The ‘Singing Fireman’, Don Bilston, wrote, ‘ driver sits there like a god, not a bad mate just an idle sod, though I be shovelling on my knees, he just sits there at his ease …..’ This is the footplate of one of the first locomotives, ‘The Steam Elephant’, not much room for anyone to sit at ease there. I’m not certain but, I can’t imagine many small boys growing up wanting to be ‘firemen’, it was just something you had to go through to reach that coveted driver’s seat.
The fireman was a second class citizen, they even became, in the fullness of time, ‘second’ men; being a fireman was to be anonymous. In all the logs and tales of the footplate it’s driver, this, that, and somebody or other, with barely a nod to the long suffering stoker. Not a word about his struggle with fire iron and shovel to coax an exta 10lbs of pressure out of some steam shy old nag, with a clinkered fire and a tender full of dust. Every dirty job, from trimming the coal to raking out the ashpans was on the fireman’s to do list – and all the time there was that carrot, that hand on the regulator, the driver’s seat.
And then you get out on the main line with 12 on and begin to realise that the fireman isn’t anonymous, for it is his skill, or lack of, which determines what kind of ‘performance’ can be delivered. One footplate wag, many years ago, commented, ‘when they built bigger engines they should’ve built bigger men to fire them’ and relatively few British locomotives had mechanical stokers.
Being the season of good will to all men, when you go out a wassailing don’t forget to raise a toast to the fireman, the man who makes the puff ‘n’ go. To firemen, long may your needle hover on the red line and the white feather show. – None of your ‘half a glass’ now – up to the top nut!
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:
Until New Year the eBook edition of Gricing is on offer at just £3:95, that’s a whole book for less than a monthly mag.