He travelled to school on horse and cart, helped transport Fen produce by rail and witnessed plane crashes - Former rural railway man dies aged 103

A former railway man who often shared his memories of rural life in the Fens near Ely has died aged 103.

Harry Bye lived in Shippea Hill for most of his life and worked at the station until his retirement in 1981.

He travelled to school by horse and cart, grew up drinking boiled dyke water and saw a steam locomotive transport produce on the estate he lived and worked on.

Also fascinated by aviation, Mr Bye cycled miles to watch air shows where he would spend up to a third of his weekly wages for a flying trip in a plane.

Born in 1917, Mr Bye spent his early childhood on a racing stud near Snailwell.

The estate served his father a month’s notice after a district nurse reported water was passing through the family’s front door to the Sanitary Inspector.

They packed their belongings to start a new life in a nine-roomed farmhouse on the Chivers estate at Shippea Hill.

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Mr Bye described Shippea Hill School as strict and someone had the cane most days. As the heating was inefficient, children were taken outside for drill to warm up.

When older, Mr Bye was later responsible for the horses, pigs and cattle on the Chivers estate,

It had its own shop, chapel, school, tennis court as well as a football and cricket team.

The estate mainly produced chicory and peppermint. Everything was transported by horses and wagons before the estate’s steam locomotive was introduced.

Mr Bye left Chivers’ for a new job as a porter at Shippea Hill Railway Station. In 1977, he was promoted to signalman.

When the station was declared the country’s last used in 2016, Mr Bye told The Guardian newspaper: “I used to climb up the signals and fill the lamps.

“It was still all steam trains then, and there’d be a lot of shunting in the yard.

“We had two freight trains leave a day. We’d call them the Shippea Hills.

“I’ve seen 35 trucks of cauliflowers go away on the train, and there used to be celery and potatoes – all of it.”

At an air show in Littleport, he witnessed a parachutist became tangled in the plane’s propellor as he jumped out of the aircraft.

The pilot even tried a loop-the-loop in a desperate attempt to release the 21-year-old parachutist - but he was killed when they crash-landed in a nearby field.

When recalling the incident, Mr Bye said: “The unhappy incident happened 70 years ago, but I can still remember seeing the helpless man in white swinging from the tail of that plane.”

Mr Bye married his late wife Florence, who everyone knew as Bertha in 1940.

Two days after D-Day in 1945, a B17 Flying Fortress plane came straight towards her.

Mr Bye said: “She witnessed the bomber so low the propellers were cutting the newly-formed ears of wheat and they were spraying both sides of the plane.

“My son, then nearly two years old, can remember that the silver plane rose over the house as he was in the back yard, then with all its engines running it turned over and spun into a field opposite on Plantation Farm and burst into flames.”

Mr Bye was then a member of the National Fire Service and rushed towards the crash but fell flat on the field when machine gun ammunition and bombs on board the aircraft started exploding.

“There was wreckage spraying all around, some must have passed over my head”, he remembered.

For Bertha, it was a huge relief when he arrived home.

The family continued to live at Shippea Hill, though in December 1983 he wrote a letter to the Cambridge News describing how the community was changing.

He wrote: “The nearest shop is 4½ miles away at Prickwillow and the school is due to close with the children bussed to Littleport.

“To get to the doctor’s surgery people have to take the train from Shippea Hill station to Ely.”

“There is no village hall, no church, chapel, nor even a post office. It hasn’t a pub anymore and there are no clubs.

“Is it any wonder that half the people living in the council houses want to change homes I am looking forward to a move when suitable accommodation is found in Ely.”

Mr Bye later moved to Vera James House in Ely.

Throughout his life, he shared his memories with Fenland history societies and contributed towards a booklet titled “A Life in the Fens” which was issued by the Littleport Society in 2006.

Mr Bye died on Monday, October 5 2020. Mr and the late Mrs Bye had two sons, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

A few days before he died, a new great granddaughter was born.

A private funeral service will be held at St George’s Church, Littleport. Donations for Dementia UK are welcome.

• This feature is based on a piece by Fenland historian Mike Petty. For more local history stories, join the Fenland History on Facebook group.