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April 2016 Meeting Report

A Country Railway Station by Helen Harwood

Helen started her talk with a photo of Shelford station taken in 1911. It showed the booking hall with the station master's living quarters above it. In the background was a flour mill, and on the other side of the tracks was a coal yard. Freight was the larger part of the business at that time, and there were quite a few businesses which relied on the railway based around the station.

In the 1700s roads were the main way of travelling and goods could only be moved in horse drawn wagons; this meant mud in winter and dust in summer in the days before macadamised roads. With the coming of the industrial revolution something better was needed. Canal fever raged and there were plans to make a canal from Bishop’s Stortford to Cambridge, but not for the last time, the money could not be raised to finance it. Next came the railway fever and there were plans to build a line from London to York through Cambridge to take coal to London. This route had the advantage of being relatively flat, which was an important consideration in the early days of rail. Once again finance was a problem and initially the line only went from Bishop’s Stortford to Newport, but by 1845 Shelford was on the railway map, and there was a grand opening with all the great and the good in carriages, and the band of the Coldstream Guards playing in an open truck at the rear.

The line was built by hand by navvies, with bricks being made on site as they went along. The dangers of travel by rail were not recognised by local people, even when trains were only travelling at 26 m.p.h. At this time engines had no brakes if people or wagons crossed the line in front of them, and an accident at Shelford in 1859 made headlines in the London Illustrated News. Hot cinders from the engines were also a constant hazard for ripening crops next to the line. Children throwing stones were another problem, breaking windows, and in one case knocking the guard off the train which resulted in them being sent to prison for one month. Advertisements in papers took advantage of better communications to Liverpool and Southampton to encourage emigration to the colonies and America.

Shelford station had a staff of 13 men at this time including the station manager and three men responsible for constantly checking the track was in good condition. Two men were employed at the Signal Box at the level crossing. The branch line to Haverhill was single track, so the signalmen had to operate a token system to ensure that only one train was on the line at a time.

Level crossings were a danger spot, and there was an accident at the Granhams Road crossing as late as 1960, which finally resulted in an automatic barrier being installed. The votes for women movement by the Suffragettes did a great deal of damage around the country and may have been the cause of a paraffin can "bomb" being found at Shelford, fortunately before it could do any harm.

After the Second World War the railways were very run down. Freight is what made money, but lorries and cars were taking over traditional rail business. Lord Beeching's reforms of the railways led to extensive closures. At Shelford both the flour mill and the coal yard closed. Modern electronics made most station staff redundant, but Tony Keeble, and now Angela Milton are highly regarded for their exemplary service in providing customers with the best price tickets. Ron Gooch is also recognised with a blue plaque for his 49 years of service, first as a "knocker-up", later as a fireman and driver, and finally as a station adopter at Shelford keeping the station clean and attractive.

Jim Butchart

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