Born within sight of the Patricroft locomotive depot and living in that locality for many years, my interest in the railway began at an early age. In addition I had in me what could be called a ‘bump’ for engineering, and this helped to make the steam locomotive of special interest.
As soon as I could use any form of tool I was ready to make things, and this led on to the building of scale steam locomotives, a hobby which has occupied many hours of work over many years. The same inclination led me to take up employment with a local firm which built steam engines, albeit stationary ones.
Very naturally, any photographs of engines were much prized; I gradually became interested in the art of railway photography, and was joined in the 1930s by my brother. Well do we remember pleasant outings searching for suitable locations and subjects on which to practice the art, although with rather limited success at first.
We quickly discovered the unsuitability of cameras then in our possession, with inadequate lenses and shutters; not to mention the frustrations of certain second-hand equipment which, as we learnt the hard way, had inherent malfunctions not always easy to rectify. Although the facts will be well known to experienced photographers, some readers may be interested in our experience with different types of cameras and shutters. I suppose the first lesson learnt was that a camera with a shutter giving a top speed of 1/100sec was quite inadequate for anything other than ‘portraits’ of static subjects. Some success was enjoyed with a Compur shutter which gave a minimum exposure of 1/250sec but this left much to be desired.
Being located between the elements of the camera lens, this type of shutter exposes the whole of the negative at once, and since an object moving at 60mph advances over four inches in 1/250sec it follows that some part of the scene recorded will not be sharp — either the train, if the camera is not moved, or the background if the camera is ‘panned’ as the train passes. The relative sharpness also depends on the angle of the approaching train, becoming progressively less sharp as the angle changes from head-on (when the image on the negative ‘grows’ comparatively slowly as the train approaches) to a full side shot (when the image of the train on the emulsion is moving very quickly). A Compur Rapid shutter with a minimum exposure of 1/500sec proved much more satisfactory.
The most suitable shutter is the focal-plane type, which exposes the negative ‘a bit at a time’ as a slit of variable width in a roller blind travels across the film or plate immediately in front of the emulsion. Shutters of this type are commonly designed for 1/1000sec and even 1/2000sec and are used in conjunction with fast lenses in order to pass sufficient light during such brief exposures. However, a little thought will reveal that care is still needed! Depending on which way the slit travels across the emulsion, and at what speed, the overall image can be sharp but distorted. For example, if the slit travels from top to bottom, taking 1/250sec to get from one side of the film to the other, a train moving at 60mph will have moved forward over four inches, and the resulting photograph will depict it ‘leaning forward ie. whilst the picture will be sharp, the top of the smokebox will be ahead of the wheels. The aim is to have a shutter with a rapid movement and, if possible, travelling across the negative rather than in a vertical plane in order to make any distortion less obtrusive.
One difficulty encountered in the early days was in the use of a developer which contained metol. The least trace of this chemical on my fingers caused metol poisoning, which had the unpleasant effect of causing the skin to peel off, leaving the fingers extremely tender. Whilst I had to take stringent precautions on this account when working in the darkroom, my brother was quite unaffected by it. Needless to say, an alternative developer without the unpleasant side-effect was used subsequently; and work in the darkroom then became much more enjoyable.
My engineering bent was put to good use in 1938 when an enlarger was made; this has done yeoman service over the years and has been used to print the scenes illustrated in this book. As in all ventures, there were disappointments. One can recall instances when a photograph of a certain train had been planned only to discover, too late, that the shutter had not been wound up, or there was a failure at some stage of the developing process. On other occasions, another train would run past at the crucial moment, obscuring the view. There was a day when this happened three times in succession (the LMS days were busy ones!).
Rightly or wrongly, it was felt at the time that plates gave better results than film (although one has to bear in mind this was about 40 years ago). This posed the problem of reloading the camera in the open with the help of a changing bag’. The object of the exercise was to remove the exposed plate from the holder, replace it with an unused one, making certain that the emulsion was the right way round, avoid getting finger marks on the plates in the process, and avoid exposing them to the least suggestion of light. On a hot, sunny day at the lineside, fumbling around inside the black velvet bag with sticky fingers, this was anything but easy even after much practice, and was guaranteed to cause disappointments from time to time, Railway photography is not without hazards. However absorbed in a particular subject one became, split-second timing being only one of many factors calling for concentration, it was necessary to be constantly aware of the environment, particularly since the noise of a passing train coincides with the peak of one’s effort to secure a good photograph. Fortunately one can recall only minor hazards which befell the photographers, such as an occasion when failure to step high enough over a signal wire resulted in a fall which did nothing to improve the condition of the camera in use at the time!
Acknowledgements must be made to the railway officials of the day. Without the facilities granted in the form of Shed and Walking Permits, few photographs could have been taken and much interesting material could not have been recorded. I was privileged in being allowed to move around without hindrance, particularly as, unlike my brother, I was not a railway employee. Latterly I had my own engineering business, whereas my brother made his career on the railway and was, for a time, a stationmaster in the Manchester Division.
Standing today (1978) on the footbridge spanning what was once Eccles Junction and looking across the vast expanse of now derelict land which was once the scene of bustling activity in and immediately around Patricroft sheds, one can only feel sad. At the same time one feels privileged to have witnessed a unique era of railway history. The amalgamation of the smaller companies, with their numerous classes of locomotive, resulted in ‘train spotting’ at its best. During the period recorded in this book the whole system was at its zenith with the result that line occupation was intense; the next train was seldom long coming, and one was never sure what surprise was in store when it came into
sight. In the LMS days, trains were longer and heavier. It was common to see 17 coaches being hauled up Shap and Beattock, and many drivers would not think twice about taking up 15 unassisted. Similarly on the freight side, trains of 60 loaded coal wagons were anything but unusual. The locomotives of the day advertised these facts! Breathing fire and smoke, one felt they were alive and saying so—a characteristic one feels to be missing in present diesel and electric days.
W. D. Cooper