Remember the Skem ‘Jazzer’ train?

I recently came across a detailed recollection and very significant analysis of this fabled train by Mike Pealing, who has generously allowed me to publish his work on this blog site.

The Skem.Jazzer. A Personal Reflection

I was born in Ormskirk during 1947. My father and his father before him were both railwaymen and as a family we used the railways extensively, which in those days, was so easy to do. There was little need to own a motor car, something that would be considered unbelievable today.

It was as a small child, that I first became acquainted with the Jazzer. Sometimes while waiting for the local service for Town Green at Ormskirk station, I would run off, to the top end of the station. There the Jazzer could often be seen. Belching black smoke, it looked like and was something, from a bygone age even in those days. What I remember most vividly was the huge chimney’s those locomotives had.

My father use to chase after me and I could be found staring at the engine. Sometime later he took me for a ride on the Jazzer, which I can barely remember.

Many places in the country in those days, had access to a station, even isolated villages. You could quite literally, travel anywhere by train.

Ormskirk was a very busy mainline station, with frequent express services to many destinations further north. (Windermere, Blackpool, Glasgow to name a few). Freight and goods trains were also very common. In addition, there were the local services to Southport, Skelmersdale, Rainford and St. Helens. It was a hive of activity. The water cranes were particularly fascinating to us as children.

I will not dwell on the history of the Rainford Branch Line, as there are many books and sources of information available, should the reader wish to explore further.

My interest in the Skem. Jazzer was rekindled some years back, when there was much local speculation that the old branch line might be reopened to Skelmersdale. Articles were written and with the rise of social media many posts appeared, some of which were just not true. One even suggested that the Skem.Jazzer operated between Liverpool and Wigan.

I decided to explore this local legend in an attempt to find out how the Jazzer came by its name. Little did I know that it would be a journey full of red herrings and dead ends.

The Jazzer operated between Ormskirk and St. Helens with seven through services each weekday but only services as far as Rainford Junction on Sundays. In addition, on weekdays, a more local service operated between Ormskirk and Rainford Junction with an onward connection at Rainford Junction for St. Helens. There were intermediate stops at Westhead Halt and Skelmersdale.

Among the first trains to operate on the line were the “Hughes Rail Motors”

Below, rare colour photograph of a Hughes Rail-Motor.

Above, Hughes Rail-Motor at Ormskirk Station

As can be observed from the photographs, the locomotive and carriage were fixed together and quite rigid, which could make the ride a little “jerky”. These rail motors operated with what was known as a “push-pull” system, which meant the train could be operated from either the locomotive or from the last carriage. This eliminated the need for turning at the destinations. The photograph below shows how the system worked. The driver can be seen in the coach.

The rail motors operated on the Rainford Branch until c1933* by which time, they were all withdrawn.

Photo below…. merged picture of how the Jazzer would have looked passing over Sefton’s bridge, Plough Lane. Lathom.

It seems likely that the “Jazzer” name started to be used to describe the Hughes Rail Motors from the mid-nineteen twenties, probably due to the characteristic ride experienced on these trains. In some way, the name was “borrowed” from the Jazz dance craze of the era. There is evidence that the rail motors had the nickname “Iffit” in their early years on the line. Possibly meaning “if it comes” or “if it runs” or “if it gets there” or a similar connotation.

Wherever these old trains operated on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, they acquired nicknames, such as “The Horwich Jerk “and “The Altcar Bob”. These nicknames and there are others, may very well have referred to the ride experienced on the trains, for example… “Bobbed about,” “Jerked around”, or even “Jazzed”.

“The Altcar Bob” at Downholland Station.

A locally, well-known painting and prints of the same exist of a Hughes Rail Motor, by a railway artist, the late Jim Petrie. This excellent painting shows a train at Ormskirk Station in 1914. The painting is titled “The Skem Jazzer 1914” and depicts an incoming service from Rainford using the mainline platform and a WW1 scene at the station. The photograph below shows a copy of this painting. However, in my search to find the origins of the Jazzer name, we must analyse the evidence.

The word “Jazz” did not enter UK English until sometime in the early 1920s. It can therefore be ruled out, that the Hughes Rail Motors carried the Jazzer nickname before this time.

The Hughes Rail Motors were withdrawn from service c1933* and replaced by two types of locomotives on the branch line. They were the Aspinall Type 5. 2 4 2t and the Hughes 1P. 2 4 2t

Both continued to use the “push-pull” system, utilising extra coaches, known as trailing coaches, according to passenger demand.

*Ormskirk engine shed (photos above&below) closed in 1935. There is evidence that the shed allocation of 1934 included one rail-motor, although it was most likely out of service and awaiting disposal.

Skem. Jazzer. Aspinall Type 5. 2 4 2t at Ormskirk Station. c1949.

Aspinall Type 5. 2 4 2t

Hughes 1P 2 4 2t at Rainford Junction station.

Hughes 1P 2 4 2t

(Below) Hughes 1P 2 4 2t approaching New Lane, Burscough. Heading towards Southport.

These locomotives operated on the line from c1932 until c1950. The Aspinall Type 5 locos were generally used on the passenger services between Ormskirk and Rainford Junction. Other loco types operated the goods and freight services. The Hughes type 1P locos seem to have been mainly used on the through passenger services between Ormskirk and St. Helens. Both types were fitted with the push-pull system. The Aspinall Type 5 locos were based and maintained at Aintree MPD. The Hughes type 1P locos were based and maintained at Sutton Oak (Peasley Cross). Both were also known as radial tanks.

They were used throughout the wartime years and my late father remembered them very well.

As a young man and before joining the R.A.F. in 1942 he served with the Local Defence Volunteers (the precursor to the Home Guard) guarding Ormskirk Station from the might of Hitler. He told me how quiet and scary it was wandering around during the night. The lads used to spend the nights when off duty in a camping type coach, which was situated in the sidings adjacent to the Jazzer bay.

It has proved difficult to obtain definitive information on how and when the Jazzer got its name. Most of my research is based on hearsay. Information from an elderly family member has clarified the mystery.

During the WW11 years and for some time after, dances where held in Skelmersdale. Local people, including many American soldiers who were billeted in Maghull, made the journey from Ormskirk using the train. Extra coaches were added to accommodate the increase in passengers on Friday and Saturday nights. The place where the dances were held was the old Cooperative Hall (pictured below). This venue (there may well have been others) along with the dances held there, adopted the combined name of “Skem. Jazzers”.

Today, if you were to ask young people what they were doing on a Saturday night, the answer would probably be “Clubbing”. In those days, a similar question would be answered with “Jazzing”.

In those wartime years dancing was extremely popular, with dances such as the Jitterbug being a favourite. During those difficult and austere times, railway maintenance was at a minimum, the rolling stock in use was also well passed its sell by date. The trains would have been crowded, with many passengers standing. Travelling on the line was known to “jolt” or “jazz” passengers around, particularly when passing over points, level crossings and on the long curve in the line approaching and leaving Ormskirk.

The Co-operative Hall. Skelmersdale. Home of the “Skem. Jazzers”

From c1950 the old radial tank engines were withdrawn and replaced by the more familiar Ivatt tank engines. (At this time, the line between Rainford Junction and St. Helens was closed). The Ivatt Tanks remained in service until the closure of the line to passengers in 1956. The locomotives used on the line were numbers 41283 and 41284, still utilising the push-pull system. Both were based and maintained at Aintree MPD.

My conclusion is that the name “Jazzer” came about in the mid to late 1920s based on the jolts and rickety journey experienced, particularly by those standing and the comparison with the Jazz dance styles and craze of the era.

The Jazzer name and local tales of the train journey would have been very well known in the area, as well as to those in later WW11 times travelling to the dances.

The dances and venues in Skelmersdale simply adopted and used the name “Jazzers” which was a part of everyday conversation in those days.

Photos above and below show Ivatt Tank Engines, the last locos to carry the Jazzer name (Ormskirk Station.

Early morning photo of The Jazzer. Travelling light engine from Aintree MPD to Ormskirk, passing through Town Green Station. (Photo below)

The Skem Jazzer in its final form. Ivatt Tank Engine at Ormskirk Station.

It does appear that the answer to this local legend has been clarified or solved, but as previously mentioned, there is no definitive evidence. The Skem.Jazzer remains an important part of our local history.

The chance of the old branch line between Ormskirk and Skelmersdale ever reopening is unlikely. Current railway plans for the area, suggest a new station for Skelmersdale, which will be connected to the present-day line at Upholland. Other options include electrification to Burscough.

Modern thinking for the railways, is what is known as “rail heading”. New stations are built or in some cases reopened, to where people can drive and park their cars. The journeys are then continued by rail into the cities.

The old train is still fondly remembered, and we can only imagine the difference it would now make to the area if you could still catch a train to Skelmersdale, Rainford or St. Helens with onward connections to Wigan, Manchester and other places. Not forgetting the much-missed service between Ormskirk and Southport.

Below, The Jazzer near Westhead, heading towards Ormskirk. The loco is a Hughes type 1P 2 4 2t. c1949 Note, the large chimney.

Below, The Skem Jazzer at Westhead Halt. c1949. The loco is an Aspinall Type 5. 2 4 2 t.

Jazzer at Westhead Halt. (Hughes Rail motor) c1930. Note the steps to the top right of photograph. Used for getting on and off the train.

Below, Jazzer at Crank Halt, Rainford Junction to St. Helens line. Hughes Type 1P 2 4 2t.

Crank Halt, showing remains of the platform

Skelmersdale Station(below) showing a goods train operated by an Aspinall Type 5. 2 4 2t

Skelmersdale station(below) after closure. Limited freight traffic along with some rolling stock movements continued to use the line until the tracks were finally lifted.

Skelmersdale Station. Now abandoned. One of the final goods services passing through.

The line in the past also served the many coal mines and pits that were in the area. In the Ormskirk direction a mineral railway branched off and served Lord Skelmersdale’s Blaguegate pit, then Brookfield pit and finally Tawd Vale (later Glenburn) colliery.

The mineral railway at Lord Skelmersdale’s Blaguegate Pit.

Photo below shows the Sandwash (top blue marker on the map above) and lines to the pits and collieries.

A mineral railway also ran from White Moss Crossing. This served White Moss and Mossfield collieries.

And another ran to Bickerstaffe Colliery, to the south of White Moss Crossing.

In WW1, a military railway ran from Skelmersdale Station into the Lathom Park Remount Depot. Its purpose was to transport warhorses. Standard gauge from Skelmersdale but became narrow gauge on entering the depot. (of the same type that was used in the trenches)

Below, horses at Ormskirk Station awaiting movement to the remount depot at Lathom Park.

Ormskirk Station showing the Rainford Branch, centre right. Lower right corner, tracks to Jazzer and Coal Sidings.

Photographs below shows the approaches to Ormskirk Station. The points and curves were the most likely source of the “jolts” experienced by passengers.

Aerial view of Ormskirk Station (below) showing the Rainford Branch top left.

Above, Hughes type 1P 2 4 2t. For me, the iconic locomotive type that operated on the line and the engine I most remember from my childhood.

What remains today?…

Photos above and below courtesy of Orion Aerial Images. Track bed from Ormskirk and Westhead Village shown.

Some of the former track bed between Ormskirk and Skelmersdale is extant but generally inaccessible and mainly on private land. Between Skelmersdale and Rainford, the old route can be traced using “Satellite” in Google Maps.

This section of the former line, however, has generally been obliterated by White Moss Landfill but some of the route remains as farm track. It is mainly on private land.

From the former Rainford Junction Station (now Rainford) towards St. Helens, a long section of the old track bed remains. This has become a cycle/walkway. Starting near The Junction Public House. It is known as Rainford Linear Park.

The final few miles from where the Linear Park ends at Mill Lane, near Crank and onwards into St. Helens is generally inaccessible and has all but disappeared under roads and development. This section of the old line can also be traced using “Satellite” in Google Maps.

(More information can be found on the excellent “Disused Stations” webpage…http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/)

Photos of the Jazzer or in some example’s identical locos, included with very many thanks to the unknown original photographers of these and some other photographs contained in this article.…….

Footnote…. To some the trains were also known by the name “Skem. Joey”. But that’s another story!

My thanks to Mike for allowing me to blog about his excellent reasearch. My thanks also to Keith Page for this help with my befuddlement over technical aspects of sorting out computer stuff.

Click on the photos and graphics to enlarge them where that is possible

One thought on “Remember the Skem ‘Jazzer’ train?

  1. Bob Jungels says:

    Fantastic article, thanks Tony. Makes for really bittersweet reading. One of my favourite topics, especially as the line runs right at the back of my house in Westhead. A few musings/questions:

    – Incredibly sad to think about what we once had, and how a combination of factors led them to be dismantled, bit by bit, to leave us with such an ugly, car-dominated landscape of today. It’s impossible for me to imagine a working train line through Westhead, thus I am green with envy for people of a certain age who were old enough to remember these services. They should count themselves incredibly lucky to have lived through such an age. We will never experience such a unique situation in Britain ever again. The country has gone so far down the line of capitalism and car-centricity that it is too late now. The moment has passed. Only a planned economy can bring about the necessary changes to our environment and transport system in a country that has become far too over-bloated. Green capitalism is but a sticking plaster.

    – The part about the Military railway to Lathom Hall fascinates me. I’ve searched all the old maps on the NLS website (great site), but the nearest thing I can find is an old mineral line that extended north towards the current site of the Asda distribution centre near Spa Lane. There is no trace of an old line on Google Satellite, but if it truly has been wiped off the face of the earth, could it be that it was never included on any map precisely because it was a military railway? I know this was a common quirk with Old OS Maps. I wonder if Mike or anyone else out there can shed some light on this?

    – Ormskirk to Westhead in 4 minutes and to Skelmersdale in 10 minutes. Fantastic. Would probably be even quicker now with more modern trains. Alas, I wonder if Mike would have any fare information from this line? Would love to know how much a journey would have cost and to translate it into today’s currency.

    – Regarding the line today. It’s interesting because a “Skem Linear Park” has been mooted for a good number of years now. Indeed, a public consultation was carried out by LCC in 2007 where an overwhelming majority of the public were in favour of it. The problem was two-fold: Land ownership and just a year or so late – the economic crash. There is undoubtedly a land ownership at the Ormskirk end, where the line sits within a cutting. You can walk part of this from Ormskirk station before it comes to a halt at the Greetby Hill bridge. This particular section has been beset by ASB over the years, so this may also be an issue. But beyond the bridge, the line is heavily overgrown and looks well secured, so even though the most curious of explorers will struggle to get any boots on the ground here, at least until Lady’s Walk, where the line morphs into an embankment. It looks as though it’s on private land, although there are no clear signs around to say “Private Land”. Thus, with a strong pair of boots and some tough outerwear, it is possible to delve into this embankment, but one will probably not get very far due to the sheer overgrowth. It would be more advisable to head down in the winter time, once some of the growth has cleared away. East of Dick’s Lane, it is possible to ‘officially’ rejoin the old line, through a cutting where the old Sefton Brook bridge once was. The path is interesting here, particularly for those interested in local ecology. East of Plough Lane, the line is owned by LCC, and is perfectly walkable, although the path is not an official PROW, and will not be on any map. You can walk all the way along through Dicket’s Wood (lovely walk), where you join an existing PROW, eventually bringing you out to Dicket’s Lane. The section east of Firswood Road was once walkable – I have the photos to prove it, as part of my dissertation fieldwork back in 2008 – but since then, a pesky housebuilder has come along and built houses adjacent to the line, making it difficult to get onto the path, although where there’s a will there’s a way. Why this section of line wasn’t brought back to life as a cycle path toward the junction with Clayton Street I’ll never know. Absolutely disgusting the way a new estate like that can get built next to a disused railway line, and the developer nor the Council has the funds to stump up for a new path. Well, of course the Developer has the funds, but what the hell do they care about place-making and sustainable travel?

    Anyway, thanks again to you both. Would be great if more people were able to read this article, and for them to get active in our quest for better public transport. The more active people, the better. Otherwise, how will our MPs know any different? What do they care?

    Cheers,
    Bob

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