A Railwayman's War - Chapter 15

The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system

By Derek Welch

Elstree Station 1944
Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies

Driving tests, like almost everything else on the railway, operated on a strict seniority basis.  Ray’s pay cheque number was, by now, fifty nine.  When fifty eight, a fireman called Laurie Osman, took his test, Ray knew that he would be next. 

All footplate workers were issued with two books.  The rule book, which was red, and the locomotive manual, which was black.  The rule book was as tedious and dull as any other rule book had ever been, but the rules that deal with potentially life-threatening situations cannot be regarded in a flippant manner. 

The other, black book dealt with the mechanical and technical side of things.  Subjects such as the passage of steam, the Walschaerts valve gear – these and all other aspects were covered.  Neither Ray nor anyone else knew which questions the examiner would ask, so ALL of both books would have to be learned by heart. 

Ray spent many, many hours at home, swotting and memorising.  Betty, his wife, would sit with him, rehearsing and quizzing him.  During this period, his friend, Ken Hardiman, found that he was to take his test the day after Ray, so he joined in these sessions at Ray’s house.  In the end, Betty knew almost as much about the books as did the men.  

When he was working, MOST drivers would fire questions at Ray.  This was done only when running.  The hours spent waiting at line’s end were put to a much better use.  As soon as the train had stopped, the passengers  would leave.  This usually took only a few minutes, so in the lull that followed, Ray would scour the train and retrieve every different newspaper that he could find.  Back to the engine, where he and the driver would start to do the crossword puzzles. 

Ray had become hooked on these not long after becoming a fireman.  He was sitting on the footplate, bored, when the driver handed him a paper and said, “Here, do the crossword, it helps pass the time.” 

At first Ray declined the offer, saying, “No thanks, I’ve never really had time for them.”

“Well, you’ve got plenty now,” replied the driver.  “Go on, have a go.”

Ray did.  By the time that he took his test, he was getting through eight a day.  If the supply of papers dwindled, then the driver would ask Ray questions, but crosswords took precedence!  

One evening, Ray got back to St Albans and was met by the shed foreman. “You take your test next Wednesday.  You have to be at Kentish Town by eight am.” 

He had less than a week to finish his studies, brood, and worry.  Came the day, Ray met the engine inspector, Mr Perry, on the platform of Kentish Town as bid.  They exchanged greetings and Mr Perry said, “We’ll go to St Pancras.  To my office.”   

They duly caught the next train and made the journey in silence.  They arrived at platform four and got off of the train.  Mr Perry led Ray to his office that was on platform seven: Ray had passed the door many times on his way to the mess room.  

Behind it was a flight of stairs, at the top of which was another door which Mr Perry unlocked.  They both entered.  The inspector went to his desk, took off his bowler hat, and sat down.

“Sit down,” he told Ray, who had been looking around. 

The office was gloomy, with age-darkened wood panelling on the walls. Ray sat on the only other chair in the room.

“Have you got your rule book?” asked Mr Perry.

“Yes,” replied Ray, showing it.

“OK, now we’ll begin.”

The first question Mr Perry asked was about rule fifty five.  Ray answered the questions easily enough, he knew that this rule was deemed important and knew it almost by heart.  The next set of questions concerned the protection of trains.  Ray remembered a year before when this same Mr Perry jotted down the mnemonic on the back of a cigarette packet.  M.O.S.C.O.W.S.: forget the ‘M’ and the remaining letters reminded Ray of the different sections.

‘O’. Opposite line running.

‘S’. Shunting.

‘C’. Crossing over from one running line to another.


‘W’. Wrong line running

‘S’. Single line running.

(Author’s note: you may notice that the second ‘O’ has nothing written next to it.  During the interview for this book Ray racked his brain.  Try as he might, he could not remember this Rule – “have a heart, it has been fifty years you know….”)  

All this made up a code of practice that governed when to change the colour of the front and rear lights from white to red.  From there on, they went through practically the whole rule book.  Ray blessed Betty’s patient coaching. Although they went through the book from end to end, Mr Perry did not ask the questions in any particular order.  Either Mr Perry ran out of rules, or he just got bored, but after what seemed to Ray an age, he started to ask questions about the contents of the locomotive manual. This also was given the minutest scrutiny. 

At about one pm, Mr Perry finally said, “OK, we’ll go back to Kentish Town, have our lunch, and start again in the shed.”  

They made the return journey in silence as well.  They went to the canteen; they sat on the same table.  Mr Perry ate a hot dinner, Ray ate his sandwiches.  As the inspector was based at Kentish Town, he knew the men around him and he passed his lunchbreak talking to them.  He did not speak to Ray more than was required by courtesy. 

When the break was over, they went to the roundhouse engine shed.  Mr Perry looked at the engine board and having made his selection, led the way.  

As they walked through the shed, Mr Perry asked a few questions. “Which end of the cylinder would get the steam first if you were to open the regulator?” was his first. 

Ray was caught unawares and found that his brain was staying firmly in neutral. ‘This is a good start,’ he thought to himself.  Covering his tracks as best he could, he replied, “I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand what you mean.” 

Mr Perry rephrased the question. “Looking at the position of the valve gear and the pistons, which end of the cylinder would get the live steam if you were to open the regulator?”

Ray looked closely at the locomotive.  Whoever had put it away, had just driven it in and stopped. “The front,” said Ray, after a short pause. 

Other questions followed as they made their way to the engine that Mr Perry had selected.  They finally arrived.

“I want you to set this engine for oiling,” Mr Perry instructed Ray. 

Ray looked at the loco: it was a four freight, with all internal motions.  It was important to set the engine with the wheels in the correct position.  When set properly, the loco could be oiled COMPLETELY, without further movement. 

Ray went to the cab steps.  Just before he put his foot on the step, a thought struck him.  He remembered putting an engine away in St Albans.  He was pulling up behind another loco, and because the steam pressure was low, the brakes had worked very slowly.  He hit the other engine, not hard, but hard enough to move it a foot.

“Could you move your engine mate,” came a small, calm voice, “you see, I want to get my hand out of the valve gear.” 

The owner of the voice, an old driver named Bill, had, of course, not been anywhere near the engine.  But it taught Ray a lesson.  Before he climbed into the four freight’s cab, he had a good look around, and under.  He checked the gauges, steam pressure low, but adequate.  Ray moved the engine into the oiling position and got down from the footplate.

“Right,” said Mr Perry, “I want you to prepare this engine.  I’ll be back later.”  And so saying, he turned and left.   

Ray had put away, and prepared, many engines before in Kentish Town, so he knew the procedure.  First, he went to the stores to get the ‘bucket and bits’.  This consisted of a bucket with the engine’s number chalked on the side, one rolled-up red flag, one rolledup green flag, no handles for the flags though, which Ray always found odd.  One smoke box spanner, one packet of fog detonators.  These buckets were put into the stores after the engine had been put away.  Ray noticed that when he put a new bucket back, he always got an old, battered one in return. 

As he returned to the four freight, he was stopped by a Kentish Town driver. “Are you taking your test mate?” the driver asked him.

“Yes,” replied Ray.

“Well,” said the driver, “don’t forget the red flag.  He’ll be looking for it.” 

Ray thanked the man and carried on his way.  Indeed, the red flag, that he HAD forgotten about, was such a pain to unroll, and then reroll, that hardly anyone bothered.  It was meant to warn others that work was being carried out on, or under, the engine, and it was not to be moved. 

Ray tied the flag to the turntable side of the engine and set about preparing it.  He looked all over it, and he looked all under it, checking all the pipe joints, oiling all the bearings.  He had just finished, when Mr Perry returned.

“OK?” he asked. 

Ray told him that it was. 

“Any repairs?” asked the inspector.

“I don’t think so,” replied Ray cautiously. 

Mr Perry handed Ray a repair card. “Put down, steam blowing from left side piston.” 

Ray filled the card in as he was bidden and handed it back.  Mr Perry checked it.  He turned to Ray and said, “OK, meet me tomorrow, at Kentish Town station.  We’ll take the eight twenty five.”

With that, he shook Ray’s hand, and left.  Ray was VERY happy to hear those words.  Firstly, it meant that he had passed the first day’s testing.  Secondly, he had a thumping headache.  

On his return to St Albans, he met a couple of men that he knew. “How did you get on?” they asked.

“I’ve got to go back tomorrow,” replied Ray wearily.

“Oh, great!” they all said.  “That means you’ve done it so far then.”  They all wished him luck.  It was a tired, but happy fireman that cycled home that evening.  

Ray got up on the Thursday morning feeling much happier.  He knew that he had passed the first day’s tests because the system was simple: if you didn’t pass the first day, there WASN’T a second day.  As the first day had been devoted almost entirely to theory, Ray felt that today, being the practical, driving side, would be the easiest day of the two. 

He cycled to work as normal, parked his bike as normal and signed on as normal.  This involved taking his card from the rack and signing the time of his arrival.  He replaced his card and took his pay cheque from its hook.  There were over a hundred of these ‘L’ shaped hooks, all screwed into a large board in neat rows.  The board itself was fixed to the wall next to the card rack.  This board not only served as a convenient place to keep the metal discs, it also provided a record of who was working and who was not.  It had a more sinister function as well.  In the case of a major incident, it provided a record of who was missing. 

Ray put the disc in his pocket and walked the distance from the loco to the station platform.  He caught the seven thirty five am, first stop Elstree, next stop Kentish Town.  Ray got off the train on platform two and crossed to platform one.  He walked to the spot where he knew the engines stopped and waited. 

After five minutes or so, Mr Perry strolled up to where Ray was waiting. “Good morning,” he said as he approached. Ray returned the greeting. “We’ll take the first train that stops,” he went on.  “It should be all stations to St Albans.”  

At eight twenty five, the train pulled into the station.  The engine, a Stanier tank loco of the twenty five hundred series, stopped next to where they stood.  Mr Perry went over to the driver.

“Go and have a rest,” he said, “this chap’s taking it to St Albans.” 

The driver got off of the engine and, guessing what was going on, gave Ray a little smile as he passed.  He walked to the first of the nine coaches and got in. 

Ray and Mr Perry got onto the locomotive, Ray gave the gauges a quick once over and took the driver’s position.  Mr Perry stood behind him.  Ray looked out of the cab, toward the rear of the train, and received the signal to start from he guard. 

They started off.  After a few minutes, Mr Perry said to Ray, “If you want to tell the fireman anything, do so.” 

Ray had indeed been keeping an eye on the fireman, and the man was obviously very experienced, and was very good.  The exact meaning of what Mr Perry had said was simple: ‘Show your authority’.  After a few more minutes Ray thought that he would keep the inspector happy and told the fireman to ‘put a bit more on’, later to ‘put a drop more water in’. 

The trip passed smoothly and uneventfully, much to Ray’s relief.  As they were approaching St Albans station, Mr Perry asked Ray, “Do you need water?”

“I don’t think so,” he answered.

“Set it for water anyway,” Mr Perry instructed. 

All the passengers and all the station staff were assembled in the centre of the platform, where the train normally stopped.  As they drove sedately past, Ray looked at the station staff and pointed into his open mouth.  The staff instantly understood that he was not going to stop in the usual place, but right at the end of the platform, next to the water crane.  They were not happy. 

Ray pulled up exactly in the right place for water and both he and Mr Perry got off the engine.  The driver had, by now, appeared.

“It’s set for water, if you want any,” Mr Perry told the driver.

“OK,” was all the driver replied. 

Examiner and examinee got into the first coach.  Ray had remembered to take the fireman’s name, his number and his depot.  This, along with the engine’s number, had to be written on the time sheet. 

They continued the journey to Harpenden, and got there at nine twenty five am.  The commuter traffic died down at this time, and the goods trains started to move again.  It was one of these that Ray was to drive next.  

At six forty five am, the freight traffic was held at Harpenden junction to give the passenger traffic a relatively clear run.  It was not unknown for goods trains to be stacked up six deep, all the way to Chiltern Green. 

On the whole, crews liked to be held up.  If they just made it past the signal, they would have a fast, clear run to London and would probably get ANOTHER train.  Nothing wrong with driving, but they would end up putting TWO engines away, and that’s a lot of shovelling. 

If they had timed it correctly, they would arrive about a minute after the signal had gone on.  This meant a three hour wait, the fireman would clean most of the fire out and pull the rest up to the fire box door.  He would then have only to add the odd shovelful to keep things ticking over.  All this depended on them being first in the queue: subsequent trains would have progressively less time to wait and would act accordingly. 

At nine twenty five, on the dot, the signal was raised, and the first train was allowed through.   Mr Perry had already asked the signalman at Harpenden station to stop this train in the platform.  It duly arrived.  Ray, who had been hoping for a nice, light, easy to drive train, was slightly miffed to see a coal train from Toton.  The sixty four wagons were being pulled by an eight freight. 

The engine stopped and Mr Perry, accompanied by Ray, got on.  Mr Perry explained the situation to the crew.  As the guard’s van was an impractical distance away, it was decided that the driver should stay on the footplate.  He took a position on the right, behind the fireman.  Mr Perry stood on the left, behind the driver’s position.  The driver told Ray that their destination was to be the sidings at Brent south west, and fell silent. 

The signal moved up, and they were off.  Ray opened the regulator very slowly.  This drew the couplings out so that the whole train ended up in motion without a jerk.  This was considered important as a heavy hand would spill the guard’s tea. 

Once the train was under way, Ray opened it up to speed.  They climbed the gradient to St Albans and at Sandridge, Ray closed the regulator to coast all the way to Radlett.  As he closed the regulator, he got off of the seat and moved toward the tender brake.  This was applied just long enough to bring the train together, and under the complete control of the engine. 

The other driver, seeing what Ray was obviously going to do, said, “Do you want the brake on mate?”

“Yes please,” said Ray, and sat down again.  This got an approving nod from Mr Perry.  

They coasted until the Radlett distant signal was seen.  It was off, so Ray opened the regulator slowly, stretching the train, and then opened it up fully until they were going hell for leather.  This got them up the very steep gradient before Elstree.  Once up this, Ray continued at a more normal pace until they were through the Elstree tunnel. 

Once out of the tunnel, he closed the regulator and coasted all the way to Hendon aerodrome.  Here power was applied to get them over the hump by the Silkstream signal box.  From there they went onto the goods line, and an easy coast with gentle braking took them into the coal yards. 

Ray shunted the guard’s van into the siding with all the rest, put the wagons in the designated place and took the engine into the Cricklewood loco.  The crew were to put it away, so Mr Perry got off of the engine.  After taking the fireman’s name and all the details for his time sheet, Ray thanked the crew and followed. 

When they were in the loco office, Mr Perry turned to Ray and said, “Any repairs?”

Ray decided to play him at his own game and said, “Yes.  The middle steam joint is blowing on the left hand injector, and the brakes are a bit fierce, so they need adjusting.”

After all this was put on a repair card, Mr Perry said, “Let’s go and have a cup of tea.”

Ray found himself wondering if he had passed or not.  Over tea, Mr Perry said to Ray, “That’s it then.  I’ll send the report to your loco foreman.  I don’t think I’ll need to see you again.  You can go home now.” 

Apart from this remark, he gave no clue as to how Ray had done.  

Ray did indeed get home early, and next day was back firing as normal.  It was a week later that the foreman came up to Ray and said to him, “Oh, by the way, it’s come through, you’ve passed.  You got high marks.”  Before Ray could ask how high, the man was off. 

This marked the end of a VERY trying time in the life of a fireman.  Much later, Ray was talking to another driver who told him that Mr Perry had said that ‘he wished they were all like Ray Welch’.  Ray attributes this to the great help and good training he received from some VERY good drivers, and some VERY good friends.

This page was added on 14/01/2014.

Comments about this page

  • My first booked driver after being the shed fireman as apast cleaner at Cricklewood Loco was a St Albans man, David (Saidy) Saddler.

    By Anthony Hannah (12/01/2021)

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