Working as a shed man was not a bad job. There were only three shifts, 6am to 2pm, 2pm to10pm, and 10pm to 6am. There were two crews on each shift on a six week rota allowing for different rest days. The duties of the shed men, apart from shunting the engines on shed, were the cleaning and disposal of the fires, the coaling, watering, turning and sometimes preparing of the engines.
To clean the fire you need a steel rod with a small spade on the end called a dart, a long flat-ended rake, and a pair of tongs. First you use the dart to scrape some fire to the left hand corner beside the fire door, and then the right side was cleaned out and pushed forward. The clean fire was now transferred to the right and the left side was cleaned out. Next you had to clear a space in the middle of the fire, and then using the tongs remove four of the firebars. If there was a lot of clinker formed on the bars you would have to break it up first with the dart. Some firemen would clear a space at the side, remove the bars and place them at the side of the firebox, but I always thought that it was better to draw them right out onto the footplate. Next the rake was used to scrape all the ash, clinker and embers into the ash pan, and then push it out through the front damper, taking care not to put too much into the ash pan at once, which would cause a blockage. The rake is now withdrawn with care as it is very hot. The fire bars are laid one at a time on the lip plate in the fire hole, gripped with the tongs, pushed inside, levelled up and dropped into place. Once all the bars are in, the remaining fire to the right of the doors is spread and topped up to a heap just under the fire hole. The front damper has been cleaned out with the rake; the rear damper is cleaned out with a firing shovel from the trackside.
Now we move forward to the smoke box. There are two handles on the smoke box door, a screw and a catch. The screw handle is unwound until the catch can be turned, releasing the door. All the black smoke box ash can now be shovelled out into the pit.
Things don't always go that smooth though. If you dropped a firebar into the ash pan you could sometimes have a lot of trouble getting it out. If an engine had been out a long time it could have three, four or more inches of clinker on the bars, sometimes the fire bars even fused themselves together, and though most firemen would bring the engines on shed with as little fire as possible, now and then you would get on an engine and find a great roaring furnace which made the job difficult and very hot. You would probably have to remove the rake and get another one half way through because it would be red hot and bending, and what a horrible sight to open the smoke box and find it full to the blast ring half way up the box.
BR standards (mainly Class 9's) were a lot easier to dispose. They were fitted with rocking bars. You put a bar into the socket at the trackside and lift to open the ash pan. Then go back up into the cab and locate the bar into the left socket and move it backwards and forwards sending all the fire, ash, and clinker straight through into the ash pit. Move the good fire from the right to the left and rock the other half. Top up the fire, close the ash pan, and that's it. You were booked an hour to dispose an engine whether it was an eight or a nine. A lot of problems and hard work were caused out on the rails if the disposal work was not carried out correctly.
Coaling engines at Northwich required three shed men, one to work the crane, one to stand on top of the engine cab tipping the bins into the tender, and one to hook the bracket onto the bins ready for lifting. The bracket was a piece of steel, horizontal with a vertical arm at each end. At the end of each arm was a hook which went round a short thick bar each side of the bin. These bars were below the centre making the bins top heavy. After the bracket was in place the driver would work the crane pulling the bin forward until it was just about to lift. There was a U-shaped catch on the bin which now had to be lifted on its hinge and dropped into place with a prong either side of the main bracket. It was now lifted and the crane swung manually on its pivot until it reached the top of the tender.
The fireman on the cab roof stepped forward onto the steel ridge of the tender and steadied the bin, lined it up and knocked up the U catch. Being top heavy it will now fall the right way or the wrong way, so as soon as the U catch is up, a small pull is needed to ensure that the bin tips towards you. If it does go the wrong way it could tip half the contents back onto the coal stage, which would send the other shed men running, and the labourers who filled the bins would not be amused either. As the bin started tipping towards you, you had to step back onto the cab roof to avoid the odd rogue piece of coal hitting your feet. It was usual to put four or five bins into a tender, though some required a lot more.
All the jobs on the shed had a set time, except for shunting, so if there were plenty of engines on the shed, you could all get stuck in, get your day's work done and go home early. Also once you proved yourself capable there were plenty of opportunities for driving, even if they were only on the shed roads.
The Big Bang.
One Friday I had to drop the fire on an engine that was not going to be used for a few days. Dropping the fire, as opposed to cleaning the fire, meant removing all the fire from the firebox. I finished off the job as the rest of the shed men made their way to the cabin for our twenty-minute break. The job had been left a bit late due to other work, and the steam pressure was very low so I had to get the engine parked on the back road as soon as possible while I still had the steam pressure to move the engine.
I lifted the regulator handle, but the engine would not move. I moved the regulator handle further up and eventually the engine began to move very slowly towards the off-shed signal. As the engine was approaching the points lever for the back road, I would wind the control into reverse gear and then drop off the steps of the engine at the points lever. The idea was that, because the engine was low on steam it would continue past the points before the pressure in reverse stopped the engine and sent it back. I would just change the points and jump back onto the cab steps when the engine passed. However, the steam pressure was extremely low and I began to panic because it looked as if the locomotive was not going to stop and it travelled ever nearer to the off-shed signal.
It was a relief when the engine stopped just short of the signal and the trap points which would have derailed the engine. It began to move towards me, but it was quite a distance away and despite me hurrying towards it, it was picking up speed. When it passed I just managed to jump onto the step and grab the handle. I got into the cab, shut off the regulator and applied the brake, but due to the lack of steam the brake had no effect. I wound the gear forward again and opened the regulator, but that had no effect either, so I rushed across and screwed on the tender hand brake. This would stop the engine if I had enough clear track, but it was too late. The engine hit the three engines that were already standing on the back road, sending me across the footplate and causing an enormous bang that seemed to echo over the whole area.
I ducked down and looked out through a join in the cab doors. The foreman had come out of his office and half a dozen men had come out of the cabin, my driver included. My driver walked down to the rails, looked into the engine shed, looked over to an engine by the turntable, and over to the engines on the back road. Everything looked all right. He scratched his head, turned and shrugged his shoulders towards the foreman and walked back to the cabin, assuming that the bang must have been caused by some shunting over in the goods yard.
I got off the far side of the engine, made my way to the fence, climbed over and went to the corner shop and bought myself a meat pie.
"Did you hear that big crash?" My driver said as I walked into the cabin."
"Never heard nothing," I said, holding up my pie. "I must have been in the shop.
Over & Wharton (Winsford, LMS).
After a few months, I moved out of the shed link, into the spare link and out onto the rails again. I was very pleased to move from the shed link. Although being a shed man had many advantages, I preferred to be out on the trains.
I was booked on the Over and Wharton shunt for a week. We prepared our Class 8 engine, 48151 and we left Northwich light engine for the run to Winsford on the bottom line (this engine is one of the engines which has spent time at Northwich and has been saved from scrapping by the preservation people, the other is 48305). We travelled across the Northwich viaduct, took the right branch to Wallerscote and Hartford Junction, and then back along the bottom line tender first thundering through Hartford station and over the Weaver viaduct in the direction of Crewe. At Winsford signal box we crossed the lines into the sidings and the small branch to Over and Wharton station.
A part of the goods yard had been kept open for a local coalmen, but the station was closed long ago. However, the goods yard had been given a new lease of life and was very busy; I.C.I. were using it to load rock salt. There was a massive wheeled tractor loading the wagons that were on either side of a mountain of salt and all day long tipper lorries were running in from the salt works which were only ten minutes away. We did have a direct line to the salt works on the Cheshire Lines, as used by the pilot, but it was not practical to use it for the rock salt trains.
When the trucks were loaded, it was our job to pull the trains out to the sidings at Winsford junction and replace them with empties that had to be pushed down into the yard. It was not very busy on the shunt duty because it took quite a while to load the trucks, only completing 2 or 3 changeovers in a shift. Therefore, a lot of time was spent in the office of the old station reading the papers or playing cards, or depending on the driver, across the road in The North Western Bar. Frequent visits to the locomotive also had to be made to check the fire and the boiler.
On this particular duty I had the same driver all week and I had a bit of trouble with him. I considered myself, by this time, to be an experienced fireman. I had worked main line jobs with him and although a good driver, he always annoyed me by telling me to do things just as I was about to do them. Put some coal on, turn the injector on, turn the injector off, open the fire doors, close the fire doors, lower the dampers, etc. I had to accept this on the main line, even though I thought it unnecessary, but the driver would, after all, be held accountable for any mishaps, and there were inexperienced passed cleaners and lazy fireman about. Nevertheless, I felt that his interference was ridiculous on a shunting duty. We had words and he went on about the responsibilities of the driver. I didn't win the argument, but he did tend to leave me alone a bit more for the rest of the week.
With the soda ash from Northwich and the rock salt from Winsford we were doing quite a lot of bottom line work, getting relief at Wigan, Preston, Lancaster or Carnforth. On this occasion we were working from Winsford Junction with a train of rock salt for Perth. We had a Class 9 engine and we left Winsford for a quick run up the fast line through Hartford and Acton Bridge to Weaver Junction.
The driver was a passed fireman and he was having a great time, but by now I thought I could handle anything so it caused me no problems. We passed through Warrington, Wigan, and then arrived at Preston for relief.
The driver contacted control and was told that they wanted us to work the Carlisle-Crewe express parcels through to Crewe. We had our break and then walked across to the signal box to await our train. It approached the signal box just after midnight and we made our way down to the trackside. The engine came into sight out of the misty darkness, hissing and puffing a little. The distinctive smoke deflectors made me think that it was Class Nine, which surprised me because being a parcels train I was expecting a black five. Then I saw the three massive driving wheels. It was a big green Britannia, 70028, named Royal Star. We left Preston and quickly picked up speed. We were soon travelling very fast indeed, it was terrific, we were like a couple of kids with a new toy, and every now and then one of us would get up and give a blast of the prairie whistle which was a novelty in itself. We got to Crewe non-stop, fast line all the way. Both of us enjoyed this trip because due to working from a freight depot, it was very rare to work on the bigger passenger train engines.
We were heading up to the steelworks at Shotwick with a train of coal-slack. I had one of the 'horizontal regulator' drivers. He was a jolly type, a bit of a joker and was always looking for a game of cards. Even if stopped at a signal, the cards would come out and we'd play brag or stop the bus on the driver's seat. It was always for money, and he seemed to get great pleasure from taking money off the young firemen. But on the rails he was hard work and I could compare him to a boy racer of today, driving his first car and screaming along the street with plenty of rev's in a low gear. It seemed as if he drove the engine in second valve all the time, though obviously he didn't. Although by now that type of driving caused me no major problems, it sometimes annoyed me because I thought that a lot of the time it was unnecessary. However, he was a big man and quite tough, so I kept my mouth shut.
Another time I was with a similar type of driver and we arrived back at Northwich with a train from Godley. Because both the loops were full, we pulled into the station platform to reverse the train into the sidings. We had just started reversing when the driver slung the regulator handle up. Right away the wheels began spinning. He slung the handle down, but the regulator valve had stuck or something. The wheels and side rods were now galloping on the spot, great embers were flying from the chimney and the engine was rocking violently from side to side. He was in a bit of a panic as he slung the handle up and down, wound the gear into the centre and opened and shut the taps before trying the handle again.
After what seemed like an eternity, though was probably only seconds, it stopped; much to the relief of the driver, me, and the terrified passengers waiting on the station platform. The driver was red-faced, but didn't say a word. He just wound the gear back and we reversed into the sidings, very slowly.
After Work. Midnight at Marbury.
A Whiter Shade of Pale had just finished playing on the jukebox as I sat in The Ring O'Bells on the Old Warrington Road with my mate Gordy, and three local girls. It was well after eleven o'clock and the landlord was trying to prise us from the place, but we were in no hurry to finish off our evening. We decided to head for Marbury. Gordy on his Honda with one of the girls, the other two squeezed up on the pillion of my James. We set off down the old I.C.I. road and when we got to Marbury we turned onto a track and rode up to the I.C.I. club's swimming pool. We hid the bikes behind some bushes, knowing that there were security patrols. The gates at the pool were not as formidable as they are nowadays and it was an easy climb over, even for the girls in their mini-skirts.
It was approaching midnight and we were lying on the grass, chatting, and exchanging fictitious tales about the ghost of The Marbury Lady. The ghost stories, the moonlit night, the shadowy trees and bushes, and the strange unexplained noises, made quite a scary scene, but if any of us were scared, we certainly would not let anyone else know.
I walked across to the pool and reached down to the water. In the cool night air the water felt quite warm. I walked back to the gang. "Well, shall we have a swim then?" I said, but none of them seemed that keen. I stripped down to my pants, and went over to the pool, posing comically, showing of my slim, muscular, fireman's body for a few moments before diving into the pool. Straight away I knew my pants had gone. I swam around the pool trying to find them, but in the darkness and with the ripples on the water every time I moved, it seemed like an impossible task.
"Lost your pants," Gordy shouted, causing laughter from the girls.
I swam to the edge and tried to coax the others to join me in the pool, but they weren't having it. "Fetch my jeans over," I called.
One of the girls picked up my jeans and sat on them. "Nah," she said. "You come and get them."
This could be a bit embarrassing I thought. I turned and looked in the pool, it had settled a bit, but I could still see nothing in the water. Luckily my embarrassment was saved by the security patrol. The only light shone from the moon and stars so the glare from the patrol's headlights could be seen well before they reached the pool gates. Gordy and the girls hid in the bushes and I rushed across, hastily dressing into my now wet clothes before joining them.
The security guard didn't open the gates; he just shone the torch around the pool before making a hasty departure. Perhaps he was a bit scared that the ghost of The Marbury Lady would turn up.