Memories - George Howe


George Howe, Woodford

Brief Summary of George Howe’s Memories (Full version below)

George Howe recalls his working life as a signalman on local lines and incidents involving himself and other colleagues through the period 1936 to the closure of many lines and stations in the early 1960s. He mentions many other local people employed on the railways.

These memories are recorded in headed paragraphs, summarised as follows:-

 Early Experiences

In 1936 George Howe obtained employment as a novice porter at Thrapston; he describes his regular duties and hours working at both Bridge Street and Midland Road stations.  Encouraged by a senior colleague he studies to be a signalman and attends, in his own time, the Loco Superintendent’s Office in the Railway Assembly Rooms in Leicester to learn Railway Law and Signals.

 He is appointed Porter and Signalman at Grafham level crossing. On one occasion, he and a colleague attempt to put a tarpaulin over a goods wagon, but it blows away. He then applies for, and gets, a signalman post at Turvey. He tells an amusing anecdote about the statue of Jonah that was put in the river near Turvey Mill.

He describes working with a token, something that had to be collected by signalmen from a train’s fireman when the train changed from running on a single line to a double.

In 1937 or 1938 there was an accident at Oakley Junction due to an error by another signalman. An express train from London ran into a siding of empty coaches. Seven people were killed. He explains how this came to happen.

Wartime Experiences

 In 1939 he became signalman at Butlin’s sidings, near Cranford.  In 1942 he declined the opportunity of going to the Army Railway at Longmoor and accepted a job at Glendon, cycling to work from Woodford. By this time he was married with a baby daughter and later they all moved to a railway cottage at Rushton. He refers to the heavy rail traffic and long hours during WWII.

He recalls a major incident when a train lost some of its couplings and left wagons and its brake van behind. Serious damage was done to some of the line. All rail traffic has to be stopped. He describes procedures for signalmen in such circumstances.

He recounts a story of runaway wagons when an engine, pushing its wagons with the brake van at the front, was not properly coupled. The brake van and wagons went hurtling off on their own. In another incident a light engine collided with another engine and brake van due to a colleague’s error.

He also describes the particular hazard encountered by trains on the Harringworth incline.

 Post War Experiences and Resignation

In 1947 he returned to Butlin’s sidings on the Kettering to Cambridge line, where he stayed for 10 years.

 A train from Northampton hit a farmer’s wagon from Grange Farm at Occupation Crossing, between Ham Lane and Woodford Mill. To avoid any recurrence of such an incident an illuminated ‘whistle’ sign was installed on the line.

He explains procedures for warning trains in foggy weather.

In 1957 he took a temporary post as signalman at Thrapston Level Crossing signal box, where he had started work as a porter, after turning down a ‘permanent’ one elsewhere. After 23 years and 3 months working for the railway he resigned, heart-broken and disillusioned at not being given a permanent position in a place, and a service, that he loved so much.

(Summary prepared by David Green)


Railway Career


I started portering at Thrapston as a novice in 1936. I was really chuffed when I got the job because previously work was scarce and I had been carrying coal at Thrapston for Mr Mansfield. We used to have a halfday special train from Thrapston to Northampton and it came back about 11.45pm then it terminated and it was my job to get down with gloves on and uncouple the engine and ride down to the sidings and and put it on the other end of the carriages and it was the Fireman’s responsibility to see that it was left safe. As soon as I got down by the couplings I pulled the vacuum pipe off the engine, then I knew it couldn’t move. Once, when I forgot to put the pipe on again, the driver didn’t half swear, he couldn’t move the train!

The railway job was better than coal carting, but it was spread over 12 hours to work 8. It was about midnight when I locked the Bridge Street Station to go home having put out the lights etc. The driver “Tally Ho ed” back to Northampton. It was a “Crab” engine
with a tapered boiler and compact cab.

Training to be a Signalman

At Thrapston I worked at both Bridge Street and Midland Road Stations. Mr Peacock was signalman at Midland Road and he suggested I should become a signalman – he taught me a lot.. He said “If you want to go into this trade you’ve got to be a bookworm – it is essential to learn the theory of the Railway Law and all the signals. Later I went to lectures (in my own time of course) at Leicester in the Loco Superintendent’s Office in the Railway Assembly Rooms to learn the Railway Law and Signals. Reg Abbott used to be there with his blackboard and fire questions at us. He would try and stymy us with railway rules. There was a rule to cover everything.


When I got the job of porter and signalman at Grafham level crossing over the Ellington Road I got £2 and sixpence and then £2:4: 6d but I had lodgings to pay. The Station Master at Grafham when I was there was Mr Harndon. I used to wind up the clock on the Station Master’s house every Monday morning. He liked to be called “boss”. “You can do what you like but don’t go and hurt yourself”.

They used to bring lorry loads of straw in and we sent it up to Lancashire. Well we were loading these up one morning, me and a mate, Jack Warne – a well-built man – to see him coming down the station road you would think he were a police sergeant! Down the yard on this particular day it were very windy and before boss Harndon went to Bugden in the first train he said “get the sheeting on those waggons while I am gone”. Me and Jack were down there with big black tarpaulins. The idea was to get the ladder up and one man took the folded tarpaulin to the top. You get it in a certain position and give it a push and then it were very nearly undone and then bring another up and overlap about 2 feet. Me and Jack were going up with the first sheet on his shoulder and I tipped it on the top. I said “Leave go Jack, leave go on it”. The wind got under it and it went across the field like a big bat! It were a laugh. We were fetching it back when boss came back. He bit his pipe and said “What have you two horrers been up to now? You can’t do nothing right if I aren’t here.”


A vacancy sheet used to come round every week and if there was a suitable job you could apply. That’s how I got my job at Turvey. I lived in lodgings again. In my spare time I used to go down to the river to visit the cobbler. We used to talk about the statue of Jonah in the river looking
towards Turvey Mill. Some crank put a statue of Jonah in the river and the old shoemaker said “they reckon the pedestal he is standin on is 25 feet – do you know George all the years I have been here I have sometimes seen the floods up to the cleft of his chin but he never drowned. Do you think it was an act of God? It did seem funny just seeing his head above the water.” The statue is still there.

Working with a Token

I was in the signalbox tapping through to Hugh Jones and Evans the signalmen at Olney. It was a rough job – a double line through Oakley Junction to Bedford and then single line Olney to Turvey, working with a tablet. This tablet or token was at the end of a cane loop with pouch and buckle. When the train came off the single line, you put your arm up high and the fireman would drop it over your arm and would then run on to the double line to Oakley Junction.

Accident at Oakley Junction

In 1937 or 38 there was a terrible smash at Oakley Junction – I was in the next box to it. Frightened me to death. In railway law there was a rule to cover everything. This smash could have been avoided. Reg Finney, the signalman had empty coaches from Kettering to Oakley Junction and they went over the points into a carriage siding, but Reg made the ghastly mistake of accepting the express in from London before he changed the points. The driver of the express also made a mistake because as the points were not set for the main line Reg couldn’t get his signals off so the express passed the signals straight on to the engine of the coaches. Charles Dart, a platelayer, said there were bits of wood flying about no bigger than matchsticks. A steam crane had to be used to remove the remains of the coaches. Seven people were killed, four of the restaurant car men were scalded to death. The law says that the signalmen must make the line safe for the train to run on – but he didn’t.. Reg Finney could have broken the glass in the square box with a plunger in it – this would have broken the track circuit for him to change the signals.

Butlin’s Sidings

Then I went to Butlin’s sidings as signalman – the other side of Cranford. I think it was 1939. At the beginning of the war I was of military age and I could have gone to the Army Railway at Longmoor, but they offered me the job at Glendon siding – a main line job and I liked it better. This was in 1942. I was living in Woodford, I was married and my eldest daughter was just a baby. At first I biked from Woodford to Glendon – I was very fit -. I did this for four months and then one of the 21 railway cottages in Rushton became vacant – they used to call them the Barracks. It was a nice cottage there. Mr Blakesley, a farmer who used to farm next to Plevins at Woodford House had just moved to Rushton and I used to help him at harvest time.


I had a 24 lever frame at Glendon – paid 55s a week. There were 3 shifts of 8 hours – no meal breaks – you were on your own. You could pick a gap betwen trains and then get your egg and bacon in the oven. They had wonderful coal ovens – Nelson type- you could have cooked a turkey. The night shift was the worst – it was a job to keep awake about 2 am. It was easy to nod off. We had an understanding with the boxes each side – Bill Spires one end and Arthur Bailey the other. “If I don’t answer the bell Arthur give us a rattle and make the phone buzz!” There were lots of trains during the war – 64 or more a shift- mixed passenger and goods. There were no strikes during the war – Essential Works Order and
you couldn’t change jobs. I was Class IV.

Major Incident

On Saturday afternoons we had the Gretton Flyer or Coffee Pot – the engine pushed the coaches from Kettering and pulled them back. The first day shift started at 6 am, when the night shift finished. You wore plimsoles in the box and when the bells started ringing you were dancing about all the time. One night about 2 am I got a mixed train on the up line from Corby to Kettering – everything was OK – I got a pass for him and pulled all the signals off and he got the run and I sat back.

Then I got 7 bells from Geddington – that meant DANGER STOP and EXAMINE. I rang Bill Spires at Geddington and said ” What’s up then Bill? I got the seven.” “Yes” he said “you’ll have to stop him we are in a real do here” “oh” I said “we don’t know what has happened then we’ll have to stop the down line as well” “Oh yes” he said ” stop the down line as well” so I gave the 6 bells (DANGER STOP EVERYTHING) to Arthur Bailey at Glendon South on the down line from Kettering. He said “Whatever is going on” I said “Arthur I can’t tell you now but stop everything. Put it in the book and keep your signals on”

Well this here train came to me and I shoved my signals back and when he came up to the first stop signal nearest the box I went down to him with a handlamp and being wartime it were like the black hole of Calcutta. You were only allowed a glimmer of light out of the paraffin hand lamp and the driver came chuffing up to me and I flicked him a red and he said angrily “What’s going on” and I said “I’ll tell you what’s going on in a minute – you left 5 waggons and a 20 ton brake at Geddington. You want to curb your tongue a bit until you know the facts. You get down off your engine and see what the back of your train is like. We went to the back and he scratched his head and said “Well, what happened there then, we never felt a thing” It was a Garrett engine (two engines in one). The coupling had broken.

Bill Spires came on the phone again and what had happened was there were 5 waggons and a 20 ton brake and 2 leading waggons loaded with bales of compressed paper and it was thought that some of the bales had slipped between the waggon and Geddington platform and pushed the leading waggon off the line and broke the coupling. I said “Don’t keep worrying Bill, we are alright  this end.” He was afraid that I was going to let something else through. The amazing thing was that they discovered that the last wooden waggon still on the engine was full of coal and when the coupling broke the waggon left the rails and the powerful engine had pulled it from Geddington right up to Storefield crossing and hit the crossover and jumped on to the rails again. The last waggon on the engine had lost its springs and axle boxes. The wooden body was buried in the wheels and it was still on the line because of its weight.

The Garrett moved forward gently over the points and I said “Take it gently driver or we shall have another calamity” and he eased it gently into the siding. The old ganger Charles Sellars said to me afterwards “You made a rare muck up of things didn’t you?” I said “Nothing to do with me Charlie” He said that between Geddington and Storefield there were 455 chairs broken by the waggon, (chair = grips for the rails)

A signalman’s duty is to prevent more than one train running between 2 signal boxes on the same line at the same time. If a train has passed, but stopped at the next box that would switch my needle to “Train on the line” and I couldn’t get my starting signal off – it would be locked on. There are various bell codes e.g. for tail lamps gone out. If there was no tail lamp visible you had to treat it as “train divided”. This did not apply to passenger trains because if the train divided the vacuum broke and the brakes applied automatically.

Runaway wagons

There was another incident. It was a beautiful summer evening about twenty past eight. The sun was shining. I was on the 2 to 10 shift. We had the Kettering tripper come up from Kettering – horse and cart we used to call it – engine and brake. It went on to the sidings at Glendon and the train crew used to put egg and bacon on the shovel and put it gently into the fire box. We had Mr Bert Sawford, the waggon inspector, during the day looking at the ironstone waggons and reporting faults. (Red label meant “not to go”). The idea of the trip train was to shunt these out and put them into the “cripple siding”. The same crew, driver fireman and guard, when they had finished, had to take a train of about 14 waggons and a twenty ton brake to Glendon South.

This particular evening the train was marshalled and the brake was first. – it was only about a quarter of a mile to Glendon South and we were allowed to propel a short train into Glendon with the brake leading. I got the pass for him. I said “Arthur, are you ready for this propeller” “Yes”, he said “Right block him on”. I let him out of the siding brake first. The guard was leaning out waving his arms. “Cheerio mate”. Then Arthur Bailey called out “I don’t know how we are going on now. Your engine stands here and the waggons are on their way to Kettering” The guard were a novice and he hadn’t coupled the engine on to the waggons. He had been filling himself with egg and bacon but hadn’t done the coupling. Arthur sent a message to Kettering North “Vehicles running away”.

I understand afterwards that the guard, realised what was happening and braked hard. The brake blocks melted. He leaned out of the cab by the Kettering Furnaces and baled out. It was a million to one chance that there wasn’t a terrible calamity at Kettering at that time of night. A fast train was coming from Leicester and as luck would have it and Arthur Bailey tapped through to Glendon North to stop everything. If the fast train had got through it would have been standing at Kettering Station.

The signalman at Glendon North rang through to me and said the trucks went through at 50mph and Les Smith, ticket collector at Kettering said you couldn’t see the station for ironstone dust. It ran on to Burton Latimer Station and Isham near the Weetabix Factory. Some platelayers were working there and one ran after it and put the brake down. He was presented with the guinea. The accident inspector said it was a blessing that the first train was not standing in the station. This incident was in war time about 194

Harringworth Incline

At Harringworth down the Wetland Valley, it was a terrible track of railway really because when a large freight train came down in the dip to Harrlngworth Signal Box then he had to go up an incline to Corby tunnel. You imagine half the train going up and the other half coming down loose. Sometimes the tension on the coupling was too great and the rear portion used to run back and the guard couldn’t hold it with his brake. The signalman at Harringworth had to act. A bit before it got to him at Harringworth and Gretton the incline was very steep (1/70 or so) and they had to put track points in, spring loaded, and the runaways would go into a ploughed field. I’ve heard Bill Spires talk about it when the guard’s van was half-buried in a ploughed field but that was better than a collision.


One night Jack Day was the relief signalman in the Rushton Station Box – he knew all the signals and how to work them around Glendon. He made one mistake. He had an engine and brake corning from Desborough and accepted it and got a pass for it down to Glendon North. They were going slowly -” horse and cart” – evidently they would be finishing when they reached Kettering and they were hanging the time out a bit. Jack must have nodded off for a minute or two and he woke with a start and assumed that the engine and brake had passed him; instead of phoning Higginbottam and asking “is the brake gone by you mate ?” he also failed to check if he could see the tail lamp. He cleared back to Desborough and they offered him a light engine and he took it. The result was that the light engine collided with the brake and the guard was injured.

Back to Butlins

After the war I went back to Butlins in 1947 on the Kettering to Cambridge line near Cranford (and also acted as porter at Twywell) and stayed there until the line was closed by Dr Beeching. I was there ten years. I ended up working at Thrapston on the Northampton to Peterborough line.

Accident at Grange Farm

Once when Mr Bream, the farmer at Grange Farm, was carting sheaves from the meadows with 2 horses and a wagon, Mrs Moore who lived in the bottom cottage (she was a real horse woman) was taking it over the railway (“Occupation Crossing”). She had got most of the waggon over and a ten coach passenger train came down from Northampton. The train hit the wagon, the shafts broke and the horses bolted. She was lucky to escape. When trains got to what we used to call the straight mile – Ringstead Road bridge to Ham Lane bridge – they were travelling a mile a minute. When they reached Ham Lane bridge on the down line they used to shut steam off and coast to Thrapston and then the train was quiet.

After the accident on the crossing, somewhere between Ham Lane and Woodford Mill there used to be Keeble’s siding for Ringstead ironstone and a little lower down towards the steel bridge they put an illuminated “whistle” sign. Some did miss this at night, but usually late at night you could hear them – especially the Garretts, they had a hooter. These precautions made the crossing safe.

Fogman & Detonators

Foggy Weather was terrible on the railway. The rule says when a train is stopped in a section the guard must go back 300 yards putting 3 dets on a quarter of a mile. It was the signalman’s job to call out the fogman. His equipment was in the box on a top shelf – handlamp and 36 detonators . When he had put the detonators on the line he retired to his hut. If he had heard the signal “clink” (changing from green to clear) he would snatch the detonator off the line as it was not required. He only put a detonator on the line when the signal was at caution.

Back to Thrapston

My job at Thrapston was “temporary” as I went there when Arthur Ainge  had to go into hospital for an operation. I was very dissatisfied as I wanted a permanent job but all they offered me was a transfer to Ashley Weston on the Seaton branch line. I didn’t take it which was just as well because the line closed 6 months later.


I got fed up with the situation and resigned and it broke my heart, I loved the railway. Dr Beeching did for me as well as for the railways.
“I went out with steam” Altogether I worked on the railway for 23 years and 3 months and finished at Thrapston Level Crossing signal box, where I had begun as a porter.

Disused Railway Stations in Northamptonshire

George Howe, Woodford (Written 1980s)


This is an extract from an article in “Strapetona“, the magazine published by Thrapston District Historical Society and is reproduced with the permission of the Society.

This page was added on 04/12/2015.

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