#1007. Desperate Times (documenting the last of the steam giants)

By Paul Perton | Interview

May 25

Author Mike Peart is something of a luminary in railway preservation in the UK. Back at a time when British Railways was making the owners of England’s scrapyards wealthy, he (and four friends) founded the Great Western Society to preserve some of the railway history that was being swept away with such indecent haste. That would have been enough for many, but even then, Mike took a fair photograph, too.


This is a story of railway photography in the early 1960s. We were young railway enthusiasts living in West London, still at grammar school doing our ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams. We had graduated from early teens’ trainspotting to railway photography along with dreams in 1960 of preservation and running our own railway line.

Locomotive 2853 heading an up freight train through Ealing Broadway in spring 1962. This was the last few months of service for this 1913 veteran which had worked hauling heavy freight for 49 years, including two world wars. (Werra, FP3 1/250th @ f 2.8)
0-4-2 tank locomotive 1421 shunting at Slough in spring 1961 (Brownie photo) The Slough Middle signal box on the right was still working and the new Slough signalling panel building is still being built on the left. That has now closed!
An unidentified “King” class locomotive heading the up “Red Dragon” express at West Drayton in spring 1962. The last few months of service for this loco. (Werra, FP3 1/250th @ f2.8)
A 28XX class 2-8-0 freight loco with an up freight in heavy snow near Reading on 31st December 1961. (Werra + snow filter on HP4. Probably 1/60th @ f2.8)

We realised only too well that ‘the times they are a-changin’ – we got that in before Bob Dylan in 1964! The world of characterful steam locomotives that we knew and loved on the main line out of London’s Paddington station to the west of England was disappearing fast – only to be replaced by soulless diesel units and locomotives. In our desperation there was a real compulsion for us to record these familiar scenes before they all disappeared.

My equipment to start with was primitive to say the least. I used a black plastic Kodak Brownie camera that took size 127 film. Did we always remember to wind the film on or not? A few double exposures suggest not. With a shutter speed I think of 1/60th it was fine for anything that stood still, but no good for anything moving! My father had a developing tank and chemicals and I was fortunate enough to be able to develop my own films in a crudely blacked-out bathroom at home.

Printing was expensive and beyond me, but at least I had the negatives. I earned my pocket money by working in an ironmonger’s shop and delivering Aladdin Pink paraffin with a bicycle and trailer. This was supplemented by doing gardening jobs for my paraffin customers and by mid-1961 I had enough money to buy a Werra 35mm camera. This had the advantage of a Zeiss lens and a range of shutter speeds up to 1/750th so that blurred images of fast-moving trains were to be no more.

5032 “Usk Castle” getting ready to work in the organised mess of Old Oak Common shed in summer 1962. This smart locomotive was withdrawn very soon after. (Werra FP3 1/125th f4)
5001 “Llandovery Castle” running through Goring & Streatley station with an early morning stopping train from Paddington to Oxford in spring 1962. (Werra, FP3 1/250th f2.8)
4932 “Hatherton Hall” creates a storm leaving Exeter St Davids sharply with a stopping train to Bristol on a summer evening in 1962. (Werra, FP3 1/250th f2.8)
1907 vintage GWR express loco 4003 “Lode Star” is being taken into the original Swindon railway museum (a former chapel) in April 1962. This loco was withdrawn in 1951 and added to the National Collection. Swindon Works had done a fine job of restoration. (Werra, FP3, 1/125th @ f 4)

Monochrome Ilford FP3 film was cheaper than colour film, and those of us who had experimented with colour film brands at the time felt that some of the results were very disappointing. We found that one brand turned green railway locomotives blue while another brand exaggerated reds and yellows. The choice for me was easy – I knew I had a red/green colour vision defect and I decided to stick with cheaper monochrome film – a decision I’ve never regretted.

Working with FP3 in the camera in better light conditions, and the grainier HP4 during the winter months produced some reasonable results. I didn’t have a light meter at the time and initially used a plastic dial device to calculate exposures. Eventually I simply guessed and most of the time got it roughly right! I also experimented with integral colour filters in the lens hood which I think helped the images in particular conditions of such things as strong light and snow.

I sewed a crude poacher’s pocket into a donkey jacket that I often wore for railway trips, and this held the camera. The only other traps were spare film, a cable release and a lens brush.

My railway enthusiast friends and I were driven young men. In 1961 at the age of 16 we had started a railway preservation society and at the age of 17 I found myself chairing its inaugural meeting at Southall, West London. All our available spare time was spent cycling to railway locations to photograph as much as we could. Then some of our group got driving licences and longer trips were made in old bangers. We went further afield by train to visit regional locomotive depots and railway works where we could get pictures of stationary locomotives and rolling stock just for the record. Then using Rail Rover tickets, we travelled the length and breadth of Britain to cover as much of the railway system as we could afford to.

Mogul 6391 taken very early one early spring morning in 1962 in the bay platform at Reading General. I liked the early morning light on the smokebox door and the blackened signal sighting boards. (Werra, HP4 1/125th f2.8)
Mogul 6338 bustling though Cardiff General station on a wet day in winter 1961 with a freight train. (Werra, HP4 1/250th f2.8)
Steam effect from Prairie tank number 6133 on an up goods train in Sonning Cutting one early morning in spring 1962. (Werra, FP3 1/125th f2.8)
“Mogul” 5330 heading west from Reading General early one morning in spring 1962. The only clean thing about the loco is the cleaned logo on the tender! (Werra, FP3 1/250th f2.8, taken into early morning sunlight)
6021 “King Richard II” at a stop at Westbury in summer 1961 with an express to Plymouth from London. The crew member is looking out for the “right away” (Werra, FP3 1/250th f2.8)
5957 “Hutton Hall” on the turntable at Oxford locomotive shed in winter 1961 on an extremely frosty morning. (Werra FP3 1/125th f4)

As we developed in the hobby, I think we started to become somewhat scornful of the standard three-quarter front images that typified much of the published railway photography at the time. So, without having much of a basis of learning to work from, we did start to try to become more ‘artistic’ in what we were doing while paying attention to the background in our shots. One thing that bedevilled railway photography at the time was the sheer amount of lamp posts, signals and telegraph poles that sprouted distractingly out of the subjects we were trying to capture.

All the while I was still developing my own films and I was yearning to start printing some of the negatives. I eventually bought a cheap enlarger and enough hardboard to secure a completely dark bathroom which was obviously a great inconvenience to the rest of the household! Little by little I improved in printing out my own negatives and managing to turn some sows’ ears into silk purses by burning in what initially looked like featureless skies. For some reason at the time I preferred the lustre and matt papers which tended not to show so many of the dust specks and scratches that the glossy version appeared to. Even then, I only printed very few of the negatives I had.

Then along came my first job on the railway at a time of real staff shortages, so there was plenty of overtime and rather less time to spend travelling the network to capture what remained of steam traction. By this time, British Railways had virtually given up on steam traction and the locomotives that remained were poorly maintained, looked jaded and had valuable items such as nameplates and numberplates removed. These not very attractive – even depressing – sights were really a deterrent to decent railway photography and by 1964 I had stopped. I was still very involved with railway preservation matters although by then any photography I was doing was of the type normally done on family holidays. The Werra needed an expensive repair and for some reason I decided on buying a Ricoh Caddy half-frame camera. The prospect of getting over 70 shots on a roll of film was too good to miss but the quality suffered. 

A snowy Reading General station taken from a train 31/12/1961. Lines and signals covered in snow. (Werra, HP4, 1/125th f.2.8)
A row of six “Castle” class locomotives just arrived at Swindon Works at Easter 1962, all destined to be cut up. One of the saddest scenes I ever took a picture of. (Werra, FP3, 1/250th f2.8)
“Smoke and fury” A1 class 60129 “Guy Mannering” leaves Kings Cross in winter 1961 with an express to Newcastle. (Werra, HP4, 1/250th f.2.8)
Stanier 8F 48213 heads a fast freight train towards London’s Brent Yard through Elstree & Borehamwood station on a very wet day in winter 1961. (Werra, HP4, 1/250th f.2.8)
“Merchant Navy” class 35008 “Orient Line” takes water at Southampton before finishing the down journey with the “Bournemouth Belle” Pullman train. Summer 1961. Nice signal gantry and dock cranes in the distance. (Werra, FP3, 1/250th f2.8)
7003 “Elmley Castle” starting off steamily with a down express at Reading General in 1962. Photo taken just at the point the regulator is opened. (Werra, FP3 1/125th f2.8)

Fast forward to 2013. I had two folders full of neatly catalogued 35mm monochrome negatives of railway subjects and I felt that something should be done with them. I decided to review them all and listed the ones I wanted to be digitised. A local expert camera retail, repair and processing shop with an excellent reputation was contacted about the challenge. I was able to brief the man who would do all the work, and after several batches of negatives had been converted, I had several discs which contained all the images I had selected. Thanks to social media my images have now been seen by thousands, liked in many cases, commented upon and reproduced in various books and on websites and blogs.

The society I helped to found, the Great Western Society, now has a full set in its Didcot Railway Centre, Oxfordshire archive and uses some of the images in social media. I conclude they’re being put to good use and will be around and available for a long time to come. That’s reward enough for me – at least I saw and experienced all the original trains and subjects, albeit through a camera viewfinder while these magnificent machines were at work. My images simply bring it all back. 

Mike Peart Sheffield, UK May 2020

Sonning Cutting at daybreak on a misty morning in winter 1961 with the exhaust of two trains – you have to imagine the rest! (Werra, HP4, 1/60th f.2.8)

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  • Christopher says:

    Absolutely fascinating post Mike. Thank you. I am a little younger than you, but can just remember being taken down to Romford Station to see the last of the steam trains, by a neighbour.

  • Patrick says:

    What a lovely collection of train photos ! In my young days, we (in Hong Kong) have had our fair experience with such locomotives, connecting various districts in the New Territories. The recollections brought back many a memorable riding experience. The infrastructure is still there, but with the good old trains long replaced by the electric Mass Transit Railways. Thank you, Paul, for the wealth of train photos in the UK, and for bringing back the good old memories of my train experience.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Great work, and a good read, thanks!

    I can well understand that your photos were appreciated! And they seem to have found a good home!

    Personally, I find all the “smoky” photos lovely!
    – * –

    What a difference a couple of years and Sweden’s abundance of water power can make. Sweden electrified its main lines in the 1930s and -40s, and 1963 the very last regular steam traffic ceased.

    I remember the occasional steam engine in the 1950s, which was a real treat for a kid! (I began saving my pocket money for a model railroad.)

    I’m some two years younger, and when I began photographing in 1960 we had moved and on the railway through the next town there was no more steam.
    ( 1968 I spent a week in Budapest visiting relatives. Arriving at the railway station I started photographing the steam engines, but, alas, I was quickly told that it was forbidden!)

    Zeiss Jena made good stuff. 1/750 s! Most leaf shutter cameras ended with 1/500 s or less. And the Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens; for 6×6 cm the Tessar 75mm f/2.8 was soft, but the f/3.5 version was sharp.
    ( Leitz Elmar and Schneider Xenar, 50mm f/3.5, were of the same design.)

  • Peter Oosthuizen says:

    A really good dose of nostalgia for me! Beautiful images that fit the period perfectly. Thank you Mike for sharing.

    In S A we were fortunate to have steam until well into the 1970’s and as a boy I can remember mamny a train trip to and from family living in the country. I can also remember the odd soot particle in my eye.

    Probably the saddest railway connected sight was visiting Millsite near Johannesburg and seeing the beautiful old machines falling into decay.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Great stuff, Mike! Years back, I had a friend who was utterly besotted by the GWR. Same period you’re referring to, actually – although he started a little earlier.

    Knowing what takes to capture images like this – and I am certain Paul Perton will agree with me – I have to say these images are superb. It’s barely possible to believe you took some of them on your Brownie – my Brownie was a little earlier than yours, the classic “Box Brownie”, not the plastic one you mention. I can’t remember when I first graduated to Zeiss glass, but it was nothing fancy – a Bessa II 120 roll film folding camera.

    Your final shot has reminded me of a promise I made to Pascal Jappy a while ago – to send him some of my steam loco/train shots. The reason it reminds me is that conventional railway fanatics seem to have a deep seated conviction about taking those conventional photos that you mentioned – the standard 3/4 front pose for the engine, with everything else subservient to that. I went off at a tangent, and I’m afraid they didn’t appreciate it.

    Sorry to hear of your woes with processing. I started processing mine early on – I didn’t pinch the bathroom, I grabbed the cellar instead, so nobody really minded about it being blacked out. And of course it wasn’t really “black” – there was always a red safety light glowing above my head, as I worked. What did upset the family was what happened when I printed a batch of photos, and lay wet prints all over the living room and dining room floor, to dry.

    Colour in those days was hopeless. I had no interest in slide films, I only wanted prints. (Still feel much the same way about jpg images versus a print!) And most of the colour negative stuff was way below what we’re now familiar with – except Extrachrome, but you needed to get that stuff developed and printed at a horrendous cost, in a professional colour lab, so I didn’t do it very often. Digital came just in time for me, because at last (before I finally die) I can do my own colour processing and printing!

  • Frank Field says:

    Mike – Wonderful images, each and every one. Your earliest images may have been done with basic equipment but the images stand on their merits. Thank you for sharing these fine images and a bit of railway history. Frank

  • Dan says:

    Fantastic pictures. One does not need the latest Z7 to take engrossing pics!

  • Dave says:

    Hi Paul
    I really enjoyed your pictures
    Thank you

  • Steve Mallett says:

    What a wonderful post. Thanks Mike for the terrific images. Both my grandfathers worked “down the loco” in Derby, one a fitter and the other a joiner working on, amongst other things, Pullman carriages I believe. Travelling from St Pancras to Derby as a kid was serious excitement as was running downhill across a field waving to the driver who always waved back; different world.

  • Very nice, Mike. The power of photography! Take good care of these.

    Among others, I’m especially fond of Mogul 6391. It’s a very rich image — the man on the platform makes it — and I could see it as a nice big print. Beautiful!

    You may be interested in a photo of the last steam passenger train in Canada. It was taken by my father across the wing of a DC3 on a very cold and windy day in the winter of 1961. It’s in the preview of a Blurb book I put together using his photos: https://www.blurb.ca/books/6017745-northern-manitoba

  • philberphoto says:

    Superb subject and images! Thanks for sharing this with us. My favorites, if that matters, are the last two… and thanks again.

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