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Bernard Holden devoted his life to railways: as a manager with the Southern and British Railways; operating trains close to the Japanese front line during the Burma campaign; and helping save the Bluebell Railway, a heritage steam line in Sussex.
When British Rail closed the Lewes-East Grinstead route in 1958, four students called a meeting at Haywards Heath to launch what became the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society. Holden, the BR executive they contacted, encouraged them and was invited to chair the meeting, emerging to lead the project for half a century. His support, expertise and connections were vital, as BR had to be convinced of the group’s viability, professionalism and commitment to safety.
In August 1960, steam trains ran again between Sheffield Park, which became the line’s southern terminus, and a makeshift halt outside Horsted Keynes station. Bluebell trains reached Horsted two years later and Kingscote, nine miles north of Sheffield Park, in 1994.
Holden was involved in several capacities — first as signalling engineer, then superintendent and finally president — over this steadily expanding railway. It now attracts 170,000 visitors each year, has a turnover exceeding £3 million, a core of full-time staff, 700 volunteers and 10,000 members, three Victorian stations and an award-winning collection of historic locomotives, carriages and wagons.
His long-term goal was to reconnect with East Grinstead. Approvals were gained in the 1980s and the line reinstated in stages. The final hurdle was a cutting south of the town which the local council had filled with 300,000 cubic metres of rubbish.
In 2006 the track reached the tip, and the Bluebell began raising the £5.3 million needed to complete the line to a terminus beside East Grinstead station. In 2008 Holden watched the diggers move in, writing: “Having served the Bluebell Railway and fathered its progress for so long, it is my dearest wish to see this gap bridged.” He lived to see the cutting almost cleared, and a special train was planned for him as soon as the track was in place.
To mark his centenary, a special train did run on March 28, 2008 for Holden — immaculate in dark suit and bowler hat — after he had inspected 70 fellow Burma veterans at Sheffield Park. Instead of reversing at Kingscote as he had expected, the train continued over the unopened portion of the extension. Its return came 50 years to the minute since the final service on the original line.
Bernard Holden was born in the station house at Barcombe – on a section of the Bluebell that does not survive – on March 15, 1908. His father was stationmaster; the family had been connected with the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway since 1840, when his great-grandfather began work at its wharf at Shoreham.
When Bernard was four his father moved to Steyning station. All the family’s furniture moved by train; he remembered the piano being winched into their new home through the window.
Holden joined the Southern Railway from Steyning grammar school in 1925 as a ballast train clerk and studied signalling and transport law. When war broke out he was moved to Croydon to supervise the evacuation of children from London, then to Redhill, were he controlled trains bringing home evacuees from Dunkirk; 865 trains passed through in 10 days.
During the Blitz, Holden plotted routes for trains round the bomb craters. At one point the only way to reach London from the south was to take a train to Balham, then the Tube; every other line was blocked. In June 1941 he reported to Longmoor Military Railway and was posted to 191 Rail Operations Company RE, which sailed to Bombay via Cape Town. Arriving at Lalmanirhat in East Bengal, his troops were called out after locals reportedly set fire to the station – only to find a religious procession with fireworks.
With the Japanese advancing, Holden was detailed to reconnoitre the 300-mile line to the northern tip of Assam, finding occasional evidence of sabotage. He then had to unload and shunt trains at Calcutta docks when local staff fled after an air raid.
He was sent to Dehra Dun to be commissioned into the Indian Army, and trained for jungle warfare. In January 1944 he was posted to 159 Indian Railway Operating Company and given responsibility for the Akhaura-Lumding line over the Naga Hills, carrying troops and supplies for the Front running parallel to it, and stone for new airfields. He faced spongy ground, steep gradients, sabotage, malaria, landslips and elephants which sometimes charged the train.
In March 1944 Vera Lynn came to Shamsheernugger airfield to entertain the troops before the Battle of Kohima, in which the Japanese were prevented from entering India. Holden never forgot her courage and her contribution to morale; they became lifelong friends, and she wrote the foreword to his book Let Smoke Make Steam.
In July 1945 Holden joined 8 Indian Engineers Railway group as adjutant to prepare for the invasion of Malaya. After VJ day he was ordered to restore that country’s railways, but within weeks was ordered back to India and discharged a captain.
He reported back to Redhill and resumed his civilian railway career, seeing in nationalisation with the Eastern and Western Regions as well as the Southern. Retiring in 1972, he devoted himself to the Bluebell.
He was appointed MBE in 1992 for services to railway preservation, the Queen urging him, then 84, to “keep up the good work”. And indeed he was active president of the Bluebell to the end. His great ambition to see it reconnected with the main line at East Grinstead is due to be realised next year, with the scheduled start of services in March.
Bernard Holden’s wife, Lilian, predeceased him. He is survived by their two sons.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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