If the Beeching report of 1963 was the death-knell of railways across the United Kingdom, including North Cornwall, which saw all its railway lines obliterated, in one Cornish town, it was also the year that the flame of memory began to burn bright.
For this was also the year where the Launceston Railway Circle, a group comprising of like-minded people who formed a group to share their interest, came into being.
It all began on October 12, 1963, in the Cornish and Devon Post, your local newspaper which has documented Launceston life since a time before the railways even arrived in the town.
An advert was posted by the late Lloyd Goodman, a local railway enthusiast. The advert asked if there were any like-minded people in the town that he lived in who shared his interest and would like to form a group to meet and bond over their mutual love of the railways.
His advert was successful, gaining a number of replies. Among those who responded to Mr Goodman’s advert was the late Gerald Geake, the late Jack Parsons, the late Graham Townsend, and the late Norman Tilley. Together, they formed the Launceston Railway Circle, which, is celebrating its 60th anniversary and while the founding members no longer walk this earth, the flame they lit still burns bright in those who comprise its members today.
The initial circle split the roles of the group between them. Mr Tilley was the inaugural chairman, Mr Lloyd was elected secretary and Mr Parsons was their first treasurer.
October 18, 1963, was the date of the very first meeting of the nascent group and it was held in the Toc H room, opposite the now-former fire station on Westgate Street, a site now occupied by a bus and coach park.
The first meeting of the Launceston Railway Circle was an unbridled success, documented in the following week’s Cornish and Devon Post with a report headlined ‘enthusiasm prompts formation of LRC’.
During the majority of the circle’s 60-year existence since, monthly meetings have been held between September and April where its members discuss a variety of railway topics. Different venues have played host to the group in the town after the Toc H room was sold. Meeting venues for the circle since then were held in Lawrence House, with some meetings held in the Bell Inn as well as the houses of different members in addition to a short spell above the Newmarket Inn.
The early 1980s saw interest in the group grow substantially, with attendances of up to 50 people for each monthly meeting seeing a further relocation to St Thomas Hall. A timing clash with bell ringing practice meant that discussion of railways was often interrupted by the sound of church bells, leading to a further relocation to Dingley Hall.
While the number of members attending the meetings has declined since the early 80’s heyday, more recent years has seen attendances still remain significant with between 20 and 30 people attending more recent meetings of the railway circle.
Not even a global pandemic could keep the flame of Launceston railway interest from burning out. While the chaos caused to daily life saw the longest period in the group’s 60-year history go without meetings taking place, in September 2021, as things began to return to normal, so did the return of the circle.
The return of the Launceston Railway Circle saw its members make their new home in the St Stephens Church Hall, where meetings continue to this day.
In addition to the indoor meetings, the group also undertake many trips to all parts of England and Wales to explore railways past and presents beyond the remains of the South gate during their six-decade existence.
In times gone past, these would have comprised of day trips, some of which were very long days during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with the cost today becoming prohibitive in addition to having to drive to Exeter to catch a train in the early morning and not returning until the early hours of the following day not as appealing to circle members as they become older.
The first years of the railway circle came at a time where one-by-one, swathes of railway lines fell under the axe of Dr Beeching. Members of the circle travelled on many of the last trains on the different lines facing permanent extermination, and on most occasions the secretary provided a wreath for the specific occasion which would be attached to the front of the locomotive leading the final service.
One such closure was on a line which has recently been brought back to life, at Okehampton on June 3, 1972. Two of the present members, archivist Andrew Bird and railway historian Bernard Mills both travelled on what was to be the last train at the time, and the first train when the service returned in November 2021.
After 17 years with no signs of railway life in Launceston beyond the meetings of the circle, it was to their extreme joy when in 1983, the Launceston Steam Railway came to being, even if unlike the original railway line, it was a narrow gauge railway and the station was moved to the other side of St Thomas Road, as the original site had been redeveloped by this time.
While the Launceston Steam Railway and the Launceston Railway Circle are not connected in any official sense, that doesn’t mean the two organisations aren’t the very closest of friend’s thanks in due to their mutual interests. Indeed, Nigel and Kay, the owners of the family-owned attraction, have become members of the circle, and have always made circle members feel welcome in their 40 years of operation. This generosity has been marked with the pair being made lifetime members of the Launceston Railway Circle.
Celebration and marking of the 60th anniversary of the Launceston Railway Circle will take place at its meeting on October 22, 2023, held at the Launceston Steam Railway.
This meeting marks 40 years after their 20th anniversary celebrations which was marked with the planting of a tree.
During this year’s celebration events, the chairman, Les Whaley, will greet members who have booked a seat and special guests at 4pm for a train ride, followed by a cream tea at the station café.
With the world of railways changing significantly in the 60 years of the group’s existence, it would take more than a crystal ball to predict what it will look like in the next 40, however one thing is true; there’s every chance the Railway Circle will still be meeting at the time of their 100th anniversary, with members sharing the love that has sustained them over the century that came before.