CENTENARIAN CAMERAMAN: Ron Buckley – Britain’s Oldest Railway Photographer



Time to read

13 minutes

Chris Milner meets a railway photographer with a fascinating past, who took his first railway picture in the 1930s, but also spent more than 40 years employed by both the LMS and BR. 

Most of us hope for a long and fruitful life and for centenarian Ron Buckley that wish has certainly been the case.

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No one in my immediate family had survived beyond the age of 90, I had never met anyone who has reached the remarkable age of 100, and so it was a great honour and privilege to meet Ron face-to-face at his Staffordshire home. He is one of around 14,000 centenarians in the UK.

My quest to interview Ron stemmed from the arrival in The RM office for review, one of a series of what will be six books featuring his wonderful railway photographs.

These books have been compiled and edited by Brian Dickson and published by The History Press, but more of how Brian discovered Ron’s photographs in part two next month.

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Ron Buckley at 100 years of age.

Reading the publisher’s notes, it made me aware of Ron’s age, but also following the death of another well-known railway photographer, Reg Batten, who died in 2014, also aged 100, it dawned on me Ron might well be the oldest surviving railway photographer.

Born in Birmingham in June 1917, Ron’s interest in railways grew, when in 1929, aged 12, his parents bought a house on Shaftmoor Lane, Acocks Green, which overlooked Spring Road station.

He takes up the story: “Frequently, locomotives would stand in view of the front window, blowing off and gurgling away, usually ‘36XX’ or ‘39XX’ class tank engines. They were working Snow Hill to Stratford-upon-Avon trains so I thought I’d see what they looked like and see what else came along.

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‘Grange’ 4-6-0 No. 6804 Brockington Grange working hard away from Torre station with the 9.05am Paignton-Manchester train on August 22, 1952. All pictures: RON BUCKLEY
A porter is poised to load the empty milk crates into the brakevan behind ‘4575’ No. 5524, which is easing into Fairbourne station on June 22, 1953 with the 2.00pm from Barmouth to Machynlleth. 
Oswestry station is the setting for the train to Llangynog on the Tanat Valley Light Railway on June 21, 1938. Sharp, Stewart-built 2-4-0T No. 1197 was operated by the Cambrian Railway from its inception because of financial issues, before being absorbed in 1921. It was one of five locos built for Cambrian branch line work and makes a delightful scene with two four-wheeled carriages. 
GWR ‘Duke’ 4-4-0 No. 3252 Isle of Jersey passing through Whitlocks End on August 14, 1939, with a Birmingham Snow Hill to Stratford-upon-Avon local along the North Warwickshire line.  

“I remember one day seeing ‘Duke’ 4-4-0 No. 3266 Amyas on a transfer freight. After that came No. 3285 Katerfelto and 3278 Trefusis.

“They were the first named locomotives I’d ever seen and I didn’t know what the names meant. And I still don’t know today!” Clearly that vision of the locomotives had cemented what was to become a life-long interest in railways.

“I met another lad there, we got talking and he suggested I visit Tyseley just up the road. I walked there as it wasn’t far but found a wide expanse of lines, sidings and a loco shed.

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“At that time there were a lot of ‘Flower’ and ‘Bulldog’ class locos running to and from Bristol and Snow Hill, Lobelia (No. 4157), Cineraria (4155) and Stephanotis (4168).

“A regular performer was No. 4141 Aden (‘Atbara’ class). It passed here around 10.55am and worked back at 4.15pm, day in, day out. That loco was superseded by ‘County’ 4-4-0 No. 3805 County Kerry.

“Tyseley Bridge was absolutely crammed full of enthusiasts wanting to see all the trains coming in and out,” he mused.

“One of my chums was Ernie Jones. He was secretary of the Birmingham Locomotive Club (BLC), but you had to be 15 to join, so when I old enough, I joined and never looked back. There’s still a few members around today.”

Ron’s wife Joyce adds that one member still visits them with old steam photos on a DVD that they view on the TV.

Another Cambrian scene: One of the classic views of Barmouth Viaduct spanning the Afon Mawddach as ‘Dukedog’ 4-4-0 No. 9008 pilots ‘4575’ class 2-6-2T No. 4599 with the 1.35pm Machynlleth-Pwllheli local on September 7, 1955. 
With a front-end steam leak, ‘County’ 4-6-0 No. 1011 County of Chester works hard through Yardley Wood station on September 21, 1964 on its way towards Stratford-upon-Avon. A brick waiting room survives on the platform, but in a fully open style.
‘Castle’ class No. 7029 Clun Castle gets the 8.43am express to Paddington underway from Henley-on-Thames on October 19, 1959. Almost 60 years on, the loco is about to embark on a new lease of life after a major restoration.
‘A4’ No. 4469 Sir Ralph Wedgewood eases while passing Alnmouth station on August 11, 1939 with an Up express from Edinburgh to London King’s Cross. When built the previous year, the loco was named Gadwall, but gained the LNER director’s name in March 1939. Less than three years later, the loco was destroyed at York during a German air raid. 

Aged 17, Ron got his first job with the London Midland & Scottish Railway in July 1934 as a wages clerk at the huge Lawley Street goods depot, Birmingham, where 300 horses were stabled and took out 100 drays for deliveries each day.

It was at the time when the railways began to buy the Scammell ‘mechanical horse’, following the refinement of a prototype.

Ron took his first railway photograph when he was 15, and as happens with an interest in railways and photography, began to forge friendships with a number of similar like-minded individuals, one of whom was W A ‘Cam’ Camwell.

“He got me interested in photography and took me to Scotland in 1935, we travelled in his Austin Seven,” he chuckled, recalling a memorable trip.

Former Midland Railway Class 3 4-4-0 No. 747 waits patiently at Hellifield station on August 14, 1939 with a local train, heading west. The enamel Hovis sign on the lamppost adds plenty of character. 
LNER ‘G5’ 0-4-4T No. 67263 sits at Gateshead in ex-works condition on July 13, 1952, with just a small amount of painting to complete. This 1896-built loco survived another six years in BR ownership. 
A wonderful shot of Wordsell-designed LNER ‘D20’ 4-4-0 No. 1234 (ex-NER class ‘R’), with clerestory carriages, working hard out of Scarborough past the loco shed. It was destined for York on August 7, 1939, just a month before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ron said they went via the North East, with Alnwick as the first main stop, proudly showing me in his North Eastern book a shot of ‘A4’ No. 4469 Sir Ralph Wedgewood passing the signals at nearby Alnmouth station. 

“Every year, the BLC had at least 12 trips and always tried to get in as many sheds as they could. In 1937/38, we visited Exeter, Newton Abbot and Laira, as well as Dawlish.”

By this time in his railway career, Ron had progressed to the operating side of the LMS, and was working in the timetabling office, enjoying every minute of his work.

He helped plan diversions, and for the closure of Bradway Tunnel, south of Sheffield, Ron had to visit the ‘Steel City’ on business. Not surprisingly, he found time when out on company business for a spot of photography, always taking his camera everywhere.

North Eastern ‘M1’ class 4-4-0 was another classic Wilson Worsdell design, with No. 1902 seen in August 1939 at Scarborough. The loco was classified ‘D17/2’ by the LNER and built around the time the first issue of The RM was published. It was withdrawn soon after Nationalisation in 1948 and cut at Darlington Works.
‘K3’ 2-6-0 No. 61906 sits inside the works at Doncaster on July 16, 1961, freshly painted after an overhaul. However, the loco lasted less than 18 months and was withdrawn on December 17, 1962. By the end of the following March it had been scrapped – at Doncaster!
BR ‘4MT’ 2-6-4T No. 80118 takes water at Whitby West Cliff station while working the 9.25am from Middlesbrough to Whitby Town on May 1, 1958. The former North Eastern Railway line, which ran along the coast through some remote countryside, was closed on June 12, 1961. 
A marvellous study of light and shade catches former Lancashire & Yorkshire 2-4-2T No. 50646 simmering at Sheffield Midland station on November 15, 1955, having arrived with the 12.30pm from Barnsley via Chapeltown. The loco was built at Horwich in 1890 and first shedded at Bolton. Its last shed was Bedford in 1958, before being cut the following year in Spondon. 

Trips to Scotland were a key part of Ron’s activities, and he made several visits in consecutive years, between 1935 and 1939. The first was with ‘Cam’, the second with Bob Campbell, but in 1937 and 1938 he ventured on his own using trains with its travel privileges, and in 1939 he went with Norman Glover in his Austin Seven.

I asked Ron whether the trips had any degree of planning or were more of a turn up somewhere ‘on spec’ venture. 

He said: “We always planned before hand what sheds we wanted to visit, what locos we might see and photograph. We tried to take a picture of every class still running at that time.

“It was very difficult because there were so many classes, but in 1948 this had dwindled down quite a bit, and it was quite a job to keep pace.”

Ron’s Scottish book contains many fine examples of the elegant and graceful design of locomotives built by the constituent five companies which had been absorbed by the LMS and LNER at the 1923 Grouping and were still around during his visits in the ‘30s, but as is well known, many had short lives under their new owners.

In 1939, just months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Ron and members of the BLC visited the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway, photographing Dodman 0-4-2WT Gazelle (now preserved), before the line was taken over by the War Department in 1941 and reconstructed to serve Central Ammunition Depot, Nesscliffe.

Ron used Rolliflex cameras. He’d been told by his friend ‘Cam’ ‘not to bother with any other type of camera’, so he bought a second-hand Rollei for £15, which came with a Carl Zeiss lens and a top shutter speed of 1/300sec.

LNER ‘C15’ 4-4-2T No. 9265 (ex NBR class ‘M’) sits at Kelso in the Scottish Borders on May 6, 1937 with the 2.10pm to St Boswells on what was called the Tweed Valley Line, which provided a diversionary route for the ECML from Tweedmouth. 
A delightful mixed goods, headed by LNER ‘N15’ (former NBR ‘A’ class) 0-6-2T No. 9181, seen at Cowlairs, Glasgow on June 14, 1950, still not having received a BR livery. The class as often used for banking duties on the 1-in-42 climb from Queen Street station to Collars. 

“The camera cost the earth in those days, “I got ten pictures off a roll of film, but getting a supply of film was another matter. After the war it was very difficult to get film in 1946/7.”

On his Scottish trips, Ron would take enough film to take 100 exposures (roughly 10 rolls of film), a situation which is unthinkable today with the advent of digital cameras. And yes, Ron does have a pocket digital camera, moving with the times.

With the onset of war, it wasn’t long before Ron received a letter from the War Office asking him to go for a medical. He asked about joining the Royal Engineers, Railway Operating Division, but the enlisting officer said “hard luck”, and Ron ended up in the Worcestershire Regiment.

Not liking his posting, and hankering after some involvement in railways, Ron said you could volunteer for other things, but with no vacancies in the Railway Operating Division, he managed to get moved to the Docks Division, where a friend was working.

One of just six Gresley-designed ‘P2’ 2-8-2s – No. 2002 Earl Marischal – sits on Ferryhill shed, Aberdeen, on May 26, 1936, awaiting its next working to Edinburgh. Just five months after Ron Buckley took this picture the loco was fitted with partial streamlining.
The unmistakable location of Inverness loco shed, where former Highland Railway ‘Castle’ 4-6-0 No. 14676 Ballindalloch Castle is being turned, while shed staff watch on. The loco was HR No. 141, and 19 were built between 1900 and 1917, 10 by Dübs and the remainder by North British Locomotive Co. The class survived until 1946.
The ‘Jones Goods’ were the first locos in Britain to appear with a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement, built for the Highland Railway by Sharp, Stewart. Here, on May 27, 1936, No. 17920 (ex-HR 107) is on shed at Forres. This loco only survived until the following year before scrapping. 

“We had to go to Longmoor to be trained, and had three months there marching up and down before being sent to Norway in March 1940, where we unloaded guns and ammunition onto a platform in Namsos fjord. “The most wonderful fjord, all blue skies and snow to the water’s edge, each side,” he recalls. 

“The North Sea crossing was awful,” he added.

At the end of May 1940, Ron was picked as part of a special force, 13 men in total, all made up to lance-corporal, sailing from Dover to Dunkirk where Operation Dynamo was taking place to evacuate Allied troops.

“It was a week of hell, unloading food and supplies for the troops,” he said. 

Eventually Ron was shipped out on the Southern Railway passenger steamer SS Maid of Orleans, and returned to Longmoor for more military training.

In March 1941 he was sent to Egypt, arriving two months later after a journey via Capetown. “I had a week in Capetown, which was very nice, apart from the flies which were everywhere. You could always tell when you were near civilisation because of the swarms of flies,” Ron quipped.

Working his way up to Alexandria, he handled supplies for the Battle of El Alamein, but had no idea when the big push was coming. 

Following the ‘front’ and travelling in 15cwt lorries, Ron’s movements took him to Tobruk, Benghazi and eventually Tripoli.

Former Caledonian Railway 0-6-0 ‘2F’ No. 17396 (later BR No. 57396) shunts cattle wagons at Oban in May 4, 1937, the loco being a product of St Rollox Works in 1895.
Brewing up for departure is former Caledonian Railway Pickergill-designed  ‘191’ class 4-6-0 No. 14621, piloting former Highland Railway ‘Castle’ class No. 14686 Urquhart Castle on a Glasgow-bound service on May 4, 1937.

Expecting to go and fight in Italy, Ron was told he was too old (at 24) and he and his comrades returned to Alexandria, finally going home to England at the end of the war after more than four years away. ■

In part two next month The RM will look at Ron’s move to Derby and a role at the works which brought him into contact with LMS Chief Technical Assistant E S Cox. We will also discover how the series of books came to fruition.

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