The day the axe fell

Words by:
Mike Fowler
Featured in:
October 2015

It’s almost a generation ago since a major transport event occurred in East Lincolnshire that remains a vivid memory for some.
On 5th October it will be forty-five years since the East Lincolnshire Line closed. On the previous day, I was sitting at a place that has long since been consigned to history. That was Firsby station on the Grimsby to Peterborough railway, which was in the last few hours of its 122-year history. North from my position, people were gathering at Burgh, Willoughby, Alford, Louth, North Thoresby and all along the route to witness the passing of an era.

The people of Mablethorpe and Sutton-on-Sea had witnessed their last train the previous day, as they had no Sunday service. This was also the case with those stations from Bellwater Junction to Lincoln covering all the stations from Midville to Bardney. This was always known as the ‘New Line’, as it opened in 1913, and the phrase being used at the end was ‘The New Line has closed!’

The whole situation was unreal as here was a fully operational seventy-eight-mile railway. There were the shining double tracks; the telegraph wires linking all the signal boxes and the station buildings; and a multitude of signals waiting to say ‘all clear’ and wave goodbye. The ticket office and waiting rooms still had coal fires waiting for the winter, but they would never warm passengers again. Faithfully ticking clocks broke the silence and outside, a magnificent footbridge and overall roof. But concealed in the shadows and ignored on this day, on a noticeboard was the Closure Notice.

All the signage was still relevant: Cross by the Footbridge only, Gentlemen, Firsby, Ladies Waiting Room and Platform 1. The loyal staff were in attendance not really believing that by this time tomorrow everything here would be well and truly redundant.

Of course this was no real surprise, as the first warning shot from British Railways was fired in 1964 with a public announcement and inquiry at Skegness listening to 1,714 objections. Subsequently, the proposals were amended with a plan to preserve the Skegness line as a long branch from Boston with a subsidy for two years. British Railways then fired another salvo in 1968 that Firsby to Grimsby, Boston to Peterborough and the ‘New Line’ would close in May 1970. Another inquiry was held at Skegness, this time with 1,588 objections but accountants behind the scenes in distant Doncaster had made up their minds. They had shown the lines were annually losing £233,900 and nineteen stations and associated lines would close in May 1970. However, difficulties in arranging replacement buses, which would only survive six months anyway, delayed closure until October.

Anyone who had witnessed railway line closures elsewhere would have soon spotted the evidence that this line would sooner or later disappear. In the early ’60s, there was the re-routing of all southbound freight, including fish from Grimsby to Lincoln and Newark. Some stations were electrically rewired and thoroughly decorated and in places like Louth fluorescent lighting was installed. On most stations, all original and adequate cast iron station signs were replaced with blue enamel.

All local freight deliveries like coal and parcels were stopped, though Royal Mail continued. On a positive cost saving side, in 1968 Pay Trains were introduced on the Lincoln route and stations became unmanned. But on the main line and the Mablethorpe branch, the stations remained manned to a ridiculous level and the timetable seemed to be constructed to maximise passenger inconvenience. Of course, the biggest expense was the manning of sixty-three level crossings between Grimsby and Peterborough but there was no intention to economise these with barriers.

In contrast with the decline, right up to the last weekend there were two Up and two Down through express trains to Kings Cross each day. At first sight this may appear as a very positive action, but it was probably another underhand scheme to increase costs. Even though the line had a further six months of life, a close inspection of the May 1970 timetable to and from King’s Cross shows the four daily through trains only operate via Lincoln and Newark with no mention of the East Lincolnshire route. In truth they were still running via Boston to Grimsby but to discover this would require a lot of timetable detective work.

So back to the last day on Firsby station, on my seat on the down platform near to the gates, just beyond the footbridge and almost under the ‘Firsby’ station sign. All remained eerily quite until about 11.30 when passengers began to appear on the up platform. They were waiting for the penultimate British Railways service to Kings Cross from Grimsby at 11.43. They had paid 32/6 and would be there in just under three hours. It pulled in right on time.

First-time passengers for Firsby in the rear coaches were in for a rather unnerving experience as a glance out the window would show no platform. This was because the expresses with eleven coaches were too long for Firsby and they pulled up twice. So passengers resigned to their fate of travelling to some distant place smiled when the train stopped a second time. After this drama and within a flash, they were heading south and would be in King’s Cross by 14.39. The moment had gone and I wasn’t sure I’d really savoured it as much as it deserved.

However, by this time far more passengers had gathered as they were waiting for the real star of the day: The very last ‘The Lincolnshire Standard’ train. There was an amazing hum of excited conversation which actually concealed the real sadness and implications of the day. Rather like a scene from a cowboy film, it would soon be all over by noon, the scheduled departure time. Bells started ringing in the elegant signal box as the signalman at Burgh told his colleague here at Firsby the train was on the way. The gates crashed closed to the road for almost the last time. They were noisy because they unusually overlapped when closed. The GNR somersault signal arm was lowered and the drama was about to begin. The passengers leaned forward as they always had, looking north for the approaching train. Who would be the first to yell ‘Here it comes’? And then it did, cheered on like the Titfield Thunderbolt on its first run.

A gleaming 310-tonne class 47 locomotive D1577, with the ‘Standard’ headboard and buffed up like a Rolls Royce. Ironically, all to celebrate a closure. With twelve coaches there would eventually be 678 passengers passing into history and arriving at King’s Cross one minute after the earlier British Railways service. Rather like passengers cheered out of the portholes of the departing Titanic, here at Firsby we had a distinctly similar situation but out of the maroon coloured coach windows. The driver sounded the horn and the beast inched forward and was gone.

The gates reopened with the same crash. Our signalman rang the bells to tell his colleague at Little Steeping the symbol of the past was on its way. Station staff stood mesmerised with disbelief that the event first hinted at in 1964 had now happened. Silence descended on the old place as they now waited until 18.46 for the very last British Railways service south to King’s Cross arriving in the capital at 21.21.

A return ticket to Firsby would be as much use as a chocolate teapot, as you would have long since missed a return train and there would never be another. I assume this locomotive and coaches returned the next day from King’s Cross to Grimsby via Lincoln and Newark as by Monday the East Lincolnshire line would be no more.

In the evening the whole drama was repeated with much more poignancy. The service train arrived at 21.24 and the ‘Standard’ special arrived at 21.40 being the definitive last train. To add to the occasion, detonators were placed on the track, buglers sounded the ‘Last Post’ and communities came out to witness something not dissimilar to the opening celebrations 122 years earlier. I’ll leave the full description of the unique evening at Firsby and the atmosphere on the station on the first day of closure to perhaps another article. But now I’ll move on three months, to December 1970.

My parents were living in Burgh Le Marsh and for Christmas 1970 I received a small but heavy gift. It was a cast iron doorplate from Burgh station bearing the legend ‘Booking Office’ and it had cost 50p. At that point the rot set in and I continued for the next forty-five years seeking out surviving railwayana from the line.

You may wonder, How do all these once essential parts of a railway survive and come into collectors’ hands? Well firstly, during the days preceding the closure, a lot of items simply disappeared with the use of a spanner or screwdriver, especially where stations were unstaffed at night. Secondly, it was an unwritten rule that existing staff, may have sentimental items after closure happens. These then eventually came up for sale. Thirdly, the staff were required after closure to remove everything possible and assemble it for collection by British Railways. These items then went to auction in Scunthorpe in 1971 and 1972. Finally, if there was something you required, a letter to the Stores Controller at York and a payment allowed you to remove the item immediately or after closure.

Each year in October, I’ve thought we must do something to commemorate the passing of this lost artery of communication and this year is it. So I considered an exhibition of surviving memorabilia using my own collection and seeing what I could tease out of other lofts and garages. I approached the Alford Manor House Museum and they were delighted to house the exhibition, feeling it would bring back memories for those who travelled on the line or fought for its retention.

Exhibits will include platform nameboards from Sutton-on-Sea, Burgh Le Marsh, Skegness, Alford Town and Willoughby; signalbox nameboards from Louth, Midville, Wainfleet and Willoughby; lamps from Mablethorpe, Firsby, Skegness, Willoughby, Woodhall Junction and Louth; a range of enamel and cast iron signs and notices from a whole list of stations and original local travel posters from as far back as the 1930s. There will also be tickets from long forgotten stations and newspaper cuttings showing that the closure didn’t happen without a fight.

It is truly amazing what has survived. It seems that just about everything except the track and most of the brickwork are still in existence, if you are prepared to do the detective work. I have had support from the local newspapers and radio and contacted several collectors I know.

So exactly forty-five years to the day and date of the closure the exhibition opens and I look forward to meeting many travellers who will know far more than me and will have memories that will make me swoon with envy.

On the evening of the opening day, 5th October, I’ll be giving a presentation entitled ‘The Origins, Development and Decline of the East Lincolnshire Railway’. Tickets and details are available from the Museum.

Exhibition opening times: 10am to 4pm, Sundays 12noon to 4pm. Opening days: Monday 5th to 11th October except Saturday 10th. Then for three weeks on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays until closure on Friday 30th October. Admission charges: Adults £4, Concessions £3. Details of the Museum and Exhibition are on the website or ring for more information. or 01507 463073.

Never miss a copy!

Big savings when you take out a subscription.