the signal box (artist’s impression)

signalling at Spetisbury

Spetisbury station opened on 1st November 1860 on the single line between Wimborne and Blandford. It is not known what, if any, signals were provided at first but early disc & crossbar signals were in use probably by the late 1870s. These wooden signals rotated to show a red crossbar when trains were required to stop, or a red disc when trains could proceed.  This disc contained several holes to reduce its resistance to wind. The signals were operated by station staff from a set of levers on the platform. On 4th November 1886 the Electric Train Tablet method of single line operation was introduced by the S&DJR between Blandford and Bailey Gate and, after this date, the disc & crossbar signals at Spetisbury were used only for ‘request stop’ purposes. The Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway working train timetable issued in 1889 stated “The normal position of the Signals…. must be at the “Off” position, except when required to be used to stop a Train which is marked to call by Signal only, or to protect any impediment or obstruction which may be on the Line, in accordance with Rule 157 of the Committee’s Book of Rules and Regulations. In accordance with this Rule, when a Train has stopped at the Station, the Signals in both directions must be placed at “Danger”, and remain so until the Train has again started, and has passed out of sight.”

Towards the end of the 19th century the trackbed between Bailey Gate (Sturminster Marshall) and Blandford was widened to accommodate a second set of rails, and this work involved the rebuilding of Spetisbury station. The original platform was lengthened to become the ‘down’ platform for trains to Wimborne and Poole, and a new ‘up’ platform was built for trains to Blandford and further north. It appears that during construction of the ‘up’ platform, one of the disc & crossbar signals had to be repositioned. A set of crossover points allowed trains to move from one line to another, to be used if one line was occupied by engineering work.  At the same time the original disc & crossbar signals were replaced by more modern semaphore signals. The last disc & crossbar signal at Spetisbury (one of the last on the entire Somerset & Dorset line) was removed on 16th April 1901. Semaphore signals can still be seen today on many heritage railways and comprise an arm which when in the horizonal position indicates stop, or when raised or lowered indicates safe to proceed. A small signal box was provided at Spetisbury to operate the new points and signals.

the signal box

The signal box probably opened on or around 29th April 1901 when double track working was introduced through Spetisbury. It was a ground level affair built of brick and timber, unlike the more widely-known two storey signal boxes such as this example just up the line at Shillingstone. No close-up photographs of Spetisbury signal box have so far come to light, so this artist’s impression has been created from archive images and with reference to the remaining building foundations. The woodwork was probably originally painted in the salmon and dark brown colours of the London & South Western Railway, then later the green and cream of the Southern Railway.

This signal box was a Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway Type 2 design and cost £450 to install. It had a nine-lever frame of Stevens & Sons design which operated the signals and crossover points, as illustrated by the signalling diagrams. Type 2 signal boxes were obsolete after about 1895 so it is a bit of a mystery why a later Type 3 structure was not constructed. It is possible though that the local Signalling & Telegraph department at Blandford simply provided spare components already in store for what was a fairly minor station. The floorboards and lever frame were supported on two lengths of rail running front to back. The rod and wires operating the points and signals would have exited the front wall of the signal box just above ground level, then been turned through 90° via cranks and pulleys supported on a cast iron framework. There was no mains electricity at the station so the current for the various electrical signalling items such as block instruments and bells, signal repeaters and telephones was provided by glass accumulator jars. These were likely stored in a timber cabinet on the outside wall of the signal box. The S&DJR working train timetable issued in 1901 stated The Signals at Spetisbury will be worked only for Trains stopping at the Station, except on special occasions, when it will be opened as a Block Section, of which due notice will be given, as the ordinary Block Section will be as between Blandford and Bailey Gate. The Cross-over Road must not be used except whilst the Station is open as a Block Post.”  No permanent signalman was based at Spetisbury, the role probably being performed by a station signalman/porter as and when the signal box was required to be open.

S&DJR signalling diagram stamped Engineer’s Office, Glastonbury, 22nd July 1901

To give an idea what the Spetisbury lever frame looked like, below is an example of a Stevens & Sons lever frame from the former Bridgwater North signal box, also on the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway. Each lever carried a brass lever description plate, and the example shown is typical of the type used by the L&SWR and S&DJR and is appropriate for the ‘down’ starting signal lever 3 in Spetisbury signal box.

copyright Dennis Ashill, courtesy West Country Railway Archives collection


This SPECIAL NOTICE was displayed in Spetisbury signal box detailing the procedure for opening and closing the signal box.

On 23rd January 1918 it was recommended that the crossover points at Spetisbury be removed, so it was clear that they were seldom used. Spetisbury signal box itself saw very little use and it was permanently closed from 10th August 1952, it having been noted that The condition of the locking-frame and much of the signalling apparatus at Spetisbury is worn out. Also the box structure is in need of considerable renewal. It has not been found necessary to open the box for a number of years and there is no apparent reason to anticipate such a course being necessary in the foreseeable future. In the circumstances it is recommended….. the box to be abolished.” Why the structure and apparatus was in such a poor state of repair if the signal box was little used is another mystery, but its closure saved around £28 in annual maintenance costs, as detailed below.

The well-known S&D engine driver Donald Beale recalled “There was a little signal box at the north end of the ‘up’ platform. At this spot, passengers descended to the roadway below the archway; some dozen or more steps, and it was next to this stairway that the signal box was tucked right into the hillside – a box something like Templecombe Upper ‘B’. I believe it was used like Stourpaine, to break up the long section from Blandford to Bailey Gate.” After closure the signal box possibly survived until the late 1950s when the other station buildings were demolished, the station having closed to passengers on 17th September 1956. Anything of scrap value was removed after which the signal box walls were toppled into the foundations. Part of the window aperture facing north towards Blandford was bricked-in, presumably at the same time as demolition and due to its position next to the bridge parapet. The difference in brickwork can be clearly seen today. 

excavation of the signal box

The Spetisbury Station Project Group began clearance work at the site of Spetisbury station in 2012.  As part of this work, the ruins of the signal box were revealed from underneath decades of vegetation. Having removed the demolition masonry and rubble, the foundations were revealed including the rails that supported the floor and lever frame. These rails are firmly embedded into the remaining rear wall, which probably explains why they were not recovered for scrap. We also uncovered the remains of several glass accumulator jars, including three intact ones. These are stamped NATIONAL TELEPHONE CO LTD, which existed between 1881 and 1911 until becoming the General Post Office in 1912. Other parts relating to these accumulator jars were also discovered. Just outside the front wall we discovered the remains of the cast iron framework which supported the cranks and pulleys. This is stamped RAILWAY & GEN ENG CO LD NOTTINGHAM. After the Stevens & Sons patent had expired, the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway continued to buy equipment of the same design made by a variety of contractors including the Railway & General Engineering Company Ltd of Nottingham. To help recreate the railway scene, a 2/3 scale replica disc & crossbar signal has been made and placed near the position of the original on the ‘up’ side of the line.

The Spetisbury Station Project Group is grateful to Chris Osment for providing valuable information regarding signalling at Spetisbury. His informative website contains much technical detail about signalling along the entire Somerset & Dorset railway.