A missing piece of railway history is being returned to its rightful place - thanks to cunning detective work by a retired train driver and his transport police pal.

The Manchester & Birmingham Railway plaque – a high-quality replica of the 1839 original – was erected at the new Manchester Piccadilly station in the mid-1960s.

The plaque was removed in 1998 when an upgrade began on the station. But it never reappeared when the work ended in 2002.

Eagle-eyed railway enthusiast Mel Thorley, 72, then a train driver, immediately noticed the sign was missing.

Mel, from Stockport, Greater Manchester, never gave up hope and in August 2019, 17 years after his pursuit began, he spotted a curious eBay listing.

The missing plaque was up for sale for £3,700. The sales blurb recommended a forklift to load it on to a truck on collection from a location in Nottinghamshire.

Mel said: “When I spotted it on eBay I couldn’t believe my eyes. I checked with Dave, my ex-copper friend, who said ‘I know that plaque. It’s the missing one!’

“I hoped nobody else recognised the artefact’s significance because I didn’t want it to go missing for another 20 years, or for eBay to remove it.”

Mel’s friend, retired British Transport Police (BTP) officer Dave Smith, also 72, contacted the National Railway Museum in York, who confirmed they had the original 1839 plaque.

This made clear for Dave and Mel, who both used to work at Manchester Piccadilly, that there were in fact two such plaques, the second of which was the missing one they’d just discovered.

Mel sent emails to alert people in the know, including Railway Magazine. The magazine had previously run a piece from Lord Faulkner of Worcester, co-chair of the Railway Heritage Designation Advisory Board (RHDAB), requesting readers keep their eyes peeled for interesting railway artefacts. These included any designated artefacts protected by law under the Railway Heritage Act and found to have gone missing.

Chris Milner, editor of Railway Magazine, contacted Lord Faulkner, also president of the Railway Heritage Association. He brought in Sir Peter Hendy, chairman of Network Rail, and together they asked BTP for help.

A few weeks later, on 12 September, the plaque was retrieved by BTP, citing Network Rail as the item’s rightful owner. Plans are now afoot for the historic sign to be brought home to Manchester Piccadilly station.

Mel added: “I’m chuffed. My mission is now complete.”

The opening of the Manchester & Birmingham Railway in 1839 marked the inter-city railway’s first steps south towards London. This followed the opening of the world’s first inter-city railway in 1830 between Liverpool and Manchester railway.

Lord Faulkner said: “Recovery of this precious artefact is terrific news and casts tremendous credit on the BTP, Mel Thorley and Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy. I will now recommend to the RHDAB that the plaque be designated and protected by law.”

Detective Sergeant Gemma Jones, of BTP, said: “This historic plaque went missing 20 years ago, so retrieving evidence and knowledge of the incident was no easy task. The team, alongside Network Rail, secured the plaque and we now look forward to seeing it displayed at Manchester Piccadilly.”

Tim Shoveller, managing director of Network Rail’s North West and Central region, said: “Thank you to Mel, Dave and others for hunting down our missing plaque. We will get it cleaned up, painted and put back up where it belongs, at Manchester Piccadilly, as soon as possible.”

Sir Peter Hendy added: “The railway family, including persistent and knowledgeable people like Mel and Dave, has eyes and ears everywhere.”