Puff! And the age of steam was gone

SOMETIMES we take something or other for granted, having a special interest in it only when it is no longer with us. That is not the case with steam trains: they always radiated a certain magic for dads and lads, and continue to do so for many despite the fact that it is half a century since we last saw a scheduled one hereabouts.

As ex-Yarmouthian Chris Wright recalled here recently, that last train steamed from Lowestoft Central to Yarmouth South Town as a Santa Special, ferrying Father Christmas to his grotto in Palmers Department Store in 1961.

Ex-Yarmouthian Harvey Gates responds: “My first job after leaving school was on the LNER at Cantley for the sugar beet campaign, then at Lowestoft North Station.

“We were also in charge of the stations at Hopton and Corton, manned on a shift system by two porter/signalmen. Our two signalmen were father and son Ernie and Jack Wones.

“It was quite exciting for an 18-year-old about to start National Service in the Army in 1952. I took my breaks in the signal box, so I got tales of the Great War from the father and of the 1939-45 war from the son!

“The main jobs for the three stations seemed to be involvement in the sugar beet campaign and on summer Saturdays receiving the express trains from the Midlands and London bringing and taking home holidaymakers from the camps between Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

“The passenger service was provided by a steam shunt engine pulling two non-corridor carriages - the ‘pull and push’ hourly service. It was not unknown for a customer wanting a parcel to go to Yarmouth to specify which train it went on as someone would be waiting in Yarmouth to collect it. Not bad - half-an-hour delivery!

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“A journey between Lowestoft North and Yarmouth South Town on a special cheap day return (after 9.30am) was 1s 3d (6�p today)! Courting couples wanting some privacy took the ‘pull and push’ to Lowestoft for the hours’ round trip (13p) but this wasn’t as secluded as they thought because one of the signalmen’s jobs included checking passing trains for anything untoward - courting couples included – and passing the information down the line.

“On the goods side, a frequent sight was a more powerful steam engine pulling a string of open-topped wagons full of coal.

“Deep-sea fishing had stopped during the war because of the danger and the fact that most of the boats had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy so it took a year or two after the war for the fishing fleet to become fully active again.

“When it did start the catches were enormous, and one of my most vivid memories of this time (1949-51) was seeing coal in the wagons replaced by prime fish going to be processed into fertiliser.”

I published a photograph of a renovated Yarmouth South Town seat now a museum exhibit. Ian Wells, of Yarmouth, tells me: “The bench is still at the National Railway Museum in York. The supports at each end are cast with fish and shells.”

From Peter Allard, of Mallard Way, Bradwell, came this e-mail: “After the last steam trains into Yarmouth Vauxhall in November 1961, I clearly remember seeing one in January 1964. I have a photograph of this locomotive getting up steam in the sidings alongside Breydon Water.

“The purpose of its visit apparently was to heat the railway carriages in the extensive new sidings that had recently been erected to the west of the station. These were for various purposes, including cleaning.”

Another correspondent was Paul Godfrey, now resident in Lowestoft: “My grandfather Barry (Jack) Godfrey was a railwayman. In the 1950s my grandmother took me by bus to Lowestoft from her home in Gorleston to see Jack at work. He was a crane driver (for the railway) on the dockside in Lowestoft. Before Gorleston North Station was bombed in WW2 Jack worked there but I do not know in what capacity.

“My grandfather died in the late 1950s and my grandmother became a railway widow with so many free rail warrants each year. Once she took me to London by train from South Town to Liverpool Street via the old route through St Olaves to Beccles.

“There was much shunting at Beccles while the Lowestoft section of the train was coupled on. On arrival at Liverpool Street we marched up the platform to see the locomotive, a B17 City of London in its postwar non-streamlined form.

“A friend of my grandparents was Labour councillor Herbert Muskett, a railwayman who worked as a driver; around 1958 he was mayor of Yarmouth.

“About 1963 he invited me and a school friend, Chris Hopkins, to join him on the footplate of what I believe we now know as a Class 37 diesel. He shunted a passenger train up to the cleaning platform at Vauxhall and then brought the loco back to the yard at Vauxhall, an experience I often remember.

“Another time we joined him at Vauxhall one Sunday to see a Thompson B1 near the engine shed that was being used there for carriage heating purposes. Again we were allowed on the footplate. I believe the B1 had its couplings removed so that it could not haul a train.

“I went to the newly-built Cliff Park School in Gorleston that was right next to the South Town to Lowestoft line.

“In summer 1961 we often observed steam workings of trains out of the classroom windows with sad, dirty and tired looking locomotives that were used for the last leg from Lowestoft to Yarmouth but after this I do not recall steam working on the line.”

Chris Wright had written that his Uncle Ted Gilbert was a senior engine driver at Yarmouth...which prompted a message from a puzzled John Cooper, of Burnt Lane, Gorleston, who also had a Yarmouth-based engine-driving Uncle Ted Gilbert and doubted if this was coincidence. “The Wrights do not ring a bell,” he added.

I have put John and Chris in touch with one another to swap memories, for it transpires that Ted Gilbert was indeed the brother of John’s mother Stella (nee Gilbert) – but he was also a close friend of Chris’s family, always known to him as “Uncle Ted.”