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Commuting to London, late 1960s

Brighton Station departure board c1960s
Photo by Jim Type

Around 1967 I got a job at a print shop off of Tottenham Court Road, in London. I was a paper guillotine operator. This meant that I had to commute from Brighton to London, leaving very early in the morning. I could afford to do this as the job was so well paid. It usually included overtime. It was common to work from 9am on Friday to 9am on Saturday – straight through. It was helpful that Brighton station was a terminus. I was usually woken up, coming back, by a passenger or a cleaner.

The morning train

Most of the people on the early train were regulars. They were used to having their own seat and expected others to respect that, which they usually did. There was a least one chess group that played every morning. Others hid behind their broadsheet papers, usually The Telegraph or The Financial Times. As they worked through them, they turned each page with a loud ‘thwack’. Being a pretentious young man, I used to read books with the cover turned out so that everyone else could see what I was reading. I occasionally looked up to see how many people were taking notice. None ever were. This was decades before mobile phones.

Making travel friends

It was a train in which friends were made through conversations. I fell in – so to speak – with a man who made prosthetic limbs and we became good friends for quite some time. I think I was intrigued by the exotic nature of his job. The evening train back was quite different. It left Victoria in the middle of the rush hour and was crowded from London to Brighton, with standing room only. No chess groups and no friendships brokered.

Particular station features

At the time, the station had some particular features. One was the giant, wooden, indicator board in the middle of the gates to the trains. No computers then, instead an ornate wooden machine was constantly clattering and showing the times of the trains and the places they stopped at. Like today, with computerised screens, people in the station all tended to stare up at the board, perhaps thinking that their sheer willpower would bring up the notice of their own train.

Platform tickets

There were at least three machines, of note, on the platform. One dispensed platform tickets. You put in your coin and got your ticket. This allowed relatives onto the platform to see off families or friends. Also, I would imagine, it allowed trainspotters to get to their favourite spots.

A label printer

The second machine contained a large hand on a dial, that allowed you to pick out letters and numbers which were printed on a thin aluminium strip. As was probably true for many people, I used to imagine that I would print out various labels and use them to organise stuff at home. But, also like other people, I only used the machine once, to print my name and for the fun of it. I doubt it was there to make a profit.

The chocolate machine

The third machine, and probably the favourite one. was the one that dispensed chocolate. This was, as I remember, Cadbury’s Five Boys. On the wrapping, the bars showed a bratish boy’s face in five moods, ranging from anger to smugness. Presumably the smug version was his response to having been given the chocolate bar. The brand didn’t last long – I wonder why?

Do you remember?

Do you remember these platform machines? Maybe you can tell us about others. If you can share your memories, please leave a comment below.

Comments about this page

  • If you search for ‘arrivals and departures board’ in the search bar, you will find information as to where the board is now in Buckinghamshire. I have put the information about on that page.

    By Mr K I Ross (25/10/2019)
  • Thank you for your interesting comment, Mr Ross. Do you know how this sort of board worked?

    By Philip Burnard (27/10/2019)
  • No idea how it worked, it just seemed to flip over to show all the stops as necessary after a train had left so that it showed the situation for the next one. The board is now at Fawley Hill near Henley berks. You can find the site on google maps and in fact there is a full sized train running over a mile of track together with lots of railway memorabilia as well as a station with waiting room etc it is owned by Lady McAlpine who has volunteers running the train and a signal box. These were all purchased from British Rail when beeching shut lots of lines. The place has open days and also the tv series on channel 5 recently about model railway competition was set on this site, some of the shots in fact show the board in the background. hope this is of interest.

    By Mr K I Ross (28/10/2019)
  • I think I’m able to explain how the board worked in the 1950’s, but it’s mechanisms may have been altered since then. I too have seen the board at the Museum site near Henley (see Mr. Ross detail on previous answers) and the indicator displays are still changeable by hand, so not sure whether any supporting mechanisms still exist.

    As a schoolboy train-spotter in the 1950’s I spent many hours at Brighton Station and watched the platform staff operate the board. It showed the departure time and platform number of trains due to leave within the next half hour or so. In addition, if there were sufficient “empty” display columns these would be used to show further later departures from the same platforms numbers already in use.

    Each column contained 20 windows to show up to 20 rotatable “tumblers” . A tumbler was a solid hardwood piece with 3 separate faces, best described as being akin to a giant but solid
    ‘Toblerone’ chocolate bar !
    Face 1 bore an attached name plate of a station name served by that particular service, with a single station name being (in the 1950’s and previous) an enamel plate, later replaced by it’s current Formica style material plate .

    Face 2 was completely plain, painted with the same colour as the surrounding bulk structure and this would be on display in the window if the train service did not call at that station.

    Face 3 was the operational part of the tumbler. It had appropriately positioned slots to allow operating rods to .’tumble’ the plate to display the station name in the window. In addition there was also a lead weight balancing strip inset to aid the tumbling process.

    The operation of the tumble process was controlled at the base of each column ( refer to the main picture and note the cupboards at the base of the columns ) by a very stout hard card which contained pre-set holes to operate the various rods up to the tumblers. A different card for each type of service, e.g. Semi-fast to Victoria would cause 7
    plates (Preston Park, Haywards Heath, Three Bridges, Redhill, East Croydon, Clapham Junction, Victoria) to display cascaded intermittently down
    the 20 slot column, with the remaking 13 slots showing the ‘blank’ face of the remaining tumblers.

    All the tumblers were loose fitted into the frame columns by small projecting metal spindles so that they could rotate sufficiently to display names or blanks.

    Exactly how the station staff operated the control cards is a bit hazy now. I think thay opened the base cupboard, selected a required route card and then inserted it into a slot and pulled/pressed a lever to operate the tumblers, with a similar operation to clear a column back to empty.

    Hope that helps explain it all – and that you haven’t all fallen asleep by now!

    By Brian Matthews (28/10/2019)
  • Far from falling asleep, I thank you for your detailed explanation. It’s fascinating knowing how the board worked. I can remember seeing and hearing it in operation up until its removal (around 1983?). Thank you too, Philip Barnard, for the main article.

    By Sam Flowers (28/10/2019)
  • Goodness! That is a comprehensive account of the machine. Thank you. Being greedy, I would love to know more about the last bit: how it was operated by the station staff. I can remember a door at the side but I do not remember anyone coming and going through it. Surely someone wouldn’t sit in the machine for a whole shift?

    By Philip Burnard (29/10/2019)
  • I used to love seeing that old departure board. One day I saw that it had gone and I have to admit to being rather upset.
    I later learned that the McAlpine family had bought and preserved it which cheered me up.

    By Nick Burdett (29/10/2019)
  • Five boys was made by Fry’s chocolate , or at least it was when I used to stare at it longingly in such machines.

    By Pete Cosgrove (02/11/2019)
  • My apologies, Pete. Five boys chocolate bars were made by Frys!

    By Philip Burnard (03/11/2019)
  • I remember seeing that board there, which means it must have been in use well into the 1980’s.

    I do remember it being seen as very outdated by the time it was eventually updated. Victoria had long since upgraded to the split-flap display.

    By Neil Sluman (09/12/2019)
  • I was wondering if anyone remembers the pewter LNER platform tickets which cost a penny? I have one, it’s dated 1967, but can’t find out any info on it. Any ideas?

    By Jeanette Palmer (21/01/2020)
  • What a fascinating article. I was a train commuter for years and remember those labelling machines – there was one at Wimbledon I used, to make my one name badge. I also remember the huge salter or avery coin operated weighing scales, and the hand painted long boards they used to slot in a bracket on intermediate stations to identfy the next train, and then staring intently down the tracks wondering if it would be on time. The account of the morning train was very familiar too as I used to get on at Three Bridges and caused a lot of disgruntled newspaper thwacking by letting the cold air in! I own a wooden cased GPO stamp vending machine and letterbox which I’m told came from Brighton Station so I was searching to find a photo of it, which will add interest as I’m about to sell it.

    By Andrew Martin (07/12/2020)

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