Railways around Lichfield

St Mary's Centre witnessed a packed audience at the Civic Society's evening meeting on 23rd October when Railway Chaplain, Reverend John Bassett, gave a slide show reflecting on the history of the railways around Lichfield.

Prior to being appointed a Chaplain with the Railway Mission, John had spent a number of years on platform duties at Birmingham New Street, Sutton Coldfield, and Four Oaks. His role as Chaplain had given him a privileged insight into the operation of our local railway network, including the more challenging aspects of his job dealing with bereavement counselling following railway accidents.

For an hour we explored the railway lines in the area; starting with the former London and North Western Railway Trent Valley main line of 1847, then moving on to the South Staffordshire Railway to Walsall (1849) and the 1884 extension from Sutton Coldfield to Lichfield.

John had amassed over the years an interesting range of railway photographs, not only of the trains but also of the station buildings and signal boxes. Some like Atherstone survive in other uses; others, like the station buildings at Polesworth, have long since gone. We saw photographs of the lost stations at Hammerwich, Alrewas and Barton under Needwood. Indeed, the evening became a guessing game for many members of the audience. We saw Princess Elizabeth on Trent Valley Station on a private visit to Lichfield in 1947, photographs of the long gone station buildings at Rugeley Trent Valley, as well as recalling what Lichfield's Trent Valley high level station looked like before its 'modernisation' with one platform and a bus shelter.

John introduced a more serious note with his description of the 1955 Sutton Coldfield train crash and the later accident at Colwich Junction.

Miniature railways were not neglected when John reminded us that the Sutton Miniature Railway, which operated in Sutton Park for many years, had been reborn after over 40 years' storage at a warehouse in the Black Country. Engines, carriages and other railway paraphernalia could now be enjoyed as part of a trip on the miniature railway at Cleethorpes.

Throughout John's presentation it became clear that we had lost much in the way of buildings and structures, only to be replaced by alternative, utilitarian features. Signal boxes had been demolished as well as fine station buildings. Many had not been listed and indeed even today some existing examples could be regarded as buildings at risk. For example the Fosse Way crossing signal box still exists, disused and boarded up but guarding the truncated Lichfield-Walsall line which still extends to the closed oil sidings at Brownhills. Constructed in 1875, this is the oldest existing signal box in the area but is probably in great danger of demolition as decay sets in.

What had been one of the best attended meetings of the Civic Society for a considerable period of time ended in a question and answer session which reflected upon the importance of our railway heritage, without which Britain's economic expansion, particularly in the 19th century, could not have taken place and which today, despite our criticisms of the existing system and its operation, is still an essential prerequisite of a civilised society.

Roger Hockney
October, 2003