The last station master
Frank Thompson saw the end of an era: he was a figure in an age we shall never know again. Frank was the last station master of Elmswell
Story by PAUL CHAPMAN
Quite early one morning a woman walked into the modest but dignified entrance to Elmswell railway station and enquired of the station master whether she could catch a train to get her to Birmingham by 1.30 pm.
As it happened, she had turned up just in time for some very good timetable connections. “Certainly, madam” replied the station master, “in fact you can get there for 1.15 pm.” The woman asked for the names of all the stations at which the train would stop en route. The station master obliged with that information. And would you be kind enough to write down on paper the times at which the train arrives at those stations?” she asked. “Certainly, madam,” replied the station master.
But then, driven by curiosity, he asked her why she wanted to know all this. “Well,” the woman replied, “I have just bought a second-hand motor-cycle and I am not sure how it will get on when I make the journey.”
His world changed
Frank Thompson relates that tale, and many another, with the relish of a man who thoroughly enjoyed his job. Now he relaxes in retirement, at a fit 76 years old, in his house in Woodside Close, off Mayfield Road, Bury St Edmunds. Frank saw the end of an era: he was the last station master at Elmswell and for the last two years of that time, also had Thurston under his wing.
His world changed when the stations became unstaffed halts in 1967 and pay trains were introduced as the only viable way of keeping the service running. The station master’s post was abolished. That was a far cry from Frank’s heyday when each of the stations had two porters, three signalmen and Elmswell also had a clerk.
“We used to have something like 50 trains a day passing through in each direction,” recalled Frank. “The busiest place in my time was the bacon factory at Elmswell. That had its own sidings and, before they had a fleet of lorries, we handled many wagon loads of bacon. Moyse’s coal yard was another busy place. But Elmswell was a very busy station during the war. It was the nearest station to Great Ashfield airfield and, as well as the personnel, tons and tons of bombs were handled.” Frank remembers Elmswell station as being beautifully kept – with rambling roses along the platforms, everything sparkling clean, and every bit of brass shining like gold. It was forever winning awards for the best kept station. “The porters had plenty of time on their hands and they were very proud of the station,” he said.
Frank is a Yorkshireman – “one hundred per cent” he says -and began his 51-year career on the railways at Dewsbury. During the war he became station master at Alverthorpe in Yorkshire. And some years later he took a similar post at Rippingale, near Bourne in Lincolnshire.
The days of steam
In March 1959 he and his wife Winnie moved to Elmswell. He spent eight years as station master, the last two of which included responsibility for Thurston as well. But then, in 1967, came the big changes. Frank had to relinquish his job just 18 months before he was due to retire – and spent the last months of his career filling minor jobs in Bury and Ipswich. “I felt very sad at having to leave that job. But at least the pay trains are better than losing the service altogether.”
He remembers with affection the days of steam: when at least two Britannias thundered through the station every day, one hauling a boat train from Harwich to Liverpool. “Everybody in a village thinks they could do the station master’s job – they see him walking about the platform with his gold-braided hat. But he has got to be a Jack of all trades.
Body on the line
“I remember, at four o’clock one morning there was a clatter on the front door at Station House, where we lived. A driver was there and he said ‘Your signalman’s flat on the floor and the trains are lined up, waiting to move’.
“I had to ring Stowmarket and get a doctor and ambulance and take over the job myself. You have to be able to do everything.”
At another time Frank spent Saturday and Sunday nights helping with enqineering work over a seven week period. And he remembers the time when a train was held up at Thurston in thick fog. The guard got out to place detonators – explosive warning device on the line and the driver set off without him. When the train got to Elmswell Frank had to climb aboard and act as guard as far as Stowmarket. The guard got on a later train.
“But one of the worst moments was one evening about nine o’clock when a driver came and reported that he had seen a body on the line at Thurston. “I stopped the next train that came along and we detached the engine and went to have a look. As you came up to the ‘body’ it looked, in the half-light, just like someone in a raincoat. “It turned out to be a six-toot length of corrugated paper-and that was a great relief to me.”
He recalls with pleasure his dealings with the travelling public. “There was the girl who rang up from London to say she had just got to Liverpool Street and found she had forgotten her passport. She asked if I would go and get it for her and put it on the next train. I did.
“Then there was the woman who came to the station with two little boys and asked what was the fare to London. “I said ‘You only have to pay for yourself, madam, children under three travel free.’ “She said ‘Oh, thank goodness I’ve only got the two, then’.”
Frank made a point of getting out and about and meeting people. In fact, he became a familiar figure in Elmswell. He was treasurer of the parochial church council, secretary and treasurer of the bowls club, and a member ot the village hall committee.
His wife Winnie – they celebrated their golden wedding earlier this year – was secretary and president of the local WI. When Station house was sold off by British Rail they bought it-and lived there until just about a year ago. Then they moved to Bury to be nearer their family.
“It’s probably just as well I retired when I did,” laughed Frank. “I think I was the last station master at Alverthorpe, I was definitely the last one at Rippingale, and I had that distinction at Elmswell and Thurston.
“If I’d have gone on I would probably have been the last man on the railway by now!”