1835 - 1943
Michael L. Roach
When Henry was 5 years old the Bristol & Exeter Railway opened the first stage of their main line from Bristol as far as Bridgwater to passengers on 14 June 1841, with the line being extended to Taunton on 1 July 1842. At the age of 23 Henry joined the railway as a carpenter and joiner perhaps after completing a 7-year apprenticeship; the date was 17 May 1859. This was an exciting time for the railways as two weeks earlier the first length of the Cornwall Railway had been opened between Plymouth and Truro and it was now possible to travel all the way from London to Penzance by train, but not by through train yet as the West Cornwall Truro to Penzance line was narrow-gauge and the rest of the route was broad-gauge. Just a couple of months later Henry married for the first time and set up home at North Street, Bridgwater. As a carpenter and joiner Henry would have travelled out from his base to various stations in the Taunton District and measured up for replacement doors, windows, staircases, fascias etc; come back to his carpenters shop and make the items which would have been dispatched in a goods wagon from a siding close to the carpenters shop. Later he would travel out with his carpenters bag by passenger train to the station where he would fit the items he had made in the workshop.
The Bristol and Exeter was one of the four “Associated Companies.” The others were the Great Western Railway, the South Devon Railway and the Cornwall Railway. Together the four railways ensured that a seamless service was offered to passengers from London to Penzance via Bristol. The arrangement came to an end when the Great Western finally took over the other three railways on 1 July 1889. On that date Henry would have become a Great Western worker employed as a carpenter in the Signal and Telegraph Department. With the Bristol and Exeter he might have done some new work, but the Great Western did most of its new work at the Reading Signal Works so Henry would have been doing more of fitting items received from Reading from 1889 but there was still room to show initiative. Henry was credited with designing a locking mechanism for level crossing gates.
The GWR mostly built their own signal boxes with spells of building all-timber boxes which were aesthetically pleasing to the eye. They would have arrived from Reading as a kit of parts to be put together on site. The Bristol & Exeter mostly used contractors to build their boxes but did build some boxes themselves like the one at Williton, on the Minehead Branch, completed in 1875. There are still a few boxes in Britain built before 1875 but Williton is one of only two operational boxes that were built to signal broad-gauge trains; the other one is the box at Par in Cornwall. Henry King would have been 40 years old in November 1875 and I wonder if he helped to build Williton signal box.
The GWR Magazine reported his passing with the following obituary notice;
“Mr HENRY KING, on 30 December 1943, at the great age of 108 years. Born on November 10, 1835, it is believed that Mr. King was the second oldest man in the country. When one considers that Queen Victoria ascended to the Throne when he was a small boy, one can gain a true picture of the great span of Mr. King's life. In fact he was only a few weeks younger than the Great Western Railway, which was “born” on August 31, 1835. Mr. King entered the Company's service on May 17, 1859, and retired to old age 36 years ago – on December 28, 1907, to be exact. By trade he was a carpenter, and during his half century of railway service was employed at Taunton, in the Signal and Telegraph Department. Mr. King celebrated his 108th birthday barely three months ago, receiving congratulations from the King and Queen. He has been a life-long non-smoker and total abstainer, and leaves 80 descendants.”
MLR/ 5 August 2021