In this week’s post, returning guest author Gordon Dudman reflects upon the start of his railway career – a formative influence, but one which had a tragic end. Gordon noted that it was, sadly, a good demonstration of how the system might fail individuals. This is taken from the career autobiography that Gordon is currently writing – the whole book promises to make for some very interesting reading.
You can read Gordon’s other posts here.
Michael (Jock) Carlin, one of the two resident signalmen at Rowfant, West Sussex, had an interest in railway enthusiasts – for no other reason that if he taught us the ropes of running the signal box, he could then slip away for a quick drink in the bar at nearby Rowfant House.
Jock was one of life’s characters. He held a licence to trap rabbits on railway land. Rabbits are a bit of a nightmare for railway engineers since their burrowing can quickly de-stable embankments. One simple way to control them was to grant permits to employees to keep them under control. You could only use traps; shooting or poisoning was not permitted. The thing with rabbits as Jock explained to me, you had to keep them alive and then dispatch them very quickly. The first thing you then did was to squeeze their bladder to drain away their urine; if you just allowed them to die, the urine would very quickly taint the meat making it bitter and not particularly pleasant to eat.
From conversations with Jock, I got the impression that as a boy he and his parents had moved from Glasgow to Anstey in the 1930s. Working initially as a farm boy he became a gardener. By the early 1950s he joined the railway and whilst living in Balcombe he became the porter signalmen at Rowfant. It was probably his farming background that enabled Jock to determine the best time and place to set traps. I rather suspect that the selling of fresh rabbits provided a small source of income that allowed him to drink regularly when on late turns at Rowfant House. The process was well established when I joined the “roster” and was “passed out” as competent to operate Rowfant box. You caught the 5.25pm train from East Grinstead and you worked the box for the next couple of hours until Jock popped back from the club at around about 9 o’clock so you could catch the 10 past 9 train back to East Grinstead. Looking back at it now, it seems quite extraordinary that neither the signalmen at Three Bridges or East Grinstead were ever concerned enough about the operation of the bells and the train staff system to raise any concerns with their managers. Even more so, that the drivers would happily surrender and accept the single line train staff from someone who was very clearly only 13 or 14 years of age.
Perhaps the most important lesson that Jock unwittingly taught me was the perils of drinking whilst on duty. In those early days, the danger that Jock presented to both himself and the railway more generally never occurred to me. Sadly, it was drink that would lead indirectly to an early death. Now much effort is put in by the industry to help and support employees who suffer from problems associated with both drugs and alcohol. In the late 1960s it was simply seen as a lack of self-control and was something to be dealt with as a disciplinary offence. In part, this attitude reflected that a goodly number of frontline managers and inspectors had either served in the armed forces during World War 2 or had done National Service. There was a widespread belief that these things were best dealt with by applying the formal discipline.
After closure of Rowfant, Jock found himself, “accommodated” as a signalman at Balcombe Tunnel Junction. This term was a euphemism applied to the process of getting staff displaced, as stations and depots closed, into unfilled and nearly always unloved jobs on lines that continued to function. He absolutely hated it. For those that do not have an intimate knowledge of the Brighton Line, the signal box was located at the point where the Brighton Line reduces from 4 tracks down to 2, a few miles south of Three Bridges. Balcombe Tunnel Junction sits on the edge of Tilgate Forest and the only sensible approach was to take a ¾ mile walk through Brantridge Woods from “Tunnel Cottages” perched off the B2110 and sitting atop Balcombe Tunnel. This pair of cottages were, at the time, occupied by members of the local permanent way gang and their families, and were the only souls you were likely to encounter on a shift. I was able to cycle out on a Saturday to visit Jock when he was late turn, but it was a long hard ride and even then, it always struck me as a bleak place.
There was an unofficial route from Parish Lane (Pease Pottage) but involved a scramble down a rather steep cutting and then a trackside walk to the signal box. It was well known that Dick Blake, one of the other regular signalmen, used to cycle along the ‘cess’ next to the down fast line from Three Bridges! The facilities, even in the 1960s, were primitive. Although there was electricity, there was only a chemical toilet and no running water. This came in a pair of 6-gallon containers, one of which arrived each weekday on the evening mail train from Brighton. It travelled with the driver and the container of fresh water was swapped for the empty one. On Saturdays, it was delivered by a mid-day light engine move from Lover’s Walk to Redhill. No fresh water was delivered on a Sunday.
I guess the warning signs were always there; in particular when a report circulated of Jock not getting home after a late turn and being found asleep at the side of the road, apparently having fallen off his moped the worse for drink. Unsurprisingly, his drinking on late turns became so noticeable that one evening after several trains had been stopped unnecessarily at red signals he was relieved of duty and initially suspended. The railway discipline process resulted in Jock being suspended for 3-days and given a final warning. Within a few months, he was caught, in what I would later know as a “Gotcha”: he was found by the District Inspector and the Three Bridges Station Manager the worse for wear for drink. He was never to return to signalling. Initially threatened with dismissal, he was given a last chance and found himself working as a permanent way track man.
Unwittingly he was to teach me another lesson in life – one that I would remember at several points in my own railway career: formal discipline generally does not result in changed behaviour. Rather, it can easily be seen by staff as little more than something to swallow and then get on with daily life. The formal process of discipline failed Jock. I suspect his managers were more than aware of his nature, but the only option, at the time, was to use the formal discipline process. Having been removed from the signal box he was then actually placed in an even more dangerous situation, working out on the track. Yes, there were a Ganger and a Sub-Inspector but their priorities were certainly not to keep an eye-open for Jock, but to maintain a railway safe for the passage of trains. So it was, at about 11:00 on the morning of Thursday 12 April 1973 he was walking back to his gang, carrying a large pot of tea. Walking in the four-foot in the direction of travel, clearly thinking of other things, he failed to respond to a warning shouted by his gang members. Evidently the post mortem revealed only trace levels of alcohol in his blood; it was thought that this was part of the natural post-death decay process. It remains to this day a very real risk when walking on or about the track: over-familiarity with the task in hand or simple distraction, such that you fail to see, or respond to, danger. As in so many cases, we will never know what distracted Jock that April morning. The Railway Inspectorate report also presumed that he was distracted and failed to recognise the danger from an approaching train. He was just 61 and left behind a wife and two daughters.
About the author
This is me, aged 14, running the signal box at Rowfant after school one late afternoon in the Autumn of 1966; a few months before the line closed at the end of that year. A year later and I started my railway career, working as a Booking Lad in the Signal Box at Haywards Heath.
My interest in genealogy was sparked by watching the BBC’s “Heir Hunters” and the realisation that the digitisation of so much historical data meant it was quite easy to build family trees. My first attempt came after I spotted a Tweet asking if anyone knew about Private Jacob Rivers, a railwayman VC holder. Within a couple of hours, I was able to suggest a couple of names and telephone numbers of likely living relatives. This resulted in a gathering some months later of some 150 relatives, some meeting each other for the first time, at the unveiling of a memorial to Jacob at Derby station.
Since then I have investigated the backgrounds of notable railway families along with all 12 names on a WW1 memorial in the Parish Church at Chacombe; again, this time uniting a family to the grave of a great grandfather.
 Railway jargon for the space between the running rails and linked to the gauge being 4 feet 8½ inches. Other related expressions are the “six-foot” for the gap between each set of running lines and the “Cess” the spaces on either side of the track.