Pubs symbolised town's reliance on the railway
Fred Hughes takes a break from his journey along the old North Staffordshire Loop Line and discovers just how much the Potteries has changed
I T'S TIME to take some respite from our journey along the Loop Line. And what better place than a pub, situated for convenience, near the station.
"Before 1960 there were dozens of pubs throughout the Potteries with names that reflected their association with the railways," says historian Steve Birks.
"The Station Inn, The Railway Hotel and The Locomotive were typical. But when the Loop Line closed in 1965, many of these names were changed to suit fashionable surroundings. Either that or they were indifferently demolished to favour modernisation."
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Nowhere in Stoke-on-Trent is this more noticeable than in Tunstall. A former resident now living on the Isle of Man, Brenda Kitching, aged 85, was born in The Station Inn in Station Road, now called The Boulevard. The pub on the opposite side of the road was called The Loop Line, and both disappeared around 1965 when the railway closed and a new town centre bypass callously buried both hostelries.
"The last time I was in Tunstall I couldn't recognise it. It looks as though it was never part of the Potteries. Everything has been changed to modern retail," Brenda laments.
"The Station Inn was next to the Queen Victoria Jubilee Buildings. Walking along to the Loop Line station was a treat in itself, passing the Memorial Gardens and Barber's Palace cinema, and a row of impressive villas opposite the station entrance.
"A short distance further on, the park opened up into tree-lined dusty lanes below Stanfields. Our two pubs were favourites with travellers who would call carrying their luggage, arriving and departing. I used the Loop Line station a lot going to Hanley with my mother. It was an exciting journey. Travelling by train always is though, isn't it?"
T he celebrated historian Paul Johnson, who grew up in Tunstall, recalls in his memoirs, The Vanished Landscape, the special pleasure the station gave him. "You went down a steep track to get into Tunstall Station, a cavernous place under a bridge, of smoke-stained dingy brick, dark and fumigerous. I loved the powerful stamp machine which put the date on our cardboard tickets with a loud 'thoomp'.
"Stationmaster Greatbatch was in charge, assisted by Porter Hamps, who waved the green flag when it was time for the train to go. Mr Greatbatch sometimes saw us into our carriage and made sure the heavy brass door handle was securely shut. The train would always whistle loudly when it left Tunstall, run fast down the slope, then chuff and pant laboriously up the hill to Burslem."
Tunstall had quite a complexity of rail networks. Its diversity became obvious to the south of the station where the Loop Line passed over the Scotia Road viaduct. Almost annexed to this was a level crossing that controlled rail traffic on the Chatterley Whitfield/Pinnox line.
"Before the Loop Line opened there was a private plan to run a passenger line from Longport around the east of Tunstall to Newfields Wharf," says Steve. "But North Staffordshire Railway Company (NSR) was first off the mark with the Loop.
"Irrespective of this, a mineral line was laid from Chatterley Whitfield through a tunnel beneath High Lane at Chell, ending at Pinnox Junction. The Longport mineral line joined this, running beside Westport Lake under Davenport Street at Brownhills.
"After this, the NSR built its own mineral line to Newfields from the Loop. There seemed to be rail traffic all over Tunstall, indicating the town's importance as an industrial district with iron and coal mines, and dozens of potteries."
The NSR Loop Line was a huge success. Up to its amalgamation, when it became part of London Midlands Scottish Railways (LMS) in 1923, it was an established element of the daily routine for Stoke-on-Trent commuters. There were never fewer than 39 trains leaving Tunstall for Stoke between 6am and midnight daily, with as many running in the opposite direction. Indeed Tunstall, along with Hanley and Burslem, were the only Loop Line stations that opened on Sundays. But all this was to change.
"I noticed during the war that the station was being used less. This is because people weren't travelling so much except those going to work at the munitions factories," recalls Brenda. "Everybody who wasn't on active service went to their jobs on works buses. When the war ended, PMT buses became more frequent. The only time people used trains in numbers was during wakes week. It seems to me this was when the trains started to become run down."
P aul Johnson travelled to school by Loop Line train during the 1940s. He noticed that the LMS seemed to put its poorer carriages on the Loop Line.
"The seats were of much-worn plush and emitted immense clouds of dust when thwacked," he writes. He also noted the carriages had no corridors and flyblown pictures of seaside resorts hung beneath dilapidated net luggage racks.
"The whole line was run down," says Steve. "Even when diesels were introduced in 1957, it seemed as though the shabbiest carriages were saved for the Loop Line."