A Railwayman's War - Chapter 2
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
Twelve years earlier, just before Easter 1938, Ray was sitting in school, in Mr Skerett’s class. He was dividing his time equally between looking out of the window and plotting the evening’s villainy when suddenly the door opened and the Head, Mr McGuffy, strode into the room.
“Attention please,” he said, after a brief word with Mr Skerrett, “has anyone NOT got a job?” Ray put his hand up then looked around him. His was the only hand up.
“OK, then, come with me.” They went to his office. “I’ve had a phone message from Currells Garage. They require a boy in the workshop. Are you interested?”
Ray immediately said yes, as he had unsuccessfully applied for many jobs. Unfortunately, the only jobs in the area were for apprentices, and as such he could have looked forward to seven years of earning 4/- a week (20p ‘new money’!). His family would have been expected to keep him through this time.
He was allowed to go for the interview there and then. As he had only a few days to go before he left school, it was deemed that the odd days did not matter, a pupil being allowed, at this time, to leave school on the day of his fourteenth birthday rather than having to wait until the end of that term.
And so it came to pass that for the next two and a half years Ray worked most of God’s hours half a mile from his home. The owner of the garage, old Mr Currell, also ran a fleet of lorries and every Saturday afternoon Ray would have to cart a huge bottle of distilled water on its trolley down to the yard where the lorries were parked. Come rain or shine his duty was to clamber between the body and the battery box and check the fluid levels in the batteries themselves. All this was done without protective clothing of any sort, but as this was 1940 and there was a war on, health and safety were regarded as fit only for the sort of man that giggled a lot. The rest of the week, Ray would help with taking out engines, change tyres, grease cars and wash and polish anything with wheels. All this for the princely sum of twelve shillings and sixpence a week – the equivalent of about sixty three pence.
One of Ray’s other tasks was to go to the workshop, where they replaced the wooden flooring that made up the back of the lorries, and to chop enough firewood to fill a large tea chest. This chest would then be delivered to the nearby house of old Mr Currell, a Conservative councillor. Ray didn’t know what they did in that house but it sometimes took two chests of wood a day to do it.
The garage was run on a day to day basis by young Mr Currell, whose job training methods consisted mainly of ‘this is a petrol pump, USE IT’. And use it Ray did, although with varying degrees of success. Petrol in those days was one shilling and a penny for premium, and one shilling and three pence for shellmex – five and a half pence and six and a half pence respectively.
Car design was also different. Older cars did not have a petrol tank at the rear with a small pump to keep the engine supplied, but had the fuel tank in front of the windscreen, and relied on gravity do all the work. On one particular day Ray was filling a car with just such a tank. The driver had requested a certain amount of premium, so Ray had cranked the handle on the petrol pump and the large glass vessel in the pump’s centre had filled. Ray walked to the car and turned the tap on the hose’s end – but the tank had not been as empty as the driver had thought and fuel overflowed onto the hot engine, with much smoke and much panic from all present, but mercifully no flame! On another occasion, Ray prepared a pump to fill a car’s tank and was happily pumping away when he saw that the petrol was spilling onto the grass forecourt. The hose in the car’s tank was the hose from the other pump. The two pump handles being side by side, he had picked up the wrong one.
By December 1940 the war was getting into its stride and was beginning to increase its appetite for manpower. It came as little surprise, therefore, when Ray’s father told him, “They’re short of firemen at the loco – they’ve all gone off to war. And it seems that they’ve lowered the starting age to sixteen and three-quarters: always used to be eighteen in my day. Still there is a war on. They need cleaners. I’ve told them you’ll be there on Saturday morning.” Another page of life’s map had turned for Ray.
As Arthur, Ray’s father, was a driver himself, Ray knew his way around the loco yard. He had been taken there many times as a child and Arthur would always introduce him as ‘this is my old boy’, a contradictory phrase, peculiar then to Hertfordshire, I believe. Arthur’s nickname was Jimmy. He brooked no criticism, did not suffer fools at all and was known as the hardest man for many a long country mile. Later, he was to retire with forty seven years’ service to his credit.
Saturday came and Ray dutifully pedalled his old bicycle toward the railway, going just a little faster when he passed Currells. He went past the cemetery, past the Crown Hotel, and went through the wooden wicket gate that opened into the path leading past the old jail. The wall to his left was high and thick; to his right were allotments. Beyond these were the cattle dock and the open air ‘Way and Works’ stores: piles of rail, sleepers, chairs and such like. He went round the right hand bend, down the slope to the sharp left by three huts. These huts housed the ambulance, the mess and other stores.
Ray turned right, just before the coal stacks, over the rail crossing made, as usual, from sleepers. Looking round, a person could be forgiven for thinking that British Rail seemed to consider sleepers a staple building medium!
Ray turned his bike left between the turntable and the stacks and stopped. He leant his bike against the wall, just past the toilet. This cubicle was definitely designed for speed and not for comfort. It was small, by any standards, and was probably designed by someone with an obsession for fresh air as it was open to the sky. This masterpiece of planning had a two-fold effect. Firstly, in summer it collected more than its fair share of wildlife, each vying with the other to see who had the most legs. Secondly, in winter it was not at all uncommon to have to scrape the snow from off of the seat and….but that is one memory best left forgotten!
Overall, this spartan attitude towards the men and their wellbeing was the general rule of the day. It may be fair to say that employers as a whole thought much more of their equipment than of their workforce.
Ray entered the foreman’s office. His clerk sat on the opposite side of the room, which was of average size with one small window high up in the wall. Ray could see by the depth of the window ledge that the walls were quite thick.
“Hello,” said the clerk, “can I help you?” Ray moved to his desk.
“Yes,” he answered. “I’ve come for the job.” He paused. “I’m Arthur Welch’s son, Ray. Dad said you needed cleaners.”
“Ah yes,” said the clerk, remembering. “Right then, when can you start?” He put both hands on his desk and gave Ray an enquiring look. Ray had expected things to be a little more difficult.
“Er, I have to give a week’s notice, so I can start on the er…” (pause for quick calculation) “the sixteenth.” Sensing that the job was his, Ray’s confidence grew slightly.
“OK,” said the clerk cheerfully, “but I’ve got to give you an eyesight test first.” He stood up and moved to the door. “Come on then, out we go.” Ray went out first, followed, not immediately, by the clerk.
“Can you move over there?” he asked. “About five yards.” Ray moved. “OK, that will do.” Ray turned. The clerk was holding up what at first appeared to be a table tennis bat, but as he was holding it with its edge towards him Ray could not be sure. “I want you to cover one eye and then read this,” said the clerk. Ray placed his hand over his eye and the chart was twisted through ninety degrees. Ray could now see that it was about one foot high and about three inches wide. It had on it a mixture of numbers and letters, all of about one inch in height. Ray read the chart easily enough.
“OK, you’ve passed, see you on the sixteenth then.” And with that the clerk turned and went back into the office. Ray’s confidence turned into a sense of anticlimax. ‘It can’t be this easy,’ he thought.
All the way home he turned his mind to the problem of how to hand in his notice on Monday morning. He need not have bothered.
“Oh, OK,” was all that young Mr Currell said. Ray got the distinct impression that not only did they not mind, but they could not have cared less. It is worthy of note that within the space of a few years, the company would cease to exist.
On the morning of the sixteenth, Ray cycled to the loco convinced that by Friday at the latest, he would probably be driving something. The daydream kept the cold at bay for a while. In the event, he found himself, with six others, sweeping the engine sheds and the yard. This carried on for most of the week.
One morning the clerk gathered them together and told them that today they were to go to Euston for a medical. The journey there took on an atmosphere of a day out. Not quite high spirits, but jovial none the less. A large building outside of the station housed the main medical facility. They were shown into a large office and were told to strip completely. This somewhat dampened the joviality.
When the doctor came into the room they were all lined up, looking like a row of white skittles in a bowling alley. It is amazing just how white skin can become when the strongest light most of it has been exposed to is the bathroom light bulb.
First came a ‘count your bits’ type of medical examination followed by the testing of a water sample. As is the way with examinations of this sort, Ray rapidly found himself dressed, and taking a ‘proper’ eyesight test. The first test was to ascertain that he did not need spectacles: any driver that was found to need glasses was subject to instant dismissal. Occasionally drivers had to resort to extreme and quite bizarre methods to hide their deficiency.
The next test was for colour blindness, and in a dark room Ray found himself with a small plate covering one eye, staring at small coloured dots that grew progressively larger. Green, red, amber. Although Ray kept calling it yellow.
Then came the hearing test. The doctor sat Ray in a chair and bade him repeat that which he would shortly hear. The doctor then whispered into Ray’s left ear ‘twelve’. Ray repeated this. Then in the right ear, ‘twenty six’. This Ray also repeated.
And that was that. The journey home was made by six subdued young men.
Just before the war, when the armed forces were being brought up to strength, the military doctors discovered that almost forty per cent of men were undersized, undernourished and suffering from malnutrition. Two days of sweeping-up later, Ray was surprised to find that three of his new found friends had failed the medical and no longer worked ‘on the railway’.