The Memoirs of Michael Platts Pt. 1. by Dr. D A.C. McNeil
I met Michael through our contacts with the Enrych charity. They told me that he wanted to write his memoirs of the time working for the Coal Board, and then for the Preserved
Great Central Railway on steam engines. They asked me if I could help. I agreed to ‘give it a try’. I have divided his story into three parts for clarity. The first part deals with the background history to the story; the second to his time at the coal board, and the third to his time at the G.C.R.
There is one large obstacle in the way of a coal supply from the South Derbyshire coalfield (which extends into north-west Leicestershire) to the city itself; it is the hills and valleys formed from an extinct volcano, now known as the Charnwood Forest. For an eternity an adequate supply of coal was able to cross the Forest by horse-drawn cart and by pack-horse, but this method became too limiting in the upheaval we call the industrial revolution. To make the wheels turn this revolution needed a coal supply far greater than that of the traditional man-horse transport available up till then could carry, for the best method of obtaining the energy required by the new machines was through a coal fire boiling water to produce steam. But the horse traffic could only carry so much coal, and the number of cart-loads that would be needed, even if the roads were sound - which they were not - would make the whole enterprise totally uneconomic.
At this point canals could have come to the rescue. A canal barge could transport a large quantity of coal at minimal cost, using only one horse and two men (one to look after the horse and one to steer the barge). Even with the exorbitant tolls the canal companies collected (the canal companies were separate from the barges; bargees were self-employed; often a barge was run by one family) it was more economically sensible to use this method of keeping the wheels turning. The sad thing was the canals connected Leicester to the Nottinghamshire coal fields, not the South Derbyshire/north-west Leicestershire one. The Erewash canal opened in 1779. The Soar Navigation (later the Grand Junction canal, and latterly the Grand Union canal) opened in 1778. Access to Leicester via the Erewash, River Trent, and Soar Navigation was thus complete. True, the Ashby canal, opened in 1794, did serve the southern part of the coalfield, but its connections to Leicester were very long and tenuous.
It goes without saying that the miners of the South Derbyshire coalfield region were not best pleased by this development, but building a direct canal though the Forest was financially impossible. So they encouraged one to be built along the northern edge of the Forest, from Thringstone to Nanpantan. Instead of a flight of locks leading down from the heights at Nanpantan to the quay in Loughborough, there was an early plate-way or railway of sorts. This was opened in 1794.
One of the difficulties in running a canal is that every time a lock is used, be it for a barge going up or down, a lock-full of water is effectively drained from the upper to the lower levels of the canal. At this rate the top level would be drained dry if it did not have a reservoir to keep it topped up. So there would always be a reservoir at the top level - in this case it was the Blackbrook reservoir. Now a reservoir is usually built by damming a valley that has a stream running through it. Also, it does help if the dam is made of something rather more solid than a pile of mud; it is a pity that the people who built Blackbrook did not realise this, for on one wet and stormy day in February 1799 their pile of mud was washed away, and the local town of Shepshed was flooded. The Charnwood Forest canal was never the same again, and was finally closed in 1846. Parts of it can still be seen; a footpath running between gardens in Nanpantan follows the old tow-path, and there is still at least one place where there is water in the canal. Part of it runs beside a later railway - a line built in 1883 to exploit the local coal traffic which was operated by the London North Western Railway originally, and was closed in 1963.
At this point the Stephensons come to save the good folk of the Whitwick area, for George Stephenson helped to design and build the Leicester to Swannington railway. This line, opened on 17th July 1832 and with 4 branches, ran from the coal-fields of Swannington (near Whitwick) to West Bridge in Leicester where it connected to the Soar Navigation. It was remarkable for two things: firstly, the Glenfield tunnel, hand-dug through 1,796 yards of ‘loose-running sand’ (Glenfield tunnel is still there, and is open for public conducted tours on certain days). Later the line was joined to the Midland main line by a branch running from Kirby Muxloe and thus avoiding the tunnel; the old West Bridge part of the line was later closed and the site built over. As Michael says, this was ‘Our Line’; everyone working on it knew everyone else, as well as having friends and relations who either worked or had worked on it. It served no less than 15 pits, 2 quarries and a clay pit - the clay was used for brick-making - many of which, incidentally, were opened just after the line was complete. There was also a traffic in gunpowder for Bardon quarry, which ranged from 50 tons a week to 2,000 as time went on.
The second concerned the first locomotive - ‘Samson’ - which ironically arrived by canal. Its claim to fame was the invention of the steam whistle, after it had demolished a farmer’s horse and cart. It seems the hand-operated horn then available to the train driver was not loud enough for the farmer to hear.
On 27th July 1846 the line was sold to the Midland Railway. In 1923 it became part of the L.M.S., then in 1948 part of British Railways. Most of it is still there.