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WD Cooper biography

W.D.Cooper with some of the small-power steam locomotives he built. Three well known designs together with a freelance 2-6-2.

W.D.Cooper with some of the small-power steam locomotives he built. Three well known designs together with a freelance 2-6-2.

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A biography by Dennis Cooper

My brother, Wilfred, was born in Particroft (Greater Manchester) in 1905, within sight and sound of Patricroft engine sheds. He was my senior by 14 years, and I was born in the same house. Perhaps the environment played some part in our lifelong interest in railways, and certainly at that time and until the end of the steam era, it was a unique, never to be repeated, period in railway history.

Patricroft sheds occupied a large, triangular area bordered on the South by the Manchester (exchange) to Liverpool (Lime Street) line; on the North East the line from Eccles Junction leading to Bolton and Wigan (North Western), and on the North West side the predominantly freight line from Patricroft which crossed the latter line near Monton Green and continued to Clifton Junction and Radcliffe. Our house was on the South side of the Manchester to Liverpool line not far from Patricroft station.

From a train-spotters point of view, things could have hardly been better. Each train could bring a surprise, being headed by an L.M.S., L.&Y., L.N.W.R., M.R., or even a G.W.R. loco, since that Company had running powers from Chester to Manchester. There was even an occasional L.N.E.R. loco to be seen. There was never long to wait in those days of intense railway activity, both passenger and freight. Of particular interest were two daily freight trains. One was the 7.05pm Manchester Liverpool Road to Carlisle and the other, from the same starting point at 8pm, was a goods train destined for Bristol and headed by a G.W.R. loco which was always in immaculate condition.

Early in life, Wilfred seemed to have a natural leaning towards engineering, and his first employment was in 1921 with the Browett, Lindley Company which had a large works in Patricroft making, to quote one of their brochures, “Quick Revolution, Forced Lubrication Steam Engines”, and also Gas Engines. One 4-cylinder, 400HP Gas engine was supplied to the Wanganui Corporation in New Zealand. Wilf worked for that firm until the works closed on 25th October 1921. He evidently became a valued employee, and I can remember times when he was dispatched to various locations where one of their engines required repairs or something above the ordinary maintenance, (but not as far as New Zealand)

In 1922, the family (I also had a sister a year older than Wilfred) moved to the North Side of the railway into a large, Victorian house with attics and cellars which was situated in a large piece of ground and included a wooden garage large enough for two cars and a room to spare. In no time, two long benches appeared, a lathe, drilling machine (which my brother made) and numerous hand tools. He also acquired very cheaply (from Browlett, Lindley & Co. when they closed) a very heavy, steel ribbed “marking-out table” mounted on a massive wooden frame. I never quite understood what he had in mind when introducing this into the workshop he was building up. It needed a block and tackle and a crowbar to manoeuvre the thing up into the garage and then mount it on the wooden frame. However, I seem to remember it did not stay there long, and was replaced by a milling machine (a much more useful tool).

He then acquired a forge, the handle of which I used to turn for him when the coke fire needed brightening up when he was forging metal for one purpose or another. He also built, just outside the garage door, a brick fireplace with a chimney about 7 feet or so high which served to melt brass when making castings for cylinder blocks &c. needed in the construction of the steam locomotives (3.5 inch gauge) he built.

He always maintained he was “no good” at woodwork, but I would disagree. In my early school days, he made me a wooden pedal car in which I learnt lessons on three-point-turns and everything else connected with ‘motoring’ which has served me all my life!

By the time World War II broke out, he had married and lived in Swinton, and he was at the Salford Technical College during the war teaching engineering students. It was during this time that he had a remarkable escape. These were pre-smokeless zone days, and Manchester suffered from ‘pea soup’ fogs, made infinitely worse by the blackout. He travelled to work from Worsley station one very foggy morning. After feeling his way along, he eventually arrived to find a train had just run in from Bolton, and it immediately moved on as he closed the door, calling at Monton Green and then Eccles. At Eccles Junction, the train was then on the Up slow line, and at Eccles Station it did not cross over onto the Fast line but continued on the Slow line towards Manchester. Between Eccles and Weaste, a train passed on the Down Slow line, and he though that in these circumstances it was travelling rather fast. Had my brother arrived at Worsley station a few seconds later than he did, he would have caught a train from Wigan. This train it transpired was crossed over to the Up fast line on leaving Eccles Station, and the train on the Down Slow line smashed into it as it crossed over.

After the war, my brother started working on his own, and purchased a car repair business, not so much because of an interest in cars, but the premises were close to his home in Swinton and he no doubt had in mind getting more general engineering work. In due course the car repair work was phased out, and engineering work more to his liking took its place.

Wilfred was very fond of the Lake District, and with two friends of his about his age, I went camping with him from a very early age, travelling from Penrith to Ullswater on the carrier of his cycle until I was old enough to have my own bike. By the time I was in my teens, I was taking an interest in photography, and I suppose about this time we went about together to places like Shap, Tebay Etc. (albeit with hopeless equipment like cameras with shutter speeds in the region of 1/100th sec. which were of use only for “portraits” of locomotives). We learnt the hard way that even at a shutter speed of 1/1000th sec. a train travelling at 60mph moves forward over 1 inch. Things were seldom sharp! The answer was a roller-blind shutter which is an adjustable slit moving across the plate or film, which exposed the film ‘a bit at a time’. At 1/1000th sec. exposure it took longer than that to travel from one side to the other, by which time the train could have moved forward over four inches, so the impression given was that the engine was ‘leaning forward’ (or backwards according to the direction of travel of the blind). Ideally, the blind should move in a horizontal plane. The distortion is, of course, lessened progressively as the train approaches the photographer more head-on.

Surprisingly, Wilfred did not seek employment on the railway as I did. (He would have really enjoyed being an engine driver, I am sure). Perhaps with something akin to ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ my railway photography grew less and less. That of Wilfred was the opposite, and until the end of steam and privatization, he had Walking Permits and Shed Passes granted him quite freely, and he made good use of them as will be seen from this collection.

As a hobby, Wilfred spent a lot of time building 3.5 inch gauge working steam locomotives, some to his own design. These included a couple of Royal Scots, a Baby Scot, and L.N.W.R. Prince of Wales class (in a smaller gauge), and Midland Railway Deeley 4-4-0, L.M.S. Scot 6170 and at least two free-lance locos of his own design. He used to steam these up and run them at various locations from time to time, notably (until it closed) the track at Dinting.

When he retired, he moved to Garstang, and spent more time that ever in travelling around with his camera. He would also have appreciated being nearer to the Lake District, not to mention Tebay and Shap.

In his 93 years of life (he died in December 1998) he put on plates and negatives a valuable photographic record of the railway scene in the North West of England from the 1930s. to the end of the steam age. I feel sure this collection will be appreciated by many who miss that unique era of these motive power units which one felt to be alive, and demonstrating their power in no uncertain way and in a way which is not to be found in the diesel and electric age.

Dennis S. Cooper

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