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SOUTH DEVON RAILWAY Dave Knowling 1939-2017
Dave Knowling at home on the footplate of 78019
Photo © JBrodribb

Dave Knowling died at home late on the evening of Saturday 23rd December 2017 following complications from his recent treatment for œsophageal cancer. Deepest sympathies and condolences go to his wife Sue and all the members of his family from everyone at the South Devon Railway.

Dave, who had celebrated his 78th birthday earlier this year, joined British Railways at Laira deport, Plymouth, in July 1954. Within a year he had become a passed cleaner and done his first footplate turn. This marked the start of an unsurpassed career spent entirely on the footplate of steam locomotives. He spent time at Slough and Old Oak Common in London, before transferring back to Devon in November 1959, this time to the Southern shed at Plymouth Friary. When Friary closed he transferred back to Laira, but was made redundant in July 1966. He then started work at English China Clays at Marsh Mills, but also started volunteering on the fledgling Dart Valley Railway at Buckfastleigh. He was taken on to the full time staff in 1968 and fired the first public train when the line reopened at Easter 1969.

Dave with the Bere Alston train staff
Photo © JBrodribb

The rest, as they say, is history, and Dave worked for the Dart Valley and then the South Devon Railway Trust after it took over the Buckfastleigh line in 1991. He retired in 2004, but continued to drive one day a week until October of this year. The photo of Dave on the footplate of 78019 was taken at Buckfastleigh in May 2012, and with the Gunnislake train staff in June 2015.

Santa by Steam train arriving at Buckfastleigh with a wreath in honour of Dave Photo © 2017JBrodribb

The final Santa Special service left Buckfastleigh on Sunday 24th December at about 12.30pm, and instead of the customary “Santa by Steam” headboard, carried a wreath in memory of Dave. The train is seen on its return to Buckfastleigh.

Dave’s knowledge and experience of steam locomotives was unrivalled, but he also had a passionate interest in the history of Dartmoor and industrial archæology. He leaves a huge gap in the ranks of South Devon Railway volunteers, and will be very greatly missed.

Funeral 15th January 2018

Dave Knowling’s funeral was held on Monday 15th January. It was a very sad occasion, not least for his family, who had gone to huge lengths to organise the day.

It started at Buckfastleigh station just before 10.00am when the hearse arrived. Dave’s body was in a wicker coffin, and was carried by his four children to the gate onto the platform, where pall bearers from the South Devon Railway took over. They conveyed him to the waiting train, where he was placed in first class brake coach No 17015, immediately behind locomotive 6412. This carried a headboard with the legend “Dave Knowling 1939 – 2017” and whose coal had been whitewashed. The use of this engine was particularly poignant because Dave fired it on the very first train of the heritage era when the Line reopened at Easter 1969. The route from the hearse to 17015 was lined – two deep in places – with volunteers and staff from every department of the railway.

Guard of honour at Buckfastleigh
The footplate crew: Colin Harmes and Rodney Cox
Photos © JBrodribb
Dave’s funeral train passes Hood Bridge
Photo © CWallace

Alan Taylor was the guard of the five coach train which included auto coach 233 and buffet car 1917. The latter did a roaring trade serving teas and coffees. Departing on time at 10.15, the train slowed to pass through Staverton, where a large number of the station’s volunteer force stood in silent tribute with heads bowed.

The Guard of Honour at Staverton
Photo © IBowyer

It continued on to Totnes Riverside, where again the platform was lined with volunteers from both the South Devon Railway and Totnes Rare Breeds Farm. Rev David Hardy had arrived via the main line connection, and spoke using the train’s public address system. The Totnes photos show the train arriving – the buffers were quartered both ends – and Colin Harmes replacing Chris Bowden’s headboard for the return journey. Note the whitewashed coal.

Colin Harmes moves Dave’s headboard at Totnes
Photo © JBrodribb

The return journey was broken by a short stop at Pixie Falls, a short distance on the Buckfastleigh side of Waterworks Crossing at Woodville. Dave Knowling was well known for tending the colony of gnomes there, and during his time volunteering at the Rare Breeds Farm established a Gnomic outpost there. All the gnomes waved farewell. At Staverton the volunteers were again lined up along the platform as the train passed.

On return to Buckfastleigh many staff and volunteers were again on hand to line the platform as Dave was taken off the train. This time his pall bearers took him to the Ashburton end of the platform to set alongside the engine. His wife Sue stepped onto the footplate, and blew the whistle long and loud one last time for him.

By this time the Big Red Bus was ready to leave with its first load of passengers going up to Holy Trinity church. Dave was returned to the hearse waiting on the station forecourt, which eventually departed for Holy Trinity at about 12.45, followed by the bus on its third trip. Incidentally, it only took two loads back – its easier walking downhill!

The Big Red Bus on Buckfastleigh forecourt
Photo © JBrodribb

For those not familiar with Holy Trinity, it was the parish church of Buckfastleigh until it was burnt out in an arson attack in 1980. The bell tower remains in use, but the main part of the building is completely open to the elements, and has no facilities at all. The family had hired 250 chairs for the event, which were almost all taken, with many people having to stand throughout. Dave was brought in through the tower and laid in front of the altar. SDR driver Mark Ireland had brought his organ and public address system, and played for the hymns, and also the records that Dave had chosen. He arrived and departed to the strains of Elvis Presley: in to Memories, and out to Mystery Train and The Wonder of You. During the service moving tributes were paid by members of his family, and South Devon Railway volunteers recounted episodes from his railway career. Rev Gordon Davies took the service: he oversees the Methodist circuit that includes Buckfastleigh, and is also the South Devon Railway’s chaplain. The photo shows the church and congregation soon after Dave arrived, and is taken from the tower end.

Holy Trinity church, Buckfastleigh
Photo © JBrodribb

Dave was interred in the churchyard at Holy Trinity, with a view stretching way over Dartmoor. Just as the committal was being delivered the steam locomotives – L.92 and 6412 – delivered one final blast on their whistles, a fitting tribute to a great engineman, a passionate student of Dartmoor, its people and its archæology, and above all, a wonderful family man. At that very moment the sun broke through the clouds and shone on the people gathered to say their final farewell.

The Big Red Bus then shuttled people back to the station Refreshment Rooms where a splendid buffet had been laid on. There were a lot of tears and a lot of laughter: Dave will be remembered for very many years to come.

A final word about the weather. It rained. Then it rained some more, and after that it rained again. It was a truly memorable occasion throughout, from Dave’s last trip on the South Devon Railway, a very moving service at Holy Trinity, and afterwards to the wake. Dave went out in real style – a very fitting farewell.

A huge Thank You to all the people involved in arranging the day, not least all the many members of Dave’s family who showed amazing organising skills, resourcefulness and integrity throughout. There were many, many people in the SDR who contributed, both up front and behind the scenes. It was particularly heartening to see volunteers and staff from almost every corner of the railway come together to pay tribute to Dave on the day.

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© South Devon Railway Association 2017

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