A collection of photographs of a lost South Yorkshire railway network, hidden in an attic for more than 30 years, forms the basis of a fascinating book which was published earlier this month. From Woodhead to Doncaster is both its title and the description of the area chronicled by former railwayman Fred Abson, who spent three years recording the former Manchester, Sheffield & Wath Railway (MS&WR) in remarkable detail before its closure.
From Woodhead to Doncaster
Rather than traditional images of trains, Fred, who worked on the railway from 1936 to 1983, concentrated on pictures of the infrastructure – signalboxes, junctions, level crossings and the vast Wath marshalling yard with its 36 miles of track – on lines the majority of which were modernised and electrified as recently as the 1950s but closed and were ripped up during the 1980s.
Fred’s collection of 35mm slides was rediscovered by his daughter Meryl White, who along with her sister Dee Stott, welcomed more than 40 family members, friends and former workmates of Fred (1918–1984) to the launch of the book, in Barnsley, on Friday 9 June. Meryl recalled how she was given a carrier bag full of slides by Dee, to look for old pictures of Meryl’s children, but then “put it in the loft, as you do”.
“Then five years ago I retrieved it and looked at the rest of the contents for the first time: all these slides of railway places, stations and signal boxes. I’d no idea where any of them were, though.”
Remembering the railways and Fred Abson
The audience also heard from former BBC North and Yorkshire Post transport correspondent, Alan Whitehouse, who talked about how the railways of the area provided so many jobs and touched so many lives, and how operating them required a unique set of skills which are slowly but surely being lost.
One of Fred’s former colleagues, Barry Graham, then recounted how Fred was one of the first people he met when he arrived at Wath in February 1974 as a young – and somewhat green – assistant area manager (operations) in charge of 640 staff, 43 signalboxes and a yard with the capacity to shunt 6,000 wagons a day but which by then was only handling a tenth of that number.
“Meryl showed the slides to Peter Fisher, an expert on the MS&WR. He said, ‘you’ve got to do a book’ with them and so we started on a journey that took four years and three months. It’s been a bit like a journey on Northern Rail at the moment, with Covid-19 shunting us into a siding for a while, but we’re very proud of the result and grateful to everyone who helped us along the way.”
“Fred was very modest, self-effacing but extremely knowledgeable,” he said. “He knew what he was talking about and I couldn’t have done the job without him. “The book is a fitting tribute to a first-rate railwayman. Fred would have been embarrassed by all the attention he’s getting today but it was a privilege to have known him.”
Record of the Woodhead to Doncaster railways
From Woodhead to Doncaster is a fascinating and important record of the railways on which Fred worked but perhaps its most fundamental – if unintended – message is how things which one generation sees as a permanent fixture are so often merely transient features, coming and going in the blink of an eye when set against the longer passage of time.
Perhaps Fred Abson had this notion in the back of his mind when he set out to record his everyday working environment back in 1979. Either way, the results of his efforts and the book in which they are now published have a value way beyond anything which can be expressed in pounds and pence.
These were lines which were built to serve the coal industry and which lost their purpose once that industry had run its course. It is sobering to consider, for example, that there are no more physical traces of Wath marshalling yard, which has been gone for less than 40 years, than there are of activities which might have been taking place on the same site 4,000 years ago.
Reflecting on the launch
Reflecting on the launch of From Woodhead to Doncaster, Meryl says:
“The day of the launch was exactly 11 years to the day since I launched Grandma Abson’s Traditional Baking book, so there would be no doubt that I would make a cake to celebrate with family, friends and railway enthusiasts. I made a Victoria Sandwich cake, just as Grandma would have done for a special occasion and decorated it with a collar of railway lines and special trains across the top. A magnificent railway cake for a railway festival with neither a track nor a train left by the end!
“Compiling From Woodhead to Doncaster has been a real labour of love. Growing up with my sister on a railway station left me with many memories and a lifelong interest in the railways. This impressive collection of photographs, which my father left us, is testament not only to his eye for detail but also to his enduring passion for railways. It was a truly splendid celebration of this pictorial railway journey!”
For details of how to buy a copy, price £6.99 + postage, please email Meryl at [email protected]