Signalmen and Platelayers

Woodlesford signal box in the 1960s. Note the footbridge for the gnomes, a facility not afforded for full size passengers until 2010! Photo by Bill Tiffany.

During the first 30 years of railway operation through Woodlesford individual points and signals were operated either by the stationmaster or by a railway “policeman” – a role derived from the civil police introduced by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. Hence the name “bobby” for a signalman which is still used today. For a time they were also called pointsmen. Until the telegraph was introduced trains ran on a “time interval” system with stationmasters instructed not to let one train follow another until a certain number of minutes had passed.

An 1874 railway plan of land near Bentley’s brewery shows an octagonal structure next to the Down line and this could have been a signal tower for signalling trains coming from the Methley direction. These towers were known to exist on some railways but none of them have survived and there are few photographs.

A wooden signal cabin was installed opposite the station building during the 1860s although it would have only housed block telegraph instruments and the points and signals would have still been operated individually. Cabins of a similar design have been identified all across the Midland Railway system.

After the cabin became redundant it was moved into the station yard to become a messroom for the staff and at some point given the nickname – “The Bug Hutch” – presumably because it was home to a large number of “creepy crawly” insects! It survived in that role until the station building was demolished in 1970.

By 1875 the cabin had been replaced by the Midland Railway with a first generation signal box at the end of the Up platform overlooking Bridge 238 and Aberford Road. It appears to have been constructed at the same time as a siding into the brewery which was installed after the railway compulsorily purchased a house belonging to a Mrs Ann Massey which it then demolished.

A Midland Railway block instrument similar to the ones used at Woodlesford.

With its distinctive window panes, and rooftop finials, the signal box was also made of wood and built from standardised panels and parts which were pre-fabricated at a railway factory in Derby. Its main feature was a frame housing 20 levers for the points and signals which were “interlocked” to prevent the signalmen from making dangerous and conflicting train movements. The levers were connected to the points by square rods and to the signals with long stretches of wire held above the ground on small posts.

On 23 April 1899 an improved design of box, with 26 levers, was brought into use and in that form it remained largely the same until it was closed in January 1972. It was approximatley 10 feet wide and 20 feet long.

Initially the wooden panels would have been painted a lemon chrome colour with the posts that made up the main frame being chocolate brown known as Venetian red. The window frames were white. Over time the paint would have been dulled by air pollution and grime from passing trains. In the 1950s, after the line through Woodlesford was moved into the North Eastern Region of British Railways, the colour scheme was changed to blue and white.

The box carried a “WOODLESFORD” nameboard which started out with white letters on an ultramarine blue background. After several repaints it ended up being white letters on an orange background. It survives today in a private collection. A large diagram of the layout of signals and points which hung above the levers inside the box has also survived.

The drawings below, showing various stages in the layout of the running lines, signals, and sidings at Woodlesford, are taken from official Board of Trade plans which the engineers had to have signed off whenever they made any major alterations.

Marked on the first sketch are circles denoting small turntables which were used for switching wagons and were orginally installed because of the constricted size of the station yard. They were replaced by points in 1892.

The sketches also show the connection to Water Haigh colliery which was installed in 1909 before the pit started production. Marked in red on the first sketch is a “facing” crossover and signal from the Up line into the colliery branch which was never installed. It was Midland Railway practice to avoid “facing” points as they were more dangerous than “trailing” points and their safe operation slowed down traffic.

A change to the Midland Railway rulebook, as published in the Weekly Notices, 1913. (National Railway Museum collection.)

However the lack of a “facing” crossover made it more complicated to run trains into the pit branch and in May 1913 a change in the operating rules was sanctioned. As long as there was a guard in his van at the rear trains of up to 40 empty wagons could be propelled, or pushed, backwards by engines running “wrong” line from Waterloo sidings a mile to the north. It was a practice which continued until the station, and the pit, closed in 1970.

The third sketch shows the final layout after the colliery branch had been removed in August 1971 and before the box was decommissioned on 25 January 1972. All that remained in that final year was a single “trailing” crossover between the two lines and that too is now long gone with all of the colour light signals in the area operated by a large signalling centre at Leeds City station.

In 1971 there were two signal men left at Woodlesford, Norman Bowers and Fred Bonsor, alternating between morning and afternoon shifts with the night shift having recently been stopped. Out of 25 levers only 12 were still in use.

Early layout including Water Haigh branch installed in 1909.
1950s and early 1960s diagram.
1971, just before closure of the box. 

Sketches and research provided by John Whitaker who worked in British Railways Signal and Telegraph department at Leeds for 18 years.

Click on this link for a plan of the Woodlesford layout in the 1960s. Woodlesford plan by David Jubb

Some of Woodlesford signal box’s window frames saved for posterity as part of a local outhouse.