Published: 31 December 2015
Leo Coleman was born the year before ‘The Grouping’ took place and followed his father into the railway Works in Wolverton.
He commenced his railway career with the London, Midland & Scottish Railway in 1937 at Wolverton Carriage and Wagon Works as a 15 year old lad. He was assigned to the drawing office and acted as the Works’ delivery boy taking plans and drawings around the 75-acre Works to every department.
This was to form the start of his training and he learnt where every office and workshop was located, and many of the workforce in the Works. After just six months Leo took up a new role as an apprentice in the Works Electric Shop which his father had helped set up. He was told; “If you become as good as your father you will be OK!”
The Electric Shop had invented the dynamo, regulator and lighting carriage system which was used as standard on carriages throughout Britain’s railways and known as the Wolverton Lighting System. He worked on all the component parts of this system and then fitted them to carriages as they rolled, one a day on average off the production line.
He wanted to ‘join up’ in World War Two despite being in a reserved occupation as an electrical apprentice. In 1942 Mr Coleman tried to join the RAF but at his medical was found to have a slight hearing defect in one ear which prevented him from flying.
On the way back from his medical he and a friend walked past and then into an Army recruiting office to sign up on the spot and served in the Royal Army Service Corps, 9th Armoured Division.
When he returned to Wolverton Works to tell them he had signed up, he was summonsed by the Works Superintendent, Mr Peters who expressed his displeasure to Leo in no uncertain terms.
Leo’s railway based wartime projects in Wolverton included converting circus trains to make four Ambulance Trains and he also converted lorries into battery powered mobile radar units used on the coast to spot enemy aircraft. These filled in gaps where there was no mains electricity supply in rural areas.
His wartime army service included him being on one of the four Ambulance Trains stabled at Newbury Racecourse in June 1944 waiting for D Day. Leo took part in the Normandy landings being put ashore in a van converted into a mobile workshop with a lathe and other equipment used to effect whatever repairs were needed. He described his Normandy landing “as a somewhat scary experience” and while on a 48 hour leave pass, rushed back to Wolverton to marry Joyce in August 1944 which led to a 71 year long marriage.
His job was kept open for him at Wolverton Works and he resumed his career there after being demobbed became involved in many projects which were as a result of the 1955 Modernisation Plan. In the late 1950s, Derby Works was allocated responsibility for the construction of new carriages while Wolverton was selected to build and carry out heavy maintenance and refurbishment on the new electric multiple units.
The Electric Traction Shop was set up for this new work and Leo Coleman became Chief Foreman there. He learnt how to run this department by visiting Ilford and Acton Depots familiarising himself with electric train traction maintenance methods.
There has always been rivalry between Derby and Wolverton Works and Leo was involved in two major areas of friction between them. Derby was instructed to construct a Travelling Post Office train to be used between Paddington and Penzance. There were some problems with the doors and gangways so the train was sent to Wolverton for these issues to be resolved.
Leo was involved in designing out the Derby faults and alterations included sliding doors which rang a warning bell when the mail nets were deployed outside the train to catch the GPO leather satchels. His team also fitted fluorescent lights to the train which was tested under Leo’s watchful eye across the western rail network.
Mr Coleman worked on a project to provide 12 regauged carriages to Northern Ireland. He suggested that this was the only time a series of test runs were accompanied by an Army helicopter escort pacing the train which ran between Belfast and Dublin.
The friction with Derby Works resurfaced when Mr Coleman became Project Manager for the 1975-77 Royal Train construction. Derby designed the folding steps used by the Royal Passengers which were stowed under the double doors on the Royal Saloons. These did not work as intended and so Leo’s team redesigned these steps to work correctly.
He travelled extensively on the 1977 Royal Train Silver Jubilee tour and after the first trip which ran overnight between Euston and Glasgow was asked to see The Queen. She was happy with the train apart from the new ironing board that had been provided. Leo had to call Wolverton Works to get the old one up to Glasgow without delay so the Queen’s staff could use the old one, which they preferred! Despite this minor upset, The Queen awarded her Jubilee medal to Mr Coleman.
The author of this obituary was introduced to Mr Coleman in 2010 and a year later was told that, at the age of 90, they can’t hang me for telling my story! Leo freely made his Wolverton archives available and launched the official Wolverton Works 175th anniversary book ‘The Full Works’. Leo also agreed to be filmed giving a rare Royal Train talk and many tales are now recorded for posterity and can be found on www.royaltrain.co.uk.
He made a poignant last visit to Wolverton Works in August 2014 showing round the son of Mr Peters, the Works Superintendent who did not want Leo to ‘join-up’ in 1942. He was delighted in his last few years to appear on BBC television and radio speaking about the royal element of his railway career and the plans to demolish Wolverton Works.
Perhaps his best story concerned rerailing a horse at the Wolverton goods office. The shunting horse slipped on a wagon turntable and trapped a leg between the turnplate and the wall. The rerailing team decided that the only way to rescue the horse was to smack it across its rump with a sturdy plank of wood and it duly jumped up and out of the pit!
Mr Coleman was a sports fan and in the 1950s was secretary of Wolverton Town football club and after retirement was the President of Stony Stratford Bowls Club and became known locally as ‘Mr Wolverton’ having spent his whole railway career at Wolverton Works.
He was very proud to receive one final honour a month before he died, France’s highest honour, the Legion D’honneur.
Leo Coleman: 19th June 1922 to 28 November 2015.