Eli Holtby

The Woodlesford platelaying gang. Eli Holtby is seated on the right. Reader Free is in the middle. One of the other men is believed to be Leonard Scaife.

For over twenty years Eli Holtby was one of the team of platelayers maintaining the railway line between Methley and Waterloo Sidings. They were based in a wooden hut at Woodlesford station on the opposite side of the line to the Leeds platform close to an old stone quarry.

The team leader, known as a “ganger”, patrolled the line on a daily basis looking out for defects. He would then organise the platelayers, with their pickaxes, shovels and large spanners, who would make sure the joints between the rails were secure and the sleepers were correctly ballasted.

Their other main function was to act as “fogmen” placing detonators on the line to warn drivers of signals during foggy and snowy weather. On Sundays they would top up their wages with much needed “overtime” travelling further afield along the Midland mainline in Yorkshire to help with larger track relaying and engineering projects.

Eli Holtby was born 1900 in the small village of West Knapton in the East Riding. His father, William Snowball Holtby, was an agricultural labourer who became a carter delivering goods from Knapton station on the North Eastern Railway between Malton and Scarborough. His major customer would have been the Tindalls at Knapton Hall, landowning descendants of a family which had made its money from shipbuilding at Scarborough during the 18th century.

Probably because of poor prospects on the farms of the East Riding Eli decided to move away from where generations of his family had lived and came to Woodlesford in 1923.

At first he lodged at the home of Mary Chew on Eshald Place. She was the daughter of John Cockerham who had run a grocer’s shop on Midland Street. Mary had married John Henry Chew who looked after the electric engines at Bentley’s brewery but he died in 1921 so Mary would have taken in lodgers to help her pay the rent.

It’s possible that there was a family or friendship connection because John Henry had grown up not far from West Knapton at Sewerby-cum-Marton near Bridlington where his father had been a gardener for a clergyman at Marton Hall.

Another reason for Eli’s migration could have been the creation of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923 which absorbed the Midland Railway through Woodlesford, and the new entity may have been advertising for more workers.

In those days, by changing trains at Leeds and York, it took just over two and half hours to travel from Woodlesford back to Knapton so Eli would have returned home fairly frequently taking advantage of  the cheaper rate or “privilege” tickets for railway workers.  

Eli and Rose on their wedding day in 1928.

In 1928, at St Peter’s Church at Wintringham, a few miles from his boyhood home, he married farm labourer’s daughter, Rose Towse, and brought her to live in a terraced cottage at 13 Church Street in Woodlesford.

Their first child, Rosamond, was born there in 1929. Their son Malcolm followed in 1936 and a few years later they crossed the road to live at 8 Church Street next to their landlord, John Pritchard. After the war they moved to a council house on the John O’Gaunt’s estate.

Eli’s “fogging” post was close to Applegarth bridge where there was a small wooden hut to shelter him from the elements. He often had to stay out overnight refreshed by a bottle of tea and a few sandwiches.

Eli Holtby’s daughter Rosamond, on the right, and her friend Ann Mckenzie near his “fogging” hut at one of the bridges over the railway at Woodlesford. A stove at the back kept the hut warm on cold winter days and nights.

Platelaying was one of the most dangerous jobs on the railway and men were often hurt when heavy rails dropped on their feet. They carried out a lot of their work whilst trains were running and lookouts were posted to warn them with shouts and hooters. Bright orange high visibility clothing had still to be invented and they wore blue serge uniforms making them difficult to see by footplatemen.

In October 1944 Eli was working on the line at Woodlesford station when he witnessed the death of his friend and colleague, ganger Reader Free.

Reader had been “loking the line” and could easily see a train was approaching from the Methley direction but unfortunately stepped into the “four foot” between the rails on the Up line and was run over by a south bound express. Eli helped recover Reader’s body and was badly affected by the incident.

Later in life Eli Holtby left the Woodlesford gang and graduated to a job as an oxyacetylene welder with the railway’s civil engineering department in Leeds. There he worked on pointwork throughout the district which ran from Normanton to Apperley Bridge.

Eli, with his son Malcolm and grandson Paul, in his garden near Sixth Avenue.

When he wasn’t working Eli’s main pleasure was gardening and he had an allotment on land close to Woodlesford parish hall where Rose was the caretaker. She was also a cleaner at a large house on Applegarth, the home of John Pirrie Mackenzie, the head brewer at Bentley’s. Eli maintained the gardens there and later when the family moved to Lawrence House near the station where he built a nine hole putting green.

Another pastime was ferreting and a special permit issued by the railway authorities allowed him to go hunting for rabbits on the embankments and cuttings along the Woodlesford “length” of track. He was also a member of a comic band dressing as Old Mother Riley as they entertained in local pubs collecting for charity.

Eli and Rose were keen card players and their social life in the village revolved around attending “whist drives” at the parish hall in which the winner of each hand played the loser at the next table. During the war Eli was a prize winner at several events raising money for the Two Pointers’ Forces Fund.

In the summer Eli and Rose regularly went on a working holiday to help at his sister’s cafe in Scarborough.

Eli was presented with a “gold” watch when he retired in 1965. He passed away in 1974. 
Eli’s son, Malcolm Holtby, worked at the Girlingstone concrete factory at Rothwell Haigh and as as a local binman. Click on the links below to listen to him talk about his father and growing up in Woodlesford.

Eli Holtby – Fogging and ferreting

Malcolm Holtby – Gardening and the comic band

Eli’s retirement watch presented by J.A. Lewis, the Leeds British Railway’s West Riding Engineer in 1965.
A sketch of the railway lines around Woodlesford in the 1950s showing some of the gangers’ names.
Both of the houses Eli Holtby and his family lived in on Church Street can be seen in this photo taken in the early years of the 20th century.