36. Railway signalmen

Until 1961, the Witham area had four railway signal boxes, and twelve of the sixty station staff were signalmen. The main box, Witham Junction, adjoining the water tower, was the busiest (see the photos). There was another box next to the road bridge, and more distant ones at Blunts Hall and Rivenhall. They have all gone now, and the newer one that you can see today, is disused.

The railway companies pioneered the use of the telegraph, long before the telephone and the radio. So Mrs Elsie Hammond said “News used to come through the signal boxes. They used to send the messages through, from one signal box to another. And that’s how it went. Oh, we knew if anything important had happened. You see, and the milkman used to go to everybody’s door, the baker used to go to everybody’s door. See, that was, it was a good system, really.”

To be a signalman was to hold an extremely responsible job. In some other countries he was called a controller. The best-known Witham signalmen were Fred Parrish, Thomas Bannister, and Benjamin Sainty, who were on duty in 1905 when the Cromer Express train crashed into the station, killing eleven people. The three men stopped a train coming from the other direction, and afterwards received certificates and “purses of gold” from a public subscription.

Levi Feakes in the Witham Junction signalbox in 1909, with one of the signal box lads behind him
Levi Feakes in the Witham Junction signalbox in 1909, with one of the signal box lads behind him (thanks to David Feakes for this)

One of their colleagues was Levi Feakes, of whom we are fortunate to have a photo. At the time of the Cromer Express disaster, he was one of the St John Ambulance Corps at the station. He and the other men “really distinguished themselves”, and it was said that their work needed no further attention from the doctors.

The next year, 1906, saw a very difficult episode for Levi. He was at work in the Junction box when William Chalk, who was shunting, probably with a horse, was run over by some trucks and fatally injured. At the inquest, they discussed what sign had been given by William to ask for the main line. Levi said that if it was just a call, his was “a wonderfully difficult box to hear from. It was one of the highest boxes on the line”. The verdict was “Accidental death, with no blame to Signalman Feakes”.

The man who administered First Aid to William Chalk after the accident was Signalman Ebenezer Smith. He went on to become a Councillor and a JP, a rare feat for a railway worker. During the 1920s and 1930s he master-minded Witham’s extensive housing programme, whereby about 800 new houses were built. Ebenezer Close is named after him. So he upheld the high reputation which Witham’s signalmen had earned over the years.

The eastern end of the station in the early 1960s, after the withdrawal of steam locomotives. On the left, the water tower has been demolished, and Witham Junction signal box is behind it (taken by John Scott-Mason)
The eastern end of the station in the early 1960s, after the withdrawal of steam locomotives. On the left, the water tower has just been demolished, and the tall Witham Junction signal box is behind it (taken by John Scott-Mason)

A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in March 2014

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