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West Midlands Branch

60 Years of the West Midlands Branch

The RCTS whilst tracing its origins to Cheltenham, was active, from the earliest days, in the Midlands. From the early 1930s, there was formed, due to a reasonable number of members in this area, what was referred to as the ‘Birmingham Section’.

Active?

Well, the first edition of Railway News – what we now know as the RO had a very early report – in the first issue indeed, from a local member.

Mr. H. Ravenscroft (Membership No. 5) reported on a visit to Rugby MPD and noted the presence of representatives of ALL of the remaining ex-LNWR express passenger types – Claughtons, Prince of Wales and Experiment 4-6-0s, plus George V and Precursor 4-4-0s and two real collectors items – No 5158 Temeraire, a ‘Renown’ 4-4-0 rebuilt from a Webb 4-cylinder Compound and No 5012 ‘John Ramsbottom’, one of the last few remaining Webb Jumbo 2-4-0s. At times like this, don’t you wish for a digital camera and a time machine? Wow!

Reading through the RO of those days, the main impression gained is that the majority of organised activities related to what we now refer to as ‘Outdoor Visits’, to locosheds, stations and works – permits being easily obtained and no overbearing ‘jobsworths’ or railway police trying to justify their existence.

In terms of activities, for example, the Birmingham Section were advertising a ‘comprehensive shed programme’ organised by Mr. C. E. Hodgetts of Handsworth, assisted by Mr. W. Leslie Good and E. Rouch.

One thing that started in the 1930s was what was then called the Christmas Reunion – the equivalent of the current Members Weekend and Officers Conference, but then held somewhat later in the year.

Seventy five years ago, we had an energetic President of the Society, Mr. H. J. Stretton-Ward, who was one of our locals, based just down the road from Coventry, in Leamington Spa.

The first real ‘get-together’ – the predecessor of the Christmas Reunion, run by the Birmingham Section was actually held at Mr. Stretton-Ward’s house, on 1st January 1933, needless to say, after a visit to Leamington shed and followed by a film show.

He it was, who was responsible for arranging many of the Christmas Reunions, based for quite a number of years in Leamington, usually including a visit to Leamington GWR MPD, followed by ‘High Tea’ – now there’s a name from the past - and a film show of his cine work plus well known guest speakers, such as Claude Hamilton-Ellis, J. N. Maskelyne and O.S. Nock, to name but a few.

WW2 curtailed activities, but once the war ended, things began to happen once more. Into this brave new world, the Society picked up the reins, and got going again, no where more so than around here.

The mainspring for this was an incredible chap, called in the RO George, but when I knew him at the end of his life, Mike Page. He it was, as Secretary of the Birmingham Section, who started organising shed visits, often five or six a day and the published events programme is quite unbelievable by today’s standards – especially as they were all done by public transport.

In March 1949, at the Birmingham Section AGM, a couple of significant items: –

Firstly, Mr Page complained that members were ringing up at all hours regarding Branch activities – again, some things never change, do they, as any Branch Secretary will tell you...

Second, John Gregory, who was to be an important cog in the wheel here, was taken on to the Committee, to look after the interests of the Coventry-based members.

By October, the RO contained a proposal for a meeting to be held in the Coventry area, and those interested were to contact Mr. J. T. Watts, of 63, Mickleton Road, in Earlsdon.

Did it happen?

Well, it seems so, because 28 turned up at the King George IV Hotel, in Smithford Street, quite literally, one of the few sizeable buildings in that part of the city centre to survive relatively unscathed. It must have been judged a success because a second meeting was very quickly arranged.

Sixty years ago, a few keen types in Coventry then reckoned they could make a go of it - they are still doing so...

The 1950s came along and there were, evidently, meetings in both Birmingham and Coventry, but the impression is gained that once Mr Page had departed, for pastures new, the strength was ebbing away from Birmingham, despite there being over 2 million people living there.

Coventry meanwhile, was gaining strength and found a new home for its indoor meetings – 64 Holyhead Road – otherwise known as the G.E.C. Centre Ballroom.

Unfortunately, this venue disappeared without trace when the Coventry Ring Road was built – you can still walk up the bottom end of Holyhead Road, to No. 32, but no higher, it has a gap where the Ring Road now is and so, no No. 64, any longer.

This venue was quite a place for holding meetings, because apart from having the ballroom in its title, it also had an assortment of varying sized rooms for hire, used by a variety of organisations.

Bob Barby, our current Chairman, tells that our meetings were held in the basement, where the speaker was occasionally drowned out by the clodhopping footsteps of the dancers above.

Use of this venue went on for some years, until, as stated above, the new ring road was built, so it was pastures new, and for some time, we met in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, close to the city centre. As with all places, this had a feature of its own, in that the length of meetings was governed by the janitor rattling his keys if he thought we were going on too long.

After the war, many of the Christmas Reunions were held in Birmingham, usually close to New Street station. In 1953,it was held at the Central YMCA, although what the dinner, priced at 3/6d consisted of, is anybody’s guess... On many other occasions, at either the Queens Hotel, or the County Hotel. Perhaps the ‘hairiest’ occasion, was 1974, the day after the IRA bombing in Birmingham City centre. Members attending were searched as they entered on entering, via the rear entrance.

I mentioned earlier that the Birmingham side of things was becoming less healthy and by early 1955, there was plea for informal meetings in Birmingham, with the suggested venue as the Crown Hotel , behind New Street, with no obvious agenda, but ideas were solicited.

By now, by the way, we had a title. We were now, ‘West Midlands Branch (Coventry Sub-Area)’, which must have been as good an example of the tail wagging the dog as you could wish for.

‘Why Not Always in Colour?’ A talk by T. B. ‘Trevor’ Owen, in London in March 1956, reported in the June RO might also seem irrelevant to the WM Branch history. In fact, it’s nice to be able to report that Trevor, now well into his 80s is still with us and is currently our most far-flung West Midlands Branch member. Where? In Aberystwyth of course – that’s 147 miles each way to get to a Branch meeting....

The WM Branch AGM in 1957 shows how things had changed. The new chairman was John Gregory, with Bernard Davenport as secretary and Norman Claydon, plus others, with the accent strongly away from Birmingham.

The statement from the chairman was interesting: ‘The new branch committee intends to continue its successful series of meetings and hope to organise similar facilities in Birmingham’.

Also, the January meeting in 1962 was, and still is, our member’s slides night. 47 years ago, we had three presenters:- Geoff Jones, sadly no longer with us, but Bob Barby, our Branch Chairman certainly is, as is Ray Reed, and they provided some of the material for the slide presentation at the 2009 Members Weekend. Again, isn’t it great to hear that stalwarts like these are still giving their support to the Society, after so many years.

In this period, the Branch had a very active Railtours sub-committee, comprising Peter Robinson, Bob Barby, Geoff Jones, Alan Bridges and John Ryan. In the period from 1962 to 1980, this crew managed to organise no less than thirty-two railtours, some in conjunction with the Annual Reunion, which ranged far and wide, including such exotic locations as the Isle of Man.

One of the spin-offs of the newly rebuilt station, was that it had some extra facilities to offer, and one of these was the Railway Staff Club, which became our meeting point for a long period. Its big advantage was that being in the station, it was easy for the members from Rugby and Birmingham and even further afield to get to meetings, using trains, which actually ran at night, in those days.

Its one disadvantage was that occasionally, the speaker had to compete with the bingo caller’s voice coming through the bar, and occasionally, the juke box, but otherwise, it had a lot to commend it.

All this came to a screeching halt, in the late 1980s when the licensee absconded with the funds and the place was closed down, more or less overnight. It did re-open, some time later, as a club for gays, but for fairly obvious reasons, most of the members weren’t too interested in us going back...

One supposes that their members there might have been taken by some shots of Gresley pacific 60108 Gay Crusader, pulling a train of ‘camp’ coaches..... Who knows? In fact, this venture also fizzled out, and current use for the old club, is a signing on point for LM train staff.

Needless to say, we had to find a new home for meetings, and this proved to be quite a task. We went to the Burnt Post pub, on the A45, for quite some time, until it closed for refurbishment. Then we tried the Coventry Conservative Association Club.

This could have been quite a good venue, until one night, when we had Dick Hardy to speak, and one inconsiderate and ignorant clown from their membership decided to spend the whole night, as a deliberate act of sabotage, playing the fruit machine, complete with clatters and bangs. After that performance, enough was enough.

Through the good offices of our local member, Chris Youett, who happens to be a life member there, we had a good few years at the clubhouse of Coventry Rugby club, which lasted until they moved to their new ground.

The next port of call was the Hylands Hotel, which many members will remember as the venue for an AGM weekend, but which slowly fell to bits round our ears. Despite being so convenient for the station, only a few hundred yards away, we seemed to be constantly battling with both the deterioration of the building and their management and it just got worse and worse.

Finally, we have gravitated to the Maudslay Hotel – a pub with a good room, a friendly welcome and the beer sensibly priced. It has since been hijacked by a number of the Society’s sub-committees meetings too.

You may remember that initial references to the Society’s origins in this area were in Birmingham. Sad to say, that side of the Branch did fall by the wayside, a long time ago. What we can tell you is that we are now looking, although so far only tentatively, at starting to hold meetings again, in the second city – watch this space.

Before closing, mention must made of the work done by this Branch regarding our Society Publications. In the 1950s Norman Claydon took over as Publications Officer and was followed by John Gregory who ran the ship for many years with publications stored in containers at his woodworking business. Since then the chain has been unbroken with locals like Reg Wood and recently, his brother John handling the orders, not to mention our current despatcher, Mike Robertson who found the current site for the publications store still locally situated in Coventry.

Perhaps the best known name of all was our own version of Victor Meldrew – Geoff Baylis, who had started out, helping Norman Claydon, then took on the job as secretary of the Pubs Comm. plus acting as despatcher for too many years to count, and drew the comment from the chairman that probably no-one had ever humped so many tons of books on behalf of the society – we still miss the sardonic old devil, who although in failing health was still as sharp and perceptive as ever, right up to the end!

The current committee has no intention of letting this legacy slip away and will continue their efforts to promote the Society, in every possible way, in the future.

David Walker, with contributions from Bob Barby and Derek Morris.
26/01/2010

last updated: 07/07/10