IT’S half a century since steam trains disappeared from the London to Weymouth line.

In the last years of steam on British Railways’ Southern Region, Paul Cooper was often by the side of the line taking pictures.

He recorded the famous Pullman train the Bournemouth Belle, as well as expresses and stopping trains to Southampton, Weymouth, and other destinations in the south west.

In a new book, Southern Steam Swansong, he shares many of those pictures, as well as some recently discovered shots.

The book is a collection of more than 250 photographs from 1964-67, 187 of them in colour and ninety per cent never previously published.

The photographs are supported by extended captions and the book contains a wealth of detail about the operation of the railways in the last years of steam.

Mr Cooper recalls that he was 16 years old at the start of 1967.

“In the past, I have penned and illustrated the occasional magazine article on the fifth, 25th, 35th and 40th anniversaries," he writes.

“However, to be able to produce a 176-book this time rather than just a short article has been a real privilege and made possible by extensive use of previously unpublished pictures."

As well as his own photographs, he has assembled a raft of other people's shots, including the remarkable work of Ken Vernon.

Mr Vernon, who died aged 83 in 2011, left behind a collection of pictures taken with a top-of-the range Rolleiflex 2.8F. The high quality images were taken on large format Kodak Ektachrome slide film, with vivid colours and the level of detail afforded by an image size more than four times larger than 35mm film.

Many of Mr Vernon’s photographs were accompanied only by the occasional pencilled note, but he also left behind a collection of railway tickets – and Mr Cooper did the detective work necessary to work out where and when the photos were taken.

There are also half a dozen other contributors with photos in the book.

“The rationale of the book is to provide a celebration of the last three years or so of steam working, with the photos illustrating a variety of locations to show steam in everyday use along with the many special enthusiast trains in those declining years,” writes Mr Cooper.

As the end of steam drew near, railway lovers made the most of opportunities to see the locomotives in service.

In the last weeks of operations, Mr Cooper notes that there were several “exceptional runs” on newly upgraded lines, on which the speed limit was to be raised to 100mph.

“With the dying moments for steam, many engine men were looking for their last fling, encouraged by the many enthusiasts filling the front coaches and corridors,” he writes.

“No 35003 Royal Mail at the head of the 18.15 Weymouth-Waterloo on June 26 1967 covered the 3.3 miles between Winchfield and Fleet in 1min 56sec at an average of 102.4mph and achieved a peak of 106mph through Fleet, admittedly with a load of only five vehicles or 170 tons.”

The Bournemouth Belle service, an institution since 1931, was by now mainly hauled by diesel engines, but it was pulled by steam locomotives again on July 3 and 5.

On July 8, the penultimate day of steam operation, a driver working his last shift got out of his engine at Bournemouth station sporting a top hat. He crossed the track to the shed to a cacophony of whistling.

On the final day of steam, the failure of a diesel engine meant that the Merchant Navy class steam locomotive 35030 Elder Dempster Lines hauled the 2.07pm Weymouth to Waterloo service, crewed by driver Hardy and fireman Smith of Bournemouth. It arrived 10 minutes early at Waterloo.

The 18-year-old locomotive was the last Merchant Navy to be built. That day, it became the final one to leave Waterloo – not to return to Bournemouth, but driven down the local line by Jim Evans, ready to be withdrawn from service.

Locomotives from across the region were being sent to Salisbury, the dispersal point for a redundant steam fleet that was largely sold to a scrap merchants in South Wales. Railway enthusiasts would be forever grateful for the fact that many were not scrapped promptly, giving volunteers the opportunity to buy some back for restoration.

And while this is a book almost entirely of pictures from 1964-67, the final images are heartening shots from this year – Bulleid Pacifics back working on Swanage Railway.

* Southern Steam Swansong by Paul Cooper is published by Crecy ( at £27.50. All photos on this spread are from the book.