Life at Fossway Crossing
This month’s blog is all about the life and work of a crossing keeper who worked and lived at Fossway Crossing on the South Staffs Line, just south of Lichfield.
We met up with her Grandson, Iain who lives in Scotland, to talk about his childhood memories of when he used to spend the summer holidays at his Gran’s helping her out at Fossway.
Thursday 26th July 2012. 6.30pm Location: Fossway Crossing/ Signal Box
Iain contacted us through the SSR website last year, after his son in law, who lives in the Black Country, spotted the Bescot to Lichfield video footage on the main home page. Iain, who was born in Kilmarnock Scotland, was overwhelmed when he saw the video on South Staffordshire Railway website. This was especially so, because as the Bescot men passed Fossway crossing, they can be heard clearly talking about Iain's Gran being the crossing keeper. Iain contacted us in mid July, saying that he was coming down to Lichfield to attend a wedding, and arranged to meet up to talk about his times at Fossway as a young boy at his Gran’s.
Crossing Keepers Cottage
It was in 1946 when Emily moved into the crossing keeper’s cottage at Fossway. The small cottage was railway owned, so came as part of the job for the crossing keeper. Iain explained that the railway cottage had no hot water, just a single cold tap in the Kitchen, this was also were the tin bath was located. The toilet was located outside. There was a cellar down some stone steps Emily had to boil water for Iain to have a bath. There was obviously no central heating and no double glazing. It felt very damp, but Iain loved it.
The cottage was painted black or as Iain always says, it was the soot from all the steam engines going by which gave it its black appearance. The up line was only about 1.5 metres from the side of the cottage, this meant that each time a train went by the whole house used to shake. Iain used to run outside when a train came, he would run through the veranda and into the garden of the cottage. There was a gate in the fence at one end of the garden. Here he would stand and hang outside on the gate. He was so close to the moving train, he could nearly touch it.
In the hot dry summers, the steam trains use to set fire to the grass in the cutting, as well as leaving soot all over Emily’s washing she used to peg out in the narrow garden.
Iain used to visit his Gran from 1958 when he came as a six month old baby to the cottage for the first time. In 1973 Iain left school, but still had every holiday down at Fossway for many years.
At work at Fossway
At around 6pm, Emily would have her tea and spend the summer evenings in the Signal Box. The instruments would go quite, but on the odd occasions the needles on the instruments above the levers would move on either the up or down line, then she knew she had to get the two huge keys (Annett Keys) ready to open the gates. These were like two heavy cast iron rifles used to secure the gates and unlock the levers for the crossing signals. She would swing the gates across the road, as the gates were permanently across the tracks. Once the gates had been opened the next step was to put them the keys into the floor panel and turn them to allow the operation of the levers to set the signals to clear. Emily’s hours were long, 6pm to 8am, 7 days a week.
Fossway Signal Box Explained
Iain explained the layout of the Signal Box in which he helped his Gran pull the levers for the signals.
There used to be steps straight up to the door from ground level outside. As you walk through the door, on the left hand side there was a wooden stool, and a sloped desk for the train register. In the middle on the back wall there was a fire place, and to the right of that there was a comfy chair. Just above the chair in the corner was the phone secured to the wall. The levers and instruments were located in front of the large track facing window. Iain could never pull the levers nor could his dad, but his Gran was very strong and could pull the levers with no effort. During the day the signal man would sit in the Box and as it was a quiet line, in between trains, the signalman would make paper models.
Plan of Fossway Signal Box – How Iain remembers it (not to scale)
Iain explained that he was always very curious on what was hidden away underneath the Signal box, as Ian became older he would ask his Gran what lay beneath and eventually on occasions she would get a big key to open the door. There use to be a big hammer hanging on the wall to fix the wooden blocks which held the rails in place on the sleepers (this was before the iron clips). Iain would pick up the big hammer and help to bash in the blocks in between the tracks. He always remembered that he went so far down the track and he always remembered his Gran shouting, “Don’t go too far you will be run over”.
Every Friday Iain and his Gran would go shopping into Lichfield, this would be also a visit to Lichfield city station to pick up Emily’s wages from Station Master. The Station Master would give Iain a little brown envelope, and once opened he would find half a crown. Iain explained that he was made up that the railway was paying him a wage for hammering the blocks in, but he later found out it was taken out of his Gran’s wages, which was a bit of a letdown.
Fossway was Iain’s six weeks school holiday, 6 wonderful weeks with the best Gran in the world. For the last two weeks Iain’s parents would come down for their holiday. Iain never had a toy train set, mainly because he had a real one! Iain was never bored; he used to play up and down beside the railway and the old canal which used to be beside the railway. Iain still clearly remembers the year 1825 inscribed on the brickwork of the canal. It was an adventure playground. Iain comments “It was probably the happiest time of my life as a youngster, I would love to re-live a day with my Gran with the trains rolling by again”. Emilys Life “Fossway Crossing Keeper” Emily was born in 1905 and became crossing keeper in 1946 Emily lost her first husband after the war and in 1957 she married again to a Norman Baker, he was a plate layer/ track maintenance on the Fossway section of the South Staffordshire line, that’s how they met each other, but sadly Norman died in 1963. Soon after Emily fell over and broke her hip; her relatives in Burntwood felt she couldn’t cope by herself, so she moved in with them. Emily who also only had only one eye through cataracts stayed the rest of her life with relatives in the Burntwood area. Meanwhile British Rail did not replace the crossing keeper and the house fell into disrepair. Emily died in 1994 age 89, Iain always visit’s her grave in Wall each time he’s down from Scotland. A local farmer/ contractor who lives at Fossway farm bought the cottage and land off British Rail, he had it for a number of years before he sold it to a developer. Iain had a phone call from he’s relatives in Burntwood saying it a sad day, as they are knocking down Gran’s house. Iain managed to get down to Fossway before all the house was taken away. He managed to take a brick from the house as a memorial.
Iain’s cousin (Rob Evans) painted a picture of the Railway Cottage and Signal Box as a wedding gift for Iain back in the 1970’s. Iain took a copy of the painting of his Gran’s house to the new house on the site of Emily’s cottage, to the occupiers, who proudly have it framed in there hallway today.