Steamed up about demise of railway

TWO cliches sum up the thrust of today’s column: ran out of steam, and puff of smoke.

For we are reflecting on 1961 when the last steam locomotives operated in the Great Yarmouth area, and generations raised on the familiar chuffing and hissing engines found themselves unable to enthuse about their diesel and electric successors.

Even the little goods yard shunting engines had more charisma, they reckoned.

This autumn marks a half-century since steam was finally axed and I was surprised to learn that the very last train to be hauled by a smoke-belching coal-guzzling locomotive hereabouts was on the Lowestoft Central to Yarmouth South Town line. It was not a regular service but a one-off special, part of a Christmas publicity promotion.

The rest of today’s feature is contributed by Chris Wright, an ex-Gorlestonian long resident in Oxfordshire who alerted me about the significant anniversary. He writes thus.

Great Yarmouth is perhaps not the first town in the UK to spring to mind when thinking about innovations in transport. After all, there have been discussions about dualling the Acle New Road for nearly 60 years...and still we wait! Yet Yarmouth was in the vanguard of the modernisation of the nation’s rail services.

Strange as it may seem, East Anglia was one of the first areas to see the complete abolition of steam locomotives. Within East Anglia, Yarmouth’s two remaining termini – South Town and Vauxhall (Beach closed in 1959) – were the first main line stations to complete the transition from steam to diesel haulage.

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The changeover to diesel (and electric) locomotives began in the mid-1950s. While it was not completed nationally until August 1968, the process had finished in Yarmouth seven years earlier, when steam haulage officially ended here in September 1961. That month saw the last scheduled steam working into Yarmouth.

However, Lowestoft retained a few steam locos until early 1962, and one of these was turned out in November 1961 to haul a “Santa Special” from Lowestoft to Yarmouth. The trip had been organised by Palmers in Yarmouth town centre as part of a grand opening of Santa’s Grotto in the department store. That was the last steam locomotive I saw in Yarmouth (although a couple have returned as “preservation specials” in more recent times).

I have fond memories of train-spotting at South Town Station in the 1950s and 1960s. Summer Saturdays were a non-stop cavalcade of holiday expresses to and from London!

In those days, train-spotting was a popular hobby among young boys (and it was mainly boys). We all had our Ian Allan loco-spotter books, and we even had our own dedicated television programme on the BBC: Railway Roundabout. A penny ticket would give us access to the platforms at either South Town or Vauxhall.

We parked ourselves and our duffel-bags on conveniently-placed porters’ trolleys at the end of the platforms to see the seemingly endless procession of steam-hauled arrivals and departures. We even got excited about the first diesels until it dawned on us that their arrival presaged the end of our beloved steam!

I was especially fortunate because my Uncle Ted Gilbert was a “top-link” driver based at South Town, and worked on the expresses to London Liverpool Street. I remember one afternoon he came into South Town on the footplate of a gleaming Britannia Pacific – the most powerful locomotive in use in East Anglia – with a train from London.

After the coaches had been taken away, he gave me and a couple of my train-spotting pals a ride on the footplate to the end of the platform. I basked in the reflected glory of having an uncle who was an express train driver – every boy’s ambition in the Fifties. These days, he probably would have been sacked for breaching health and safety regulations!

Uncle Ted lived on the Magdalen Estate in Gorleston until his premature death in 1965. As a young fireman, he had been part of the crew on the royal train that brought the then Prince of Wales to Yarmouth in 1930 for the formal opening of the Haven Bridge and inspection of the autumn herring fishery.

Because these were such happy memories for me, I recently commissioned a painting to capture them on canvas. With the aid of old photographs, respected railway artist Nick Hardcastle produced a splendid representation of a scene at South Town in the summer of 1958. The painting shows me as an eight-year-old on the platform, with Uncle Ted on the footplate, wearing his trademark flat cap, and accompanied by his young fireman and good friend Jack Stowers whose railway career began at Beach Station just before the war started.

Jack, now in his mid-80s, became ASLEF trade union branch secretary before moving to Ipswich in 1959. Now retired and living in Lowestoft, he takes an active interest in railway history, is justly proud of his railway heritage, and reckons that at the peak of railway activity in the UK in the mid-1950s some 5000 people were employed on the railways in the Yarmouth area.

Defying Dr Beeching’s planned cuts, Yarmouth managed to retain one link to the national network, but it is hard to believe that it once had three busy termini, each with its own loco-shed – highly unusual for a town of just 50,000 souls.

I hope this piece stirs memories in others of my vintage and older, and I would be delighted if any of my former chums in the Yarmouth Grammar School Railway Club or East Norfolk Railway Society are moved to get in touch. And if anyone knows of steam working into Yarmouth after late November 1961, I would love to hear from them too!

Chris (e-mail: ) explains that “the very ugly looking signal box” in the painting was because it was “a utility affair, hastily constructed during the war after the original was destroyed in an air raid. It was from this reconstructed box that the signalman had to rescued by rowing boat, having been trapped there for over 24 hours by the 1953 floods.”

Chris, who has a first-class honours degree in politics, lived here until he was 20, studying at Yarmouth Grammar School (1961-1968). He became well-known as a local drummer, but moved away to begin a 26-year Civil Service career before opening DrumWright, a specialist drum store, in 1996. He has three children.