William Leary and his little station in 1906, master of all he surveys. The building is generously bedecked with old-fashioned enamel signs, which surely must have been wasted advertising on a station with so few passengers. I thought we might take a little excursion this week away from the gritty old town of Nuneaton, for just a few miles out into the leafy Warwickshire countryside, in days of old, to a small village not far away called Maxstoke. Most people will have heard of it, not least for its well-known castle and its posh golf club. Many will not know that in the good old days it once had a station. It also used to have a stationmaster whose occupation must have been, depending which way you looked at it, the cushiest or the most boring job on the railway. He had so very little to do. He was gloriously undisturbed by trains that’s for sure. I can imagine that you would think - I did not know there was a railway line through Maxstoke! Where did it come from and where did it go, and just where did it run? There is no doubt you would have to go to a lot of trouble today to find its course, so thoroughly has it become swathed in brambles and undergrowth. Those parts that have not been have been turned into boscage and nettle beds; have been converted into farm track ways and in some cases its course has been gobbled up by new roads and the boundary of the NEC.
A journey to Maxstoke in the early years of the last century bring to mind those lovely whimsical little trains in the charge of old fashioned long funnelled steamers that ventured out occasionally along grass grown tracks. Bedecked with brightly polished chimney caps, bulbous domes and glistening fluted safety valve covers. The old engine and its coach and freight wagons brushing aside the convolvulus and the overhanging branches of trees, going about their impecunious business remote from the attention, or for that matter the involvement, of the travelling public.
Here is another conundrum. When Maxstoke station was open to passengers it was called Coleshill. It was not until six years after it closed to passenger traffic that the railway company went to all the trouble of re-naming it Maxstoke, and the expense of affixing to its frontage a brand new sign proclaiming to all the world “Maxstoke”, which would have been fine if there was any traffic. As if the crew of the local pick up goods train would need reminding in view of the conspicuous lack of business emanating from its abandoned platform.
Modern travellers by train today will journey along the Nuneaton-Birmingham railway line and spot coming in from the right as you head towards Birmingham some tracks from the direction of Derby. These lines are still used and are part of the thriving modern railway network. Yet this point is known as Whitacre junction and there used to be a station here by that name. Many years ago a set of tracks diverged off and headed towards Maxstoke and the Packington estate before ending at a junction with the London to Birmingham main line at Hampton in Arden. This was the little branch, which served our peculiar little station at Maxstoke. When the line came into being and opened on Monday 5th August 1839 Maxstoke (or Coleshill as it was known then) was on the main line of the Birmingham and Derby junction railway, but its glory days were very short lived. There was rapid development in railways approaching Birmingham and the Birmingham and Derby junction line was taken over by the Midland Railway who sought a shorter route to the capital of the Midlands. In 1842 a cut-off route took the B&D Jct. directly into Birmingham and from that date the section between Whitacre Junction and Hampton in Arden became a withered arm. Passenger traffic declined from five trains a day in 1840 to three by 1857. Even so a further reduction was made in 1859 down to two each way and this prevailed until 1877 when the Midland Railway ran just one train each direction per day. It was a parliamentary service, which the M.R. was obliged to maintain to avoid the cost of a parliamentary act needed then to close the line, until the rigours of World War One relieved them of their responsibility, and they were able to close the line for passengers from 1st January 1917.
Up until that time the service had been maintained by one engine and a single coach, which left Whitacre Junction at 8.10am, stopped at Coleshill (Maxstoke) a few minutes later and after departing Hampton in Arden was back tucked up in the platform again at Whitacre at 8.45pm. For twenty-three and three quarter hours each day the Coleshill (Maxstoke) station master William Leary (1872-1941) had no passenger traffic responsibility. On New Year’s Day 1917 he had none. From that day onwards all he had to do was open the level crossing gates for the occasional pick up goods train depositing a few coal wagons or vans of cattle feed etc. in the short sidings adjacent to his station, or the estate sidings at Maxstoke and Packington, and collecting the empties. Maybe he had to read the odd bit of bumf sent to him by his employer, the railway company. Almost all of which would have had no impact on his daily duties far from the prying eyes of the bowler hats in Derby or Euston. And he might have a few wagon receipts to account for. On the odd occasion his after luncheon snooze might have been disturbed by a light engine or main line freight using the route as a diversion whilst track and engineering work was taking place on the lines around.
Some of his station receipts have been preserved and reveal sums of money taken at the station not near enough to cover his modest wages. In 1872 passenger receipts stood at £14 per annum, but by 1912 these were a princely £5. Only 209 passengers were carried all year – less than one per day. By contrast the station expenses in 1907 stood at £69 per year which probably incorporated Mr. Leary’s stipend.
Notwithstanding all this the railway company despatched and at some expense, had affixed a large new sign on the platform. On 9th July 1923, the name was changed and the former name board “Coleshill” was taken down and a distinctive board with raised block letters screwed to the wall in its place – it proclaimed “Maxstoke”. Not to the travelling public, of course, but to the thrushes and the sparrows, the rabbits and field mice, and all the other wild life that could not read the sign, but would participate from time to time in Mr. Leary’s and his family’s lonely existence. The sign was of the raised letter type favoured by railway companies in those days which had replaced the painstakingly sign written variety. Painted sign written boards needed a skilled artist to re-paint them. All it needed in this case was Mr. Leary on a stepladder and a pot of white paint to keep the lettering in good order. There is no doubt he kept the little station with its short platform swept and tidy. On 24th April 1930 goods train ran no more across the entire length of the line. Mr. Leary bought the station house and retired in 1936 never having issued a ticket from his renamed station. Here is another bizarre twist. In April 1930 the Australian newspaper “The Melbourne Argus” reported on Mr. Leary’s plight having spent the last fourteen years never seeing a passenger train stop at his remote station and his donning his railway uniform with peaked cap every morning to cast his eyes over his lonely empire “just in case”.
In 1941 Mr. Leary died, but his wife and daughter continued to live in the station house for another 20 years when his widow died aged 101 in 1960, and their daughter, Dorothy was finally re-housed in 1961. In January 1962 a local resident offered to buy the station house but in February 1962 the property’s fate was sealed when vandals set fire to it. By May that year the building had been levelled. When I visited the site about 20 years later there was little to see but a scattering of broken bricks and the crumbling platform – so ended the lonely story of Maxstoke station.