A tribute to renowned photographer Colin Garratt
Colin’s determination knew no bounds. He travelled widely to track down and record steam traction in all corners of the globe and was, without doubt, one of the great railway photographers of the 20th century.
I had the good fortune to know Colin for 40 years. We first met in the late 1970s, shortly after the formation of the British Overseas Railways Historical Society, which later became a charitable trust.
He was always a keen supporter of the trust’s activities, and was especially pleased when we saved former North Western Railway, later Pakistan Railways ‘SPS’ 4‑4‑0 No. 3157; it was a class he knew well from his travels and it is now housed in the Science & Industry Museum, Manchester.
Born near Leicester on August 16 1940, he would cycle around the area in the post‑war era looking for railways and vantage points from which to observe them. The routine signal to return home for supper was the appearance of an LMS Garratt 2‑6‑2+2‑6‑2 hauling a long train of coal wagons, en route from the East Midlands to London.
Colin would often travel to faraway places on the British railway network, using cheap football special tickets, but on arrival at the destination he’d head for the local locomotive sheds, while everyone else headed for the match.
During his teens, he worked for British Railways as a clerk at Leicester Midland locomotive shed, where he would be allowed onto the footplate for occasional rides along the Midland Main Line.
One story he often related to me concerned a former London Tilbury & Southend Railway 4‑4‑2 tank engine at Leicester shed, that was only used in emergencies and was only steamed once a year for test purposes.
This machine was referred to by the shed staff as ‘Mrs Simpson’, a reference to King Edward VIII’s mistress, later the Duchess of Windsor, who never went out. Steaming this locomotive was referred to as ‘exercising Mrs Simpson’.
In the early 1960s, he decided to start a photographic career and chose the imminent demise of steam traction on railways, both home and abroad, as his target subject.
Over 40 years, he travelled to all parts of the world seeking out interesting and often rare examples of steam locomotives still at work. The expeditions were funded through an arrangement with Agfa, the well‑known German film company, which encouraged up and coming photographers with such sponsorships in the 1960s and 1970s.
From the Seventies onwards, he organised audio/video shows of his work, which attracted huge audiences and introduced the general public to an aspect of Britain’s railway history that they had perhaps not considered before: that of the ‘British Overseas Railway’ – the vast amount of track mileage constructed across the globe by British engineers and overseas railway companies.
He also displayed considerable flair and imagination: he used flash guns on many occasions to capture sparks being emitted from the chimney of a Baldwin in some far flung part of the world, or took photographs from abstract angles to create what might be better described as art, rather than historical record.
He had many interesting experiences while filming steam abroad, including being arrested in several communist countries and having a run‑in with the police in Syria, where he was interrogated by a senior policeman, who could not understand how anyone could be interested in old steam locomotives, but still offered him mint tea and hard‑boiled sweets!
He was released when the policeman realised he was just a harmless, ‘mad English person’, with a funny interest in steam locomotives.
Some of his later trips took him to more remote places, such as the expedition to Alaska to find the former New York Elevated Railroad Forney 0‑4‑4Ts that had been purchased by a mining company during a gold rush and abandoned on the shore of a lake in the early 1900s, along with a quantity of rolling stock.
There was also the trip to the Azores to find and photograph the two British‑ constructed broad gauge locomotives, once used on the harbour system there.
One of the strangest stories he told me was of a Manchester‑constructed Beyer Peacock 4‑6‑0 tender locomotive in Argentina which was used in a naval dockyard and was out of bounds to anyone outside the military. Colin managed, after protracted negotiations, to be allowed to photograph the locomotive for an hour only, on the strict condition that the machine was stationary on sidings just outside the naval yard.
In the 1980s, he set up ‘Milepost 92 & a Half’, a photographic library of his work and that of a number of other well‑known railway photographers, including the late Reverend Mace and Henry Priestley. He worked with the late Colin Nash and Mike Freeman, who assisted in the running of the business.
It did well initially, but after rail privatisation there were fewer clients for commissioned railway photography and the library found it much harder to find new work.
Sadly, Colin suffered for many years with Parkinson’s disease and, later on, other complications, which led to his death on October 6 2018.
When the history of railway photography is written in years to come, one of the names at the top of the list will be Colin Garratt, who did so much to preserve a pictorial record of the railway.
Colin Garratt 1940-2018