KEVIN GORDON: Veteran, 97, returns to the railway

George Sowter at his wartime wedding
George Sowter at his wartime wedding

The anniversary of the Seaford Line went well last weekend and thousands turned up to watch the steam train Oliver Cromwell chuff its way to Seaford Station, the highlight of a host of events along the line from Brighton to Seaford.

A special VIP train was greeted by Mark Brown, the Mayor of Seaford, and William Tyler Smith, one of the main benefactors of the original scheme 150 years ago (ably played by Ian Clegg).

Many people were resplendent in period costume and I dressed as a railway policeman with frock-coat and top hat.

Jenny Thornton, well know to many Seafordians as the friendly railway booking clerk, was splendidly dressed as a Victorian lady and kept busy making sure that everyone was safe and well-informed as were Seaford councillors Sylvia Dunn and Sam Adeniji.

The Seaford Steampunks and members of the Bonfire Society provided colour and interest as well as helping out with crowd control with a cohort of volunteers.

The station car park was taken over by a variety of railway themed stalls and was also the venue to bands, choirs and drama groups.

The station was crowded but everyone seemed to enjoy the day and there was a ripple of excitement when the steam from the engine was seen entering the town, probably the first steam train to have arrived at Seaford since 1962.

The Oliver Cromwell is a British Railways ‘Britannia’ class 7 train number 70013. It was built at Crewe in 1951 and initially was an express on the Norwich to London run. She was one of the last four steam engines which worked the last tour of Britain before the withdrawal of steam services.

The locomotive was restored for use again in 2008 and has made many excursions including trips to commemorate the the centenaries of the Territorial Army in 2008 and the Girl Guides in 2010.

Two small events occurred that were probably missed by many people. Firstly was the unveiling of a commemorative plaque which hopefully will soon be seen in the station booking hall and secondly was the visit by a distinguished guest George Sowter.

George is now 97 and, as he worked as a booking clerk at Seaford station, he was very keen to take part in the 150th.

George was born above 50 High Street, Seaford, in 1917. The shop under his home was a confectioners run by the notorious ‘Old Ma Persil’.

George’s father and two uncles took over 42, High Street, (now the popular Front Room Cafe) and turned it into a shoe and boot repair shop.

Later George’s father started his own boot repair shop on the corner of Blatchington Road and Clinton Lane (now the fishing tackle shop).

George left school at 14 and got a job working at the WH Smith bookstall at Seaford Station. In his spare time he was a volunteer with the 210th (Sussex) Field Company of the Royal Engineers..

Although this was a territorial unit, on the outbreak of the Second World War, George’s boss, Mr Gretton, ordered him to report to the Queens Hall (the building near Tesco, which is now being renovated) and be mobilised. George became a regular soldier and was involved in many of the major campaigns including Dunkirk and El Alamein. Seventy years ago this month George was one of the brave soldiers who landed on the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy.

On demobilisation in January 1946 he returned to Seaford only to find that WH Smith had transferred him to Bognor. Not wanting to leave his home town he applied to join the Southern Railway and found himself posted as a booking clerk at Seaford.

The station in the 1950s was manned by a considerable workforce including the Station Master, Mr Russell, two Station Foremen, Harry Tutt and Charlie Cave. There were also porters and signalmen.

After 19 years George was promoted to Booking Clerk at Lewes Station but ended his career working as a Shipping Clerk at Newhaven Harbour, retiring in 1982.

George now lives with his wife Anne in Alfriston Road, Seaford, and it was a delight to meet him (albeit briefly) in the booking hall of Seaford station surrounded by his family and the crowds of people keen to soak up the atmosphere of the special day.

George will have seen many a steam training terminate at Seaford Station but for many young people it was the first steam train they had ever seen.