Promoted from Cleaner to Passed Cleaner.
We soon started our third man duties on the steam locomotives. Third man duties are in service training on the local trippers and the fireman is there to show you the job. There were two trippers at Northwich with two shifts, morning and afternoon, working each one. The trippers could do three trips in a shift and although classed as local work, they pulled full trainloads up the bank and were worked by Class 8, Stanier 2-8-0 tender engines. One worked from Northwich sidings up over the River Weaver viaduct, and then just before Hartford & Greenbank Station the line branched off to the right, climbed over the Chester Road Bridge and dropped down into Oakleigh sidings.
The other tripper worked from Northwich sidings, up the arches, passing through Greenbank, before branching right at Hartford Junction. It then continued past the gardens of the cottages where I lived and on to Wallerscote sidings, which were situated adjacent to the main line from London to Scotland.
Either of the trip engines could be used as a banking engine, giving assistance to the limestone hopper trains by pushing them up the gradient to Oakleigh. Wallerscote hopper trains did not need a banker, but due to the curve and gradient into Oakleigh some assistance was needed with the hopper trains running there. The banker would come up behind the hopper train standing in the platform at Northwich Station, but would not be coupled to the train. When it had pushed the train up the arches and round the curve, the bank engine would drop away and return to Northwich.
At this point I suppose I should describe how a steam engine works, so you will get an idea of what a fireman's job entails.
To power a steam engine, coal is burned in a firebox producing gases (mainly carbon dioxide). These gases then heat water in a boiler to produce steam. If the mixture of air to the fire is not correct then high levels of harmful carbon monoxide gas are produced, as well as black smoke indicating a wasteful loss of available heat. The distinctive dome on top of the engine is the highest and driest part of the boiler and it houses the main internal steam pipe, the steam pipes to the auxiliary fittings in the cab and the regulator valve. When the regulator is opened by the driver's handle, steam passes through the internal pipe to the superheater header where it is dried and increased in temperature: superheated. When the steam is at high pressure it is fed into the cylinders. The steam expands and forces pistons back and forth, which turn the locomotive's wheels via a rod and crank. When the steam has done its job it is exhausted out into the atmosphere through the funnel, causing a draught through the firebox and drawing the fire.
There were two injectors on the engine. The injectors were used as a means of transferring water from the tender into the boiler. Steam was used to draw the water by creating a vacuum. The water was then propelled under steam pressure through a valve and into the boiler. One injector was a direct live steam injector. The other worked off of the exhaust steam when the locomotive was running under power, reverting to using live steam when the locomotive was not running under power. It was therefore, more practical to use the exhaust injector than the live steam injector if you could get the damn thing to work.
It was the fireman's job to maintain an efficient fire bed, maintain steam pressure, and ensure that the water level in the boiler is kept at a safe level by the use of the injectors. He would have to continually regulate the air supply to the fire via the dampers and fire doors to maintain maximum combustion efficiency.
First Firing Turn.
We would need to take another test to pass for main line work. Before the test, we could only work on local or light trains, although the rule could be passed over if the driver agreed. I got my first firing turn straight after finishing third man duties and I signed on for the Oakleigh Tripper as if I were an old hand. I checked my engine number, 48640, and then walked round to the locomotive stores. I was issued with a firing shovel, a coal pick, a bucket of spanners which were often used as hammers to bash the clack valve (don't ask), a can of detonators, two headlamps, and a gauge-glass lamp. The lamps had to be checked for paraffin, good wicks, and a red shade because our relief could be out after dark. When I got to the engine, the driver was busily oiling the side rods. He was one of the younger drivers, but whoever had taught him his driving skills had done a good job. He was slim but well built. A quiet man, but he would stand no messing. I had worked with him on the third man duties and I exchanged the usual "Hello, mate," with him and climbed aboard.
After putting all the tools in their places and my lunch bag in the locker, I pulled the dart out of the tender and spread the fire before shovelling some more coal into the firebox. The dampers were open, the blower jet was on slightly and drawing the fire nicely. There was plenty of steam and the boiler was full. We had a good one; it looked as if the engine had just come in off of a run and had been dealt with by the shed men so it had not been at the mercy of the steam-raisers overnight. I had to get up onto the frame to make sure that the sandboxes were full, and then climb the steps to the back of the tender and look into the water tank to check that the water gauge in the cab was showing the correct reading.
When the driver was ready, we set off from the shed tender-first and travelled the short distance to the sidings. The guard hooked up the train and chatted with the driver before walking down to the brake van. I had got quite a lot of coal on with the dampers shut, the fire-hole doors partially closed and the jet on slightly; the coal was burning well and sending a black plume of smoke from the funnel. The driver stood up and filled his cup from the billycan which was sitting on the tray above the fire-hole doors. Before he sat back down he casually opened the doors further and increased the blower jet to disperse the smoke. He looked across at me: "Told you about that last week." He pointed to the side of his head. "Remember, too much black smoke can get us booked."
Off came the signal and I opened the dampers as the driver lifted the regulator and we started to pull away. My driver told me to watch for a wave from the guard to make sure he is aboard. Sure enough there he was waving a white rag from the brake van; a quick pop on the whistle and he disappeared from view.
The draught through the fire had brought it fully to life and it was roaring as the driver lifted the regulator higher. The safety blow-off valves on top of the engine burst into action sending two jets of steam skyward. I turned the injector on; the boiler looked almost full but I didn't want to waste any more steam. A little more coal, the safety valves stopped blowing, I turned the injector off, shut the firebox doors and sat on the small wooden drop down seat.
We went charging through Northwich station like a big black monster pulling our long line of trucks. As I looked out of the window I noticed two girls sitting on a bench by the ticket office. I gave a pop on the whistle and waved. The girls waved back, it's something to do with the whistle; a pop or blast on the locomotive's whistle and they will always wave. Under the station bridge and then I was up again to put some more coal on. We passed over the arches; still punching forcefully we turned off the main line, round the curve, over the Iron Bridge and started to drop down into Oakleigh sidings.
The regulator was now closed and the boiler gauge glass was showing half full. I turned on the injector to stop the safety valves blowing, but because we were going downhill and getting a false reading from the gauge glass, I had to be very careful not to overfill the boiler. I looked in at the fire which was burning down nicely. My first trip over, almost perfect, but I had been lucky. I'd had a good engine and a very good driver. I could only hope for a bit of experience before getting the bad ones.
It was the pilot's job to shunt the goods yard. It also did trips to Marston and Winsford salt works. The engine on this job was a small Class 2 tender engine. It had a very small firebox and was a lovely engine to work on.
My driver, Bill, was an old plodder who didn't seem to have a care in the world and would not rush for anyone. The guards and shunters knew this and would never ask him to hurry up because they knew that if they did he would go even slower. He was a pleasant jovial man who took no interest in the firing side as long as he thought that the fireman could cope. He just wanted to drive the train, smoke his pipe and drink tea; so different from a lot of drivers who thought that their fireman didn't have a clue how to do the job. We were doing little shunting jobs all morning with quite a lot of standing time. As this was an engine that never went to another depot, it was usual for the fireman to polish up the brasses on the footplate, something rarely done on the Class 8's. The engine looked a treat.
In the afternoon we left with half a dozen empty salt trucks for Winsford (Cheshire Lines); chugging away over the arches like 'Ivor the Engine'. It was a nice sunny lazy summer's day and it made a change from belting up here on the trippers. We carried on up the bank through Greenbank, past Cuddington station and turned off onto the Winsford branch line. The branch line was a single track running through a mainly wooded area. The young trees were growing right up to the track and there were even plants growing between the sleepers. I was fascinated; it was like a scene from a Wild West movie. We passed a long disused station at Whitegate and then further on a small level crossing. The crossing keeper was an elderly man and he lived in a house by the crossing. I think that he must have been semi-retired, as there were only two trains a week down this branch line. Despite the lack of traffic, the man always appeared wearing what looked like a very old, but smart, station porter's uniform.
We dropped down towards Winsford and crossed the road into the ICI salt-mine works. After a bit of shunting, we set off with our loaded salt trucks tender-first to Northwich. We stopped at the crossing keeper's house on the way back and he transferred a fresh pot of tea into our billycan. The usual dozen or so shovels of coal fell off the engine and landed next to his coal-shed.
We were soon back at Northwich, but before going home I stopped for refreshment in the railwaymen's main rest room, in the back room of The Lion and Railway Hotel. The bar was quite busy when I walked in. Shunters, guards and train crews all used it. It was unusual to see someone in the bar who was not a serving or retired railway worker. They'd be there before work, after work and even during breaks, purely for refreshment of course, for nobody could afford to be caught drunk on duty, especially the train crews who would never go to work the worse for drink, (you can believe that if you want to).
I noticed four strangers playing cards at one of the tables. They were "foreigners", train crews from other depots. They could be from Birkenhead, Stoke, Liverpool, or one of a host of other places, passing time while waiting to relieve their trains.
Two firemen were playing darts in the recess that seemed to have been built just for that purpose. I joined them for a few games, but after two pints of bitter, I had to leave. I had to cycle home so any more might have been a mistake.
After leaving the bar I made good progress wobbling home on my bicycle, but the hill at Castle was looming up in front of me. I got halfway up struggling and about to give up when the Broadhurst factory bus went past. My girlfriend Jane and all the curler headed factory girls were waving at me from the windows. I had to carry on, couldn't look weak in front of the girls.
Godley (1st main line turn).
A fireman failed to turn in for the morning run up to Godley sidings. I was the only passed cleaner available to cover the duty, but because I was not passed for main line work, the driver had to be asked if he were prepared to take me. He was of course well within his rights to refuse. I had worked with the driver a few times on the local trippers and we'd had no problems, but I was still a little worried in case he did refuse. Some of the firemen considered the driver to be a bit of a worrier and I was pleasantly surprised when he said he had no problems with my firing ability and was perfectly willing to have me as his fireman.
There were many different types of drivers. Some of them could make the fireman's job quite hard, but I found that this particular driver, through the best use of the controls, made the engine do most of the work. I've never known him to use the second regulator position unnecessarily.
We left the shed with a Class 8 engine and made our way to the top-end sidings. I was very eager to get going, even though I'd been told it was quite a hard slog up the bank to Godley. We were soon pulling out of the sidings with a mixed train of covered hoppers (covhops), vans, and some finished coils of steel that had been brought forward from the John Summer's steelworks on the Welsh border. The driver was keeping an eye on my firing and was advising me all the way, as well as doing his own job. This was the first time I had been in this direction and I was as grateful for his guidance as I was for his faith in my ability. After all, if I messed up, it would be him that would have to carry the can.
We went through Knutsford, Altrincham, and continued via Skelton Junction to Stockport. My first trip up the bank from Stockport to Godley was, as I had been told, a long hard slog and I wondered if it would ever come to an end. When we made it to the top, I was pleased that I had managed to maintain a full head of steam and a full boiler. We dropped our train in the sidings and made our way to the turntable where we turned the engine before taking our meal break. I felt terrific and was eager to pick up our train for the journey back to Northwich, feeling that I could now tackle anything.
I was on a night shift and there is always a good chance of firing work because there were not many passed cleaners on nights. Again a fireman failed to turn up, this time for the Clockface run. I was the only passed cleaner available for firing, so again the driver had to be asked if he was prepared to take me. On this occasion, my father was the driver, so there wasn’t a problem. My father was well liked by the firemen because of his driving skills, his laid back attitude, and his humour. One of his typical tricks when passing platelayers or station staff would be to shout: "Are we right for Crewe mate?" while travelling in the opposite direction. As long as the boiler was topped up with water and the driver topped up with tea, you'd be all right. If you were short of steam you could stop for a 'blow up' (stopping the train in a safe place to allow the steam pressure to be brought back up), but if you were short of hot liquid in the boiler or the driver, it could be a problem.
We set off from Northwich, light engine to Wallerscote sidings to pick up our train of soda ash, 'covhops'. When we were hooked up we reversed out of the sidings and then pulled onto the LMS lines for our trip to Pilkington's Glass Works. After leaving Hartford Junction we carried on to Runcorn, over the Mersey Bridge and down into the sidings at Ditton. The train had a brake van at both ends and we unhooked and went to the other end. We coupled up and set off tender-first from here to Saint Helens. The run to Saint Helens was as you can imagine very dusty with all the coal dust from the tender being blown onto the footplate, but at least it wasn't raining. I was later to do this run on a couple of occasions when it was raining and the rain would be driven through the tender gap straight into the cab soaking the crew from the chest down.
When we arrived at the sidings the inevitable, "brew up mate," echoed across the cab. I set off to the shunters’ cabin to perform the most important task of the night. We had our break, and then turned the engine on the triangle for the trip tender-first back to Ditton, and then engine first to Northwich. On the way back over the Mersey Bridge I had my first driver training spell, but not for long as I was a bit heavy handed and my Dad had visions of having to unwrap the guard from around the stovepipe in the brake van. "I bet the guard thought he'd had his bloody chips then," he said with a grin, but my first driving session ended there.