For enthusiasts,researchers and modellers of the Great Eastern Railway

Report of the 2007 Annual General Meeting

Brentwood Theatre, 17th March 2007

by Bill King

The Annual General Meeting of the GERS was held at the Brentwood Theatre on 17th March 2007.


As well as the official business, the presentation of the Harry Jones Award had to be made to the intended recipient. This year, David Butcher received the trophy for his article "The 'Jazz' Train Workings at Liverpool Street Station", which appeared in Journal 127.


Geoff Ashton (Chairman, left) presents the Harry Jones Award to David Butcher

The meeting consisted of two illustrated talks and an address about the developments at North Woolwich.


Rodger Green presented

The North Woolwich Branch: 1846-2006


A map, prepared by the presenter and Ian Strugnell, of the area in 1846 was first up. Meanwhile, Rodger explained that 160 years of service on the branch had now come to an end. In the 16th century Stratford was an important centre of population in the district and by the 18th century had developed a number of significant industries. Tanning and porcelain manufacture were the most important. South of the town lay an area of marshland which did not have what we today might call planning restrictions. In the 19th century, therefore, there commenced in this area a number of businesses which were undesirable elsewhere.

Part of the area around Woolwich was in Kent - this last meaning that there are documents of interest to a GER historian in the County Record Office at Maidstone. This situation remained until 1889, when the district was absorbed by London County Council.

Messrs Bidder - the Calculating Boy - Peto, Brassey and Kennard planned to build a railway line from Stratford to Thames Wharf in 1843 but it was not until 1844 that the GER received Royal Assent to build the line. Part of the construction included the erection of coke ovens at the wharf.

A plan of 1858 showed Victoria Docks which cut through the original line and also showed the deviation opened in 1855. The docks were spanned by a narrow swing bridge which was used as a roadway and as a railway. Two early pictures of the swing bridge over the cut followed. One showed a wagon belonging to Fardell whose horses provided most of the power within the docks.


Beckton Gasworks opened in 1880 and this provided much extra traffic in the area. It was seen in a plan dated that year in which the Royal Albert Dock was opened. Between this year and 1892 widening of the line took place between Stratford and Thames Wharf.


The Great Eastern Railway's ferry, introduced by the Eastern Counties Railway in 1846, was closed in 1908 - the railway boats no longer able to compete with the Free Ferry introduced by the LCC in 1889.


King George V dock was opened by the Port of London Authority in 1921 and more traffic was added to the branch as the dock was rail connected. The period between the wars was one of stable trade for the North Woolwich branch but the destruction of World War 2 caused significant damage, as it did to many lines in the East End, and from which the Gallions branch never recovered.


It was a shock on the 1st May 1970 when the Port of London Authority closed its railway system and then a month later the gas works at Beckton closed down. By 1976 British Railways was considering complete closure. However, in 1979 the Greater London Council decided to breathe fresh life into the branch and the Crosstown Link Line was launched.

After resignalling in 1984, the North London Link was introduced in May 1985. This provided a third rail service all the way to North Richmond with two car ex-SR emu trains running with a 20 minute headway. Class 313 multiple units were introduced to the line in 1989. Jubilee line construction caused temporary closure again between May 1994 and October 1995, the Underground line taking the old goods line trackbed from Stratford to Canning Town.

The last day of public passenger services on the (heavy rail) line was on 9th December 2006 and the last passenger private passenger service the next day. Near the end of Rodger's talk he showed a plan of the current status of the North Woolwich branch there were no lines shown south of Stratford!

This was a fascinating and extremely well presented talk. Rodger should expect to receive some invitations to present it elsewhere.


Our second speaker was Neil Howard of Royal Docks Heritage Railway Ltd, formerly a senior BR Public affairs manager and now leader of the group intending to provide three new facilities using the old line.

With the discontinuation of the heavy rail link from Stratford to North Woolwich, the section between Custom House and the former terminus is not required by the DLR, though ultimately might need to be used for Crossrail.

According to a DLR press release conversion of the retained route from Royal Victoria to Stratford International will create three new stations between Stratford and Canning Town: Stratford High Street, Abbey Road and Star Lane.

His group proposes to make use of the resource in four ways:

  • To create a college where young adults can be provided with vocational training enabling them to work in the rail industry. This is
  • To redevelop the North Woolwich Old Station Museum as a museum of rail transport in London.
  • To provide a "test bed for new and developing railway equipment, especially signalling".
  • For heritage railway operations which might be used, for example, for corporate hospitality, film shoots and the like.

Our speaker provided a number of duplicated newsletters dated 3rd March 2007 for the audience to take away.


After the lunch interval our third speaker was David Dent, who spoke about The Hertford East Branch.

David's starting point was Broxbourne, which was reached from London by the Northern and Eastern Railway on 15th September 1840. This railway was subsequently taken over by the Eastern Counties Railway in 1843. The N&E's final act was to construct a branch line from Broxbourne to Hertford, and it was about this line that we were to hear.


Our first slide was of Broxbourne in 1898. Next we saw the station house which lasted until 1959 when it was demolished. It was built in an Elizabethan style and the Hoddesdon omnibus was seen in the foreground. At one time, Mr Saggars was the Station Master and lived in the station house with his wife and nine children. David noted that the building must have worked some aphrodisiac-like magic as another Station Master, Mr. Cook, had eleven children! Then was a charming picture of the station staff with the then current Station Master, Mr. Barker, and his dog. Ha,ha!

Travelling towards our destination brought us to Essex Road level crossing where we saw Mrs. Johnson, the gatekeeper, in an early-dated picture. The crossing keeper's house was close to the line here and David commented that it was probably not the place to display delicate china! Then was an aerial view of the crossing.

Rye House Station was the next point of interest, although before a station was built here, tickets were issued to fishing club members at Ye Olde House Hotel, which could be said to be the first "station". Rye House was an important local attraction and visitors came from a long distance to visit here. It is also claimed to be the oldest surviving brick-built building in Hertfordshire and was once the location of the Great Bed of Ware. The one-time house owner, William Henry Teale, acquired the bed and put it to use in his pleasure garden. In 1931, it was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Teale is also said to have fiddled the passenger receipts at the station which may have been a significant source of funds - between 5,000 and 10,000 are said to have visited the location over a bank-holiday weekend. Continuing our journey, we passed the halt situated between Rye House and St. Margarets and arrived at the latter place. This was the only two storey station house on the branch and it was pictured in 1910. At Ware was the factory of D. Wickham & Co. and we saw a nicely turned-out railcar that was destined for Peru. This company was, of course, very well known in the UK and elsewhere in the world as the manufacturer of railcars and works, or track inspection, trolleys.

The Great Northern Railway had running powers to the station - subject to capacity - of which the GER made sure there was none! It was also the location of one of the two well-known petrol-mechanical shunters, which was "shedded" under a still standing bridge.


The line ran from here across The Meads to arrive at Hertford East in, originally, a wooden train shed which doubled as a passenger and goods station. The present building (shown above) dates from 1888 and was designed by W.N. Ashbee.

David made this into an interesting talk and answered a number of questions at the end.

The meeting wound-up here with a reminder that the half-yearly meeting this year will be in that very pleasant city, Norwich, on 20th October.


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!

Report of the 35th Annual General Meeting

by Bill King


The usual crew were already at the Brentwood Theatre when I arrived. Everyone was happy that Geoff was able to present the Harry Jones Award to John Watling for his article "Carriage Building in 1907 and the Norfolk Coast Express".


The primary interest of the day was, however, the traditional talks which accompany the AGM.

The Reconstruction of Trowse Swing Bridge by Martin Fargher

Martin Fargher kicked off with his presentation on the reconstruction of Trowse Swing Bridge in 1987. See also here and here.

He explained that before his appointment as Resident Engineer at Trowse, he had been responsible for the infill of a large bridge which accommodated Leeds station as it passed over a redundant arm of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.


The arrangement of the new Trowse bridge relative to the old was made clear in GERS News 53 (see map above), together with the project brief:

  • To avoid traffic disruption the new bridge would be built on a new alignment upstream of the then existing bridge
  • As a consequence of the deviation, an Act of Parliament would be required to enable its construction
  • The bridge would accommodate a single line of track
  • The bridge would be brought into service at around the same time as the Ipswich - Norwich electrification was commissioned
  • Although the 25kV overhead supply would only be energised when the bridge was open for rail traffic, the provision of such a system made it unique
  • The joints between the swinging spans and the fixed part of the bridge would be arranged to provide an overlapping rail joint
  • The project was estimated to cost £3.953m
  • On completion the old bridge would be removed


This is the third railway bridge to cross the River Wensum on the approach to Norwich. The first was built to carry the Eastern Counties Railway line into the Thorpe terminus and opened in December 1845. The second was of double track configuration in an effort to reduce the traffic bottle-neck created by the previous single track span.

The new bridge differed from the two previous versions in a number of technical details:

  • The pivot was not arranged at the centre of the swinging section, the length of the two spans about the pivot being 30m and 6m
  • The bridge does not rest on the pivot when it is open to rail traffic. As a consequence, the pivot can be of relatively light weight construction
  • A method was required to raise the pivot into contact with the swing spans and then further raise the complete assembly prior to pivoting. The method selected was to utilise four hydraulically driven screw jacks


  • The need for a complicated system of wedges to align the remote ends of the swinging spans with the fixed was avoided, with the bridge being simply supported on plain bearings at its ends
  • The "catenary" across the bridge is replaced by a rigid beam with a slot in its bottom face to hold a conventional conductor wire

Martin's first task at the site was to supervise the construction of a bank of ducts under the river through which the 25kV power supply cables and signalling and telecommunication cables pass to the remote side. The British Railways (Trowse Bridge) Bill was introduced into the 1984-85 session of Parliament and, once Royal Assent was received on 22nd July 1985, work could begin in earnest.


The construction of the new bridge was contracted to the local company May Gurney with the electrical and hydraulic systems and bridge structural steelwork being sub-contracted to Butterley Engineering. The bridge fabrication was undertaken by Butterley in their works at Ripley in Derbyshire.


A class 31 diesel locomotive 31.417 was the first rail vehicle to pass onto the bridge on 11th February 1987 and was used to compress the waybeams to allow tightening of their fastening - we saw a view of it undertaking that duty. Final commissioning took place over the weekend of 14th - 15th February 1987. During construction Trowse Swing Bridge Junction Signal Box was eliminated, but a swing bridge control room was built on the opposite river bank.


During the 20 years since the bridge was brought into service the opportunity has been taken to update the bridge lifting system, now utilising a hydraulic primary system:

  • Improvements in hydraulic control technology now permit the synchronisation of multiple hydraulic jacks operating in unison
  • The mechanical screw jacks were found to not respond satisfactorily to an applied off centre load


Originally, the bridge was required to open on demand. Indeed, the Act of Parliament required it to be so. This was found to be altogether too disruptive to rail services and the bridge is now available to open four times each day at stated times.

This was a fascinating talk with bags of technical detail by the engineer who was "at the sharp end". It was very well received by the audience who responded in the usual way.

The Sweedie by Iain Scotchman

After the AGM, Iain Scotchman provided us with an unusual "virtual journey" from Norwich to Liverpool Street. It was in the blue diesel era and copiously illustrated with Iain's own slides.

"The Sweedie" was the story of the 10.32 departure from platform 2 at Norwich Thorpe in 1979 or 1980. Arrival at Liverpool Street was due at 12.43. It was hauled on this day by 47.117.

Imagine that you were on this train, that Richard Ball, Passenger Operating Assistant, Liverpool Street was in the next seat and that Terry Simister, Secretary of the Society, was opposite. Sit back and let Richard and Terry describe the journey.

Leaving Thorpe, we have to climb a 1 in 84 gradient on the line towards Norwich Victoria where there is a speed restriction of 40mph. The gradient gives the lie to the old belief that East Anglia is flat. There was not much custom and the lines had steep gradients and tight curves. East Anglia was primarily a barley-growing region, much grain was shipped to the mills and breweries in London.

Passing Tivetshall, the junction for the Waveney Valley line to Beccles which closed in 1966, Richard reminds us that near Pulham Market, a station on the branch, one of the first airship bases was built. Soon after this we arrive at our first stop. Listen hard and you can hear: "Diss,….Diss,…..This is Diss!"

After a short wait, we accelerate up the gradient through Mellis where there was the junction station for the Eye branch.

Travelling on, we pass Haughley Junction where the line from Bury comes in from the right. Many airfields were built in this area during World War Two, the station handling 445 trains of aviation fuel during the first six months of 1944. Coming towards us is a class 37 on a beet pulp train. This is probably destined for Scotland or the North West as animal feed.

Shortly after this, we arrive at Ipswich. Terry tells us that this was an important part of the Great Eastern where the branch to Lowestoft went off. The fishing port was railway-built and owned, fish landed here was placed into trucks marked with special red labels, conveyed along the branch to the main line and attached to the first London express. It was also the centre of a most eccentric service. Sea water could be shipped to any station on the GE system for 6d a barrel.

Meanwhile, in the buffet on our train - a good way to meet people - Chief Steward Ernest Ward is serving breakfast. Passing the plastics factory at Brantham, we cross the two bridges over the Stour to arrive at Manningtree. This is the place of the triangular junction with the Harwich branch, and important because of the Parkeston Quay ferry connections with the Continent. Unusual freight traffic originates at Mistley where industrial explosives are produced.

"This is Colchester. The train arrived at platform 3 is the 11.49 train for London only. British Rail apologise for the late running of this train." Here we are 51½ miles from the metropolis, having travelled just over 63 miles from Norwich. Leaving Colchester, we are soon passing Marks Tey where, Terry tells us, Lord Claud Hamilton once had a down express, conveying his personal carriage, especially stopped. He left the train and went into the Refreshment Bar on the platform. On rejoining the train he was asked by his companion of the reason for the out-of-course halt. "Well you see," said he, "they told me they had taken on a new barmaid here and I just had to see if the stories about her were true!"

This is the fastest stretch of the old Great Eastern main line - the line speed limit here is 100mph and we are travelling at 95 - that is the limit for this type of locomotive.

We are soon approaching Shenfield, almost 95 miles from Norwich and just 20 left to go. The line from Southend Victoria joins here.

Maurice Holmes is the manager who is based at Bishopsgate and looks after the Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street lines. There are six tracks on the entry to the terminus, widening into 18 platform roads. Between 5 and 6 pm 144 train movements take place. Liverpool Street is not unacquainted with intense service, of course, the "Jazz" having been reckoned to be the most intense in the world. As John Betjeman remarked about the "county" and business passengers arriving at Liverpool Street: "The ladies go second class, most of the men go first, except of course the vicars."

The station was built on the cathedral plan, with nave, aisle and transept - at this time, the redevelopment plans for the station are just being formulated and there is a campaign to retain as many of the existing buildings as possible. And so we arrive at our destination. No longer should this line be called "The Sweedie". It has an important function as a passenger railway, conveying boat train and other "customers" and now handles Ford motor cars and oil traffic. Well done Iain, who had reproduced this journey of almost 30 years ago using the latest technology. He was warmly congratulated with a round of applause.

And so, yet another visit to Brentwood was over - the crowd made its weary but contented way home. Dave Zelly tells me that before our next visit the Brentwood Theatre will have new dressing rooms, so best wishes to them with the building work!

Map courtesy of Iain Scotchman. The pictures of Trowse swing-bridge kindly supplied by Martin Fargher.

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