A Beeching Epilogue: The Curious Case of the Clapham Junction Ghost Train

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In Part 2 of our piece on The Beeching Report’s impact on London, Pedantic of Purley highlighted that the report called for the closure of the Clapham Junction – Kensington Olympia service. As Pedantic pointed out, this was unusual less for the fact that the service was deemed ripe for closure, as it was almost certainly unprofitable, but because it acknowledged that the service existed at all.

The Clapham Junction – Kensington Olympia service (the “Kenny Belle” to its friends) was by no means officially secret but it was by any definition a “ghost train.” Between 1955 and 1969 it received no mention on the official timetable (our thanks to commentor Dave for identifying these dates) and at the time of Beeching it consisted of just two trains a day either way.

Indeed the proposal to close it arguably brought the line more publicity than it had previously ever enjoyed. Certainly enough that, as commentor Graham Feakins pointed out, it caught the eye of Daily Express journalist Daniel McGeachie who resolved to try and find it. Thanks to Graham, you can read McGeachie’s account of his attempts to travel on the Kenny Belle below. We’ve included a transcript beneath the image for ease of reading.

The Ghost Train article in the Express

A Nine Penny ticket for the ghost train yesterday

by Daniel McGeachie

I found the Ghost Train of Clapham Junction yesterday. But not easily. For there’s always something mysterious about a railway, and British Railways have excelled themselves in this masterpiece of mystery.

The train runs in secret, not listed in any timetable, from a platform fenced off with a concealed entrance, in a station which hides its very existence.

Not surprisingly, British Railways have discovered that the Ghost Train is no howling success. And decided that, after 50 years of service, it should by scrapped.

The Ghost Train makes the eight-minute journey from Clapham Junction to Kensington Olympia four times a day – times known only to a handful of railwaymen, and the group of civil servants who use it regularly.

To say that Clapham Junction has tended to let sales for this train slip is an understatement.

Shaken

At 8.5a.m. yesterday I asked for a ticket to Olympia. The world’s busiest rail junction was visibly shaken.

“That,” said stationmaster Reginal Davidge, “is probably only the second or third ticket we’ve sold for this train since the First World War. The regulars have seasons.”

As regular with season tickets hurried for the secret 8.46, a ticket was carefully produced from a squeaky drawer; single Clapham Junction to Olympia, 1s. – although it still bore the old fare of 9d., out of date since November 1959.

An arrow pointed to Platform 1 [This would later become platform 17 – JB], Kensington (Olympia).

At the end of the long, long, hallway, well away from the bustle of everyday trains, I spotted it down below at the platform. Four green carriages, an engine puffing steam, the in-the-know passenger. All satisfactory, except for one detail. There was no way of getting to it.

Platform 1 – the Ghost Train platform – had long since been sealed off by a neat metal railing.

“Try the lift,” said a porter, but the lift was out of action.

Creaking

I found the secret. Go to Platform 4… down stairs to the tunnel… walk until you reach the street… turn left up the steps…

It involved a walk of at least 200 yards. It also seemed a dangerous walk. The wooden floor of Clapham Junction’s main hall creaked.

One plank sank at least an inch under my feet, revealing daylight and a drop to the rails below.

“Well done,” said Mr. Ernest Stainer, ticket inspector for Platform 1, when I arrived. “You need a fair knowledge of the station to find your way to this train. Very specialised, you might say.”

The driver, 61 year-old Tom Hilton of Battersea, said: “We get the Ghost Train job for a day once in 16 weeks. A right laugh. We call it the Winkle.”

Passengers found it less funny. As we steamed to Olympia, Tim Perry, Horley accountant said: “This train could pay if they put in the timetable. People who have lived here all their lives don’t know about it.”

Elisabeth Sheasby of Streatham said: “If they stop this it will cost me twice as much to get to work.”

Cut Out

Stationmaster Davidge says: “Two of the four trains a day are fairly busy, but even if we tried to encourage passengers the line wouldn’t pay. It hasn’t paid for 43 years. That’s why we gave up and cut it out of the timetable.

Whatever you feel about the question of closing the Ghost Train, there’s another question puzzling me still more. How did Dr Beeching ever find it?

Ultimately, the Kenny Belle would survive Beeching (indeed she would eventually end up being the last steam hauled service in London) but the question still remains:- just why did this service exist? And why did it disappear from the timetable in the first place?

A Very British Service

As the article above hints at, the general understanding has long been that it was there for a certain group of civil servants. As Pedantic explained in the Beeching piece:

During this period there would be a couple of unadvertised services in the morning from Clapham Junction to Kensington Olympia exclusively for a group of government workers. There would be no workings in service in the return direction in the morning and in the evening the situation was reversed. In fact it turned out that the workers worked at nothing more mysterious than the Post Office Savings Bank at Olympia. Quite why these workers from another nationalised industry were given their own special service at great expense, and quite why ordinary passengers were not supposed to use it has never been made clear.

It was a curious arrangement, but fifties and sixties London was sometimes a strange place. In an era before the internet peculiarities such as this tended to go unnoticed, and for years the Kenny Belle would remain something of an open secret, one shared between the railwaymen, locals and its users. Indeed this was of course the period of the Cold War – a time when, as Pedantic pointed out, the address of the Post Office Tower was technically an official secret, even though it was pretty hard to miss.

There it is! The Post Office Tower in the 1960s

There it is! The Post Office Tower in the 1960s

Still, it seems unusual that the workers of the Post Office Savings Bank might receive such special attention, respected Government servants though they surely were.

Spooks on the Ghost Train

Given this peculiar honour, it is perhaps unsurprising that there seems to be a slightly more romantic suggestion for the service’s existence, as highlighted by commentor Al Green:

I’m surprised that no-one has explained the reason for the secrecy around the Kenny Belle service. Most of the passengers were spooks and didn’t want the general public to know who they were. The bit of the PO they worked for was not the Savings bank, whatever it might have said over the door. They worked in the section that intercepted and opened the mail of anyone the government regarded as a commie, which at the height of the cold war was a lot of people. Some worked for PO and some for MI5. They didn’t want to be recognised and so really wanted the train to themselves. Hence almost total secrecy about the existence of the service to discourage others from using it.

It’s certainly an intriguing suggestion with some appeal, but just how much truth is to be found in it? Was the Kenny Belle there not to serve the humble men of the Post Office Savings Bank, but instead those engaged in the dark art of Cold War mail interception?

As regular readers will know, we here at LR are of a decidedly logicial bent and as Pedantic and others pointed out in the comments there are a number of flaws with this theory:

1. The argument of anonymous 09:56 [Anyone wanting to be “secret” would have walked to West Kensington – JB]

2. Kensington Olympia as far as I am aware just wouldn’t be an appropriate location to do this. If it had been Mount Pleasant sorting office near King’s Cross I might have started thinking it was plausible. If you intercept mail you have to do it quickly and without delay. Delayed mail on a consistent basis, compared with other people not-suspected, is a classic giveaway.

3. If it had been true then surely this would have been declassified by now. And there are people like Ian of IanVisits who invariably sniffs these things out.

4. It is inconsistent with Steven Taylor’s clear and uniquivocal recollections. [That it was marked on British Rail’s Master Map in the 1960s]

5. It wouldn’t have been in the Beeching Report!!!

These are all good points, although I do feel obliged to chastise my editorial colleague slightly for failing to remember the non-railway specialities of his fellow LR staffers. For with my “military historian” hat firmly in place, I can confirm that his second point above is entirely correct.

Reading the Mail

Throughout the Cold War, the interception and opening of suspect post remained a key part of Britain’s counter-intelligence strategy. The task of doing so fell to MI5, and throughout the fifties and sixties this was carried out by a department headed up by Major Albert Denman. Denman would later be described by Peter Wright (of Spycatcher fame) as “an old-fashioned military buffer with a fine sense of humor” but who nonetheless played things strictly by the book. His description of Denman’s office is worth repeating here:

Denman’s proudest memento was a framed letter which hung on the far wall. It was addressed to a prominent Communist Party member whose mail was regularly intercepted. When the letter was opened the Post Office technicians were amused to discover that it was addressed to MI5 and contained a typewritten message, which read: “To MI5, if you steam this open you are dirty buggers.” Denman classified it as “obscene post,” which meant that legally he had no duty to send it on to the cover address.

Denman’s department was one of MI5’s most important outstations in London and they shared premises with the Post Office Investigations Department (POID) in order to ensure that post could be either steamed or bambooed open quickly, copied, closed and then swiftly sent on.

As a result they shared premises with the POID – but this meant they were based in Post Office buildings in St Pauls, not Kensington.

So were the Kenny Belle’s civil servants actually readers of the mail? Almost certainly not.

But…

Dissecting a rumour

There may, however, be more to the “spooks” story than one might initially suspect.

Although Denman’s mail men were based out of St Pauls, the mail wasn’t the only area of interception in which MI5 were interested or on which they cooperated with the Post Office. It is worth remembering that, at this time, the telephone network fell within the Post Office’s domain and MI5 was actively engaged in wiretapping. To do this, MI5 ran two facilities within London.

The largest of these wiretapping facilities was, at the time, a short walk from their offices in Victoria. Their second wiretapping facility, however, was spread over two floors at Charles House, a rather imposing office complex further west.

Charles House before it was demolished, by jancyclops

Charles House before it was demolished, by jancyclops.

Although now demolished, Charles House could previously be found on Kensington High Street, just a short walk from Kensington Olympia station.

It was a building they shared with a number of other organisations including Post Office Telecoms. It was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Kensington offices of the Post Office Savings Bank.

Staying Grounded

Ultimately it is important, of course, not to get carried away. A ghost train for spies makes a wonderful romantic image, but the truth is almost certainly far more prosaic. Never ascribe to the Intelligence Services what can more easily be ascribed to simple inertia or stubbornness on the part of Southern Railways. It is still far more likely that the service existed because it was just about more economical, or at least required less effort, to leave it as it was rather than close it down.

The idea that the service existed, in some way, due to the perceived needs of the intelligence services at the time should not, however, be dismissed entirely out of hand. Looking back from a distance, it is hard to grasp how strange the behaviour of both MI5 and MI6 could be at times during the Cold War.

Whilst it might seem amateurish now to rely solely on “security through obscurity” to preserve a “secret” rail service, it was well within character for the British security services of the time. Indeed the comments on jancyclops original flikr photo, linked to in the image caption above, are well worth a read for those who wish to get a true flavour of the way “secret London” interacted with normality at the time:

I worked on the 7th and 2nd floors from 1980 for Post Office Telecomms. I once got out of the lift at the wrong floor and was confronted by ornamental canons & armed guards. Never did find out who they were guarding. Security in the main part of the building was very lax though. My boyfriend’s brother once turned up in my office & when I asked how he got in he said he flashed his Travelcard at security & they let him in

Stories like the above are not uncommon, even in the official written history of post-war MI5.

At the end of the day it’s unlikely that the Clapham Junction – Kensington existed solely for the benefit of MI5, but ultimately the fact that they were at Kensington Olympia may well not have hurt. Stranger things could – and most definitely did – happen in Cold War London and railway lines have been run for stranger reasons. At the very least it probably bears further investigation.

Written by John Bull