Following the short career of a steam locomotive fireman.
I was fifteen years old when I joined my family in Northwich, after finishing my schooling in London. It was only a few weeks later when I started working as an engine cleaner at the locomotive depot. The depot was next to Northwich railway station and the entrance was via a cinder footpath from the road. Nothing remains of the depot now, having been closed and demolished to make way for housing and a car wash unit.
British Railways had many domestic properties before they started selling off their housing stocks and we had been allocated a red-brick railway cottage, in a block of four, in the Cheshire countryside. The houses were located within a triangle of railway tracks. The old London Midland and Scottish west coast main line on one side, the Cheshire Lines Committee line running up and over the LMS line, and the third was a branch line connecting the two. A passed fireman (a fireman qualified to drive when required), lived with his family at No 1. A foreman platelayer, on the top CLC line, lived with his family at number 2. We lived at number 3. A foreman platelayer, on the bottom LMS line, lived with his wife at number 4. Platelayers were the guardians of the track, carrying out the daily checks and maintenance of the track and trackside. They all had a pride in their own section and were often seen out with their scythes cutting down the rough grass and saplings on the banks, or walking the line checking the rail chairs and fishplates.
What a change it was to wake up and look out of my bedroom window at the long green at the back, with fruit trees growing, and chickens running around. The branch line ran behind the green with those huge steam locomotives going past pulling long freight trains, and beyond the tracks were fields of grazing cattle. A change indeed from the small backyard of the house we had in East London, with just a small dirt patch where a few roses, marigolds and snapdragons grew, and beyond the seven-foot brick wall at the end of the yard, the roof of the Old Locomotive Works.
On my first day at work, I reported to the office and was told to wait in the cabin for the store man. The cabin was quite spacious inside with six tables against the right-hand wall. A large gas urn was bubbling away on a bench next to a sink against the other wall. In the middle of the cabin stood a cast iron stove, in the winter it would glow red sending out enough heat to warm a cabin four times the size, but at the moment it was a resting place for someone's billycan. A door at the end led to a locker room. There were two tables in the locker room and it was used as a rest room for the engine cleaners and shed labourers. In the main room, a dozen or so enginemen sat about, some playing cards, others drinking tea and chatting.
The store man, Austin, took me to an old wheel-less carriage that was used as the clothing stores. He supplied me with the familiar bib and brace overalls, jackets, and the plastic topped hat. He then introduced me to the other cleaners in the back room of the cabin who were just finishing their morning break and after a bit of banter, I went off with the lads to clean an engine.
In most industry at the time, the young new starters were often subjected to pranks and bullying. I was mostly spared from this due to my older brother being a fireman there, and more so, due to my father being a driver. Fireman did not want to upset a driver because there would be times when they would work a train together and the driver could make life very hard for the fireman if he chose to do so.
To clean an engine the cleaners had to get some rags and a mixture of oil and paraffin from the stores. The oil soaked rags would be rubbed on the paintwork making sure that any thick oil deposits and grime were removed before wiping off the oil leaving the black paintwork shining. Sometimes the job is not done as it should be. I recall one time when we just smeared the locomotive with the mixture making it appear that we had done a good job. We then went to hide and play cards in a very old carriage on the back road. The carriage had been converted into the locomotive fitters' call out wagon with one of the compartments still having the seats and central table. Eventually, the engine we had pretended to clean went out on the local tripper and on its first trip back it was covered in dandelion seeds which had stuck to the oil. The foreman was not very happy with us and gave us a hard time for the rest of the week.
Cleaners were sometimes used for knocking-up. That is getting on the depot bicycle and delivering slips for change of duty, rest day work, etc. It was not a bad job but could get tedious, especially if you had one call at the converted army huts in the old Marbury Camp and another in the neighbouring town of Winsford. Marbury camp was built in the grounds of Marbury Hall. It was an army camp before later becoming a prisoner of war camp. After the war, the huts were converted for local housing use. It must have been a unique environment to live in the grounds of the hall and its nearby lake. The hall itself, said to be haunted by the Marbury Lady, was taken over by the local council after the war. It was allowed to become derelict and was eventually demolished. This decision by the local council members was considered by many to be a disgrace and it was surely a great loss to the area.
Cleaners were also used as labourers if there was too much work for the shed labourers to do. It was good to go labouring as the rate of pay was almost double that of engine cleaning. Most of the time when labouring you would be shovelling ashes out of the four-foot deep ash pit between the rails up onto the trackside, and then from the trackside up onto a wagon. This job was quite unpleasant if a fire had just been dropped, all the fumes and ash would sometimes start to choke you, but it was better than cleaning and a lot of the ashes were old and damp anyway.
Another labouring job was drying the sand and filling the sand bin. The sand used to come in open trucks, it had to be shovelled up through an opening in the side of the sand shed, and then into a hopper which was built around a small furnace. When the sand dried, a trap was opened at the bottom and the sand ran out into a barrow, it was then wheeled round to the engine shed and shovelled into a bin ready for the firemen to fill the engine sandboxes on each side of the engine, before leaving the shed. The sand was used to give extra grip under the locomotive driving wheels, to prevent them slipping when pulling away and giving extra grip when braking. The sanders were controlled by a valve in the cab: a steam jet caused a vacuum in the sand pipe, drawing the sand into the pipe and forcibly blowing it out under the tread of the driving wheels.
Finally there was another labouring job, usually on the afternoon or night shift. If a coal stage worker did not turn up for work the shed firemen and labourers could and usually would refuse to cover for them, so it was left to the cleaners. This often happened on a Friday or Saturday, when a coal stage worker was 'not well' in one of the local public houses.
The job involved coal being shovelled out of trucks into square bins which were then lifted by crane and tipped into the tenders by the shed men. You could have an easy day if there were not many engines about, but most of the time they would be lined up one after the other and it was very hard work.
I was also getting to know the young people outside work. My Brother took me to meet his friends at the Bridge Cafe in the Bull Ring. It was quite a popular place for the local teenagers, as was the coffee bar further up the town, with both places staying open until late at night. My first cup of milky coffee sat on the table with a skin forming on the top. I lifted the cup to my mouth and felt the slimy skin on my lips, not knowing what it was I spat the lot onto the floor. I was highly embarrassed because there was a group of local girls in there who thought it was hilarious. I soon got to know all the regulars in the Bridge Cafe, especially Jackie. I had, of course, kissed girls before, but only brief kisses. Jackie showed me what a proper passionate kiss was and it blew my socks off.
I started my two week railway holidays. A friend of mine worked on a farm at Shipbrook; he said it was a good job and he could get me a start there. It would give me a bit more cash over my holiday and who knows, if I liked it I could leave the railway and continue to work there. It was quite a long cycle ride from my house to the farm and seemed worse going home after a twelve hour day. The first job after milking the cows was cleaning all the cow shit from the hard standing and loading it into the rota-spreader. The pigsty needed mucking out and worst of all was the clearing of conveyors under the battery hens, which gave off a serious acidy smell. We had two short breaks a day in a small shed which was used for storage of farm items. We had to bring our own sandwiches, but the farmer would bring in a pot of tea.
I was asked if I could drive a tractor and I said I could, even though I had never been in one. It turned out to be like a carry on farming film. The farmer sent me out to drive the tractor pulling the harrow on one of the fields. There was a pond in the middle of the field and the farmer told me to keep away from it because the ground around it was a bit soft and boggy. I thought I knew best and went too close and down went one of the driving wheels. Try as I may, I could not get it out so I walked back across the field and got the other tractor and drove it over to pull the first one out. Yes, that got stuck as well so I had to go and tell the farmer. He was not at all pleased and had to borrow a tractor from the next farm to pull them both out. My next trip out with the tractor was pulling a heavy roller over one of the fields, and I had to drive slowly to do the job properly. I had it half done when it started to rain, so I knocked it up a couple of gears and sped around the field, but the farmer had been watching and when I got back he made me go out and do it again, in the rain. I also went out with the rotavator spreader a few times and had no trouble with that, except for the time when I got back to the farmyard and sped round a corner straight into the combine harvester. That didn't go down too well, but there was not much damage. The same day the bull escaped from the pen and was running my way. The farmer shouted for me to stop him and shoo him back towards the pen. Yeah, I'm gonna do that. I side stepped into the barn and let the beast run past, pursued by the fuming farmer.
After work Saturday I got my pay for six full twelve hour days of hard work. I would have suffered another week, but the pay was less than I got for five eight-hour days as an engine cleaner, so there ended my farming career.
Things were going well though, at the locomotive depot I was earning good money, one of my favourite pop groups, The Hollies, was heading up the charts for the number one spot with I'm Alive, and there was this attractive girl who always waved to me from the Broadhurst factory bus. One evening I ran into the girl and her younger sister at the visiting fairground. Both of them were, bubbly, red-heads and although I fancied the older one, Jane, with a passion. I was thinking of asking her sister out because Jane was eighteen and I was not yet sixteen so I wasn't sure she'd be seriously interested. Jane asked me to go on the big wheel with her because her sister was too scared. I jumped at the chance, thinking while we were alone I could ask her to fix me up with her sister. So, I'm sitting on a ride with a girl that I fancy like mad, and I ask her if I can take her sister to the pictures the following night. She gave me a strange look of disbelief and then smiled. "Wouldn't you rather take me?" she asked. Could life get any better?
I was sent along with two other cleaners to the firing school at the locomotive depot in Speke, Liverpool. There were also three other cleaners on the course; two from Birkenhead and one from Edge Hill. The course was interesting, but we all had fears that the amount of information we had to take in would make the final written examination difficult. No multi-choice exams in those days. We had to learn all about how a steam engine works and all the working parts, not only from the firing side, but also all the driver's controls and how they worked: how to check and test all the controls and how to change a broken gauge glass: how to maintain an efficient firebed: procedures for booking on and preparing the locomotive: procedures for disposal of the locomotive: then we had to learn all the railway signals and the hand/lamp signals from the guards and shunters including audible signals: the different sections on the main line and how they were controlled: all the different procedures when stopped at a signal: protection of the train and other running lines in an emergency including the usage and spacing of detonators: wrong line running orders and single line working.
Two weeks later we took the test and all but one of us passed. We were not yet graded as firemen; we were passed cleaners, which meant that although we were still engine cleaners we were available for firing duties if required. We were, of course, eager to do firing work; not only because it was a vastly more interesting job, but also because the firing rate of pay was more than double the cleaning rate.