We think we know what signal boxes look like. They are neatly rectangular and plain-walled, they have pitched or hipped roofs, fully glazed uppers, solid lowers and a neat little staircase down the side. It’s this potent mental expectation that made the Southern Railway’s streamlined ship-shape signal boxes of the 1930s and 40s so disruptive to that railway architectural idiom.
However, my father (to whom this blog is really just an extravagantly extended thank you for kindling my interest in transport architecture during my formative – and by this I mean as far back as pre-school – years) reminds me that there have been earlier examples of out-of-the-ordinary signal boxes, via this photo:
When you come across this strange little building at the north end of Carnforth station’s platform 1, your first thought will likely be, What is this eccentric Tudor lodge doing here? This will be swiftly followed by, Oh, it’s a signal box. This will in turn be followed by, What the flipping noo-nah kind of signal box is this?
Well, it’s the Furness Railway’s signal box, and it’s like no other you’ve ever seen. It’s what happens when railway architecture goes full-on bat-poo crazy.
There is a degree of confusion about the date this signal box was built. Historic England’s listing record – the box was listed at Grade II in 1983 – insists it was built in 1882. Historic England’s Railway Signal Boxes – A Review, suggests c.1870. In neither case does it cite any evidence for its contradictory assertions. Guys – show your workings.
Carnforth station was mainly built (well, a rebuild of an earlier and much smaller station) in 1880 by architect William Tite. Tite is arguably most famous in transport terms for his architectural work on stations for the London and South Western Railway, although he worked round the country. At Carnforth, he employed a Tudor / Neo-gothic / Mediaeval (take your pick of how you want to describe it) style.
As an aside, Carnforth’s platforms were substantially modernised in the 1930s by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), yes, them again from last week. That’s why, in its starring role in British film drama Brief Encounter (dir. David Lean, 1945) it looks so startlingly modern, its austere and severe Modernist platforms perfectly echoing the post-war British emotional reserve displayed by its two lead characters. In other words, Carnforth station is one of those perfect The Beauty of Transport locations, combining interesting architecture and cultural significance.
According to the North West Evening Mail, architecture practice Austin and Paley of Lancashire was responsible for the design of Carnforth Furness Railway signal box. The practice undertook a lot of work for the Furness Railway at its stations, and must have designed the box to match Tite’s Carnforth station buildings (which makes the 1882 date for its construction the more likely). So we’ve probably identified the guilty party, and to judge by the signal box they were certainly guilty of being under the influence of something, responsible for this extraordinary Tudoresque piece of madness. It’s built of York stone with sandstone dressings, hardly conventional materials for a signal box, and it’s an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink muddle of Tudor detailing.
Let’s start with that chimney. What’s going on there? Nothing wrong with a Tudor chimney – they’re always fabulous and highly decorative. My Mum loves them; and this one has a very pretty elongated hexagonal patterning at the top. But surely their natural habitat is atop a palace or mansion, not a signal box? Architect compensating for something, I reckon. The pitched roof is made of slate, but is partially hidden by raised gables
And then there’s the windows. Why have big windows a signaller can easily see out of, when you can have narrow pointy-topped gothic windows with heavy stonework dividing them into smaller parts? Because it’s a ridiculous idea. That’s why. Mullioned and transomed windows with pointed tops feature on both sides of the signal box and the north end. The gable of the north end is decorated with a carved coat of arms, that of the Cavendish family with its motto “Cavendo Tutus”. The Duke of Devonshire, a member of the Cavendish family, was one of the main driving forces behind the Furness Railway (see here for more). Interestingly, the family motto translates as “Safety Precautions” or “Safe Through Caution”, extremely apt for a signal box when you think about it.
At the south end of the signal box, which you can see from the platform, there’s a circular recess speculated (Historic England again) to once house a clock. No no no. Clocks go on towers above or alongside a station’s ticket hall. Not on signal boxes. Everyone knows that. On either side of the recess are chamfered windows, a very neat detail. Sloping weathering indicates where a canopy once attached directly to the signal box, and at the bottom is a blocked-in shouldered arch (i.e. flat-topped with a corbel at each end).
The signal box closed in 1903, when it was replaced by a signal box of much more conventional design (also listed at Grade II), which you can see here. It’s been redundant ever since and is beginning to look like a building which has been out of use for over a century, with its boarded-up or sometimes gaping windows. The dereliction continues especially inside; there’s a wonderful little gallery of photos of the box’s interior here.
I hope somebody can find the wherewithal and the justification to restore it soon, before it decays too much further. It’s a testament to the quality of its construction that it’s stood unused for so long yet remained in reasonably good condition. It still looks absolutely mad though, adding visual interest to Carnforth and to the journeys of people using the station.
Further Reading and Bibliography
Historic England listing citation for Carnforth signal box, here
Minnis, John (2012): Railway Signal Boxes – A Review. English Heritage. PDF here
Minnis, John (2016): Signal Boxes – Introductions to Heritage Assets. Historic England. PDF here
North West Evening Mail (2 March 2011): Hot on the trail of the railway station kings. Online version here
Carnforth Station Heritage Centre website, here