Geoff Goes Off The Rails

by Sophia Smith

This was local historian Geoff Crambie’s reference to Richard Beeching, engineer, and chairman of British Railways. All aboard for a train journey back in time to 1963, the year of the great train robbery and Geoff’s adventures on the railway.

“Bollock brain, everyone who worked on the railways knew him as bollock brain.” “Two of my pals, dear friends of mine, both worked on railways. They said, ‘Come to the railway, it’s a good job you’ll like it.’ I was working as a grocer at the time.” Geoff grins. “Colne station had 35 staff members, trains were coming through 24 times a day, you could get a train from Colne to London, straight through!”

Geoff went to see Colne station, ‘we’ve no booking jobs, we’ve got a job for a porter’, announced the station master. “I thought, I don’t want to be a porter, lifting cases! He laughs. He says there’s a ‘trainee signalman’ job’, I thought ‘Trainee signalman? I like the sound of that!”

The following Monday morning, Geoff started his journey as a signalman at Nelson train station. Between Skipton and Blackburn, there were once 102 signal boxes, today – not one. Geoff sighed: “It’s all digitalised now, electrified. Back then it was manual, you knew when a train was coming, bells used to ring. DING DING!! They were all different signals telling you what’s coming through, two dings for a passenger train.”

At Church and Oswaldtwistle Station, the station master was Mr Tom Bulmer. “One of the greatest bosses I ever had,” beams Geoff. “During my working career I must have had 50-60 bosses. He started work before the first world war. He worked at Church and Oswaldtwistle for 51 years it was unbelievable. On the first day I went he had his uniform from before the second world war, it was worn out. His hat was wearing away because he had taken it off that many times, but he was proud to be a station master.”

Geoff recalls his first day at the Church and Oswaldtwistle station. “Mr Bulmer ordered me to, ‘Sign in mister.’ I got my biro pen out ready, when Mr Bulmer made another demand, ‘Come here, mister.’ He said, ‘See that?’ as he went outside to show me two enormous dams either side of the station.

He took my pen, I had just bought down Albert Road, and threw it in the dam. ‘We don’t use them!’ he growled while rummaging in his pocket and retrieving a pen nib, saying ‘we use these’. Geoff was given a little ink bottle and ordered never to use a Biro again!
“The dams have gone now,” remembers Geoff, “they filled them in because somebody fell in and drowned.”

Mr Bulmer started working in 1911, and he was still there in 1963 and retired just after Geoff left. “Every so often, he’d come knocking on the signal box when it was quiet. He’d say, ‘here I’ve brought you this’ and he’d produce a pie for me. What a funny bloke, he had a heart of gold.”

“He was doing all these terrible things to the railways, all the staff hated him.”

When aged 20 and not long on the railroads, Geoff first heard about Richard Beeching. “He was 47 years old, a doctor of science. He was a brainy chap. When he came to the railways, he wrote 150 pages on how he could reshape and close all these stations and the lines. Thousands and thousands of lines were taken up and gone, including Colne to Skipton.”

Ernest Marples, Conservative politician, and Minister of Transport had head hunted Richard Beeching, “he knew Beeching was sympathetic to running the railways down, because they were running at a loss, he wanted to close all these lines so his transport empire would grow and grow, he was a wrong un.

“The Daily Herald had a big picture of Beeching, and it said, ‘the most hated man in Great Britain’. Everyone was up against it, especially the railway staff, at that time, over half a million employees worked for the Great British Railways. 524,000 employees. By the time Beeching had finished in 1965 it has reduced to 370,000.”

A headline in the Daily Sketch, July 1963: ‘BASTARD BEECHING, BB MUST GO.’ Geoff exhaled: “He was doing all these terrible things to the railways, all the staff hated him. They knew their jobs were going to be numbered.” Geoff was given one month’s notice. “One of my claims to fame is being sacked by Beeching. Over a quarter of us were finished in his reign. As soon as he came, you knew it would be doom and disaster.”

Geoff holds up an antiquated button. “I was really proud to wear my uniform. I nicked a button, I thought, I’m taking somat from 1963! E.J Munton measured me for my uniform. Do you know how he measured me?” asks Geoff “This is how eccentric they are… he had a piece of string and I had to stand up and he’d measure me with a piece of string against a tape measure, it was like the 1920s.”

He also had a National Union of Railwaymen badge to show me with a tale of mischief. “This is my NUR badge, you had to pay a shilling a week. We had a club in Colne, it is all trees now, the NUR club, really steep steps, if you had a few rum and blacks, it was dangerous coming out. The marvellous thing was whenever I wore the badge, you’d get a free drink because you were a member. I managed to get free drinks for six months afterwards until somebody twigged, ‘Hey you aren’t working on the railway anymore!’ but I kept the badge,” he laughs.

51 years ago in 1970, Geoff bought a very special item for a fiver. “I really wanted it, but it was difficult to get. It was as heavy as lead and I had to carry it home from Colne Station… it’s a piece of the Colne to Skipton line which was taken up in 1970!”

Geoff has been offered £500 for it but emphasises he will never sell it as it is going to his grandson. “I bought it off a chap who sawed some up, a collector from Blackburn, he’d taken it up within a fortnight.

“It was terrible, Colne to Skipton, 12 and a half miles, all taken up because they didn’t want it to come back. The very last train that ran on the Colne to Skipton line was the February 1st 1970. Foulridge bridge which had seen thousands and thousands of trains coming over was smashed up, and it will never come back again. There were 6,701 stations. By 1972, there were only 2,003 left. All those stations gone. There were nearly 9,000 stations before the war,” Geoff sighs.

“Today when you look back, it was another world. Railways have changed so much. My time on the railways was a wonderful experience and I’m so fortunate I got to do it for even that short period. I would have stayed with the railways, but I worked on the Royal Mail instead for 30 years and that’s another story!”