Historic railwayana records end of steam in Devon

Posted On: 26 Apr 2022 by Sue Cade

A Honiton railwayman’s fascinating collection of photographs from the last days of steam is to be sold at Chilcotts next auction on May 7.


James Burns, who still lives in the town, started his career after he stopped by a recruiting office during a visit to Waterloo Station in the early 1970s. He worked in Woking and Reading, moving back to Devon to become a guard on freight and passenger trains out of Exeter St Davids. In the 1980s he became a train driver, a role he continued until his retirement in 2002. He is still a railway enthusiast.

His love of trains was evident from an early age. He joined a local trainspotters group while he was in his teens; they travelled all over the country visiting places of railway interest. A keen amateur photographer, Mr Burns started photographing the trains and continued to do so throughout his career on the railways.

The collection of photographs being auctioned includes many from the early 1960s with hundreds of black and white photos and slides showing steam trains during this period, plus a number of early colour prints dated 1964. There are also evocative photos of steam engine ‘graveyards’ as these magnificent machines were discarded in favour of diesel. The ascent of diesel engines is also pictorially documented – although dieselisation began in the 1930s it wasn’t until the late 1950s that it began to dominate on the railway network.  

Many prints have helpful descriptions on the back, with information such as dates, locations, and departure stations. A number show local stations that no longer exist, such as Tiverton and Sidmouth. These became defunct in the wake of the Beeching report of 1963 which was implemented to try to increase the efficiency of the nationalised railway system. It led to many line closures and became known colloquially as the Beeching ‘Axe’. Happily some of these closures are being reversed, notably the Dartmoor Line which opened on 20 November 2021.

Duncan Chilcott says “There’s huge fondness for the days of steam, and this absorbing anthology contains a vast amount of pictorial information; it will be of interest both to railway enthusiasts and historians. All the images are being sold with full copyright so they can be reproduced at will.”

This is just one item in a new dedicated Transport & Collectors sale which includes over 80 items from the world of transport. Other items of interest are a wooden bench salvaged from Tiverton Railway Station when it closed; antique fire engine ephemera including fire hoses and hydrants; and old and modern road and railway signage; even Mr Burns’ British Rail uniform is to be auctioned.

Sale items can be viewed at our Dolphin Salerooms in Honiton High Street from May 4 and the sale begins at 10am on May 7.