For enthusiasts,researchers and modellers of the Great Eastern Railway

Report of the 2007 Half-Yearly Meeting

The Assembly House, Norwich, 20th October 2007

by Bill King

I took the opportunity of travelling from Colchester to Norwich by One Railway - quite the right way to travel to the half-yearly meeting of the Great Eastern Railway Society.

As usual, the travelling stands were already present on our arrival. As advertised, too, all the regular Committee members were there, our President and Chairman and we had the opportunity of meeting the other of the Journal editors, which was a pleasure.

The Norfolk Railway

The day was to consist of three speakers and the theme of the meeting was Railways in Norfolk, quite rightly given our location. As usual there was a goodly group of members assembled at 11.00 ready for our first guest, John Barney. His book, "The Norfolk Railway", was reviewed by our Newsletter Editor in issue 132. I discovered that John has a keen interest in the history of Norfolk and is presently a Research Fellow at the Centre for East Anglian Studies. He told us that the Norfolk Railway had a length of less than ninety miles; only four years as an independent operation; great ambitions but few prospects and more enemies than friends. It was the child of Samuel Moreton Peto and through his activities extended its sphere of influence to the Baltic Sea.

The East Anglia - Suffolk and Norfolk, not Essex, Cambridgeshire or Herts. - of 1830, into which the railway was born, had quite a good road system. Quite frankly, the people of Norfolk didn't want a railway. But in 1835 three railways were projected from London towards Norwich. Only the Eastern Counties had any real prospect of reaching Norwich, but anyway, Norfolk people didn't care. By 1840 it had dawned on some that their county was going to be left behind in the great railway building spree and in 1842 the Stephensons made a plan to build a line to the coast. They needed to raise £200,000. Finally, Grissell and Peto's great contracting company offered to supply a complete railway - including, as it turned out, an insufficiency of trains - and enthusiasts for the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway got it through.


Soon after, another plan was hatched for the Norwich and Brandon Railway. Although it needed twice the capital of the Yarmouth and Norwich, Brandon was bait - there was no trouble getting the money for this line. The two lines were amalgamated to become the Norfolk Railway on 30th June 1845, one month before it opened, which was the same day on which the Eastern Counties extension from Newport to Brandon was ready for traffic.

Still the line was unpopular in the county town. The Norwich Union Insurance Company even invested in the Eastern Union which was busily building its competing line from Colchester through Ipswich. A number of other railway schemes were later planned and some unusual construction ensued. The awkward loop through Thetford is an example.


Peto went on to become an M.P. - he was a good talker and a very convincing man - and to build Lowestoft from almost nothing into an important town. But that is a different story - and it is in Suffolk. Geoff thanked our speaker for a splendid talk.

Photographs from the George Powell collection


After lunch, Graham Kenworthy took the stage for a presentation of some photographs from the George Powell collection. He started his show with a fantastic colour slide of Britannia 70041 "Sir John Moore", complete with headboard, awaiting departure from Liverpool Street with "The Norfolkman". He explained that the collection had come into the Society's possession through the good offices of R.C. Riley. Copies of many of them are presently available for purchase through Colour-Rail. We departed the London terminal. Arriving at Marks Tey, which was one of George's favourite locations, we saw a variety of trains and locomotives.


Reversing now, to travel along the line towards Sudbury, there was a train in the branch platform. Our President confirmed that the coach was of North Eastern origin. Graham enquired whether anyone could identify the theme of his show - nobody guessed - so he explained that it was the only way to travel from London to Norfolk using George Powell's slides!


Passing through Cockfield, with a magnificent collection of standard rose bushes, and Welnetham, we arrived at Thetford.


Being well and truly in Norfolk, now, we were treated to four pictures of signals, one of which was a Tommy Dodd - the well-known Great Eastern ground signal.


Our speaker continued with pictures of locomotives in British Railways livery and numbering, including B-12 no. 61576 at Colchester with "The Suffolk Venturer", an enthusiast's train.


This brought us very nearly to a close. What a wonderful selection of slides this was. Geoff Ashton summed up with a few well-chosen words and the audience showed its appreciation.

A View from the Signal Box

If, like me, you have been to some dry corporate slide presentation, you may have come across the technique of dropping an attention-grabbing picture in to the middle of the show. Well it's not to say that John Barker's presentation was at all uninteresting, but it really started with The View from the Signal Box. And it was a fabulously atmospheric picture taken from Somerleyton Swing Bridge signal box, looking along the River Waveney on a glorious summer's day.

Prior to his retirement, three years ago, the swing bridge box at Somerleyton was John's for three years, but his signalling activities started somewhat earlier, although it was his second career. Finding himself at a loose end in Thetford an advertisement appeared in the Eastern Daily Press for trainee signallers. He applied, was successful, and was taken on for a twelve-week absolute block signalling course at Grosvenor House in Norwich. He learned that the principal of the absolute block system is that a railway section is blocked until you tell somebody otherwise. He successfully passed out as a signalman.


At this point John showed the audience all the documentation - the Rule Book and the Signalman's General Instructions which he had to know and understand, to the letter. At Harling Road, which was he first posting, there were only two shifts, each of 9¾ hours and the first train was at 05.52. He showed us a number of views inside the box, which was a comparatively simple block post, although with gates to control as well. He identified the various types of lever in the frame and the other "signalman's essential" - an armchair. Harling Road also supervised a controlled crossing at Thetford, which was relatively busy.


After about eighteen months, he moved to Brandon where he showed us an exterior picture of the 1931-built box. There was a reasonable amount of freight traffic here, mainly limestone going to the sugar beet factory at Wissington. The frame was marked, "GNR Leeds" and it was back-to-front, that is the signalman worked with his back to the line.


Again we saw some views inside the box and John explained that a signalman always has a duster with him with which to grab hold of the levers - this avoided moisture in his skin from causing them to go rusty. Another detail was the carpet placed over the unworked areas of the frame - this prevented draughts from blowing up from the locking room below.

Following a house move John applied for a transfer to Somerleyton, even though the box was situated around half-a-mile from the station. When he arrived he took note of the green hut outside the box - apparently the bridge was worked by dog-clutches and this was the kennel where the dogs were kept!


The bridge itself was built in 1904, weighed some 120 tons and carried a pair of lines across. One red flag was flown to notify boats that it was a swing bridge, although two indicated that it was jammed - which did occur from time to time. As a precaution it was inspected by the engineers every week.


John gave us a detailed description of the operation:

  • Operate the signals and locking levers to protect the bridge - the signals on the remote side were operated by a mechanism passing across the bridge
  • Raise the bridge off its mounts by hydraulic jacks
  • Turn a wheel - not unlike a gate operating wheel - in the vertical plane to withdraw the locking bolts
  • Start the electric motor drive
  • Operate a control lever to swing the bridge. The bridge was held in the open position on this lever
  • And, as they say in those car repair manuals, closing was the reverse procedure of the opening

John's final slide - another evocative picture - was of a rainbow and it ended at Somerleyton station!

The Chairman again thanked our speaker who received a warm round of applause from the audience. And so another GERS meeting was over. Fortunately, it was a good deal more rewarding for the Society than for poor old Norwich City, because they lost 3-1, at home, to Bristol City that day. I travelled back to Colchester on the 17.30 from Thorpe, and the Canaries supporters were all good humoured. What a great day out!

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