Charles Swift, local politician and railway worker who twice drove the Queen’s train – obituary
Charles Swift, who died aged 92, was a councilor in Peterborough for 62 years – considered a UK record – until his retirement in 2016; he was leader of the council for nearly two decades and the city’s youngest mayor in 1961.
Elected for the Labor Party at the age of 23 in 1954 while Churchill was still Prime Minister, Swift – a locomotive driver and Salvationist – broke with the party in 1992 and served for another quarter century as a independent.
He met the Queen five times in her civic capacity and drove her train twice – a squire then tipping him £10. He was appointed OBE in 1985.
Swift played a leading role in the expansion of Peterborough in the 1960s and 1970s as a member of the Peterborough Development Corporation. It made its mark nationally in 1972 when the city was one of the first to welcome Asian refugees from Uganda, providing 50 social housing units. Swift and her family received death threats, but the arrangement proved successful.
In his day, Peterborough welcomed waves of immigrants, with Swift coming under fire from the British National Party. But he felt the arrival of thousands of Poles and other Eastern Europeans under Tony Blair’s government was too big for the city to cope with.
He also showed his independent spirit as a member of the train drivers’ union Aslef. In 1982, when the union called its members to strike against British Rail’s plans for a flexible alignment, Swift sent a telegram to its general secretary, Ray Buckton, demanding that it be called off immediately.
Quoted with relish by Conservative Transport Minister Reginald Eyre, he said: “The majority of the 24,000 members are totally opposed to the strike and deeply disturbed by your actions. Men are misled and their loyalty is tested beyond endurance.
Swift’s break from Labor has been variously attributed to her concerns about the party’s growing centralization and local activists’ mistrust of her willingness to work with Peterborough Conservative MP Brian Mawhinney.
Representing the North Borough of Peterborough throughout, Swift immersed himself in the community, estimating he attended the funerals of 1,700 constituents. “If people showed up at his door with nothing, he invited them in,” recalls his son Paul. “He would allow them to bathe, feed them and give them a bed for one night.”
Charles William Swift was born in Ossett in Yorkshire on July 2, 1930. The family moved south, young Charlie arriving in Peterborough on VE Day with his mother Maud on a removals trolley.
Swift went to work for the London & North Eastern Railway in the Peterborough shed in New England, progressing from cleaner to firefighter to driver. He had the privilege of pulling Sir Nigel Gresley’s A4 Pacific Mallard, which in 1938 had set the world steam speed record of 126 mph. Made Freeman of Peterborough in 1984, he was shown a model of the locomotive with the tender fitted to accommodate the volute. He retired from the railways in 1993, just before they were privatized.
Swift’s mother became a Labor councilor and in 1954 he won her seat to become, at 23, the council’s youngest member. Aged 30, he was elected mayor of Peterborough. He was leader of the council for three spells totaling nearly 20 years and after his split with Labor was consistently re-elected as an independent.
He was a former chairman of Peterborough United FC; vice-president of the Nene Valley Heritage Railway, which he helped save; and governor of Fulbridge Academy for even longer than he was a councillor. At home he raised chickens.
Swift is survived by his wife Brenda, whom he married in 1956, as well as four sons and a daughter.
Charles Swift, born July 2, 1930, died August 16, 2022