A Railwayman's War - Chapter 3

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

By Derek Welch

Ray Aged About 16
Derek Welch

Shortly, after yet another test, this time of his cleaning ability, Ray became officially a ‘passed cleaner’.  Normally it would take years to reach this level, because an employee could only move up the ladder if there was a vacancy. Since this relied on someone leaving, it was usually a case of ‘dead man’s shoes’.  During the war the process was shortened to weeks or even days.  Another effect of the war was that, as there was a chronic shortage of cleaning materials, Ray could rarely actually clean anything.  The object of only taking drivers from the ranks of cleaners was simple.  It tried to insure that the men who drove had an adequate understanding of the mechanics of that which they were entrusted with.

And so the weeks passed.  Ray would help with a variety of differing tasks – in the beginning just messing about, familiarising himself with the various types of engine.  All engine depots were given a code number.  This was usually in the form of a numerical figure followed by a letter.  St Albans’ code was 14c.  This was mounted, on a small oval plate, on the front of the engine.  Among the engines that bore this plate were two shunting engines, numbers 1854 and 7261.  Of these only 7261 could leave St Albans, as 1854 could only carry an extremely small amount of coal and water.  It was used solely for work in the yard.  7261, on the other hand, had a slightly greater capacity and, provided it made the trip alone and provided the wind was in the correct quarter, could just about make Luton.  It did this journey quite regularly, and did a day’s shunting when it got there.

An engine also had another code number, this time on the side of the cab.  This denoted its class and the type of work it was designed for, so to say there were two 3Fs just meant that they were class 3, freight engines.  These were numbered 3245 and 3901.  A fireman quickly learned that although two engines LOOKED identical, no two would fire the same.  Being temperamental machines, Ray was not surprised to find engines endowed with the female gender!  3901 was a willing work horse and lovely to fire, but 3245 was an indolent beast, eating coal by the ton and returning very little steam for very much effort.

The grand old ladies of the loco were two aged Fowler 2.6.2. 3P’s.  They were numbers 24 and 39 and were among the longest serving passenger tank engines in the loco.

Many others came and went.  St Albans was just a small dot in the vast rail network.  Cricklewood was the main freight depot and Kentish Town the main passenger.  The main centre for the overhaul and repair of engines was Derby, so when a St Albans engine returned from there, all new and clankless, it was not very long before it was spotted by a Kentish Town driver.  The luckless engine would be commandeered and, in due course, returned.  It was well known that the drivers at Kentish Town had no respect for machinery.  When the engine came back it was usually in a worse state than it had been BEFORE its overhaul.

Also at St Albans were three of the universally hated Stanier class 3 passenger tank engines.  Mr Stanier must have designed these on one of his off days: they were terrible to steam as the firebox was far too small.  The water tank was also too small and a later version with a larger boiler only achieved a larger problem.  The only coal available in wartime was, at best, better than nothing.  But only just.  So the poor old Stanier, or rather the fireman, was fighting a losing battle.  However, two other Staniers, 2504 and 2511, were three-cylinder engines and these were considered very good in all respects.

Another type of engine at St Albans was the Fowler 2.6.4. 4P.  Although it could pull twelve coaches comfortably, when travelling bunker first the visibility at night was practically zero.  This came about for two reasons.  Firstly, with a full load of coal the rear cab windows were obscured.  Secondly, the wartime blackout regulations insisted that a canvas curtain be affixed across the upper portion of the doorway.  A story went round at the time that a driver, who was approaching a tunnel, was standing on the cab platform with his head stuck out of the top of the cab, as was his habit.  He knew there was a signal in the vicinity and was looking for it.  When the train emerged from the other end of the tunnel, the fireman was horrified to find his driver laying on the floor, dead.  He had, apparently, banged his head on the ironwork of a small footbridge.  At the resulting inquest the fireman was asked if the two of them had been on good terms.  Animosity between crews was not unknown.

After a few weeks of sweeping and odd jobs, such as helping to ‘coal up’, Ray started to get the occasional firing job, at first covering for sickness.  After his first short trip as fireman, Ray was completely shattered.  It is hard for anyone who has never been a fireman to understand the sheer quantities of coal that are required.  An average engine pulling an average train, will use around a ton of coal an hour – all of it put into the firebox, one shovelful at a time, by a single fireman.

During his first weeks, Ray had to learn many things.  He had to memorise the rule book, a phone-book of a document and as interesting.  But it soon became clear that what, at first, appeared to be mindless mumbo jumbo, was in fact an accumulation of knowledge gained through bitter experience.

Ray also had to learn hand signals.  These were used by the person at the trackside when guiding an engine, during shunting for instance.  These signals were as simple as they were universal.  Both hands raised above the head meant STOP, right hand pumped up and down meant HIT THEM UP (this simply meant ‘move the engine and set the rolling stock in motion’).  A slow clap in front of the face meant ‘move the engine slowly to squeeze the buffers’ so the stock could be coupled up.

One of the more onerous tasks undertaken by juniors like Ray was ‘calling up’.  This was the practice of rapping on the door of a railwayman’s house one hour before train time.  It was normal to rap three times and wait for the response ‘right ho’, and to keep rapping until the response was received.  So what could be wrong with this, I hear you ask?  Well, for one thing, calling up started at one am and could be anywhere inside a five mile radius of the loco.  For another, it had to be done WHATEVER.  Rain, snow or even air raid, while others were safely in the air raid shelters, Ray would be pedalling for all he was worth, head down and hope.

Ray, like everyone else, had to use his own bicycle.  This was for a very practical reason.  The bicycles provided for this purpose by the L.M.S. were literally dilapidated.  Even that was too kind a description: these bicycles could only just lean against the wall without help.

Calling up usually followed roughly the same pattern.  The two lads whose turn it was would go the the foreman’s office and collect hand written orders.  The shed foremen were usually in charge of making out this list.  The two shed foremen, Harold Birchnel and Fred Ansell, would work rotating shifts, just like most others.  The general foreman, ‘MR’ Brayshaw, ALWAYS did the day shift.  But then, what good is rank if you can’t pull it?

Ray and his partner for the night would take the order sheet to the mess room and sort it out into two rounds.  As the driver and fireman often lived at opposite ends of the town, it took some juggling to come up with two rounds of equal size that also called everyone at the correct time.

As Ray became more experienced he got to know the little quirks of the various men.  Some quirks he learned for himself, but most were passed on from other callers-up.  One chap had a long wooden rod in his front garden with which Ray had to tap on the bedroom window.  Another slept in a basement so Ray would have to stoop to rap on the window.  For Bill Holland, who lived in Glenferrie Road, Ray had to go into the back garden and whistle.  This was not as easy a task as it appears for two main reasons.  One, it was usually two thirty in the morning, and in the blackout, wartime nights were particularly dark.  And two, Ray could not, and still cannot, whistle very well.  As Bill was a nice chap, Ray didn’t mind…too much.  All the time, three raps, response, ‘right ho’.  One inventive driver even did away with the need to call out.  When Ray ‘gave the knock’ the man would press a button and a small bulb would light by the front door.

Occasionally, Ray would confuse an address and rap on the wrong door.  This was about the only time that the war came in handy.  Most people do not like being awakened from the sleep of the just, especially at two thirty in the morning.  Ray would usually say, ‘Does Mr so and so live here? I’ve an urgent message for him’.  Ray normally had time to formulate his query because he would get the wrong response to his knock.  Whatever happened Ray HAD to knock and the person being called up HAD to respond.  When, at three am, Ray knocked on a door and it swung open with a slight creak, Ray felt somewhat apprehensive.  But rules is rules as they say; Ray rapped louder and was relieved to get the correct response.  Even in those days, you could still be murdered.

Very rarely indeed did Ray NOT get the response that told him the man was readying himself for another day.  Absenteeism in those days was almost unheard of.  This was partly due to the now famous ‘wartime commitment’, but mostly to the prevailing attitude of mind.  In everyday life people were much more self reliant.  They felt that they could rely ONLY on themselves, they felt that the only things worth having were things that had to be worked for.  A working man took pride in his ability to do a hard days work.  He did not receive and did not expect any money other than that for which he had had to sweat.  For example, sick pay was almost non-existent.  A worker unfortunate enough to fall sick could expect little or no money, and if he were to have an accident while at work, even then he could only expect a few shillings a week for a month or two.

But this was a world far different from our own.  Now, the class system is regarded at best as an archaic anachronism, and at worst as some kind of exclusive club.  In the thirties and early forties, the class system was very much alive, and, arguably, it seemed to work.  In these present times, where a person’s status, and indeed their worth, are usually measured by the size of their bank account, we lose sight of the feeling of security that comes from  BELONGING to a whole section of society.  This was your class, these were the people with whom you would live your life,  the people whose daily lives would be your yardstick.  This world was stable and people usually helped one another without a second thought.  They would share what they had with a neighbour, they would scold each other’s children, yet still live totally private lives.

However, absenteeism also carried with it a promise of punishment.  If, after Ray had called up someone, they did not report for work, the man would receive a written warning.  This was known as a ‘number one form’.  If the man committed the offence a second time he would receive another number one form.  In the unlikely event that he should fail to appear for a third time, he would get the dreaded ‘number two form’.  This meant a journey to Kentish Town and a nerve-racking interview with the supervisor.  If the man did not have a satisfactory explanation for his absenteeism, then he would be sacked.  During wartime, however, this usually mellowed down to a severe reprimand.

Wartime calling up also had less obvious hazards.  Picture, if you will, the scene.  Three thirty am, a cold, rainy night, the sort of night that you think of in the middle of a warm summer’s day.  St Albans had never been a particularly well-lit city, and in the blackout, in the middle of the night, without even the benefit of starlight, the city took on a darkness that could almost be felt.  Through this pedalled Ray.  He was running a minute or two late, his last call had taken longer to wake than usual.  His head was down against the rain, and the small front oil lamp, shielded as it was, gave out only enough light to stop his night vision from working properly.

Ray knew that he couldn’t be late with a call so he increased his efforts.  He turned into Marlborough Road, more from memory than sight, the overhanging trees turning the raindrops into large, heavy, very wet blots of water.  Suddenly the world made a loud crashing noise and started to throw itself at Ray from almost every direction.  He lay in the road, stunned, bruised and at a loss to explain his sudden change of circumstance.  He stood up and saw the cause: an army coach parked under the trees in the hope that it would not be seen from the air.

Cursing the army, the war, Hitler, his luck and many other things Ray picked up his bike.  ‘More time lost’ he thought.  When he saw the state of the cycle, his heart sank.  The front forks were bent, right into the frame.  The front wheel was bent into a shape that should have been impossible for a tyre to stay on, never mind stay up as well.  But stay up it had, so how to effect a repair was Ray’s next thought.  Utilising the mechanical skills that he had gained from his time in the garage, Ray did the only thing possible.  He stood on the frame and pulled the forks.  Pulled is probably too soft a word, heaved with all his might was closer to the mark.  The forks bent back roughly into shape and a similar process miraculously removed MOST of the buckle from the front wheel.

With great apprehension Ray mounted his bicycle and started, nervously, to pedal.  It wobbled alarmingly but with mounting confidence he increased his speed.  After what seemed an age, Ray arrived at the call.  He rapped the three times on the door and waited, again he rapped and this time he got the response.  Ray thought it only fair to warn the driver of the delay and when he heard the response he called to the man. “I’m a bit late.”

“How much?” was all the driver said.

“About a quarter of an hour,” answered Ray.

“Why?” said the driver.

“I’ve had an accident,” explained Ray.

“Oh, OK,” replied the driver without a trace of sympathy and promptly lost interest.

Another cross Ray had to bear was the police.  This is not to say that Ray had a secret life dressed in a striped jersey, masked and with a sack labelled ‘SWAG’.  Far from it.  The police then, as now, assumed that anyone riding a bicycle like fury, in the small hours of the morning, was more than likely up to no good.  Add to this, the cycle lamps issued to callers up by the L.M.S. were oil lamps and extremely prone to draughts, and you have all the ingredients of an interesting situation.  No matter how many times Ray got stopped, he was always startled by the almost magical appearance of a police officer.  To explain.  A police uniform in the shadows of a blackout night is as near to invisible as science has, so far, managed to achieve.  The shock only lasted a moment and Ray, who was limited for time, developed ways to speed the encounter to a happy conclusion.  A typical conversation.

Policeman: “OI you! Where’s your lights?”

Ray: “They’ve just blown out.”

Policeman: “You’re a liar.  I’ve just seen you coming down the road without them.”

Ray: “How could you?  It’s a blackout.”

Policeman: “Don’t be bloody cheeky.  Show me your ID card.”

And so it went on.

One chap, driver Bill, was a heavy-handed driver and was known to find fault with everything.  Other crew members were called to arrive one hour before train time, but Bill insisted on arriving two hours before time.  He liked to coal his own engine and fill his own firebox, convinced that that was the only way it would be done correctly.  He had come from up north with his wife and settled down to live in a house next to the railway.  Every day when he passed his house he would give a toot on the whistle.  Coming home at the end of his shift, he would give another toot meaning ‘I’m coming home, get my dinner ready’.  One fateful evening he forgot to toot.  When he got home, he found his wife in bed with the next door neighbour.  When the full story emerged it turned out that upon hearing his first toot, the wife would fetch in the boyfriend, and evict him when the second toot was heard.  This had been going on for some time.

Another of Ray’s jobs was cleaning out the ash pit.  This was exactly what it sounds.  Opposite the signal box was a siding that had beneath it a pit, about four feet deep.  Into this would fall the ash from the firebox.  The standard procedure for a crew that had finished for the day and did not have to hand the engine over to another crew was to ‘PUT THE ENGINE AWAY’.

This routine started as the engine entered the yard.  The fireman made sure that the boiler had a full head of steam, usually 180 pounds per square inch.  When the engine came to rest over the pit, he took the cleaning shovel, which had a metal handle twelve feet long, and cleared everything from the firebox, leaving only a very small fire.  His next move was to clean the fire bars that made up the floor of this huge space.  To give some idea of the size, a man could comfortably fit inside these fireboxes and not be cramped in any way.  On larger engines, two men could kneel inside.  Cleaning the fire bars had to be done quickly, as even the small fire that was still left could very soon heat the shovel to an uncomfortable red hot.  Today, all sorts of protective clothing would have to be worn, but then all that was used was a standard issue wiper cloth, similar to a very coarse face flannel.  It was not uncommon for this cloth to catch fire when the shovel was withdrawn.

The next thing was to empty the ash from the smoke box.  To do this the circular door on the front of the boiler was opened.  On smaller engines it was held shut by a number of one and a half inch nuts.  The spanner that fitted these had many uses, most of which had nothing whatsoever to do with tightening nuts.  Once opened, the build up of hot ash could be removed and stacked by the side of the track.  And so, with the door shut, and the water up to level, the engine used its remaining steam to move from the ash pits to the place it should be parked.

In due course someone would come and empty the pit.  Ray, who by now had been ‘on the railway’ for about three months, was no stranger to this.  First he would shovel the contents of the pit out onto the side of the track.  There was usually around two tons of ash to be shifted so this was not a five minute job.  On the adjacent track were empty metal ballast wagons.  It was into these that Ray would shovel the hot ash, with the smoke box ash, about three tons, making five tons in all.  How’s that for starting at the bottom?

The rule book stated that the minimum age for being allowed onto the footplate was seventeen, so at the end of March 1941, a week after his birthday, the foreman came up to Ray and said, “You’ve a trip tomorrow, sign on at two thirty six for the two fifty one train.  You’re doing the Luton shunt.”

It was with a much happier heart that Ray finished the day’s shovelling.

This page was added on 03/12/2013.

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