It was the Spring of 1963 when I walked down Brooklands Road to book-on for my first day at Nine Elms – I had arrived there via spells at Farnley Junction and Stewarts Lane, so I wasn’t new to the job. After booking-on, at the time office, just inside the main gate, it was a short stroll to the driver’s lobby and mess room inside the ‘new’ running shed. For the next three years this was to be my home from home.
Nine Elms, in 1963, was a busy, bustling, place with an eclectic mix of motive power. The depot’s compliment of working locos ranged from Bulleid’s Q1 Class 0-6-0 ‘Charlies’ through Maunsell’s S15 4-6-0s and Moguls, (known to many as U-Boats or Woolies and by some as Mongolipers/Mongolifers?). Then there were Riddles’ Standards of several different classes, in both tank and tender varieties, and on to the ‘top of the range’ Bulleid ‘Light’ Pacifics and his 8P Merchant Navy Class. In the back roads, ‘out of use’, there were Maunsell’s Schools class 4-4-0s and Drummond M7 tank engines.
The duties this range of motive power undertook were as varied as the engines themselves, ECS movements from Clapham Carriage Sidings to Waterloo, trip goods workings over the Chessington branch, fitted freights to and from Nine Elms Goods or Feltham Yard. Then there were the hurtling down the main line turns, with crack expresses, like the Royal Wessex, Bournemouth Belle, and Atlantic Coast Express, which were all in a day’s work for Nine Elms men. There was even the ‘Kenny Belle’ a special train for Post Office workers between Clapham Junction and Kensington Olympia – a turn often entrusted to one of Riddles’ tank engines.
After booking on, I had to see the running shed foreman on duty at the time, a gentleman by the name of Ted Edgington, as I recall. Mr. Edgington, I came to discover, was a very knowledgeable chap especially when it came to Greyhounds – and no I don’t mean Drummond’s T9 Class. It was time to find out what link I was in and who was to be my new regular mate. Link position was determined by seniority, (everything on the railway worked on seniority), and it turned out that my seniority date had initially placed me in Link 4 as fireman to driver Fred Walker, he didn’t know what to expect and I had a lot to learn.
Although I had been at work on the railway for over a year my footplate experience was fairly limited. At Farnley Junction, as a passed-cleaner, I had worked; station pilot, the shed shunter turn which included a trip goods down the Leeds Fireclay branch, a few dozen freight workings between Copley Hill Yard and Hillhouse Goods and a dozen or two cross-Pennine freights to places such as Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne.
It will come as no surprise to learn that trundling twenty miles with a loose coupled goods train, or working station pilot, bears no comparison with a fast commuter service between London and Basingstoke. My previous experience of passenger workings amounted to a trip from Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge, one Saturday morning, during my brief stay at Stewarts Lane. This duty was, if memory serves, about five coaches, at a leisurely pace, with a couple of station stops thrown in for good measure. The motive power was one of Maunsell’s 2-6-0s either an N or U1 class; I don’t remember which. I do remember arriving at London Bridge with enough fire to get over Shap and the driver doing his best to blast it away on route back to Stewarts Lane. Proof, if ever it was needed, of the importance of route knowledge.
My first real taste of the South Western mainline was on one of Link 4’s ‘regular’ turns the 7.54pm service from Waterloo to Basingstoke, calling at Woking and then all stations to Basingstoke. The usual motive power for these turns was either a ‘Standard Arthur’ or its baby sister the Standard Class 4MT. My first few runs with the 7.54pm were a steep learning curve – and there were several instances where both steam and water were at a premium. If nothing else it had shown me the limitations of my experience – enthusiasm, whilst it may be welcome, is no substitute.
Driver Walker had no idea how green I was and I wasn’t about to enlighten him. To the uninitiated coal is coal, it’s black and dusty and makes a lot of smoke and ash when you burn it. In the tenders of the Stanier Black 5s, Crabs, Jinties, Jubes, and the ‘Dubdees’ that I’d fired whilst at Farnley Junction the coal was ‘hard’, (Anthracite), Yorkshire coal, shiny, and easy to crack along the seams using the coal pick. This type of coal is quick to ignite and is relatively fast burning; features which distinguished it from the coal in the tenders of engines coming off-shed at Nine Elms. The coal at Nine Elms was ‘soft’, (Lignacite), coal and it has very different characteristics, with important consequences for the way you fire the locomotive. Soft coal is slow to ignite, as it burns it swells to a slightly cauliflower like appearance and then burns away much more slowly than hard coal. Soft coal is also more prone to clinkering and could become a problem if the engine was worked hard followed by spells of relative inactivity – which allowed the clinker to set on the firebars cutting down the air supply to the fire.
These factors make it much easier to create a ‘green’ fire with ‘soft’ coal. (A ‘green fire’ is the result of adding layers of coal on top of coal which itself is not properly ignited.) On the printed page these seem like trifling differences – out on the mainline they are the difference between steam and no steam. Differences in types of coal were only part of the learning curve, getting to know when and where the engine was going to be worked was another vital element. For example, when getting away from the permanent slack through Clapham Junction station and climbing up the cutting through Earlsfield to Wimbledon the engine would be being worked quite hard, 35% or 40% cut-off and full regulator, accelerating the train away from the slack through Clapham Junction and tackling a short climb up through Earlsfield towards Wimbledon. After passing Wimbledon and travelling on towards Raynes Park cut-off would be shortened to 25% to 30% thus reducing the demand for steam, softening the beat, and lowering the pull on the fire.
Knowing when and where demands were going to be made on the boiler is not absolutely vital if the engine is steaming freely but, when things are not going to plan, this knowledge is the difference between stopping for a ‘blow-up’ and keeping going. Gaining this sort of knowledge only comes from having to deal with these circumstances and travelling the route time and time again. My early learning with Driver Walker avoided having to stop for a ‘blow-up’ but the margins were pretty thin on a couple of occasions.
There were other things which affected steaming, how long the engine had gone since its last boiler ‘wash-out’ and how long it had been in service since the fire had last been cleaned and how full of ash the smokebox was. The way the driver drove the engine also altered the way the engine steamed. The Standard Arthurs, like the Black 5’s they were modelled on, enjoyed being worked with around twenty to twenty five percent cut-off using the regulator to moderate the power supply to the cylinders. Having too short a cut-off could result in a lack of draw on the fire, reducing its heat and lowering steam raising capability.
Having ‘survived’ my first couple of outings on the 7.54pm ‘down’ I slowly began to get the hang of things. One of the first lessons I learned was making sure that the fire was prepared properly before going off shed. The trick was to take time to build the fire up slowly, making sure that all the coal was well alight before adding more. Keeping spare boiler water capacity was helpful as this meant that you could await the right-away at Waterloo with the blower on, getting everything on the boil before the off and being able to top up the boiler water to prevent excess blowing-off. Thus when the lights went green and the guard blew his whistle you had 3/4qtrs of a glass of water and, if you’d done everything right, a well made fire burning through nicely.
That all makes it seem very simple, Boys Own Annual stuff, rattling rails and the flashing blade. Clunk, reality check! You’re with some bloke you hardly know, you’re a bit nervous, things aren’t going well, steam pressure is falling. Stopping for a ‘blow-up’ isn’t what you need, it creates delay and generates a ‘please explain’ or ‘No.1’ form for the driver to answer, a lost time ticket from the guard for good measure. It can also mean you have to get off the engine and trek to the nearest trackside phone or signal box to tell the bobby why you’ve stopped – all a bit embarrassing really. You know all this, as the sweat, quite literally, drops from the end of your nose, as you struggle, with shovel, dampers, and injectors, to keep steam pressure high enough to prevent the brakes from coming on.
The gap between the romance and the reality seldom becomes wider than it does at 3.0a.m on a freezing cold, wet, and windy, morning, struggling to keep steam up, see boiler water levels by the light of a guttering paraffin gauge lamp, all whilst trying to pull coal forward because it’s half-way back in the tender. Let’s not forget the charm of a week on P&D work, ( preparing and disposing), 42.5 hours, maybe more if there was overtime, which there usually was, of; cleaning fires, emptying smokeboxes, raking ashpans, coaling up, building fires from a few ‘cinders’ in some cases. Carrying buckets of sand to fill the sand boxes, checking fire irons and finding them if they were missing, as they commonly were. Then you can add making numerous trips to the stores for oil, paraffin, detonators, lamps / discs, for each engine you ‘prepared’.
The mess room door would open and the running shed foreman would tell you, ‘the next 4 on the pit are yours’. If your luck was in they’d all have rocking grates, or at least dropgrates, if not it was the long paddle, some serious sweat, and possibly the odd burn if you weren’t careful. On windy days the smokebox char flew everywhere, so did the coal dust and ashes, a couple of hours into your shift and you looked like an extra from the Black & White Minstrels, not a lot of romance here.
The real nature of railway work was that you’d haul a dozen coaches, filled with passengers, who had entrusted their very lives to your care, who would tip the waiter who served their wine and walk past you without some much as noticing you were there. Apart from a very few crew, at a very limited number of depots, railway work was anonymous toil. There’s only one Bournemouth Belle or Royal Wessex but hundreds of shunting, trip goods, and sundry other minor duties every day, unseen, unsung.
If you have enjoyed my blogs – I have written a book about my 60 years involvement with railways, from trainspotter, via steam age footplateman, to railway author and photographer, this is a link to it: