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Photos hidden for 50 years in an attic bring the dockers' umbrella back to life; Last manager Harry Rostron's archives found in son's loft.

Byline: Mark Hookham

AT the turn of the century it was a unique feat of engineering that made Liverpool docks the envy of the world.

Now, 46 years after its demolition, an archive of photos and documents has been found that brings to life the dockside overhead railway line affectionately known as the "dockers' umbrella".

Two suitcases full of photos, engineering blueprints, staff ledgers and letters have been donated to the Liverpool Record Office by David Rostron, the son of the last manager of the Liverpool Overhead Railway Company, Harry Maxwell Rostron.

The records have lain hidden in the loft of Mr Rostron's house in Crosby for nearly half a century Archivists at the record office in the Central Library, on William Brown Street, have described the find as "an absolute gem".

Built at the peak of Liverpool's economic growth, it was the first elevated electrical railway in the world.

The first section of the line was built between the Alexandra Dock and the Herculaneum Dock in 1893 and by 1896 a continuous line between Seaforth Sands and Dingle had been completed.

At the railway's peak in 1919 it was estimated that there were more than 22m passenger journeys a year and trains ran once every six minutes at peak time.

It was used to transport freight to and from the docks and as a service for commuting dockers and office workers.

On an average day in the the 1920s, it was estimated that 57,000 people would use the service, 12,000 of them dockers.

Harry Rostron took over the managing of the railway in 1943, at a crisis point in its history. It had sustained severe damage during German bombing and it was Rostron's task to get the trains running again.

David Rostron, 82, has clear memories of the family's move from Southampton when his father took up his new job.

He said: "My father had a big job when he started. A lot of the railway had been heavily bombed and a lot of repair work was needed on it.

"Part of the records describe the damage and outline the costs of repairs, along with the amount of labour used and the cost of the new railway coaches, which my father introduced after the war.

"The overhead railway company was never particularly wealthy and my father had to struggle to find enough money to keep it going.

"It was a rickety old thing but he really loved working on it and I can distinctly remember using it to take me to the docks when I first went to sea in 1946 as an apprentice on a Cunard liner."

Archivist Carol Tanner said: "The collection includes more than 50 photos of the railway. There are some great aerial views and a number of pctures showing the extensive bomb damage.

"We also have a staff log of the people who used to work on the railway. There is a full detail of all the young men who decided to leave their jobs and join the Army at the start of World War I in 1914.

"This is an absolute dream for people wanting to trace their family history."

The archive includes a number of letters written to Mr Rostron from the owners of kiosks that sold goods on the stairs that led to the railway platforms.

One letter was from a kiosk owner who sold stockings, telling Mr Rostron that the stocking trade had taken a down-turn and appealing for a concession on her rent.

Another letter, dated June 30, 1947, is from the owner of McLachlane's tobacco kiosk under Brunswick Station, complaining that his kiosk had been destroyed by a gang of vandals.

Pat Moran, chairman of Merseyside Civic Society, said: "The actual construction of the railway was fascinating because they basically built the line while dangling it in mid-air.

"A large jig was used as a platform to build the 20ft high line and this jig moved along the intended route slowly constructing the elevation as it moved." Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the archive is a series of letters between Harry Rostron and engineering consultants about the infrastructural decay that eventually led to the closure of the railway in 1956. Since it had been repaired in 1943, the line had suffered serious corrosion and, in the early 1950s, it was found that the decking on which the lines lay was also severely damaged. "The letters reveal that engineers had valued the cost of repairs at more than pounds 2m, " said David Rostron. In post-war Britain this simply wasn't affordable. The Government would not have paid such a large sum to keep the overhead railway in existence. "It is such a shame because an overhead railway would have been a brilliant asset and tourist attraction in modern Liverpool." When the railway closed, Harry Rostron formed his own engineering firm H M Rostron to oversee the demolition of the railway. He then bought out engineering consultancy firm Sloan Lloyd Barnes who built the second runway at Liverpool airport in the early 1960s.

CAPTION(S):

The overhead railway in its hey day stretched all along the docks The interior of a first class carriage Third class was a little more austere Archivist Carol Tanner with a poster David Rostron looking at old pictures of the railway and Cunard liners
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 12, 2002
Words:893
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