St Albans South Signal Box.

Mix Mornings with Nick Hazell

We caught up with John Telford, one of the volunteers at St Albans Signal box, a restored signal box which is open to the public.  We spoke about the local history of the railways and what can be seen at the signal box and in its garden.  You can find out more at https://sigbox.co.uk/

This is a computer generated transcript of this audio item

Well, St Albans never got a canal, probably because we’re 400 feet above sea level. So the people were desperate to have railways and so were businessmen when they finally arrived. So businessmen raised the money to build a line from Hatfield to St Albans, now the Albany Way of course, and more businessmen built a line from St Albans to Watford which is still Abbey Station and amazingly that line is still open. But both those lines were built within 10 years of the Midland Main Line coming through. which was built by Midlands businessmen to bring coal into London that was growing rapidly and they got their line built as far as Bedford but they had no outlet in London at the time so they took their trains onto branch lines both to the East Coast and the West Coast main line at enormous expense to the railway companies that ran those lines and they never got priority so they were desperate to get their own line and finally managed to buy a couple of fields. in London which became St Pancras and that opened in 1868. So initially the Auburn Way line as it were was one of the main routes for them to then get from St Auburn to St Auburn where the line more or less ended. It was partly for trade obviously but partly for passengers and they had to get a train into Hatfield and then on the main line down they did try and have trains going direct but they weren’t terribly successful. The line, both lines were almost doomed before they hardly even started because the Middleton main line came through in 1868 from Bedford when they extended it. They had bought enough land for double tracks. Initially the railways were to usurp the canals, who’d become very slow and very expensive, so the railways are much quicker and they built two lines to take freight into London and that opened as I say in 1868. There was a small signal box here to start with to control the two lines through St Almond’s. And then later when they doubled the tracks, when the passenger traffic built up massively, they needed a bigger signal box. So this box was built to accommodate that. And it opened in 1892 and the old one was knocked down. So the old one had probably, I don’t know, 16 or 20 levers. This one upstairs has got 44 levers for all the extra signaling. So… As I say, it was freight and passengers. One of the interesting thing was, not long after that, all the cows in London that provided the milk died of some horrible disease. And suddenly there was a massive demand for milk from the home counties. So the railways enabled milk to be carried into London very quickly. The old stagecoaches took all day. So anything that was fresh would be off by the time it got into London. But milk could be into London within an hour or an hour and a half. And then eventually fresh vegetables, Harbourshire is famous for watercress, and Londoners were very low on iron, so there was a big sudden demand for watercress. So of course all the farmers locally really got very great benefits from that. And equally they got a return, because all the horses in London, all the manure had to be got rid of, and also from London Zoo, and that was transported out into the suburbs. and there were sidings on this line and other lines called manure sidings and the trains would come out, dump the manure and then the farmers would put it on their fields so it’s amazing how the railway system built up. They found a new business after new business really. That’s right, so we had the box here from 1892 it closed at the end of 1979 when the line went electric and our signalling was controlled then from West Hampstead signal box in West Hampstead and it still is. We were going to transfer to three bridges in West Sussex before Covid to a master digital box and again amazingly Covid made Network Rail realise that if you reduce the whole country to 12 master boxes and you had another pandemic and all the signalmen were off the whole country would come to a standstill. So they realised they were cutting it down too fine. So we’re staying at West Hampstead and they’ve upgraded it, so we’ll stay with them. So when it closed, it was derelict for 22 years. The towers came off the roof, kids with catapults on the other side broke all the windows, the wood was rotten, there was rats, mice, pigeons, you know, everything in there. And some residents in the road opposite here, Ridgemont, who weren’t particularly interested in railways, wrote to Network Rail and said, can you pull this eyesore down at the top of our road? Network Rail wrote back and said we can’t, it’s listed. And somebody in February 79 had listed it. We think it might have been the city engineer who may have been a bit of a railway buff, but somebody did it. The records don’t show who did it. So the group said, well, the only other thing we could do is to restore it. And they raised 150,000. This was in 2002. It took three years to get a lease from Network Rail, who were totally disinterested. In fact, a little story about that, when we built the buffet, we thought out of courtesy we would let them know. We had a hell of a job finding somebody in Network Rail that would listen to us. And then finally they said, well, we don’t seem to have a record of you. Do you have a lease? And we said, yes. Could you send us a copy of it, please? And my predecessor as chairman said we could have built a 14-storey block of flats on here and they probably wouldn’t have known any different. They never come along and see how we’re getting on the station. Staff are helpful. and friendly and interested but Network Rail and we’re trying to get permission to build a visitor centre now and we just can’t get any response from the tool, it’s frustrating so anyway, the group set about restoring the box it then took eighteen months to get planning approval and we didn’t start the work until about two thousand six you have to have it restored externally by approved English heritage contractors being listed building. So that was done and then that allowed us volunteers to go in and restore the inside and then we finally opened to the public in 2009 and we have had about 30,000, just over 30,000 people around since then at our public openings and some private visits. So for example last Sunday we had 141 turn up even though the weather was bad, principally because a lot of the children. come to see our model railway in Thomas, which is a big draw. But a lot of the parents come along there. The ladies are very worried about it being very technical, but we try and make it quite interesting and we talk about the history and you know what happens now. So you know, hence everyone who comes seems to enjoy it. And so what were you doing? Looking around here, there’s all sorts of historic pieces from the railway. We collected a lot of artifacts. When we started we thought we would have to buy them all. with limited resources. Probably 90% of what we’ve got has been donated. And these are people who’ve collected railway armour in steam days, often the men, and they’ve now partially gone. And their wives are having to get rid of all their stuff. So we often get asked if we would take stuff. And probably another 5% we’ve actually bought. And then the final 5% are on long-term loan. So we’re very blessed with having so much donated, otherwise we wouldn’t have half the stuff that’s in here.
So we’ve got three annals of signalling. We’ve got the original semaphore signals, which were required by parliament because there was no signalling to start with and lots of accidents. They put policemen on the end of the platform to let a train go with a green flag and then put the red flag up for 10 minutes, then put the green flag up again, and another train went. But he had no idea whether the first one had broken down around the corner. And eventually, they had a box. with a lid on and when the lid was up trains could go and when it was down or on and off and that is still the origination of the word signal box and the levers when you pull them they are on and off so they retain the old terminology so they were replaced eventually by parliamentary requirement by the semaphore signals and you can see we’ve got four up there ranging from about 1880 up to 1950 and then we’ve got this one here by the side of us which we’re just finishing restoring and we hope to be putting that up in fact Adrian is digging the hole now we hope to put that up in the next couple of months all the metal works being painted and that will be our fifth signal and then we’ve got the four aspects here. which I haven’t switched on yet. And these are the sort of ones we’d think of as a bit more modern, with light. That’s right, and they’ve got green, red and two yellow aspects. And they came in when originally the semaphore signals were paraffin lamp lit and then they were electric battery and then finally electric mains. And then eventually they were replaced by the four aspects. And when the line went electric in the 70s, and these came in so they’re not controlled by the signalman they’re controlled by relays on the track and the train goes over the relay and turns the signal to red behind him to protect him and then it’s after a few seconds single yellow then double yellow and then back to green so it spaces the trains out to keep them safe and about six years ago they were all replaced on this line by these which are LEDs these are not the actual signals but they represent what the line is run on now, which is LEDs. So we’ve got the whole system. But eventually this line will have no signaling, a bit like Eurostar. All the signaling will be in the cab for the driver. So there will be no signaling along the line. And you’ll have another load of surplus signals that you can add to your collection. That’s right. And we’ve got a row here of telegraph, because signal box is communicated by telegraph and bell codes, a bit like Morse. and these took the messages backwards and forwards. They did eventually also add telephone wires, but the movement of trains was never ever controlled by telephone because they realized that signalmen around the country would have all different accents. And if you were a Liverpoolian and I was a Scouser or a Cockney, they might not understand the language and that would cause accidents. So they never used… the telephones, they used them but not for moving trains, they kept to the bell codes. So when we have the public coming round, they can go all round the garden, they can pull the levers and work the signals, they can ring bells, they can have teas, they can go downstairs into our museum where somebody will point out the things in there, and then they can go upstairs not only to look at the trains going by, but have a computer simulated demonstration of how the signalmen move trains. through St Albans and the bells ring and he has the poor believers. Yeah, I’ve seen that. And they can have a go if they want to. So we try and make it user friendly. So most of our visitors, you know, obviously enjoy the visit. And one of the great things about it is we’ve never charged. We accept donations for our running costs and our development costs, but we’ve never charged. And When I look up at how much my wife and the grandchildren have to pay to go off to other heritage attractions, it’s enormous. We really feel we’re doing something for the community by not charging and giving them a vision of history, which interestingly St. Ormsey is known for its Roman history. A lot of the schools that come are doing a Roman project, so we don’t tend to get them here because they’re not often doing a Victorian project. I think the Victorian history is just as important. in the city’s overall history and it would be a shame if we hadn’t kept something of the Victorian era. How many volunteers have you got here? Well we’ve got 140 odd members but some of them live well away from here. So of the regulars who can come along to help with us, probably about 20 and then on a day like this, mainly this afternoon, we might have 8 or 10 here. if we’re lucky. But we’re all getting older and one of our big challenges is to get younger people who’s going to be the next generation to look after the signal box. We’ve got a few younger guys coming along now and that’s great and we just want to enthuse them so that they can eventually take over from us. Yeah brilliant and so how do people find out when you’re open? What’s the best way to do that? Well we’ve got a website, Sydney Auburn South Signal Box or Sig Box Dockle. dot uk or something. Google for St Albans South. We’ve got leaflets in the dispenser outside which people can pick up. Essentially from now until the end of October we’re open on the second and the fourth Sunday afternoon, two till five. Heritage Open Weekend which is I think the second weekend in September, we’re open both Saturday and Sunday, ten till five. And then in the winter we just open on the second Sunday afternoon in the month, that’s from November through till… end of February and that’s just the second Sunday afternoon 2 to 5. Well John you must be very proud of everything that everybody’s achieved here. Well I think we are exceedingly proud and to think that this, our structural engineers said if we hadn’t adopted it when we did it would have fallen down within a couple of years and that would have been such a loss to the heritage of St Alden’s and incidentally one thing I didn’t mention is we’re on a strong curve here and that’s because… the city fathers realised that if the line was as planned, it would be another half mile to the east and that meant that the new VIP guests arriving would be a mile outside the city centre. So they lobbied parliament to have it brought to the west, hence this strong curve and speed restrictions and they even had to buy the corner of the old prison, because that’s the outer prison wall there, in order to get the line through. and we think the other thing they were concerned about is that they’ve heard that the prison had got parliamentary approval and they were concerned that the first thing that the vip guests would see the city was the prison but you wouldn’t set a very good example and a lot of people don’t realize that the building you can see over there which is the only remaining uh… victorian building which is the entrance is the one that features at the beginning of porridge and so it’s not slayed prisoners St Albans Jail and it’s now our registry office. My son got married there. Yeah, lots of jokes about that one. John, thank you so much for giving us some of the history and explaining the St Albans South Signal Box to us. Thanks, John. Lovely. Nice to meet you.

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