The Ripley Branch

A Short Signalling History

Ripley Station in Edwardian years viewed from the station footbridge looking south

Construction of the line between Little Eaton Junction and Ripley was authorised by the Midland Railway (Ripley Branches) Act 1848, with it opening to goods traffic by August 1856 and to passengers on 1st September 1856i.

The earliest record of signalling on the Ripley Branch is a comprehensive entry in the Company’s Appendix to the Working Timetable dated 1st June 1875. This details the method of working titled “Regulation for Working the Ripley Branch by Pilot Guard”. No train was allowed to proceed without the Pilot Guard – distinguished by the wearing of “a leather belt to be worn over the shoulder, and having the words ‘Pilot Guard, Ripley Branch’ on a metal plate across the front of it”. If two or more trains wished to venture down the Branch, the driver of each one had to be issued with a Ticket by the Pilot Guard, and could not return in the opposite direction until he followed on the final train of the batch to reverse the process .

It was not until the Appendix to the Working Timetable dated 16th August 1877 listed the hours during which signal boxes were closed that we know for sure what individual boxes were in existence on the Ripley Branch, though it can be reasonably assumed that those supervising level crossings, at least, existed in some form from the opening of the Branch.

By the time the 1877 Appendix was issued, the method of controlling trains on the single line changed from “Train Porter” to “Block Telegraph with Train Staff” – in other words, instead of having a man take personal responsibility for ensuring trains did not enter the section from opposite directions, the signalmen at each end co-ordinated movements using the newly introduced electric telegraph.

With minor variations, this system of signalling using telegraph wires and wayside signal boxes continued on the branch until 2nd March 1969, when the truncated Denby Branch reverted to “One Engine In Steam” working – meaning only one train could venture onto the Branch at a time.

In the age of mechanical signalling, access to the Branch from the Derby – Ambergate main line was controlled by Little Eaton Junction signal box. This was, in its third incarnation dating from 25th March 1900, a 52 lever box situated on the Up (east) side of the line. Between Little Eaton Junction and Breadsall Crossing to the south there were the Up and Down Main Lines, Up and Down Goods Lines and, on the Up side, two sidings used to hold traffic to and from the branch to await a path.

The 506yd section between Little Eaton Junction and Little Eaton Station signal box was double track worked under the Absolute Block regulations – meaning a train could not be allowed to set off until the preceding one had arrived at the other end and the section between the two adjacent signal boxes was clear.

The signal box at Little Eaton Station was a very low structure, as the signalman had to come out of his box to operate the level crossing gates by hand, and had been renewed at an unknown date after the Great War. It survived in situ for many years after its closure in 1969, during which time it was used as a mess room for the travelling shunters who operated the gates for the trains. Once that role vanished too, it was subsequently been preserved and is being rebuilt as a summer house in a private garden in Stone, Staffs.

From Sunday, 1st September 1889, the method by which trains were controlled on the signal track section from here to Marehay Crossing was changed once again. The Train Staff gave way to Train Tablet and Ticket. Whereas there had been one Train Staff, there would be a number of Train Tablets, the release of which would require a co-operative effort by the signalmen using their telegraph instruments. Before a train could leave Little Eaton for Marehay Crossing, the signalman there would have to withdraw a Train Tablet from his machine. He could only do so if no other Tablets were out of either machine. So that a following train didn’t have to wait until the first one reached Marehay Crossing, the first one could be authorised to proceed by the signalman issuing a Ticket and showing the first driver the Tablet, to confirm that one had been withdrawn from the machine at that end. The second train could then set off with the Tablet once the first had passed clear of the first Block Section, which at this time was Little Eaton Village Crossing. Once the train carrying the Tablet arrived at the far end of the Section, the signalmen at either end could withdraw a further tablet to dispatch the next train.

Little Eaton Station signal box contained a 16 lever frame and also controlled access to a private siding for Dowdings Paper Mill.

There is a little more about signalling around Little Eaton elsewhere on this site.

The next signal box was just 17 chains (374yds) away at Little Eaton Village Crossing. Though a Block Post under the Train Tablet and Ticket working introduced in 1889, it had become just a crossing box by 1908. The original signal box was renewed – at a cost of £250 – the new box opening on 9th November 1902. This contained an eight lever frame and was located on the Up (east) side of the railway, just to the south of the hand-worked level crossing. Being just 10’ square, the box had a slightly odd appearance in that its nameboard was just wider than the box itself!

As the line meandered north out of Little Eaton, the next signal box was once Coxbench. This was located on the east side of the line approximately 300yds south of Coxbench Station and controlled s short branch to Coxbench Quarry. However, in May 1903 the MR Traffic Committee decided that the expenditure of £170 involved in installing a Stage unlocked by the single line Tablet was outweighed by the saving in signalmen’s wages of £110 per annum. The level crossing still had to be controlled by signals, however, so a four lever frame was installed out on the platform of the Station at the Crossing end, being brought into use on 19th July 1903.

The next signalling structure along the line was Holbrook Level Crossing, a quarter of a mile on from Coxbench Station. This location was only ever used to protect the level crossing, and was never a Block Post. Like the revised arrangements at Coxbench Station, Holbrook Crossing had a four lever frame fixed outside a small hut which provided shelter for the crossing keepers and (perhaps more importantly from the company’s point of view, in the early days at least!) their instruments. This location was reputedly known as Joe Fearn’s Crossing after a long standing crossing keeper in Midland Railway days. A tale is toldii of a train somehow managing to run through Joe’s gates, with the outraged man throwing his hand lamp at the locomotive as it passed!

Kilburn Station was located 3m 55ch from Little Eaton Junction. Like the rest of the stations on the branch, it closed to passengers as early as 1st June 1930. Excursion trains did continue to visit the line sporadically, particularly to holiday destinations and football matches. Consequently, the platforms and station building were all maintained in good condition for many years after they officially closed.

The signal box at Kilburn controlled a junction into the nearby “Kilbourne Colliery”, though this seems to have closed toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. The box was renewed on 10th May 1903, becoming the third and final structure on the site, in preparation for an important development. It will be recalled hat the Train Tablet and Ticket working introduced in 1889 was between Little Eaton Station and Marehay Crossing – the two ends of the single line section. That section was broken up with effect from 19th July 1903, at which time the line from Kilburn to Denby South was doubled. The new box contained a 16 lever frame and was unique on the branch in that it had a wheel with which to operate the gates – this being more a reflection on the importance of the road than of the railway.

Denby marks the first point on the branch where goods traffic originated in significant volume. Between Denby South box, 740yds from Kilburn, and Denby North box, just 372yds away, private sidings existed for Drury Lowe’s Denby Colliery, Denby Iron & Coal Company’s Works (both companies each having separate connections their works and collieries – the latter company’s private railway crossing the Branch on the level, controlled by Denby North box), as well as Tarmac Ltd.

Prior to 1878, there was a single signal box here, but on 26th July that year, Major Marindin made an inspection on behalf of the Board of Trade in which he reported two new signal boxes; Denby South containing 12 levers, and Denby North with 16. Denby South was renewed on 19th July 1903 in connection with the doubling, then containing 20 levers. Meanwhile Denby North was renewed on 10th August 1902 at a cost of £280.

An increase in traffic on the branch caused by the war effort resulted in a third line – designated a through siding – laid on the Up side between Denby South and Kilburn signal boxes and being brought into use on Sunday, 16th July 1944.

The 1903 double line section was quite short, and the single line section resumed at Denby South, though three through sidings existed between here and the North box. At some time in the 1940’s (likely at the same time as the siding to Kilburn was put in) the double line section was extended to Denby North.

Contraction came very quickly here. Within 13 years of the need for the new siding, many of the connections and sidings were out of use and weed covered. Both Kilburn and Denby North boxes outlasted the rest of the branch signal boxes, surviving until 5th April 1972 in order to allow the residual traffic to shunt. Thereafter a travelling shunter would operate ground frames allowing locomotives to run round their trains.

Just beyond Denby North box lay Denby Station with Street Lane crossing beyond. The level crossing never had a signal box, being worked either by the station porter, or a crossing keeper after the station closed in 1930, under the direction of the signalman at Denby North.

When the branch was severed between Denby North and Marehay on 29th July 1968, the head shunt continued to run across Street Lane, a length of 450yds from the site of the former signal box. This configuration remained, albeit apparently with the line over Street Lane very little used, until remodelling of the loading pad to accommodate Merry Go Round Trains in the 1990s. On 21st February 1993 the line was formally truncated once more; “ ...to a point immediately on the Little Eaton side of Denby Street Lane level crossing and buffer stops were provided at 135m 58ch. The line between the buffer stops and 134m 76ch was made a sidings area and a double-sided notice board to denote the commencement/end of one train working was provided”. Thus the terminus of the branch now lay between the abandoned platforms of Denby station. [I am grateful to Dave Chambers for getting me to clarify what I'd previously written here by pointing out that; “ ... in 1979 as a trainee guard at Derby Four Shed I remember operating the gates at Street Lane crossing to fetch a rake of empty wagons from sidings beyond to take them down to Denby. This was a one off occurrence as generally we left a rake of empties just north of Kilburn crossing and picked up a loaded train bound for Willington Power Station.”]

In happier times, of course, the branch continued northwards, past a connection worked by a stage unlocked with the Denby South – Marehay Crossing single line token at Denby Hall.

Marehay Crossing signal box was located on the east side of the line, 1 mile 377yds from Denby North box, and despite its name, over 40yds from the level crossing. In fact, the crossing was controlled by a crossing keeper from a separate hut, communicating with the signalman by a bell.

This crossing was on the old A61 Derby – Chesterfield road on the southern outskirts of Ripley, and was located on a treacherous bend at the foot of a hill. It was operated by hand by the crossing keeper, who must have taken their life in their hands in the teeth of the pre-bypass traffic in the late 1950’s. Though I have yet to trace documentary evidence, I have heard an anecdote whereby the driver of a lorry carrying steel was killed when he had to stop suddenly at the bottom of the hill leaving Ripley because of the level crossing. The steel shot forward through the headboard and into the cab.

Meanwhile, back in the signal box, the signalman’s work involved shunting traffic in and out of Ford’s Marehay Colliery. The box had been renewed on 16th October 1917 and contained a 30 lever frame – all of which were in use at its height during the war years. The line in each direction was a single track, and although trains were able to pass at Marehay Crossing by using the through siding on the Down Side, some time after the introduction of the 1893 Train Tablet and Ticket operation, Marehay Crossing lost its status as a Tablet Station. It was only some time during or immediately after the Second World War that the siding on the Down side was designated a Reception Line and Marehay Crossing was made a Tablet Station once again.

As at Denby, contraction and closure arrived in an alarming short time. On 12th May 1957 the line north from Marehay Crossing was reduced to “One Engine in Steam” status, and was severed altogether south of the level crossing on 27th April 1963 and the line from Denby North becoming “One Engine in Steam”. The signal box managed to hang on, continuing to supervise shunting into the colliery until it closed, the box and the line closing on 21st July 1968.

Marehay Crossing viewed form the north form the A61 level crossing in a very delapidated state

The single line northwards, having crossed the A61, reached Marehay Junction 769yds from Marehay Crossing box. Here the line split, the right fork terminating 770yds later at the Ripley Old Station Goods Yard. The signal box at the Old Station was renewed on 16th March 1891, after the signal box at the new station, nearer the town centre, had opened on 1st June 1890. The Old Station box was closed, however, on 10th July 1907. From that time, the control of trains over the single line from Marehay Junction was passed from Electric Train Tablet Block to “Pilot Guard” working – in other words, going back to how the whole branch was worked before 1889. Pilot Guard working was maintained until 24th August 1946, when the line to the Old Station became a “siding”. The points in the yard were worked from a ground frame which survived until 31st May 1954 when the line from Marehay Junction was closed.

Returning to Marehay Junction, a location which had existed before the line to the new Ripley station was opened on 5th May 1889, known as Marehay Sidings, to control connections into two private sidings belonging to the Butterley Company. The opening of the new line of course necessitated a new signal box, situated on the east of the line, though its earlier responsibilities meant it was a little way south of the new junction. It did necessitate a very generous 24 levers to operate its relatively modest layout. The box was a Block Post and Tablet Station and from various entries in Sectional Appendices, we know that the Tablet to Denby North was round with round hole in centre and after the war, a Tyers Configuration ‘B’ key token to Marehay Crossing. In the direction to Ripley Passenger Station, the tablet was round with triangular hole. The Old Station worked by a Pilot Guard and therefore didn’t have any token or staff, just an armband with a metal plate lettered “Pilotman. Ripley Old Yard”.

Ripley Junction box was 506yds further on toward the New Station. Opening with the new line on 1st September 1889, it controlled the convergence of the line from Marehay Junction and the line from Heanor, built at the same time as the new passenger station at Ripley. Although all three lines from Ripley Junction were single track, they became double track briefly either side of the junction, making for an entirely unnecessarily elaborate junction. This did allow a short crossing loop, but one which was absolutely superfluous given the two platform station was only 1,034 yards away! [I am grateful to David Foster for challenging the foregoing two sentences: Quite apart from the fact that, as David points out, a double track junction on a single line carrying passenger trains seems to have been a Board of Trade requirement, there really couldn't be a more effective layout while allowing the signal box to operate as a Tablet Station. Granted, the section to Ripley Staton was relatively short, but nevertheless, it was clearly operationally necessary to pass trains here on occasion, or even allow trains to run-round if working to & from the Heanor or Derby direction. I am happy to now retract the struck-through statements.] Control of the junction was entrusted to another generously equipped 24 lever frame with three beautifully ornate Tyer’s No.6 Tablet machines.

The line to Heanor was a commercial disaster for the Midland Railway, never able to adequately compete for passengers against the Nottingham tram system which already served Ripley and Heanor. Nor was freight likely to be the line’s saviour as it simply faced in the wrong direction. Passenger services were withdrawn in May 1926 and the line used for empty wagon storage. At the LMS Traffic Committee meeting of 25th January 1928 it was recommended that the line from Ripley Junction to Langley Mill Curve be closed. This was enacted on 3rd September 1928, though Ripley Junction box actually closed on 6th August 1928.

Despite its relatively early demise, we are fortunate to have two wonderful photographs of the box in the National Railway Museum’s Derby Official collection. It appears that the LMS photographer wanted some illustrations of token exchange, thus on 4th August 1926 he visited Ripley Junction. In the first view the signalman (believed to be Mr. G.A.Kenny, the last incumbent man at the box before it closed) is seen leaning from the box steps with the token in a pouch ready for the time-honoured exchange. The second view is inside the box, which looks very Spartan by modern standards, but the light gleams off the metal work of the stove, the Tyer’s Token Instruments and the lever frame – complete with brass lead plates on their sides.

[George Albert Kenny (1902-1987) was signalman at Wingfield Station box on the night of 16th/17th June 1933 when the 10.0 p.m. double-headed express passenger train from Leeds to Bristol ran into the rear of the 6.27 p.m. Leeds to Derby mineral train near Crich Junction, resulting in the death of both drivers of the express. Although the drivers had evidently failed to read the signals correctly and ran at speed into an occupied block section, Signalman Kenny was severely criticised by the Inspecting Officer, Col. Trench, as he had begun to “pull off” his outer Home signal before satisfying himself that the express was “at or almost at a stand”. He said the lever was only partly over when he realised the train was still travelling at around 60mph but Col. Trench clearly believed the express drivers saw a green light from the outer home and that was why none of the four footplatemen reacted to the distant, inner home and starting signals all undisputedly being “On”.]

In the Heanor direction, Ripley Junction originally worked to a signal box at Crosshill & Codnor station, 1m 396yd away. However, the purpose of this box was merely to operate a short section of interlaced track in the single line, just to the Ripley side of the station. The rails for up traffic (which, coincidentally, was on an uphill gradient) contained a sprung catch point. The switches (there was no need for crossings with interlaced rails) would be set by Crosshill & Codnor box so that traffic used the appropriate rails. In 1896 the MR wrote to the Board of Trade pointing out that only fully fitted passenger trains used the station (this, combined with an LMS minute of 1924 suggests that there was never any goods traffic on this line). As the line was worked on the block system, the catch points were superfluous and requested that they be dispensed with along with the associated signalling. The BoT agreed and 16th March 1896 saw the end of Crosshill and Codnor signal box. Thereafter the section was 2m 1740yd to Heanor Station.

Ripley Passenger Station lay in a deep cutting to the east of the town and the signal box was mid-way along the east (Up) platform. Despite there being a dedicated Goods Station for the town, the Passenger Station did have a modest goods yard to the north of the station, under the bridge carrying Nottingham Road. The signal box was furnished with a 20 lever frame to control its layout, though only 13 were ever in use.

Despite the line into the new Passenger Station having opened on 1st September 1889, an visiting Board of Trade Inspector commented on 16th February 1890, “The only part opened is to Ripley New Station, many of the points are spiked over the signals not in work and the block instruments and clocks in the signal boxes have been removed to store”. The signal box opened fully on Sunday, 1st June 1890, at which time the line north to Butterley Junction opened.

This 1m 506yd single line section was very heavily engineered, tightly curving throughout, first through a cutting out of Ripley, then a high embankment and eight pier viaduct to make a connection with the Crich Junction – Pye Bridge line just west of Butterley.

Inevitably, this section was as poorly patronised at the line to Heanor, and it only lingered on a few more years, closing on 23rd January 1938, though Butterley Junction box had been listed as “Temporarily Closed” in LMS lists as early as 1930.

Ripley Station box remained in use, though from 1930 onwards, its hours of opening were listed as “As Required”, presumably for the modest goods traffic and infrequent excursions. Whatever work the box had tailed off with the general post-war decline of the branch, with Ripley Station signal box being formally abolished on 12th May 1957. The line to the station from Marehay Crossing lingered a little longer, with passenger excursions reported to have continued until 1961, and was finally abandoned in April 1963.

The “Denby Branch” of the 1970’s and onwards was nothing more than a long siding. It was worked as “One Engine in Steam” with a Train Staff kept in a cabinet at the site of the former Little Eaton Station box. All the level crossings were converted to Trainmen Operated Gates, with a travelling shunter being conveyed for the purpose. Coal trains using the Denby Branch were usually distinctive for conveying a brake van at each end of the consist (with a yellow panel denoting the vehicle was compatible with modern air brakes) to accommodate the travelling shunter. In later years even this practice was abandoned with the shunter driving to each of the crossings in a road vehicle.

Sources and Recommended Reading:

i The Midland Railway – A Chronology, compiled by John Gough, Railway & Canal Historical Society 1989.

ii Don Rowland – Backtrack magazine Vol12 No3, March 1998.

Rails to Ripley by Howard Sprenger, Kestrel Railway Books 2009

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Dave Harris, Willington, Derby, UK.
Email: dave@derby-signalling.org.uk
Page last updated: Saturday, 22 December 2018