More tales from Watford Met

My item on Watford Met seems to have been read a lot and has caused me to recollect some more events at this sleepy location.

I will start of by making available a diagram of the old goods yard that I found in my archives; it is dated 1941.

It is a little small to read, so I will just add that along the top boundary is Pratt, Whitworth & Sons flour store, and to its right coal stacking areas for Tyne Main, Co-operative Society and Arthur East & Co, who had stacking on both sides of the track. The two buildings on the right were timber stores for V.H. Layers, timber merchants, who had a small office at the extreme right hand end.

The goods office and goods shed can be seen in the centre of the yard, with a crane a little to the right. The horse and cart loading area is adjacent to the station sidings on the left. The diagram also shows the old signal box to the right of the 600ft long platforms. As I recall the instructions, horses had to be booked the previous day whereupon arrangements were made to get a horse box to Watford for attachment to a suitable train. At Watford this had to be a goods train as one couldn’t attach a horse box to an electric multiple unit, but at most main line and joint stations it was acceptable to attach it to an appropriate passenger train (horses were reckoned as parcels by the way, albeit a special kind of parcel).

When considering the history of the place it is vital to recall that it was jointly run and was as much the LNER’s premises as it was the Metropolitan’s or London Transport’s. I cannot now find the reference, but I am aware that the LNER made a commercial film about the carriage and delivery of awkward loads that featured Watford. It concerned the delivery of (so I recall) a power station turbine that was delivered as an out of gauge load. These had to be conveyed on wagons that were loaded asymmetrically so that the load met the loading gauge on the nearside only but projected beyond the gauge line on the offside, requiring traffic to be halted (or shunted) on the adjacent track while the special went by (or it could get struck). Also, most bridges had piers on the nearside but not on the offside. I believe the film was made in 1938 and featured the load being removed at Watford and conveyed by road vehicle to Watford power station (remember the railways then owned Pickfords who operated heavy haul vehicles; I’m not sure the LNER owned any directly). Presumably the train originated in the Midlands and was probably shifted overnight or on a Sunday when traffic was quieter and enabled such a special working to be undertaken more easily. I would really love to see this film if anyone has any idea whether a print might still exist.

I recall a little incident in the goods yard one night. I should add that there really was absolutely nothing to do between 00:30 when the last northbound arrived and about 05:30 when the first southbound departed, so dozing off was very much the order of the day, or perhaps that should be night. I recall on one occasion the phone ringing at about 02:00 and a police officer asked me if the station was on fire. A cursory check, and a glance out of the window, suggested it was not on fire, which news I conveyed. Duty apparently done, I returned to dreams of busy stations with lots of trains and passengers.

Some time later, I gradually became aware of the sound of distant explosions and it took a while to work out that they didn’t quite fit the dream I was having. Another glance out of the window revealed matters to be less dark than previously – sufficiently less dark, in fact, to galvanise me into going across the ticket hall to see out of the windows on the left hand flank (a view obstructed from my office window by the stairs). From this entirely new vantage point I found myself witnessing what was by now quite a substantial fire with flames dancing into the night sky and some kind of eruption in the far distance that seemed connected with the bangs I could still hear. Fortunately it was not the station on fire and the conflagration seemed to emanate from the goods yard. After a rapid appraisal of events it seemed neither likely to spread nor to pose an imminent threat. I couldn’t actually see what, in a seemingly large empty space, was burning but whatever it was appeared to be near the south end of 24 road and a long way from anything. Action was now called for.

In the end I rang the Metropolitan Line Controller, and suggested he summoned the fire brigade (this would have been done via the head controller but I don’t think he had direct lines to Hertfordshire fire brigade, though no doubt the phone numbers were at his finger tips – it might have been faster for me to ring 999 from the phone outside). Anyway they soon dealt with it all and it emerged the bangs had been old gas cylinders in an old derelict shed. I suspect it was not entirely an accidental cause. Now the difficult bit. I felt compelled to explain to the BT Police officer who rang earlier that there was indeed a fire. I toyed with the argument that he had asked me only if the station was on fire and had not asked about any other, nearby fires… .  In the end I just said that after he had alerted me to the possibility of a fire I had gone and looked and then found one, but had not rung him back as I had to deal with it. He and everyone else seemed quite happy with that. In retrospect I was surprised, as gas cylinders were involved, that the area was not quarantined as surely it would be today, but it wasn’t. In the morning I checked the railway for damage, but there wasn’t any, the hut was too far away. A bored area manager from Baker Street turned up later to have a look. I wondered why he bothered, but later discovered he lived nearby, which might have provided the incentive. Anyway, a lesson was learnt – next time anyone rings and asks if one’s station was on fire, consider asking why they are asking and then check it out!

Other lessons were learnt at Watford. During my first month there, when I was still keen and thought I understood all the rules (!), I observed on my arrival a tamping machine stabled on 24 road next to the lamp room. These were curious, primitive devices where the top part was mounted on a turntable and could rotate completely. Evidently it had broken down the previous night and was waiting to be taken away. During the morning the controller rang to tell me a battery loco was on its way to collect it. There was just one thing I happened to know about these particular machines, and that was that they had a coupler only at one end. I checked and noted that the coupler was at the end next to the buffers. Oh dear. I rang the controller and shared the news but the loco had already set off.

In due course it turned up and ran into 24 road, stopping near the tamping machine (the shunt signals at Watford were happy to allow trains to run into occupied roads) and a lot of P’Way men got out and looked suitably unhappy. Nothing much was happening and after a while the inspector in charge turned up to use the phone, saying they would have to leave the tamping machine and get an engineer out to fix it on site (the mechanicals of these machines were maintained by bus staff who understood diesel engines). I casually asked why he couldn’t turn the machine and he said it would foul the platform and the operator’s wouldn’t wear it. I said I was the operator and I’d wear it, not an entirely wise decision.

In those days the passenger trains were only every 15 minutes and had a 15-minute layover, so there was a departure immediately after an arrival. By holding trains outside for a couple of minutes we could make do with one platform. Why on earth the controller assumed I knew what I was doing I cannot imagine, but the platform was scotched out of use and I opened a section switch isolating the siding and the P’Way staff pushed the machine about 50ft until the fence was further away from the track and proceeded to turn it. I hadn’t actually removed current from the adjacent platform though, nor had I anticipated the machine getting caught in the fence and wobbling up and down so its projecting end hovered within an inch of the live platform conductor rail. It would have made an interesting bang if it had touched it, but it didn’t. Eventually the now-turned machine was coupled up and dragged back to Neasden in disgrace and the P’Way staff were suitably grateful. I was a bit more circumspect in volunteering to help on future occasions.

Tamping machine of type I had unwisely done battle with This is the coupler end. The other end was occupied by track repairing gubbins that made coupling impossible. I understand they were appallingly unreliable. A useful feature was to be able to off-track themselves to strategically located off-tracking points, as here.

Another P’Way story I recall was one night about 23:15 when a driver reported he had seen someone on the track just south of the platform. I’m on my own but concluded that I had better go and see what it was all about. I searched with the station lamp but couldn’t find anything amiss. A while later a very large gentleman was found asleep on a station bench and smelling heavily of drink; he appeared to be wearing a P’Way donkey jacket. As he hadn’t gone in via the ticket hall he could only have been the man seen earlier on the track. I didn’t feel it was my job to shift him.

About midnight a large Irish P’Way inspector came in from his van, parked outside, and I asked if he had a moment and told him the story. I said that as I knew the man downstairs was drunk I wasn’t very happy to think of him on the track, and explained he had caused a delay. Was I happy to leave it to him to deal with? Oh yes.

About 5-minutes later, in an otherwise deathly silent environment where even the tumbleweed could cause a disturbance, was the sound of a blood curdling fight taking place with much shouting, followed by a very long silence. Footsteps were eventually heard and the inspector appeared. All he said was that he had sorted the problem out and the man (or what was left of him) would be confined to making the tea that night and wouldn’t go near the track. He thanked me for ‘losing’ the delay and disappeared into the night. I couldn’t find any evidence of a body the following morning and presumed that this was man management in action and was apparently normal in those circles.

The usual P’Way inspector for the area was a tall, gaunt Irishmen called Pat O’Connor who I got to know on quite friendly terms and always gave him a cup of tea when I saw him (he walked to Watford checking the track every now and then). He was a great guy who collected antique furniture and went to the early morning markets to buy stuff. He was one of the four men killed in the Chorleywood accident in 1990 when a wagon ran away, but I had left the station by then. I was very sorry at the news.

On the subject of accidents I must have been nights when the derailment at Harrow occurred shortly before 21:00 shutting everything down, from which I conclude that I must have driven to work. The impossible had happened and a crossover with switch diamonds in the route had shifted position immediately before a train passed over it, with curious consequences. A northbound Watford train destined for the local lines at Harrow North Junction had started to take the route, which reversed in front of it, setting the switch diamonds to the wrong position. The first bogie could not accommodate the violence created when it hit incorrectly set switchblades and derailed, carrying on, more or less, along the northbound local. All the remaining wheels struck the facing blades and were diverted onto the crossover, and thence the southbound main. The leading car thus proceeded crab-wise, spanning two sets of tracks, until it could be brought to rest, but not before demolishing an intermediate signal post, side on, as it were. The approaching southbound fast train (for which the route had prematurely set) was stopped in plenty of time.

Only the leading bogie is on its correct track; everything else went the wrong way. The base of the destroyed signal can be seen underneath the leading car; the carcass was there for years afterwards.

I only mention this because the regulator on duty at Harrow, Bert Dack, lived at Watford and appeared sometime after midnight from the last train, looking very tired and distraught (I shall avoid saying he’d had a harrowing experience). He told me what had happened as I fed him tea. He was very concerned in case he had done anything wrong. He had in fact normalized the route lever concerned immediately the front car had passed the protecting signal and set up the next route; had he not done so the accident would not have happened because at Harrow the points stay in position until a new route is called. However, the equipment was intended to allow pre-selection of the next route in this way, but the inquisitors seem not at first to have quite understood this allowing a finger of suspicion to be aimed in his direction. The fault was eventually found to be a bolt that had come adrift from the interlocking, allowing the new route to set up early. Nevertheless the inspecting officer was baffled that under these conditions the route was not electrically tracklocked, as would have been the case at most other locations. Bert was completely exonerated, though for a while preselection of alternative routes was banned, doing the service no favours. I doubt if he slept that night.

I mentioned the drunk P’Way guy, but we were used to drunks at Watford. They appeared on last trains, always having wanted stations well back down the line and with the last arrival an hour after the last departure there was no means for them to get back, and desolation outside the station. Sometimes train crews got the drunk off, and sometimes they seemed to think it was my job, but either way it became my problem, and I was on my own as the booking office closed at 23:30 when the last departure was due out. I have no idea what the other foremen did, but I quickly became very artful at getting rid of unwanted guests. Fortunately, even in this suburban desert, we had a taxi firm based in the old parcels office, so I’d eventually coax the guest upstairs and tell them just to pop round the corner where they’d be sorted out. The trick was to shut the door and lock it as soon as they had passed through it, turn all the lights off and ignore further hammering till they had gone away. Many of these people had really wanted Harrow or Northwood, but Wembley was not unknown. Heaven knows how much that cost to get back by cab.

Watford was so remote that the station offered a kind of social service. If someone’s car wouldn’t start, we would find ourselves involved as though we were dealing with our own relatives. We were local guides. We passed messages between family members arriving at different times. Perhaps most importantly we did a lot of listening. Very often we listened to the same people each night as they stopped for a chat for a few minutes before they went home, usually to an empty house. We would often be the last people they would speak to that day, or the first the following day. It was a responsibility we actually understood and kind of enjoyed. We actually checked up on someone once because we hadn’t seen them for a couple of days (he’d forgotten to mention this to us). I remembered this later as a manager and sought to impress this on trainee booking clerks, too often inclined to be surly accountants selling tickets in their spare time; they would very likely be the first people many passengers met that day and how they were greeted would make their day (I cast no slur on the majority of clerks we had, but a few could pick a fight with themselves in a closed room and I dispaired at an organization that allowed them to do a job where liking customers seemed to me quite important).

One day the railman drew my attention to a tiny black car of seemingly 1940s origins parked outside (possibly an Austin 7). It was wonderful. We soon found the owner, a dapper man in his eighties. He was waiting for his lady friend (and waiting was what one did a lot of at Watford). In the half-hour we had before she appeared we extracted his life story – he had been a shipping man and, more importantly, had owned his car from new and never seen any point in changing it. We saw quite a bit of him, and his lovely car, for a few months, and we enjoyed our chats which distracted attention from the gaps and cancellations. Then, unaccountably, he vanished. We hoped he and his lady friend were OK, but feared the worst. I wish I’d photographed the car parked right outside the entrance, but failed.

I owned a 1963 Rover 100 at the time and drove it to Watford on certain turns, especially at weekends. I went out on the forecourt one day and found another, identical Rover 100 parked next to it. I was eventually able to spot the owner and engaged him in conversation. He’d seen mine and had waited for the opportunity to park next to it. Another photo I didn’t get.

More anon.

About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is
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3 Responses to More tales from Watford Met

  1. THC says:

    I have always enjoyed reading your work, Mr Horne, and possess all your Underground line series. Until now, I had no idea you worked at Watford, my then-local station; as you were in the office you will no doubt have sold me many tickets over the years! My father was a driver on the Met, based at Ricky, throughout the 1980s and I am sure he knew the two gentlemen that you refer to, Mr Dack and Mr O'Connor. A very close family friend and neighbour, Jim Bradley, worked first at Croxley and then at Watford at the same time. I imagine you knew him. Jim passed away within the last year, well into his 90s. Always a gentleman and very fondly remembered.


  2. Taz says:

    Of course, it was the task of station staff throughout the line to clear their station of drunks before locking up. The easiest way was usually to put them on the next train, no matter where they were bound. This then became the problem of staff at termini, but weren't they paid more for their troubles?


  3. Mike says:

    I knew Jim Bradley, foreman at Croxley, though the shift patterns meant we only rarely coincided. A Gentleman.

    Re the drunks – I hadn’t noticed the extra pay! Having said that, I cannot in all honesty suggest rail staff were badly paid. The real problem was being on one’s own with very limited communications. It would not in those days have been practical to get BT police up there (at least, quickly) and the LU systems made getting Hertfordshire police a slow process. I can only recall ever having to get the police once in five years for a last train jobby, whilst we probably had to dig out several unhappy drunks a week (favouring Fridays and Saturdays).


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