WWII bomb-damaged signal box celebrates 120 years

A doodlebug, a blast-injured signaller and one of the longest frames on the South Eastern railway – Maidstone West signal box has had an extraordinary history.

The Grade II listed box turned 120 years old on June 4 but remains fully operational. In fact, it’s one of the last remaining examples of the original signal box design by Evans O’Donnell &Co.

Its survival follows substantial WWII bomb damage, in August 1944. A German V-1 flying bomb – known as a doodlebug – landed nearby in the goods yard, killing two railway workers and injuring the signaller inside the box.

Nick Wellington, a deputy local operations manager at Network Rail, said: “More than a third of the box was destroyed. It could have been worse, but the bomb buried itself in soft earth and much of the blast was deflected upwards.

“Thomas Butcher was the signaller on duty in the box at the time. Although injured in the blast, he had the presence of mind to record the time of attack as 11:03 before being taken to hospital.”

Restoration

The box was sympathetically restored and still features Evans O’Donnell’s characteristic windows and its original lever frame – at 34 metres once the longest on the South Eastern railway outside London.

Nick added: “The box was quickly repaired, virtually to its original appearance, except that the slate roof was replaced with a simpler material. Marks made by flying shrapnel can still be seen on some of the levers.”

At three storeys, it’s a storey higher than typical to give signallers a better view.

Nick said: “It has a superb vantage point overlooking the Maidstone West station, is spacious and a pleasure to work in.

“[This anniversary] I shall be remembering the generations of signallers who have worked here. The box will have hosted a wide variety of rich memories, some good, some bad and some sad ones too.”

When it opened, the box required nearly all its 115 levers to operate. Its entire frame remains in situ but with fewer levers in use.

Nick said: “The box originally controlled a significant part of the goods yard, and much of the signaller’s work was to enable shunting to take place, as well as controlling access to the goods line down to the wharf at Tovil via a short branch line.

“It has evolved, like many boxes over the years, taking over the work of three others. It changed in the 1930s when electric services replaced steam at the Strood end – and in the 1980s colour light signalling, and power points were installed.”