Our speaker on the 14th April was David Hartland and his subject was intriguingly entitled ‘45 Years of Railways at Work and Play‘.

David began by briefly summarising his career following his graduation from Cambridge – where he had been an active member of the University Railway Club. He first of all joined GEC where he gained experience of the electrical industry. In 1984 he moved to Brecknell, Willis & Co Ltd, retiring 30 years later as its Engineering Director. He calculated that during his time with Brecknell Willis he had travelled some 2.3 million miles on company business and visited 42 diffrerent countries. He had kept all his tickets and showed us a photograph of part of his collection to illustrate the point !

Henry Brecknell had founded the company in 1854, originally specialising in the production of brass castings. Later the company became Brecknell, Munro & Rogers Ltd and towards the end of the nineteenth century entered the new electrical industry. At its peak trhe company employed some 1,000 people, mainly in its factory in Thrissell Street, Easton, Bristol. An important early contract was for the supply of overhead wiring and equipment for the Bristol Tramways which in the 1890s were being converted to electric operation from horse traction. The company also pioneered a trolley reverser system to dispense with the necessity of this having to be done manually by the conductor at tram termini.

In the 1920s Arnold Willis became a partner and the company acquired its present name, developing its specialisation in electrical equipment for trams and later trolley buses and railway vehicles; over the years some 20,000 sets of gear were supplied for trolley buses alone. The company built its first pantographs in 1924 for use on trains on the pioneer electrified Morecambe to Heysham line of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. In the years immediately before the Second World War, the Government provided incentives to encourage vulnerable industries to relocate away from the major cities and in 1938 Brecknell Willis moved its factory to Chard. Nevertheless the company retained some offices in Jacob Street, Bristol, and these were destroyed in the air raids of January 1941.

The new factory naturally became involved in the manufacture of armaments but within 15 years of the end of hostilities, trams and trolleybuses had virtually disappeared in Britain and the company entered a very difficult period. In 1973, however, a new design of pantograph was developed and successfully tested initially on the little Seaton Tramway; this led to major orders in connection with the ongoing modernisation of British Railways and the 1,000th pantograph was delivered in 1984. in 1989 a Class 91 electric locomotive, fitted with a Brecknell Willis pantograph, achieved a record 162 mph during high speed trials on the East Coast Main Line.More experimental work was undertaken in the years immediately following and this involved the conversion of the electro-diesel locomotive No.73205 into a straight electric testbed as No.83301.

Brecknell Willis then became involved in several prestigious projects, including the Docklands Light Railway in London and the Singapore metro system. The DLR is interesting in that current collection is via a third rail with pickup on the underside as employed on several Continental systems and David commented that aluminium was now preferred for the third rail on London Transport with over 2,000 miles of such rail having been supplied. After 50 years with virtually no tramway development in Britain, Bracknell Willis became fully involved in the resurgence of light rail systems from the 1980s and work was undertaken for the Manchester Metrolink, Dublin LUAS and Birmingham Metro schemes, as well as the modernisation of the Blackpool system. The company was also very much involved with the design of the Channel Tunnel ‘Eurostar’ trains and as services were to be routed over the existing Southern Region d.c. lines from Waterloo until such time as the HS1 rail link was completed, it was necessary to include third-rail pickup equipment in addition to the 25KV a.c. and 3 Kv d.c. pantographs.

The French considered such a proposal to be impracticable – and indeed ludicrous – but the trains operated in a satisfactory manner for several years until the new line to St Pancras International was ready. In connection with this work another electro-diesel locomotive, No.73133 was made available for research purposes and the testing of the specially designed third-rail pickup equipment. David’s presentation was illustrated throughout with a fascinating selection of photographs and in its second part, we were entertained to a real miscellanea of railway items which had appealed to his sense of humour or interest. We started with the strange wording on the monument in Hawes churchyard in memory of the casulaties in the Ais Gill accident of 1910 but then moved on to a collection of various and curious railway signs which soon had the audience laughing.

A most interesting and varied evening was concluded with a vote of thanks proposed by Brian Neill.