Signalman saves three children from certain death on Portsmouth rail line

Scene of the incident alongside the wall on the right
Scene of the incident alongside the wall on the right

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You will all have seen signs ordering you not to trespass on railway lines.

Most people understand them, but in the case of three children aged just two, three and four it was a different matter.

Allison (with burns on her face) and Darren Power

Allison (with burns on her face) and Darren Power

In August 1971 three children, Allison Power, three, and her four-year-old brother Darren, of Catisfield House, Lake Road, Landport, Portsmouth, along with friend Barry Dartnell, two, of Shedfield House, Arundel Street, Landport, left a playground outside Shedfield House.

They toddled off to Station Road where they came to a gate leading into the fish dock alongside Portsmouth and Southsea station. That siding has since been built on and is now Matalan’s car park.

The News reported that Darren and Allison’s mother Carol said she had only taken her eyes off the children for a minute and they were gone. It was the third time in a week her children had been found on the railway.

That day, for whatever reason, the gate was unlocked and the children passed through.

Two-year-old 
Barry Dartnell with bandaged hands

Two-year-old Barry Dartnell with bandaged hands

They walked alongside the track by the wall in Canal Walk that led underneath the footbridge known as Jacob’s Ladder. This part of the track has since been lifted.

They then walked between the wall and the track in an area called the ‘cess’ towards Portsmouth and Southsea signal box. A cess is a walkway for railwaymen to walk in safety.

One of the three children then tripped after kicking the live rail carrying 600 volts. The other two, not knowing what was wrong, went to help, but also hit the live rail.

Luckily, it was a warm day and one of the sliding windows to the box was open and a child’s cries were heard by 40-year-old signalman Cyril Bowers. He looked out and saw the drama that was unfolding.

Cyril Bowers's certificate heralding his actions

Cyril Bowers's certificate heralding his actions

He called to his mate Bill Bristow: ‘Quick, get the juice turned off.’

Cyril then grabbed a newspaper and ran down stairs and out on to the track where, to his horror, he saw not one but three children lying beside the live rail. One of them was lying lengthways alongside and underneath the live rail. One was lying across the live rail, the other was touching it with his hands.

Using the newspaper to protect himself he managed to release the children and, one by one, carried them to safety.

An ambulance arrived at the gate behind the signal box in Canal Walk and the children were taken to hospital.

Cyril Bowers today in retirement  at Rowlands Castle

Cyril Bowers today in retirement at Rowlands Castle

As luck would have it, no trains were due to depart from the low level platforms at that time although an up train did pass four minutes later.

An inquiry was held by British Rail and from then on that gate was locked and bolted.

Cyril was offered the choice to go home but remained on duty. The following year he was awarded a certificate from the Royal Humane Society for his bravery.

Cyril’s career covered many aspects of railway work although he was a always a signalman at heart.

He began his career as a booking boy in Havant signal box in 1945 and remained there until called up for National Service with the RAF. After his two years’ service he returned to the railway at Havant station. Part of his duties included opening the swing bridge set in the middle of the wooden trestle Langstone railway bridge on the Hayling Billy line.

He and a lineman had to walk out to the swing bridge where the signal cables were dismantled. Joint bars were removed and the bridge turned to allow tall-masted yachts to pass through. Yacht skippers had to give 48 hours’ notice.

The whole process was then reversed and the line made safe for normal railway working.

To get promotion Cyril had to move away to a class A signal box which took him to Hampton in Middlesex where he remained for four years and where he met his future wife Barbara.

Returning to this area some of the signal boxes he worked in included Warblington, Hayling Island, Havant, Bedhampton and Fratton West.

Near the end of his career he was promoted to a Mobile Operations Manager meaning he was called out to any incident that occurred on his patch.

He took early retirement in 1993 and he and Barbara live in a house they had built in 1959 at Rowlands Castle.

• If Darren, Allison and Barry are still living in the Portsmouth area, please get in touch – Cyril would love to meet you again.