Railway Memories

By John Reney Smith (1903 – 1978)

[The writer, John Reney Smith, wrote his memories of Parkgate station and the lines to Hooton and West Kirby in the 1970s before his death in 1978. He was born in 1903 and attended Mostyn House School then went on to Radley College.

His father, also John Reney Smith (1863 – 1945) was a civil engineer and later director of a shipbuilding company. His mother, Irene Isobel Sutherland (1879 – 1939) was from Heswall, the daughter of Peter Sutherland (1844 – 1892). The family lived in Heswall before moving to Bidston Road, Oxton. When John Reney Smith senior died he was living at the Union Hotel in Parkgate.

Parkgate’s first station was opened on 1st October 1866 and a second station was constructed when the line was extended to West Kirby on 19th April 1886. The station closed to passengers in 1956 but continued for goods traffic before being closed completely in 1962. The route became part of Wirral Country Park in 1973.]

Many people seem to think that if they remember the Hooton to West Kirby railway line as it was just before the second world war, they are going back to the dark ages. I became very familiar with the line between 1908 and 1917.

My family have lived in Heswall since 1838 and in those days there was no railway at all. My grandfather used to drive to Hooton or Rock Ferry to get a train but in 1846 the Parkgate, Chester and Birkenhead Junction Railway Company was provisionally registered as a joint stock company, the directors of which were the 2nd Baron Mostyn, of Mostyn Hall, Flintshire, Llewellyn Lloyd, Cymric Lloyd and Rudyard Wyn Williams.

On 10th November 1846 public notice was given of the intention of making a railway from Parkgate to join the Chester to Birkenhead line in the parish of Bebington. The lines was to start in a field near Neston numbered 100 and end in a field number 1 in Bebington. It is interesting to note that the plan for the railway showed the line as starting at Flint and crossing the Dee estuary by an area marked, ‘Area of land to be reclaimed 8,000 acres’. No further reference to this portion can be traced but a few years later a tender was submitted to the company for the construction of a pier at Parkgate and so the supposition is that the Flint to Parkgate section was dropped from the plan and ferry boats and coal wherrys used instead.

Most of the land between Parkgate and Leahurst, through which the line was to run, was owned by Lord Mostyn, and most of that at the Hooton end by Mr. Green, Lord of the Manor of Bebington.

On 31st December 1847 John Graham submitted a tender to complete the Parkgate, Chester and Birkenhead Junction Railway with all bridges, culverts, permanent way, fencing, quick mounds and level crossings for the sum of £30,000.

The completion of this section shortened by grandfather’s journeys to entrain to Neston. Very much later, in 1886, the line was extended to Heswall and West Kirby. The intention was to join up with the Wirral Railway which ran a service from Birkenhead to West Kirby via Bidston, Meols and West Kirby, but the link was never achieved. Part of the original platform in field No. 100 at Parkgate can still be seen in the first picnic bay on the right hand side as you enter the Parkgate picnic are. The extension of the line over Station Road, Parkgate to the new station, of which only the concrete roofs of the entrances to the subway under the line remain, necessitated a sharp curve in the line which caused much jolting and grinding of wheels as the trains negotiated it at a very low speed.

With the opening of the Great Western Railway, of the extension from Birmingham to Woodside, this company owned the link as far as Saltney junction; from there to Chester and Woodside they became a joint railway with the L.N.W.R. from there to Chester and Woodside they became a joint railway with the L.N.W.R. and in consequence of these powers the branch line from Hooton to West Kirby also became a joint line. It is interesting to note that the architecture of the Hooton, Neston and Willaston stations is the same as will be found on the main line from Euston to Holyhead, i.e. pure L.N.W. railway type. Most of the signals used were also L.N.W. type and not the G.W. type which had a pointed or spiked top.

The Hooton to West Kirby branch left Hooton as a double line but after two hundred yards narrowed to a single line with passing places at Willaston, Parkgate, Heswall and latterly, Thursaston. The passage of trains was controlled by sections: each section being between one of the ‘crossing’ stations. The method was to hand the drive a ‘staff’ at these stations which he handed in to the signalman at the next crossing station. The signalman could not issue the staff for the next section until the staff from the train in the opposite direction had been surrendered and locked in a box. Each signal box at a ‘crossing’ station had a device which prevented the signalman from pulling of the home signal in either direction without the staff for that section being ‘locked’ in.

There was great rivalry between the signalmen in maintaining flower beds round their signal boxes which were situated on the platforms. This was especially true of old Peacock, who was signalman at Heswall, and his rival at Thursaston and both these boxes were outstanding in their show of geraniums and ferns. The presence of maidenhair fern in the brickwork of Thursaston station platform is possibly attributable to escapes from the garden of the signal box, although many botanists consider this to be a true botanisation.

In my young days I travelled to and from Mostyn House School by train each day, as did many others. We boys took a great interest in the trains. Before the first wold war the trains were always either L.N.W. and drawn by their locomotives or G.W.R. drawn by their locomotives. After the war there was a more catholic outlook and the trains could be of mixed stock and drawn by engines of either company. The G.W.R. engines were all tank engines and sometimes they used a ‘saddle’ tank engine for the journey. There was a turntable at West Kirby and also one at Neston but they were rarely used and the engines of these trains ran either forwards or backwards.

Prior to World War 1 the busiest train from Heswall was the 8 o’clock which easily caught the twenty to nine boat at Woodside Ferry and so most businessmen(there were many important characters living along the line), used this train. The railway company considered the train to be important enough for a ‘club’ carriage to be attached to it. This was a L.N.W. coach fitted with arm chair seats and bridge tables. All the dignitaries used this, schoolboys like myself were pushed into the 3rd class compartments. In those days the stock provided 1st, 2nd and 3rd class compartments. The corresponding busy train returned from Woodside at 5.50 and was usually crowded. It was a great sight to see a busy train arrive at Heswall. The down train would be waiting on its side of the station and up train would come fussing in out of the cutting from Cottage Lane ‘pointing off’ by the fishermen’s cottages to its ‘up line’ in the station. On the bridge, and in Riverbank Road, there would be at least six horse drawn cabs and as soon as the train branched out of the cutting the drivers would stand up in their boxes and wave their whipts to attract custom. On wet nights there was a scramble for them and they had no need to exert themselves for a fare.

The station staff at Heswall were all very pleasant men. The station master was Mr. Darrincourt and had been there for many years. He was a dignified bearded man employed, I believe, by G.W.R. He was followed by Mr Blount who was a L.N.W. employee but a quite different character. Mr Peacock, the signalman, was also L.N.W. and a great authority on geraniums and ferns.

The signalman at Parkgate was another great character. Mr Sam Worral sported a large beard and had a ‘gammy’ leg. On being released from Mostyn House School we would run up to the station and if it was a wet and windy night would seek shelter in Sam’s box and warm ourselves at his fire. Depending on his mood at the time we were either made welcome or Sam would seize a signalflag and shout ‘Get out you little …….s or I’ll prattle your arses with a stick’. More often than not we got a welcome and warm by the fire.

The first blow towards the closure of the railway probably occurred during a very early railway strike, although some older members of the railway staff who are still living claim that it was ‘sabotaged’ and need never have been closed. Another possible factor was that both World Wars interrupted the intention to convert it to double track as this never materialised it became uneconomic.
A gentleman named Pye, who owned the cabs and cars in Heswall, also owned one or two motor lorries and when the strike occurred the enterprising Mr Pye placed planks across the lorries to form seats and conveyed passengers from Heswall to Woodside at a cost of one shilling each. This was so successful that Mr Pye then bought an old L.N.W.R. bus and started a 3 hourly service to and from Heswall to Woodside. This bus proved so successful that Pye bought another and so was able to increase his service which he continued to augment frequently. Also at this time Mr Crossland Taylor had been developing bus services around Chester and the 1920s he bought out Mr Pye for £20,000 and started the Crosville Company, which inevitably developed in competition with the railway passenger service.

At Heswall and Thursaston the railway stations were approached by private roads. The one at Thursaston was enclosed by gates – only replaced when the Wirral Country Park was started and the iron hinges of which are still in use on the new gates. At Heswall the railway company’s road started at the bottom of the Lydiate and continued over the bridge to the junction of Davenport and Riverbank Roads. In order to retain their rights the railway company placed a man with a hut and brazier, a the bottom of the Lydiate for twenty-four hours on Good Friday every year. He had a rope across the road and so prevented people from passing up and down over this roadway to establish the railway’s ownership.

In 1920 a through coach from New Brighton to Euston was started – generally two corridor coaches. This started at New Brighton and at Bidston was attached to one of the Wirral trains to West Kirby. Here it was shunted over the crossing and attached to the down train to Hooton where it again was shunted and re-attached to the down train from Woodside to Euston. The same facilities were available on the return journey and were much used.

In the early days of the century most of the important users of the line had annual contracts. My own father had a 1st class contract which enabled him to travel from the Heswall to Lime Street, Euston, Holyhead, Chester and Birkenhead, and intervening stations back to Heswall. The cost of this ticket started at £98 per annum, but when it rose to £175 per annum my father decided that the railway company’s demands were getting exorbitant and he decided not to renew it but to pay for each journey as he made it and I rather fancy that he was in pocket at the end of the year.