Hall Royd Junction Box nameboard as preserved at the East Lancashire Raiway, Bury

The evolution of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Distant signal 


The Home signal with its oblong shape, red colour with white vertical band goes right back to the very beginnings of the development of the semaphore signal. But the ‘distant’ signal took more than 70 years to evolve into its ‘modern’ form with a fishtail end, distinctive yellow colour and black chevron.

With such a long evolution it follows that as the semaphore arms themselves evolved and were updated then not all arm types will have sported all combinations of colours, markings and spectacle plates.

This was particularly true for the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, and I was surprised to find that despite the existence of a dedicated line Society, nobody has catalogued what signal arm types carried what colour schemes, and when. This is despite a remarkable photographic collection containing over 10,000 images.

So what is offered here is an attempt to log all UK signal developments that might have affected or influenced L&YR signal development, supported by images of how the L&YR distant signal would have appeared at the time. I make no apologies for using secondary sources: unfortunately access to the primary sources that might allow a definitive answer to be provided has proved less that straightforward, and will have to be the subject of further research.

1848: Pryer (1) first records the use of a ‘Distant’ signal (then referred to as ‘Auxiliary’ signals) was on the L&SWR in 1848, when one was installed at Kingston (today called Surbiton). At first the arms were the same shape and colour as ‘Stop’ signals.

c. 1860: The Gloucester Wagon Company starts supplying its standard signalling equipment. In the absence of photographic evidence, it is assumed that installations would have included auxiliary arms.

First L&YR distant sugnal c. 1860, identical to the Home signals, and supplied by the Gloucester Wagon Company

1872: Pryer (1) notes that the marking of ‘Auxiliary’ signals by means of the ‘Fish-tail’ notch in the end of the arm was the idea of W J Williams of the LB&SCR, who installed one at Norwood Junction in August 1872. The arms, although now a different shape, were still painted red as for the ‘Stop’ signals, and at night exhibited a red light in the ‘Caution’ position.

1876: Vaughan (3) notes that the GWR started distinguishing distants from homes although still using a red face with a vertical white band. These showed a red spectacle when ‘on’, and a white light when ‘off’, there only being a single spectacle. On the GWR signals had green backlights, and the use of green for ‘caution’ was highly confusing.

1877: Use of fish-tales was made obligatory by the Board of Trade for ALL new works after 1877 (1).L&YR distant arms c. 1893 after Raynar Wilson added a green spectacle to the previous Gloucester design.

1886: Maclean (2) notes that the Rules & Regulations Committee of the various railway companies recommended that green displace white and although most LNER constituents used a ‘grass’ green shade, when illuminated by a yellow paraffin light, a rather indistinct colour was the result. The Admiralty developed a different shade, termed ‘signal green’ and this was adopted by other lines. The actual conversion to green took place in the 1890s, the GNR being the first major line to use red and green exclusively for main line signals, although for a short experimental period purple was tried out in lieu of green for subsidiary signals.

1892: Vaughan (3) notes that the BoT ordered that all signal arms be counter-balanced so as to rise to danger in the event of a down rod breaking and in 1914 it ordered that distant signals for diverging lines be fixed at ‘Caution’ unless the divergence could be taken at 40 mph or more.

1893: The 1890s the night indication for clear had been a white light (Green being used originally as a ‘Caution’ signal). Generally green had replaced white as the ‘clear’ signal by 1893. Wray 5 notes that the Railway Clearing House recommended that running line signals should adopt the aspects of red and green. Raynar Wilson devised a simple change to L&Y (ex-Gloucester) signal arms by extending the signal arms by extending the spectacle frame casting to include the green glass which enabled all signals to be converted with a minimum of fuss, this type continued to be used until 1912, but many survived to the 1960s. Maclean suggests that red and green spectacles were introduced after 1893.Wray notes that in L&Y days the whole Raynar arm was painted red with the exception of a broad white band 10 inches wide one foot from the end of the arm. The reverse was white with a black band, although it is not made clear whether the rear of the spectacle plate was black, as would be the convention for a part of the arm obscured by the signal post.

L&YR Raynar Wilson distant arm as modified with an additional green lens for 'All Right'. and fishtale end.

1895: Vaughan notes that the GWR starts using green for ‘All right’ in signal spectacles and the change over to the double spectacle carrying a red and green glass was not completed until 1922. Distant and stop signals were treated identically, and with this change the green-back light was changed to clear, white light.

1900: It appears to have been the GWR who first painted the white chevron on Distant arms, an idea adopted by the LB&SCR around 1900.

1907: The last bar-and-disc signal in L&YR front line service de-commissioned. It controlled a crossing near Blackrod (6).

L&Y introduces the fishtale on the Raynar Wilson distant signal arm, and then in 1912 introduces a completely new type of signal arm.

1915: The Smithy Bridge disaster on the night of 18 March 1915 at about 8.45pm was subsequently inspected by the Board of Trade's Railway Inspectorate. The Inspector's report was published in the 'Todmorden Advertiser and Hebden Bridge Newsletter' on 7 May 1915. The Signalman was recorded as saying that the snow was not sufficient to obscure the signal lamps, and the Inspector said that the case pointed to the desirability of the provision of some arrangement for giving the driver an unmistakeable warning of the position of distant signal when he passes it. The L&YR said it was experimenting with devices of more than one kind for warning drivers when passing distant signals and it was to be hoped that the difficulties of fitting up of such a device would be successfully overcome and result in a satisfactory form of device being adopted for that purpose.

1916: The introduction of yellow to conventional Distant signal spectacle plates took place between Marylebone and Neasden on the GCR in 1916. Signal arms continued to be painted red.

15 December 1916: To give context to what might appear to be the slow adoption of the modern distant, the Todmorden Advertiser noted that there was a Restricted Railway Service due to the numbers of railway employees in the army or navy and demands of the service in France. Already there are no dining or luncheon cars, hand luggage only allowed, remnants of cheap ticket system abolished. The public are not to travel by rail at Christmas or New Year - and are being encouraged to have their holidays at home. Ordinary trains to holiday resorts in the middle of the day may not run. Where 2 or 3 different lines to the same place e.g. Southport, Buxton, Liverpool, London, Leeds, there will be drastic curtailment. Last train on small lines 9-30 p.m., on local lines 10 p.m.

19 Jan 1917: In the same vein the L&YR took off 88 more trains at the end of the month.

1917: Vaughan records the BoT as requiring all companies to make their distant signals more distinctive by following GCR practice and painting the signals arms yellow with a black chevron but it was 1927 before the GWR even began to comply and 1933 before the alteration was complete. The levers in the box were repainted from green to yellow as part of the same process.

The L&YR would have been compelled to fit yellow aspects to its red distant arms in new installations from 1917. This would also have applied to renewals from this time.

1 July 1919: The Railway Clearing House set-up a committee to consider the 'Standardisation of Railway Equipment - Permanent Way Track and Signalling'; members were drawn from LBSC, NER, Midland, GNR, Caledonian, SE&CR, L&NWR and GWR, and chaired by the GWR (7).

1920: Wray notes that Ashton Davies, writing in 1920, stated that some companies had already introduced the yellow arm and light, but doesn’t say whether the L&YR was one of those. The phasing in of yellow distants was a long-winded process; there is a photo of the Down Branch Distant for Pearmarsh Junction in October 1923 showing red fishtale with white chevron in ‘A Pictorial Record of Southern Signals’ by G Pryer.

1922: The Institution of Signal Engineers set up a committee to investigate the whole matter of three position signalling. The committee's report, published in 1924, recommended against the adoption of three position signalling but were in favour of multi-aspect colour light signals using red for danger, yellow for caution and green for clear. The Ministry of Transport endorsed the committee's report and also said that distant signals (which had hitherto been painted red) should be painted yellow and display yellow and green lights at night. As three position signals had been abandoned the way was open for the introduction of upper quadrant two position semaphore signals as there was no possibility of confusion between two and three position signals. (http://www.wirralmodelengineeringsociety.co.uk/Articles/britishsignalling.pdf).

Also in 1922 the Horwich signal department was transferred to Crewe - this was one of the first consequences of the London & North Western Railway and LYR merging in a move intended to strengthen their position in the future LMS. All patterns, etc., were transferred to Crewe, and the Horwich works closed.

1923: Warburton notes that a central Signal Department on the LMS was not formed at Grouping in 1923. The Signal Superintendents of the former MR, LYR, LNWR and Caledonian continued as assistants to their respective civil engineers, each pursuing their own ideas.

1925: Maclean notes that yellow arms started to be introduced more generally after 1925 but the hitherto white vertical stripe on the arm face was replaced by a white chevron. On the reverse, a black chevron replaced the vertical black stripe.

1925 - Ministry of Transport requires that distant signals have yellow arms and lights. (http://www.railsigns.uk/info/chrono1/chrono1.html)

1925: Warburton (4) notes that the LMS Chief Civil Engineer organised the civil engineering department into four divisions viz Scotland, Northern (Hunts Bank, Manchester), Western (Crewe) and Eastern (Derby). Each then submitted their signalling schemes to Derby for approval. Effectively the four carried on as before, continuing to install traditional signalling to the existing pre-Grouping patterns and designs.

Both types of LYR distant signals would have been 'converted' to a yellow arm by 1925 as it became a legal requirement. New installations on the Central Division would still have been of the L&YR 1912 pattern.

1926: - The Railway Clearing House agrees to the use of upper quadrant two-position semaphore signals

1 July 1926: The proposal to use UQ arms was referred to the Railway Clearing House for the consideration of the Locomotive and Traffic departments of the major companies. A joint meeting was held at the REC on 1 July which recommended that the design shown in drawings B181, B182 and B201 should be adopted as the standard. This recommendation was adopted by the General Managers and confirmed by Minute 815 on 20 July 1926. The prototype pair of Upper Quadrant arms and a single arm are erected in the Derby Signal Works Yard on white, Midland-style signal posts, with the distant arm painted yellow with a black chevron (7).

1927: A further prototype pair of Upper Quadrant arms are erected in the Derby Signal Works Yard, following G W Cooke's suggestion of employing a telegraph pole. The official photograph (LMS Journal No. 3 p. 33) remarkably shows the UQ corrugated distant painted red with a vertical white strip (white with vertical black stripe on the reverse) - a real throw back.

November 1927: The first LMS UQ signal was erected at Sawley station on the Trent Junction - Derby line. It had a single red arm (7).

1929: A central LMS Signal Department was formed on 1 April 1929 based in Derby with Divisional Assistants at Derby, Crewe, Manchester and Glasgow (4). One of the first decisions of the new centralised Department was that all new and renewed signals should be of the Upper Quadrant type using existing pre-grouping posts until new standards were evolved. The Derby division was the first and only Division to use Upper Quadrant arms prior to 1929. The first UQ design was the corrugated type. This division was headed by A F Bound who did not like telegraph pole posts, and ordered a reversion to traditional white posts (7).

Finally in 1929 thre L&YR pattern signals would have been replaced by 'modern' Upper Quadrant signal arm. The first LMS-style had two horizontal corrugations, but a simplified design with folded edges top and bottom soon followed.

1960s: Photographic evidence of distant arms (Bolton West, Skem Branch at Ormskirk, Bury Transport Museum and Blackburn Station) in BR days shows both the surviving Raynar and 1912 arms and spectacles painted the arm colour, with no black showing to the front. However the preserved shunting signal in the Bolton garden has a black spectacle plate. The Bala Lake signal is ex-Bolton West and the home arm was ‘all’ red when erected at Llanuwchllyn, but has subsequently been repainted with a part-black spectacle in the Bala Lake’s own distinctive style. The distant arm was removed before it was re-erected, but is known to have been ‘all’ yellow. Next to this signal at Llanuwchllyn is a L&Y two-arm ground signal.

1977/78: The last L&YR signal (a fixed distant) located at Low Ellers Jounction on the South Yorkshire Joint is decommissioned. Fortunately the arm and iron work were abandoned at the site, to be subsequently rescued and restored by Peter Fitton (8).

2015: The Ffestiniog installs new McKenzie & Holland pattern stop signals using a single red lens at its Harbour Station, although using modern LEDs, the white light changing to green as the red spectacle swings clear…


The situation regarding L&YR signals is now, perhaps, clearer. It would seem that all LYR home and distant signals were painted red until the Grouping. It would also appear that Raynar Wilson Distants would have been seen with both vertical white stripes and white chevrons, and it also seems highly likely that there will also have been white vertical striped 1912-type Distants produced before the switch to chevrons.

Given everything else that was happening in the LNW/LYR camps in the early 1920s, it can be surmised that yellow LQ arms didn’t appear until after the Grouping, although whether Crewe then started producing yellow arms before 1929 will only be resolved by the study of dated photographs.

Obviously Derby would be producing yellow UQ distants before the other divisions.

The only ‘unknown’ then is whether any 1912 arms had black spectacle plates anytime after 1929.


1. ‘A Pictorial Record of Southern Signals’ George. A. Pryer, OPC. 1977

2. ‘A Pictorial Record of LNER Constituent Signalling’ A. A. Maclean, OPC. 1983

3. ‘A Pictorial Record of Great Western Signalling’ Adrian Vaughan, OPC. 1984

4. ‘A Pictorial Record of L.M.S. Signals’ L. G. Warburton, OPC. 1972

5. LYR Focus. ‘Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Signalling’. Tom Wray. LYRS Undated

6. 'Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Miscellany' Noel Coates, OPC, 1983

7. LMS Journal issue number 3, Wild Swan 2002

8. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Society magazine issue 273 (Autumn 2017)