Trainee Stationmaster - Recollections of Gillingham in 1964

In the final part of my training as a Western Region Traffic Apprentice, I was drafted in as Stationmaster Gillingham for an eight week period before appointment to my first permanent post (Stationmaster Aberbeeg). The Plymouth Division of the Western Region had just taken over the Salisbury – Exeter route from the Southern Region (in January 1964) but by the time of my sojourn there, little had changed.

Having spent three years seeing modernisation at first hand throughout the W.R. - traction, signalling, depots, marshalling yards and management methodology (it was the time of Stanley Raymond’s sweeping “de-Great Westernisation”), I found in Gillingham that I was in a time warp untouched by the modern world.  I spent the months of March and April 1964 there, with control also of Semley - and on arrival I was rung by the Plymouth Divisional office to ask me to assume command of Tisbury and Dinton also, as the Relief Stationmaster there was wanted somewhere more important urgently.

My main problem was that I had no transport (no stationmasters were allocated cars in those days) and as there was no road parallel to the old Southern mainline between my stations, there was no public transport other than the Salisbury - Exeter or Yeovil stopping services running at approximately two hourly intervals.  As my duties involved supervision of staff at all four locations and the visiting of signalboxes and crossing keepers in my stretch of line, as well as “on call” duties for Templecombe and the S & D, I spent a fair amount of my time travelling on a local to one station and walking through the spring flower bedecked cuttings and embankments to my next port of call.   And it really was a gorgeous spring.  The primroses were enormous!

One of my duties was to distribute the monthly pay packets to all staff - and the crossing keepers were a problem.   The only solution I found was to commandeer the local pick-up freight (motive power now upgraded from a Southern mogul to a Bulleid light pacific - 34048 on my most memorable trip) and hang out of the cab window holding  the pay packet for the crossing keepers to snatch like a single-line token.  There was no way I could collect the required signatures from those receiving their wages!

Motive power on the Salisbury - Exeter stoppers was still mainly 72A Bulleid light pacifics (especially the unrebuilt ones), although an increasing number of much more suitable Standard 4 4-6-0s were employed on some of them.  The main event of the day at Gillingham was the stopping of an early morning express around 07.30 (it must have been the 06.30 Exeter) to take our commuters to Salisbury or even London.  The train was heavily loaded - I recollect 13 coaches but my memory may be exaggerating - and was always hauled by a Merchant Navy (35013 was the most common) and for some reason I never fathomed in my eight week sojourn, always pulled up twice as it hung way out of the short station platform.   This was quite a rigmarole with a Bulleid, especially when it tried to pull away the second time as the engine was now over the dip and on the 1 in 80 climb to Semley, so fireworks and much slipping was the norm.  The role of the stationmaster was to act as station announcer in charge of a battery operated loudhailer - although all the regulars must have known “Salisbury, Andover, Basingstoke, Woking and Waterloo” off by heart. 

The return evening service was the 6pm Waterloo although by the time of its arrival I was off duty enjoying a hearty meal at my lodgings overlooking the station.  One evening, however, I was called out to Templecombe.  I was nervous - this was my first “emergency” - and on arrival at the joint station my confidence was not boosted by the discovery that the S & D signalling system was a total mystery to me.   However, the problem was on the LSWR mainline - the 6pm Waterloo had disappeared in section between Gillingham and Templecombe and the last connecting trains for Bath and Bournemouth were waiting impatiently with their meagre passengers, both Standard 4 2-6-4 tanks blowing off steam furiously. 


The express was an hour overdue by now, and we were just about to set off on foot to see if it had met with an accident in Buckhorn Weston tunnel, when the problem solved itself and the train appeared on the horizon.  The locomotive (unusually an unrebuilt Battle of Britain rather than a Merchant Navy) had slipped itself to a standstill on the approach to the tunnel and had taken coaxing by the fireman handfeeding the rails with sand to get it going again.

For me, the operation which epitomised the rural culture of the line was the late afternoon school train from Gillingham to Salisbury.  We had a Grammar School in the town which served children from a wide area and every school weekday, the empty stock would arrive behind a tender first Standard 4 2-6-0 from Salisbury depot, run round on the down side of the station yard and draw back into the up platform.  The train would fill up with exuberant children - boys were locked into the first two coaches and girls into the rear two, and the corridor gangway between them was locked too (we were spoil sports in those days !).  The train was then allowed 79 minutes (!!!) for the 15 or so miles to Salisbury - was this BR’s slowest timetabled passenger service?  At each station en route the station time varied from 6 to 15 minutes to enable the lone porter and train guard to load mountains of watercress punnets - the cress grown locally in disused wartime underground storage bunkers.   I often travelled on the train to assist because at the peak times, we could lose time even on this schedule.   You can imagine the noise and ribaldry from the children hanging out of the windows cheering us on in our laborious efforts - no “Brutes” or pallets here.  We would finish soaked through with sweat and water from the produce.

There was further excitement at Semley.  Just before the station on the up side of the line was the Express Dairy and one milk tank was filled each day and had to be got to Salisbury to connect with the West of England - Clapham Junction milk train.  Believe it or not, the practice was to gravitate the loaded milk tank onto the back of the school train and couple up.  There were no risk assessments or HSE inspectors about in those days, and to my knowledge we never had any incident during this manoevre.

The milk tank traffic got me into hot water during my brief stay at Gillingham. One of the porters told me that the Dairy was tarmacking an area round the loading point to allow the rail traffic to be replaced by a road tanker and during the first grand tour of his new domain by the WR General Manager (the affable but astute Gerry Fiennes) I mentioned this intelligence to him.  He clearly took action because a couple of days later I received an anonymous phone call from someone - presumably in the Plymouth Divisional Marketing office - threatening my future career if I corroborated my statement to the GM.  Clearly someone had been taken to task for not discovering this themselves.  This was the only time in my railway career that I received such pressure and I am glad to say I stuck to my guns.  In fact, we lost the milk traffic to road shortly afterwards.

Despite seeming to be from another age, there were aspects of the operation that were totally admirable.  I remember the reliability with which the Brighton - Plymouth and Plymouth - Brighton through services used to pass each other at speed through Gillingham station with a regularity that was uncanny.   I remember the sheer excitement of the down Atlantic Coast Express thundering through our little station, whistle howling, at the foot of Semley bank hitting the dip under the road bridge where the gradient changed abruptly, and seeing the pacific appear to bounce several times vertically in reaction.  My most vivid memory of this is the extreme speed of 35016 on one occasion - I was so startled that I assessed its speed by the rail joint noise as its train passed over and got a reading of around 96 mph!