by Bob Wright

In a previous article I mentioned visits I was fortunate enough to make, to Middleton Junction West signal box and of a signalman who once worked there by the name of Harry Roberts. It has been over 35 years since I was last in that box (it has gone now anyway and I don't know if Harry is still alive either) but the memories of the many times spent at MJW remain clear to this day.

Railways have always held a fascination for me, but, as I could never bring myself to the stage of joining the number-takers and rivet-counters in their pursuit of excellence, I settled for signalling as a hobby, interest, pastime, call it what you will - a subject for much further study over the years, something to indulge. Time was not of importance.

Books of reference were always a problem. Until fairly recently i.e. the last 10 years or so, books on the subject of signalling were just not being published. Those that were available were difficult to find. All I had to go by those years ago in the 60’s was a copy of the Rule Book, the Block Signalling Regulations and the General, Regional and Sectional appendices - with the odd WTT (passenger and freight) thrown in for good measure. I still have them. Plus, I should add, I benefited from the patience of a number of railwaymen who took the time and trouble to pass their knowledge along.

So, for a lad keen on signalling the theory was not a problem, but how to practice the art? Well, I lived in Swansea and as my father was a Master Mariner with BP he was away for a year at a time and always at school holidays. We had relations in Manchester (aunt and uncle) and while most families would travel to the seaside for holidays, what did we do instead (mother, sister Tracy and me) – we went to Manchester! Via, I might add, the Central Wales line (but you've read about that before – CW Line – Bottom End). Going away from the sea, up North, for a holiday, was considered to be quite odd by my schoolmates, but, in retrospect, I rather think that I scored extra points in the end!

I achieved a basic signalling knowledge over time, on countless Saturday and holiday visits, at the signal boxes at Swansea Bay - Nos. 2 and 1, Mumbles Road and Dunvant. Solid experience in itself, but Middleton Junction West was the chance to be able to gain big-box, heavy-traffic experience. Heady stuff indeed for a mere 13 / 14-year-old! And all, I might add, totally against BR’s rules and regulations, but does that really matter any more? Harry was a friend of my aunt and uncle living in Middleton and, without further ado; I shall now get to the point and to where the action starts!

Middleton Junction West was a typical and really quite unprepossessing L & Y signal box. It was a functional piece of equipment, no more, no less, which, when built in 1882, had none (required none!) of the adornments of other lines boxes. That aside, MJW had a job to do and do it well it did for 108 years until 1990 when it was deemed of no further use, was time expired and was destroyed.

This general view of Middleton Junction was taken one (evidently) quiet Sunday in 1956. By the time of Bob's visit, some of the layout had been remodelled, but the splendid bracket signal by the box remained up to the closure of the box. To the right of the box the Oldham line branches off, through a covered section of the station. On the far right a splendid L&Y lower quadrant four arm shunting signal stands.
Looking through the station on the main line, Middleton Junction's signals can be seen, all in the "off" position because it is Sunday and the box is switched out. The box can barely be seen in the haze.
Photograph by the late Ian Scrimgeour, courtesy Signalling Record Society Photographic Collection.

I remember it very well. Situated at the end of the Up Platform at Middleton Junction station in the vee of the branch to Oldham Werneth, it was just about 5 miles from Manchester Victoria at the beginning of the Calder Valley line. This ran on through Castleton (junction to Bury) Rochdale (through Summit tunnel [1 mile 1,125 yards and 537 ft above sea level), Todmorden, crossing the LMR / NE regional boundary just before Hebden Bridge and on to Halifax / Bradford (at Sowerby Bridge) and Leeds.

Boxes adjacent to Middleton Junction West were Vitriol Works (VW) in the Manchester direction at 702 yards; Middleton Junction East (MJE) at the other end of the Station - an incredibly short 145 yards away (MJE controlled the double line junction to the town of Middleton a mile or so away) and the junction proper, formerly to Chadderton Junction box (CJ), 410 yards distant. At a later date, after a rationalisation of the lines, the Block was through to Oldham Werneth itself (after CJ’s closure after a fire in May of 1960).

This was, perhaps, one of MJW’s (possibly its only?) claim to fame. The Werneth incline - 1 mile 1,383 yards box to box - was the steepest passenger worked railway line in Britain, with a gradient of 1:27 for about a mile. I say passenger worked because there were steeper gradients elsewhere on British Railways, but for freight traffic only. The "other" Middleton I hear you say!

The arrangement of the running lines in the area was as follows - with the Up line towards Manchester Victoria - Up and Down Main lines from Castleton East Junction, Mills Hill, Middleton Junction East, Middleton Junction West, Vitriol Works and beyond to Moston and Newton Heath. Between Mills Hill and East Junction there were Up and Down Loops and between Junction West and Vitriol Works there was an additional Down Goods and opposite an Up Slow (the Up Main between the two being renamed the Up Fast for all of 700 yards!) There was also an Up and Down Through Siding (U & DTS) telephone worked, adjacent to the Up Slow from Junction West to Vitriol, which I believe is still there today as the direct line to Chadderton goods yard.

Layout diagrams

Click here to view the track layout and signalling at Middleton Junction as inspected by the Ministry of Transport in 1903. Regrettably the plan does not show the lever numbering, although it gives a total of 62 levers. This maybe a transcription error, and probably should read 52, in other words this plan probably shows the same lever frame that was in use when the box closed, before the additional levers were added. Courtesy Public Records Office, Kew.

Click here to view the track layout as it was at 1962.

Most internet browsers will open this plans in a separate browser window, allowing you to continue reading the article and compare the plan.

There was a light falling gradient in the Up direction (this Up is "down" business again!) generally of +/- 1:150 - 200 but more or less level through the station. The track curved from Castleton but was dead straight from Mills Hill to Vitriol works with a curve again to Moston. The loops between Mills Hill and Jcn East don't concern us here.

The Up and Down Branch to Werneth (previously to Chadderton Junction) had probably the biggest "Up", Down the 1:27 incline on the whole of BR and the terminology appears at first sight to be a bit stupid were it not for the fact that lines towards a major city were always named Up. Chadderton Junction box before closure (it burned down) provided access to a single goods line of 1,097 yards to Chadderton Goods Yard, which was subsequently controlled from Junction West - One Engine in Steam etc., (with Staff?).

All running lines were Semaphore signalled, Absolute Block. The Down Goods and Up Slow were Permissive worked, with the latter only for non-passenger trains however. The reversible U & DTS was telephone worked to / from Vitriol Works. Additionally, on the Down side of the running lines was a large goods yard (complete with big L & Y freight shed) and on the Up side a number of carriage and wagon sidings.

What I have described above was the track layout in 1962/4 or thereabouts. Prior to this time a double junction had existed at Middleton Junction West from Oldham on the Werneth line, but was re-laid Up Branch / Up Slow a year or two before when the Up Branch to Up Fast connection was taken out.

It is interesting to note at this point, that Junction West signalbox had two lever frames before the changes. A frame of 52 levers facing the Mains and a small 8 lever frame at the rear of the box which controlled the Branch and crossover on the branch platform lines (platforms 3 and 4). This was removed when the noted changes to the layout were made. Therefore, MJW was not a conventional oblong box but had a bay window arrangement where the small frame was formerly located. Very neat if slightly trapezoidal! The old bay window area latterly and at the time of my visits was where the signalmen’s lockers were placed!

Junction West boasted an illuminated TC diagram whilst the adjacent boxes only had a regular line diagram with TC indicators on the Block shelf. Block instruments were of typical Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway pattern with bell plunger centered in the commutator and bells separately placed at the side. The Block Instrument for the Down Goods was a typical Permissive instrument with train counter for that line. This also had a flap showing "Absolute" as a reminder, when the Up Slow was not being worked Permissively, for passenger trains.

In addition to full Track Circuiting on the Mains, Junction West had Welwyn Control with One-Pull working, Electric Catch Handle locks etc., and you could just hear that imperceptible click, and watch the Block go to Train On Line, moments after Train Entering section was received and as the trains struck-in at the Home signals berth circuits.

Middleton Junction West Up Homes
Middleton Junction West Up Homes. The right-hand doll applies along the Up Fast (with Vitriol Works' distant below) and the centre doll towards the Up Slow. The left-hand doll formerly carried a small arm reading to the Up & Down Through Sidings.

When the layout was rationalised the frame was re-locked in the convention on the LMR at that time of having the commonly used levers being centrally placed. This meant that the Down Main running line signals – Distant (under Vitriol Works Down Home) and Home (no Starter) were numbered 26 and 27 (28 being Junction Home for the Werneth Branch). In the up direction the Up Main Home (termed along Up Fast and again no Starter) was No. 32. Numbers 36 and 37 were Up Main to Up Slow and U & DTS. A picture of this imposing bracket signal, taken by John Hinson, is shown on the right.

MJW had no less than four Up Main Distants – Nos. 33, 34, 35 and 35 motor, on the mentioned falling gradient, beneath the Homes of Junction East and Mills Hill. Very Lancashire Belt and Braces caution was this for a 1:150 / 200 stretch of line, but it was very straight! Inner Distant No. 33 was slotted under the Junction East, Up Middleton Branch to Up Main Home as well as the Up Main Inner Home protecting the junction.

Number 34 was slotted under Junction East Up Main Outer Home and Exit Home from the loop there from Mills Hill. Number 35 was under Mills Hill Starter and the 35 motor was under Mills Hill Up Home on the bracket with the entry Home for the loop - something like a mile away. This lever had an adjacent foot bracket to give the signalman, when pulling it, at least the sporting chance of getting it past "Wrong" on the repeater. The Distant from Werneth was Fixed, but would have been numbered 52 in the frame of 52 levers as mentioned, had it been connected. I hope that all this is clear?

Back on the Down side again, lever numbers 7 and 8 controlled the Down Goods with the latter the exit Down Goods Home to Down Main (in essence the Starter as there was no signal in advance). There was no access from the Goods line to the Werneth Branch though after the lines were re-laid in the late '50's. Finally, all the other levers operated discs, points, FPL’s with the exception of lever number 6 which was the Interlocking lever with Vitriol Works for reverse working along the U & DTS. There were four spare levers - 4, 5, 47 and 52 as mentioned and no Detonator Placing Machines. Additionally, there was a telephone on the post of signal 46 - exit from the Chadderton Sidings line to Up Werneth Branch - for drivers to call for the road to leave the sidings and TCI's (Track Circuit Interrupters) installed on points 25 (Trap - Down Werneth Branch / Down Main) and on the siding-end of points 45 (Chadderton Sidings / Up Werneth Branch).

One final piece of trivia: the berth TC’s for the Down and Up Homes (27 and 32 etc.) were numbered 8450 and 8451 under the old LMS system of assigning numbers to Track Circuits. All other TC’s at Junction West were sequentially numbered (simply) from 1 through 10 without reference to the signal they controlled. If I recall, the LMS numbering system was to satisfy a requirement of the old Board of Trade, to prove in returns to them, that Home signals were being berth circuit protected and to keep a tally of the number actually installed countrywide.

So, there you have it. Middleton Junction West basically described (I hope) without the aid of a track diagram (for the time being). I shall leave this article at this point and come back to it later with some commentary about the actual box working and the occasion (evening) that I was there when the all terrible 6 beats came through on the Block! You see, Harry even laid that on for me! Well, not quite.

Harry later transferred down the line to Rochdale East Junction – a two man box, all 88 levers of it, and in a future article I hope to present some background too on that signalbox and some others in the vicinity of that busy station in the early 1960’s.

Thanks to the Signalling Record Society and John Hinson for the photographs and for providing (and Dave Harris for sending) Sectional Appendix information.

Part 2 >

Comments about this article should be addressed to Bob Wright