Robert Harold Roberts

Robert Harold Roberts and his son Cyril on the platform at Rhewl shortly before they moved to Woodlesford in 1929.

Robert Harold Roberts was the station master at Woodlesford for most of the 1930s. It appears that railways were in his blood because both his father and grandfather were railwaymen and his son, Cyril, was also destined for a life on the railways.

The family originated in Flintshire and Denbighshire in North Wales. Grandfather, Robert Roberts, worked for the London and North Western Railway as a porter at Mold station on a line which ran to Chester. His son, Edward, started as an office boy there and had graduated to be a booking clerk by the time Robert Harold was born in 1890.

A few years later Edward was promoted to be the station master at Waverton on the other side of Chester. The station had been built by Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, the First Duke of Westminster, close to his family home at Eaton Hall. The Roberts family legend has it that Edward was presented with a gold lapel pin there by a member of the royal family, possibly King Edward VII or his son King George V when he visited Eaton Hall as Prince of Wales in 1903. Another family story was that they were also related by marriage to the railway engineer Sir Nigel Gresley, but that connection has never been substantiated.

When the census was taken in 1911 Edward was back at Mold as the station master where Robert Harold, who was unmarried, was also a booking clerk. He too climbed the promotion ladder working at various places in North Wales. By 1921, along with his young family, he was the station master at Rhewl between Ruthin and Denbigh.

In 1923 the L.N.W.R. was absorbed into the London Midland and Scottish Railway offering a much larger geographical scope for an ambitious railwayman, and so Robert Harold, his wife Mary, and their four children moved across the Pennines to Woodlesford in 1930.

Demolition of “the farmers’ bridge” near Waterloo sidings in January 1937. The photographs were taken looking towards Leeds.

One unusual event to occur during station master Roberts time at Woodlesford was the blowing up of a stone built bridge across the line close to Waterloo sidings. Similar to the surviving bridge at Pottery Lane, it was one of seven bridges in the village designed by George and Robert Stephenson and built for the opening of the North Midland Railway in 1840.

The contractor was F. W. Fenton and the bridge was originally known as “Fenton’s bridge”. Tom Craven Massey, the landlord of the Two Pointer’s Inn in the 1930s, who was born in Woodlesford in 1860, still had in his possession a chisel used in the construction which was marked with the contractor’s name.

By 1937 the bridge, which had a span of 26 feet, had become unstable and dangerous because its foundations had been affected by mining subsidence. It had become known as “the farmer’s bridge” as it was mainly used by the tenant of Wood End Farm to get his livestock across the railway to grazing land which is now the site of the Yorkshire Game Farm.

Ordnance Survey map from 1934. The bridge demolished in 1937 is the one nearest the top left of the frame.

The date set for the demolition was Sunday 31 January 1937 and the line was closed from early morning for the work to be carried out. It was a cold day and snow was on the ground. It had been planned that a detachment of the Royal Engineers from York would be responsible for setting the explosive charges, but a flu epidemic was given as the reason they couldn’t attend.

Bennett’s, a firm of contractors who were rebuilding the Queen’s Hotel in Leeds, were called in to drill the 16 holes needed for the demolition and skilled shot firing miners from J. and J. Charlesworth’s Fanny Pit nearby were drafted in to fill them with dynamite.

The shots were fired simultaneously at 8.10am and the loud bang would have echoed loudly around Woodlesford and right across the Aire Valley to Swillington and beyond. A photographer from the Yorkshire Post and a reporter from the Wakefield Express were on hand to record the event. The railway authorities, conscious of the alarm that might have been caused by such a loud explosion in the vicinity of both Water Haigh and Fanny pits, had warned residents in advance that the work was being done. Station master Roberts and his staff of porters and clerks may even have gone door to door to pass on the message.

The collapsed stonework was quickly loaded into railway trucks by a 60 to 70 strong team of men and, amazingly, the line was opened again for normal traffic by ten o’clock that same morning, less than two hours after the explosion.

No attempt was made to rebuild the bridge and any sign of it has long since disappeared. However the Up line semaphore signals, visible in the Yorkshire Post photographs, remained in the same position into the 1970s with the top starter arm being operated by Waterloo signal box and the bottom distant arm controlled by Woodlesford box.

The summer of 1937 was also quite eventful for station master Roberts as he had to deal with the theft of some cash and tickets from the station by an errant goods porter, Cecil Joseph Abson. The theft took place on a Sunday morning in July when the station master was trying to get some much needed rest. He later had to swear an affidavit and appear in court at Leeds after Abson was found 250 miles away in Southampton.

Unfortunately station master Roberts was badly injured in 1938 when he fell from a carriage in the sidings at Hunslet. He later suffered a stroke and had to take early retirement with the family having to leave the Woodlesford station house and move to Swillington.

Robert Harold’s son Cyril was 4 when the family arrived in Woodlesford and he grew up taking an active part in the life of the station. During World War II he served in the Navy and later went on to a career on the railways, marrying Brenda Russell, the daughter of Charles Gilbert Russell, a clerk for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway and the L.M.S. in the Wakefield area.

Click on the links below to hear Cyril reminiscing about station life, a few months before he passed away in 2008.

Moving to Woodlesford in 1929

Memories of the station staff

Going for a ride!

Cadging coal and cigarettes during the war

Station master Roberts, age 43, with his wife Mary.
Cyril Roberts takes a ride on the Northern Belle Pullman as he and his wife Brenda celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 2001.
A photo of the station house taken in 2005 for Cyril’s 80th birthday “This Is Your Life” album.