The Mile Cross Railwayman: “Puffing” Billy Beeston

Way back in 1928 a couple going by the names of William and Dorothy Beeston (Billy and Doll) moved into their new home right here in the middle of the Mile Cross estate. Both born in 1900 and aged 28, they’d travelled up from Suffolk to live here and the reason for their relocation across the border and into Norwich was in pursuit of a new career and a new life.

Billy had decided to move up to Mile Cross to try and make a life-long career out being a railwayman. As was the norm back then, he would have had to work incredibly hard in the pursuit of his dreams, starting at the very bottom and working his way up through the ranks, which was the only way when chasing a life on the rails. Luckily, young Billy had managed to land himself a job as an engine cleaner at Thorpe Station’s Shed 32A working for London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), which would turn out to be his first step on the long ladder towards his dreams of becoming a steam-engine driver.

MX Beeston 1aA young-looking Billy, posing on the side of an F3 2-4-2T loco, dreaming of one day becoming a driver.

The Mile Cross house that Billy and Doll had moved into was at Civic Gardens and these particular houses are of the Dorlonco style, steel-framed, “no-standard-construction” houses of which I previously wrote about in this earlier blog post Non Standard Construction. These pretty little homes look like they could have been plucked right out the Norfolk countryside somewhere and plonked here in the middle of Mile Cross, which in a way is a kind of a metaphor for the estate’s creation. Interestingly, it appears that they were originally rendered when they were built, but this is no longer the case. I’m guessing they had the render stripped when they were modernised so as to make it easier to maintain the steel framework hidden within the walls.

An example of one of the neat-looking, cottage-style Dorlonco homes that still grace the northern end of the estate:Dorman2

Billy and Doll, posing for a picture in the rear garden of their Civic Gardens home:MX Beeston 5a

The Beeston’s settled into their new home and new way of life and by 1937 they’d had 3 children, Harold, Hazel and Shirley and Billy’s dream of becoming a steam engine driver was progressing nicely; Billy would have had to work his way up through the ranks from the very bottom; starting as a cleaner, being promoted to a fireman and then eventually reaching his goal of becoming a steam engine driver.

Every day throughout his long career with the LNER and then British Rail, Billy Beeston used to walk to work and back at Thorpe Station, Shed 32A from the centre of Mile Cross and his wife Dorothy would always make sure that he had his cigarettes for the day. Billy was rarely seen without a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth and this is how he came to be known to his friends and family as “Puffing Billy”, and not  – as I had originally assumed – because he was a steam engine driver. I’m probably not the only person to have incorrectly come to this seemingly obvious conclusion.

As well as loving the railways, Billy loved his gardens at Civic Gardens, as was popular back then, the rear garden quickly became a full-on allotment. There were Apple trees, Blackberries, Gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries and his favourite, which grew at the bottom of the garden; Rhubarb. So famous amongst the family was his love for gardening and growing his own food, he was known to some members as the family not just as “Puffing Billy”, but also more affectionately as “Rhubarb Granddad”.

Being a devoted railwayman, Billy couldn’t help but bring his love of steam locomotives home with him and had also built himself a large wooden coal bunker just outside the back door in the style of a locomotive coal tender. It had two small liftable metal doors which could opened up to shovel the coal into buckets to feed the coal fires inside the house.

As we can see in the brilliantly-posed photograph below, Billy obviously loved his home and his family, the youngest child’s grin tells a thousand stories whilst his impeccably-kept front garden is also plain to see. You can also see some more of those cottage-style homes in the centre of Civic Gardens in the background.MX Beeston 9a

The next photograph shows two of the children standing in the front garden closer to the house, smartly dressed in what I presume must be their school attire:MX Beeston 4a

The next photograph shows us Billy stood in the doorway of his Civic Gardens home, the front garden full of plants and flowers. Although it’s a black and white image you can just sense the colours and almost smell the flowers:MX Beeston 8a

Like most of the families across the estate, the outbreak of WW2 meant that Billy and his family were supplied with an Anderson shelter, but instead of burying it at the end of the garden like the protocol suggested, Billy had decided instead that it would make a great shed for his garden, erecting it less than ten feet from the back door, on a raised floor, where it still resides to this day, slowly rusting away.

The Anderson shelter, less than 10 feet from the house, still standing where Billy erected it:MX Beeston 23

MX Beeston 24The family rarely used the shelter for its intended use during the war, choosing instead to mostly ignore the sirens and remain inside the house during the German Air Raids. Luckily for them they never really needed to, not that it would have been of any use erected entirely above ground and right next to the house!

I’ve touched upon these houses looking like country cottages before and this was something Doll had obviously picked up on and run with. Apparently she considered her home to be a country cottage and she had furnished it out as such, including a a large wooden sideboard, and a Singer sewing machine on display under the living room rear window. Apparently is was there purely for display purposes as it was never used.

The row of Civic Gardens homes where Billy and Doll moved to back in 1928:MX Beeston 20

On one particularly disorganised morning Billy was running late for work and also had to quickly make himself some sandwiches, the filling of which he had presumed to be potted meat. After he had dashed out of the door and disappeared down the road in a puff of smoke, Doll checked in on the pantry, quickly realising that the last of the cat meat was now missing. When Billy returned home from work later that evening, nothing was said about it and it was assumed that Billy had happily consumed his cat-meat sandwiches for lunch!

Billy wasn’t the only member of the household to seek a career on the rails and his son Harold followed in his father’s footsteps, as far as becoming a fireman during the British Rail Days. Occasionally they even got the chance to work together as father and son on the footplate but that was as far as Harold would progress before, in 1960 he decided to leave a life of on the rails behind for a career change or two to become – amongst other things – a professional dancer. Billy however continued to work on the railways as a driver right up until 1969 before finally retiring with over 40 years of experience on the rails and a thousand stories to tell his grandkids.

A collection of Billy’s documents from a life on the railways:MX Beestona

MX Beeston 21

That isn’t to say the family’s railway legacy was to end there, Billy’s youngest daughter, Shirley gave Billy and Doll a grandson going by the name of John Batley. John also worked on the railways for a while at the Mid Norfolk Railway and just so happens to be a very good friend of mine, a fellow Mile Cross boy and local historian, particularly focused on the history of the railways, which is how I came about this particular insight (along with all the anecdotes) into the fascinating life of Puffing Billy Beeston. John’s writes about his Grandad and his long career on the railways in his own words:

“Grandad influenced me into the railways at a very early age, I recall sitting on his knee as a small boy listening to his stories of being a steam engine driver, he always spoke fondly of the steam engines, but never of the diesels which he had to retrain on… steam was in his blood… He never enjoyed doing the courses down at Stratford shed on the D5000s or Brush type 2’s, I still retain his notebooks on these courses. His favourite locomotives were the Britannia 7MT Pacifics introduced in 1951 and revolutionising the Great Eastern mainline, until the advent of dieselisation in 1962 at Norwich. It was his love of railways that shaped me into what I do today, you Stu know the rest about what I’ve done, my legacy is to carry on my families legacy of the railway, what I do to this this day is a tribute to both Granddad and Harold.”

Reading that, I can see the twinkle that John has in his eyes when he reminisces about his beloved grandad and as John typed, I do know only too well what has done. I first met with John about a decade ago in the early years of Social Media after realising that we were both fascinated by the history surrounding the abandoned railway line running along the back of Sloughbottom Park. Not long after our first meetings in person we were soon to discover that some of the platform of Norwich City Station was still there, buried under tonnes of river dredge by the Halfords Roundabout waiting for us and our team to expose once again to people of Norwich. This in turn helping to lead to the formation of the two groups; the Friends of Norwich City Station (FONCS) and the Norfolk Railway Heritage Group (NRHG), prompting a renewed and wider interest in this little chapter of mostly-forgotten Industrial history of North Norwich. The rest they say is history!

MX Beeston 22John being filmed at City Station recently.

John goes on with to share a little bit about Billy’s final years, both on the rails and in life:

“In the final years Granddad used to work out of City on the “round the world”* freights, he used to say to me ‘I regularly used leave City Station to go round the world and back’ and this is partly why I’m still so focussed on the preservation of the memory of City Station, it’s all for him…

William and Doll had a huge thing about Butlins and as Granddad had free Rail travel they went to Butlins camps all over the Country for many years, my last holiday with him was just before he died in 1983 at Clacton”.

*”Round the world” was railway term for taking a train from Norwich City to Norwich Thorpe, about a mile as a crow flies, but in reality a complicated 60-plus mile trip around Norfolk, going through Melton Constable all the way up to the coast and back down the line through Wroxham to Thorpe. There and back would be a whole days’ work.

Puffing Billy Beeston in his final years with the trademark cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth:MX Beeston 2a

Billy and Doll’s youngest daughter, Shirley (John’s mum) still lives in the Beeston family home at Civic Gardens to this day. Billy’s grandson John, also lives nearby down at Drayton Road and close to the Dolphin footpath, meaning he’s still very much closely-connected to his granddad Billy’s home, and the Marriott’s Way where John has helped me to uncover, rediscover and promote the heritage of one of the city’s lost railway lines. A railway line on which his granddad Puffing Billy Beeston, the Mile Cross Railwayman would have spent a fair bit of his working life, semi-begrudgingly pulling freight in and out of Norwich City Station behind his powerful diesel locomotive during those final years of the railways on the fringes of Mile Cross.

So there we have it, an interesting little story about the lives of two Mile Cross residents who moved onto the estate during its early years. William and Doll Beeston’s move up from Suffolk left a family legacy that still lives strong on the estate to this day, and a historical legacy along the former railway line close by, which is still capturing the imaginations of the younger generations and continues to offer up its secrets to me, John and the rest of the Norfolk Railway Heritage Group long after Billy pulled his locomotive out of City Station for the very last time.

Thanks once again for taking the time to read these pieces and thanks to John and his mum for kindly and enthusiastically sharing their family’s history with us. I’ll leave you with the following comparison image of father and daughter stood in the same doorway almost 90 years apart.



9 thoughts on “The Mile Cross Railwayman: “Puffing” Billy Beeston

  1. Love this story. Both because many years ago I did a project on the Building of council houses in Norwich and I was really impressed by the thought that went into the planning and building of the early estates) and because I now work at Norwich station. Have just read some of it out to one of my colleagues who new exactly what ‘round the world’ meant

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mile Cross Man, thank you for this story, a good read. Just this Sunday afternoon, part of our walk here in Taverham was along Marriotts Way and we discussed how, some 70 years ago, passenger and freight trains would rattle up and down the line. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I was born in Civic Gardens in 1929 and moved to Hellesdon at the end of 1936, I well remember Billy & Dot Beeston, son Harold (about my age) and daughter Hazel, Shirley was born after I left Mile Cross (temporarily), I returned in 1973 and have remained ever since (only a stones throw from Civic Gardens).
    The pictures of the family and the houses in Civic Gardens bring back happy memories.
    Many thanks for a great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was born in 28 Civic Gardens in 1955. 1 remember Mr and Mrs Beeston they lived next door to Mr and Mrs Woods who used to look after me while my mum worked. Mr and Mrs Graves lived next door to the Woods and Mr and Mrs Barber lived at no 30 and then there was our house next to the passage with the kiss gates leading to Apple Yard Cresent opposite Eustuce Road and Fungies field. I enjoyed every second and still class 28 civic gardens as my home iwould love to have the tenacy . All those familys that came and went brilliant memories everyone helped each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I recently spoke to a chap who lives in one and was there when they renovated them, apparently they stripped them back to the frames and replaced all of the bricks stronger engineering ones. You can see that they’re new (in context of course) if you take a close look. 🙂


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