Saxby & Farmer Links

Saxby & Farmer Signalboxes  (

Saxby & Farmer (Grace's Guide)

John Saxby (Wikipedia)

Saxby & Farmer and Others

by Syd Williams

The above name appears from time to time in articles in the railway press about signal boxes and equipment such as "a Saxby & Farmer Type 5" and it occurred to me that I knew little about the firm apart from the fact that they were clearly long established although (apparently) not in operation currently. This led to some research and the following article.

Navigation Road signalbox, by Saxby & Farmer (closed 1991). Harold Bowtell, MLS collection

From the early days of railways in the 1840s improvements were made in all spheres of railway operation and safety on the basis of trial and error and experience, and signalling was one of the principal areas. Originally line of sight or men with flags were the only means of operating but this soon proved unacceptable as it had not been realised that the kinetic energy i.e. the amount of movement energy of an object is dependent on mass and speed and, in addition, Newton's First Law of Motion that an object will continue moving at its current velocity until some force or diminution of force causes its speed or direction to change. The stopping distance is much increased when an object is heavy, such as a locomotive and train on a smooth rail as opposed say to a stage coach on a rough road. Line of sight is generally an insufficient distance to disperse the speed and energy of the said locomotive by applying sufficient change by braking.

The next system was fixed interval working or timetable but these do not permit positive confirmation that the track ahead is clear and any breakdown of the first train would not be known to the crew of the one following. In addition allowing for (say) a thirty minute interval would restrict departures to two per hour and as with line of sight the same problems were obvious.

The development of the electric telegraph by Cooke and Wheatstone in 1837 was a major breakthrough which enabled a signalman to contact adjacent signal boxes on the state of his block or section i.e. free of traffic (or not) if a train was offered. This first commercial success for Cooke and Wheatstone was installed on the Great Western Railway for 13 miles from Paddington to West Drayton in 1838. This became known as absolute block which came into use on most  railways from the 1840s and 1850s (mandatory from 1889) although permissive block was allowed if the signalman had obtained authority and that both signalmen in the boxes either side of his block were aware and had agreed to any proposed action.

But to return to Mr Saxby. John Saxby was born at Hurstpierpoint near Brighton in August 1821 and in 1834 was apprenticed at the age of 13 to a carpenter and joiner. Following completion of his indenture he was employed as a carpenter at the Brighton Works of the London & Brighton Railway (later in 1846 to become a part of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway). His original job was to make wooden mile-posts from oak but he had an aptitude for things mechanical and devised a machine to automate their production. He moved up to become a foreman in the workshop and by 1850 had become interested in railway safety.  He invented an improved safety lamp but most importantly, following investigation into two accidents due to signalling failures, he invented a device for interlocking points and signals at a railway junction which also locked other signals in the system against improper i.e. conflicting use. He patented this device in 1856, in his own words on the patent application, "as a mode of working simultaneously the points and signals of railways at junctions". The essence was that he coupled the signal rods and the points levers on one lever so that the signals automatically repeated the points settings and this was a major breakthrough in that it was the first time that this was achieved on a single lever and frame.

The first system was installed at Bricklayers Arms Junction, South London which controlled routes in and out of London Bridge station and neighbouring goods yards. The system was linked to a signal box. Previously signals and points were operated by different levers (sometimes situated on station platforms) and this led to oversight by staff. In 1861 Saxby left railway employment and started his own business at Haywards Heath manufacturing signalling apparatus, where the following year he was joined by John Stinson Farmer who had previously been an assistant manager of the LB&SCR at Brighton. Farmer looked after the financial side and the firm quickly became known as the leading manufacturers of railway signalling equipment and established a Works at Kilburn, NW London, where they eventually employed 3,000 workers. They also established a Works in Brussels.  In 1875 the firm brought out its first mechanical brake which gave more powerful braking by connecting each vehicle's brakes together. Saxby's son James established a signal works at Creil near Paris in 1878. Saxby & Farmer were by '1880 the dominant force in railway signalling equipment manufacture. They also made signal boxes on behalf of the railways. The Type 5 design was the most successful and long-lived and examples can still be found on Network Rail and some Heritage lines.

It had, however, not always been plain sailing and Saxby who was by all accounts a very difficult person to deal with and a staunch defender of his patent catch handle locking device. Any infringement or perceived infringement would lead to immediate legal action by Saxby and numerous cases followed. One of the most interesting, both to law students and barristers, was Saxby v Easterbrook 1868. This was not so much about the use (or alleged copying) of a mechanical part of the interlocking frames but of timing. Easterbrook's patent was sealed first but Saxby claimed that his patent had been lodged three days before although it was agreed that it had not been sealed before that of Easterbrook. This was no fault of Saxby and was in a sense due to poor administration in the Court office by not taking cases in turn (if indeed they were supposed to). Thus the Court had to decide whether the initial disclosure of an invention and claim for a patent established priority or whether the date of sealing was the arbiter' The case actually lasted for over five years after numerous appeals before judgment was given in favour of Saxby and established the precedent for future actions of this class.  Nothing further was heard from Easterbrook who was presumably financially ruined by the matter.  It may be that Saxby was familiar with the fictitious case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Dickens' "Bleak House" in which the lawyers dragged out an inheritance case for years until the costs had devoured the value of the estate but nevertheless Saxby was always a keen litigant.

The general view seemed be "take care not to cross Saxby who feels he holds the master patent for the whole principle of interlocking and will instigate an action against anybody who operates a signal by a lever at all".  Most manufacturers and railway seemed to bear this in mind. Another famous case however was Saxby & Farmer v McKenzie & Holland in which Saxby met his Waterloo.  Again the case lasted over five years but whilst the Saxby system used catch handle locking for pulling off a signal and points, McKenzie adhered to the principle of a lever adopting an indirect system of actuating the locking.  The court finally found that the two systems were sufficiently different.  The Saxby system had a "rocker and grid" and McKenzie a "cam and soldier".  The latter was used from 1873 extensively in Australia and New Zealand whilst the former, even with updated improvements, remained a strong favourite in Britain and the USA. on reflection it seems that dissimilar mechanisms were used to achieve the same objective.

Several railway (and other) companies set up to construct frames but the constant heavy use meant that the construction had to be fundamentally strong.  The LNWR had found that breakage was becoming too frequent and F.W. Webb designed a frame of his own.  On the principle that a strong machine of simple construction with few, and interchangeable parts, easily accessible for cleaning and repairs etc. would be more economical, the LNWR frame was a remarkable piece of apparatus and on a par with that produced by Saxby & Farmer.  This did not contravene the basic premise of interlocking being based on the cam and soldier of McKenzie and did not incur the wrath of Saxby!

In addition, in 1875 Saxby & Farmer brought out their first mechanical brake which gave more powerful braking by connecting each vehicle's brakes together. The firm was originally a partnership but this ended in 1888 and in 1893 became a limited company. Finally in 1901 the company was merged along with several others to create the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company. It was in fact known as the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company and Saxby Ltd. but the latter "Saxby Ltd' was dropped in 1935 as lever signalling had by this time been replaced by electro pneumatic interlocking frames and power signalling particularly in large installations such as that at London Victoria in 1929 and little was heard of the Saxby name thereafter as large metal and heavy lever frames had become obsolete. John Saxby had died in April 1913 and a plaque commemorating him can be seen at Brighton station.

George Westinghouse was an American who perfected the air brake system around '1868 in USA. He came to England in 1869 and set up a Works in Liverpool (subsequently moved to Chippenham) and a Head Office in London in York Way almost opposite to Top Shed at King's Cross. The battle in the UK between railway companies who supported the existing vacuum brake system and those who favoured the Westinghouse air brake is documented in detail in a book A hundred years of Speed with Safety by the celebrated railway author O.S. Nock which deals with the history of the Westinghouse Company particularly with braking systems but also with the advent of power and colour light signalling. The fjrst installation of the latter was on the Liverpool Overhead Railway although this was sometime referred to as a glorified tramway rather than a main line railway. The problems of the various types of colour light signals were complex as in the 1930s each of the "Big Four" had different systems from different manufacturers. The GWR had searchlight type reproducing the night indication of the former semaphore signals. The SR had multiple aspect with multi lens, the LMS introduced speed signals of an American type (the first installation was incidentally at Mirfield) and the LNER had multiple aspect but using searchlight type signals instead of multi lens. Nowadays we have LED!

The Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company Ltd (note not including Saxby!) for most of the 20th century manufactured railway braking, signalling, mining and colliery equipment, industrial automation and power rectification equipment in the factory at Chippenham which was an extensive plant at the forefront of railway signalling design and equipment. The factory had grown in a rather haphazard fashion over the years with new workshops added as necessary when new designs or systems were developed and much innovative work was done.

The breakup of the company (Westinghouse) started in 1979 when it became part of the Hawker Siddeley Group which in turn fell to BTR following a hostile takeover bid in 1992. In 1999 BTR merged with Siebe to form Invensys. The latter quickly split the company into Westinghouse Signals Ltd and Westinghouse Brakes Ltd, selling Weslinghouse Brakes Ltd to a Munich based competitor Knorr Bremse. ln May 2013 the remainder of Invensys Rail was acquired by Siemens who are still present in Chippenham at Langley Park lndustrial Estate under the title Siemens Rail Automation Holdings Ltd. They deal with, inter alia, Automatic Train Control Systems, Central Signalling Monitoring, Level Crossing Protection, and Electronic Interlocking (Saxby principles prevail even today!).

A copy of the book 'A Hundred Years of Speed with Safety' by O S Nock is kept in the Society Library and is recommended reading although it should be pointed out that Nock was employed throughout his whole career by Westinghouse Ltd, finally retiring as Chief Mechanical Engineer of that company and you may detect a bias. Today parts of the old Chippenham factory remain unoccupied or have been leased off whilst other parts have been demolished. There is a grand plan for redevelopment of the site for housing, hotels, car parks etc. (rather like Stockport Goods Yard or Crewe Works!) Watch this space!

The photographic archive of Westinghouse Chippenham is held at the Severn Valley Railway Museum, Kidderminster.
Last update  December 2018. Comments welcome: