government had been reorganized in 1974. A lot of the old councils were replaced by newly formed district councils. The district councils were given much bigger powers to subsidise local bus services that were losing money to keep the services going. In return they wanted a bigger say in how our services were run.
On the other hand, National Bus Company was getting more centralised and I really began to feel that as a traffic manager of a bus company I was becoming no more than a postman. You were getting instructions on one side and you were just passing them on to the other and you didn’t really have the chance to manage the way it should be run.
So I was looking around and identified the distribution business where supermarkets were starting to grow and distribution of foodstuffs and that sort of thing was a growing industry, increasing by the day almost in its sophistication, and I thought that perhaps this was the direction I ought to be thinking about moving in my career. At that particular time a company called Buxted Poultry, which were the main frozen poultry producers, had established its headquarters in Norwich, in Rose Lane, Imperial House. They were advertising for a national distribution manager. I like Norwich and the sound of the job so I put in an application in to see what happens. To cut a long story short, I was successful and got the job.
Instead of moving live passengers, I was moving dead chickens. They didn’t complain so much! Buxted Poultry dealt with all the main supermarkets but their distribution systems weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. I think only Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer’s had any sort of centralised distribution systems. Tesco, Asda and people like Finefare were on the go in those days, and a lot of other firms that are no longer with us, wanted you to deliver to their individual branches. I think Tesco had about 400 branches throughout the country which you had to deliver to. Buxted was producing the supermarket’s own labels and their own Buxted label, which went grocery and butchery shops throughout the country. It was quite a big operation. We used to produce something like 2 million chickens a week, if I remember rightly.
I got to know about chicken production to some extent, because we had our own production and agricultural directors who dealt with the actual growing of the chickens and the processing of them. You obviously had to know how it was done because it was relevant to the job you were doing. But my job really started at the end of the factory production line. Once they had been produced and put into the factory cold store it was my job to get them from the factory cold store to the individual customers in the frozen condition in vans. A small part of our production was fresh, or chilled, chicken. These mainly went to Marks and Spencer’s, but that was a fairly small part of the production.
We also exported some as well. The problem with the chicken business is once you’ve got the egg, you’re going to get a chicken whether you can sell it or not. If you can’t sell it you’ve got to store it. I think the chicken had about a 55 day life before you got to the stage where you had to slaughter them. You had to slaughter them because you had another lot of eggs coming on after that from the incubation stage, so it was a continual process.
At times we had quite a lot of our production going from the factory into public cold stores and then they’d be stored there until the market picked up again and we could sell them. Like the situation with the butter mountain. That’s why we got into the export business because if the demand for chickens dropped in this country we found that there was quite a lucrative market in exporting chicken. In those days it was mainly out to the Middle East which was a growing market. So there were a lot of similarities with the bus industry in that you were dealing obviously with drivers and trade unions. Because you were delivering to lots of stores almost on a regular basis there was almost a certain amount of timetabling in a way. It was control of vehicles and control of staff. So that was really where the similarity came in. I think that’s possibly one of the reasons why I got the job in the first place, it was because I had got used to dealing with trade unions, drivers, vehicle control and that sort of thing.
The headquarters of Buxted was in Norwich. The name, Buxted, comes from the village of Buxted down in Sussex where the company originally started. As they expanded further up the country they became part of the Imperial Tobacco Group – a very important company together with a number of other frozen food companies, like Ross Foods and Young’s seafoods. They decided Norwich was a better place for the headquarters, more centrally based, because we had factories all the way from Buxted in Sussex right up to Aberdeen in Scotland, about 13 factories in total, Trowbridge in Wiltshire, and a number of distribution depots in the main centres of population. So Norwich was probably almost central to get to any of those places.
In the early 1980s the Imperial Group decided to concentrate on their main business of producing cigarettes. A lot of companies did this, didn’t they? They expanded into other things and then realised it was a bit more complex and contracted again into their basic business. Buxted was actually bought by an organization called Hillsdale Holdings which was one of these companies that bought up other companies and then sold them off in bits and pieces and hopefully made a profit by selling various assets. So whilst Buxted was quite successful for a number of years – I was there for about seven or eight years – in the early 1980s it was sold off and basically the job disappeared almost.
Being made redundant was a bit of a shock. Obviously it is a shock but the financial packages were appropriate so I wasn’t left high and dry. I enjoyed my time in Buxted, it was an interesting job, very different from the bus industry. Quite satisfying.
I had to look around and see what other jobs were available. A similar job in distribution management was offered by Bulmers, the cider people down in Hereford. And I applied for it, and a number of other jobs, and got it. So I moved down to Hereford. I seem to have a liking for cathedral cities, really! I think we were Pickfords’ best friend with these house moves. So off I went to Hereford, doing a very similar type of job at a similarly sized operation. I think we ran about 150 vehicles and many of the distribution depots were in very similar locations, because obviously they tend to be in main centres of population, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, these sort of places. Whereas Buxted was a very new, modern and quite young company – frozen chickens had only come in in the mid-1950s – Bulmers had been on the go for over a hundred years. They were very much a family business. There were still quite a lot of the Bulmer family still involved. More than 50% of the shares were still owned by the Bulmer family.
Bulmers were very much a paternalistic family – many worked there all their working lives. I was there for about four years. Nothing wrong with the job, but I can’t say that I really settled all that well in Hereford. I think when you have been used to the eastern side of the country it’s a bit too wet in the west! I can’t really say I disliked the job because that would not be correct because it was a nice company to work for, but because it had been established so long there wasn’t really the challenge of developing it and improving operations and that sort of thing. It was a very profitable company so perhaps the pressures for improving and streamlining were not so great.
Moving into storage
I think it was in 1985 when I had the opportunity to move back to Thetford in Norfolk to one of the subsidiaries of the Transport Development Group who ran a number of distribution and storage companies throughout the country. They had one in Thetford called Williams Cold Storage and they wanted a managing director to replace a man who was retiring.
This was more storage, perhaps, than lorries, although we did have a small lorry fleet concerned mainly with cold storage. Transport Development Group was quite a large organization but perhaps a low-key operation. They were a group but didn’t blazon their group name everywhere; they worked through their subsidiaries – about 120 companies throughout the country – who traded under their own names like Williams Cold Storage, and a number of other transport and storage companies throughout the country. Each ran as separate businesses, and the profits all went to TDG.
Different industries used the services. We had something like just under 2 million cubic feet of cold storage at Thetford and we would store anything that wanted storing at low temperatures. So we had chicken people, frozen peas for Ross Foods, frozen food and meat for Birdseye. The beef that went into their beefburgers used to be stored with us before they drew it off to their factory for their requirements.
It was really a question of balancing the products coming in throughout the season. Obviously we stored peas, turkeys for Christmas, and then things like Easter eggs. They would start to produce them in the autumn for storage. It’s amazing what things are kept in cold storage. They were initially in their packaging but also in protective outer wrappers as well to stop them getting freeze dried and that sort of thing. It made sense from the producer’s point of view because he could keep his production line constant and just draw them off as required. It was an interesting business, because you met a lot of customers and got to know a lot about different things.
We would be negotiating constantly, normally on a pallet basis. People stored things, mainly all palletised goods. We charged them so much per pallet for handling the goods that came into the store and so much rental per pallet per week. Computers were coming in, because obviously the key is knowing where everything is at the store. Pre-computers we’d rely on old Fred with his good memory going along with his chart! It’s amazing what memories some people had, and how good they were at remembering where the stuff was. We actually brought in a computerised location system while I was there which enabled us to very quickly ascertain what was where, how much space we’d got and that sort of thing.
Date stamping and a lot of things were coming in. Stock rotation was important to the customer even before sell-by dates, because he always wanted to keep his stock rotation properly, so the older stuff came out first. You had to know not only what was where but when it had come in and how old it was.
I was involved in that for about six years. Not only storage, we did things like packing as well. Sweetcorn came in bulk from places like Spain and we would pack it down into individual retail packs. Like three in a pack, for customers; or individual loose sweetcorn would go into sealed packs and would go out to the major supermarkets. It was quite a range of activities we did.
I was there for about six years and was made redundant again. The Group had a change of policy in the early 90s. They decided that they could compete better in the market by presenting a national image. They felt having lots of individual small companies didn’t enable them to sell their services to the really big customer. So they decided to roll a number of these companies initially into regional companies and have one man in charge of a region. Eventually I think it has gone onto a national basis now. So they didn’t want managing directors of individual companies. I was effectively made redundant.
I had the opportunity of moving elsewhere, but I was in my early to mid-50s and very happy in East Anglia and didn’t really want to move elsewhere. It would probably have meant moving to London or somewhere like that and I didn’t really fancy being a commuter. So with the appropriate package I felt that I could stay in East Anglia and I began to think if I really wanted to have another fairly senior management job. I’d been in senior management quite a long time and there is a lot of stress attached to that. So I thought I’ll look around and see if there is something else I can get, probably entirely different, that can see me through for about 10 years until I get to 65 and can draw my old age pension.
A new life as a signalman
I was not exactly a train spotter, I’d never been a number-taker at the end of the platform, but I’d always been interested in how railways worked, types of trains and services they had. By pure coincidence, one day I saw them advertising for a railway signalman in the Eastern Daily Press. It was a bit unusual because I would have thought they promoted signalmen from within their ranks. I said to my wife, ‘Shall I have a go at that?’ And she said, ‘yes, nothing ventured nothing gained. You’ve always been interested in railways, have a go at it.’ So I ‘bunged’ an application in, not expecting to hear very much more. I was asked to go for an interview, attended and lo and behold I was offered a place on the training scheme. So for the last ten years of my working life I became a railway signalman.
It’s an interesting job. Railway signalling is divided into two types. There’s the modern signalling which is on the main lines, Norwich to London, which is all done from power signal boxes where two or three men in a large room with a big track diagram in front of them controlling miles of track. For example, all the station movements and things from Norwich are controlled from the signal box in Colchester. There are no signalmen in Norwich at all. The ones at Liverpool Street are even more modern. They are all done by computer so all they do is sit and watch the computer screen and do something if something goes wrong or out of course.
One or two areas have the old fashioned signal boxes where you sit there in your little box at the crossing gates where the bell goes. That was the type of signalling I did. It still exists between Wymondham and Ely, Thetford, Harling Road and Brandon. And also to the east of Norwich going out towards Lowestoft and Yarmouth. So we were living in East Harling in those days, and I got taken onto the training course for this to be a signalman at Harling Road, which is the nearest station to Harling between Attleborough and Thetford. And it’s quite intensive.
You might imagine railway signalling, even at a small box like that, is quite a responsible job with an awful lot to learn. It was a 12-week training programme at the signalling school at the station in Norwich. We had to learn all the various rules and regulations which cover both signalling and railway work in general. It is controlled by the rule book because the way the signalling works the driver is relying on the signalman to do his job properly and the signalman is relying on the driver to do his job properly.
The signalman controls any train movement within their area. Everybody has to be sure they know what they are doing and respond accordingly. It was a12-week training course where you had an exam at the end of every week which you had to achieve a satisfactory pass mark. At the end of the course there was an exam on the whole of the course. You had a full day’s verbal examination where the Chief Signalling Inspector would set up specific scenarios of things that could happen in your signal box and you had to tell him how you would deal with it. It was about a five-hour verbal exam with a break for lunch in the middle.
You then had to see the Regional Signalling Inspector in Birmingham for a further two-hour verbal examination with him. If you passed that lot, which I am pleased to say I did, he then said yes, you can go and learn your signal box. Because what you had learnt before was all the general rules and each signal box is slightly different because of different layout of lines. I was going to Harling Road so I went and worked with the signalman at Harling Road for a number of weeks. The Chief Signalling Inspector came down to Harling Road, watched me work the box and asked me various questions and provided he was satisfied he then signed me as being proficient in working that signal box and you were then able to take it over on your own.
There was a team of us in a shift system working the signal box. We used to work a nine-hour forty-five minute shift in those days, early and late. There wasn’t a night shift at that particular time so you started either at 5:30am and worked through till I think it was 2:15pm, and then 2:15pm until just after midnight until whenever the last train came through. There was nothing between about one o’clock in the morning and 5:30am in those days. But if you were on the late turn you were obliged to stay until the last train had gone, even if it was late.
It’s not a job for anybody who doesn’t like their own company. I quite enjoyed it. It is lonely but you do have contact with a number of other people. You’ve got the signalmen in the boxes either side who you speak to on the telephone for various reasons. You have a number of people who come into the box, particularly on the early turn like the trackwalker – the chap who walks along the line and examines the line every day. He’d come in for a cup of tea.
You had all your facilities there: toilet, fridge, microwave and a small sort of Baby Belling cooker. You’ve got to cook all your meals or take meals with you, because you can’t pop out to the cafe.
At Harling Road the gates were right next door so you came down the steps, close the gate, went back and pulled the signals off. At Brandon they were barriers and the box was adjacent to the crossing. You just pressed a button and the barriers came down or lifted up.
So I was at Harling Road and then just about a year later a vacancy came up at Brandon which was a more interesting box to work. Harling Road basically was just the two lines and a level crossing so for each train that came through you had to pull the signals off and close the crossing gates, which was fairly straightforward. But at Brandon you’d got a small goods yard. You got goods trains come in, and a passing loop, where if you had a freight train that was coming along with a faster passenger train behind it you could put the freight train into the loop to let the passenger train through. There was a bit more to do there.
We did have some automatic barriers at Brandon. At Santon Downham, about half way between Brandon and Thetford, they were worked automatically, but under the control of the Brandon signal box. These were just half barriers, because they were only minor roads, they came down over half the road but you had an indicator in the signal box that told you when they were working and if for any reason after the train had gone they didn’t go up, as did sometimes happen, then obviously you had to ring for the engineers to come and see to them and also notify the local police that there might be a problem there.
David Turner has a lot of very interesting memorabilia at Wymondham station. I have visited there a number of times. There are a lot of enthusiasts about. It is amazing how many people come to visit the signal box. Particularly at Brandon where they used to walk by on the pavement outside and sometimes they would ask to come in and look around. Technically you weren’t supposed to do that, you would invite them in and show them how it all worked.
The railway museum at York has got various examples of signal boxes. There is a good working model of one at Crewe which has been moved there from some other location. They’ve got it fixed up with a computer in some way that shows you how it actually worked when it was in situ, and it is quite cleverly done, you can actually watch the signalman working. It’s quite fascinating.
We were living in East Harling and I stayed at Brandon for seven years. We had lived in Stoke Holy Cross when I worked for Buxted and we knew a lot of people here. We always said that when I retired we would really like to be a bit nearer to Norwich, because my wife and I had various interests in the City. East Harling was rather a long way away, although a very pleasant place to live. By pure coincidence somebody we knew had this bungalow and said they were getting too old to look after the garden and that sort of thing and were thinking of selling it, so we did a deal and bought it.
At that particular time I thought it’s a little bit far to travel about 40 miles each way from Stoke Holy Cross to Brandon every day to work. But there was a vacancy for a signalman at Somerleyton swing bridge near Lowestoft, which is only about 25 minutes from here. I asked if there was a possibility of a transfer and they said there was, so I was able to transfer for the last few years of my signalling career to the swing bridge at Somerleyton, which was again quite interesting, because you had the swing bridge to open for shipping and things to go through. And a very nice location to work in.
It’s right out on the marshes, so you had to park your car at the station and then you had to walk down the track for about half a mile across the marsh to get to the signal box in all weathers. So on a nice summer’s day it was lovely. On a February morning, when it was snowing at half past five probably not quite so.
We had mobile phones and by that time three shift working had come in. There was a night shift as well so you were always relieving somebody there. So if you were delayed you could ring your colleague and say, I’m on my way but may be ten minutes late or whatever. We all worked well together, with a bit of give and take. So if anybody wanted to be away early we would organize that.
I’ve been very lucky with my career, not only have the jobs been interesting but the people I have worked with have been very pleasant people to work with. I am still in touch with a lot of people from the bus industry days. I still have contacts and we still meet from time to time. There is a great satisfaction if you are controlling something, standing in a bus station and seeing all the buses going out loaded with people you think, well, there’s (hopefully) a load of satisfied customers. So you do get some satisfaction with that, I must say I have enjoyed my working life.
John (b. 1939) talking to WISEArchive on 19th April 2010 in Stoke Holy Cross.
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