How it Happened

There are several similarities between Uncle John’s Yard and my previous layout, Doxfords Light Railway. They’re both set in my home town of Sunderland, both have a family connection and both started because I couldn’t resist buying a loco!

In this case the trigger was the N Gauge Society releasing a Hunslet diesel shunter, a lovely looking model which I couldn’t resist. There are several liveries available but I naturally went for the NCB NE Division version. For technical reasons it probably wouldn’t run on the DLR and the other layout I’ve been working on is in the South West so it needed a new idea. A photo on the Sunderland Antiquarian Society page on Facebook gave me an idea; the photo shows a train crossing the bridge on Chester Road. I remember the bridge, although it’s long been demolished the parapets are still in place. A bit of research, including finding the same photo in my copy of Railscenes Around Sunderland, revealed that the line over the bridge was part of the Hetton Colliery Railway system and I thought it would make a good static scene.

I happened to mention this to my Dad over a beer and he casually commented that “Uncle John’s coal-yard was by the bridge.” At the time I had no more information than that but it prompted some further research. I was able to find that the yard was owned by John Thompson and Sons, coal merchants who had their main depot (also on the HCR) in Railway Row near the town centre. I was able to find details of this Thompson family which could have given a link to the Thompsons in my ancestry. It did, but not in the way I expected. My brother is our family historian and he identified the Uncle John referred to as my Great Great Uncle John Marshall who was a coal-yard manager. During a conversation he mentioned that John married Dorothy Trobe Dix in 1921. Matching names can be a red herring in genealogy but when you have a name like Trobe you know there can’t be too many of them, and I’d noticed that name when looking at the coal-yard Thompsons. It didn’t take too long from there to find the link.

John Thompson, at the top right, was the founder of the company. His youngest son, Luke, took over and was also twice an MP for Sunderland as well as being knighted. He married Ann Trobe Potts who had a sister, Mary Harrison Potts. Mary’s daughter with her husband Harry Dix was the Dorothy that married Uncle John. One would therefore assume that John Marshall got the manager’s job through the family connection. My Grand Mother is the Elizabeth (Betty) Thompson at the bottom left of the diagram, as far as we now there is no connection between the Thompsons on opposite sides of the tree.

Examining old maps showed that the coal-yard had its own siding from the HCR so of course my focus shifted to whether I could make a diorama of that instead of the bridge. I decided I could, and it would be easy enough to add extensions to make it a running layout.