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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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