Reading Fireman

In late June 1962 I was summoned to the Western Region holy of holies at Swindon to take a medical. I passed with flying colours and was then given a piece of paper, told to write my name on top and then write down the following sentence:

'A light engine, when on any running line, must always carry a red tail lamp in the rear.' As my penmanship was being laboriously checked I realized that I had just taken a literacy test. I carefully explained that I was in my second year at university but to no avail. I waited with bated breath to find out that I had passed without any mistakes. The previous day a potential candidate had made fourteen errors!

I was handed overalls and a cap. Even the overalls were different as the trousers did not have a bib to them. It made the Western footplate crews different from the rest but I had to buy some braces to hold up the trousers.

I left unceremoniously out of a back door, peering with difficulty over an armful of overalls. I was told to go to a store across the street where the storekeeper was waiting for me with an open carrier bag. He must have kept a large stock for new BR employees.

With some time to kill, I toted my new overalls around the Swindon Railway Museum where I could admire the beautiful GWR locomotives that were kept in excellent condition. A week later I was cleaning Western locomotives at Reading, not to Swindon Museum standards but to a very high standard anyway.

The number of cleaners available on any one day varied but there was always one locomotive that had to be cleaned, no matter what. Reading provided the power for the Reading to Birmingham portion of the Margate to Birkenhead train (known to us as 'the Conty'). This was a lodging turn which required two locomotives, the engine and crew working out one day and returning the following day. 'Castles' were used on this run and the most frequently used locomotive was No 5076 Gladiator. This was the first locomotive that I cleaned and it became a firm favourite. The 'Castle' received extra attention and this showed in the brightness of the green paintwork, red buffer beams, black smokebox and polished copper chimney band, brass safety-valve cover and the name and numberplates.

Cleaning a locomotive was quite simple. One took an oil-soaked piece of cotton waste and wiped it over the part to be cleaned. Clean waste was then used to remove the oil and dirt and to buff up a good sheen. The brightwork would then be cleaned with Brasso or crushed brick arch, the wheels scraped and the rods shined up. It was not difficult but there was a lot to do even on the smallest tank engine. I had to be careful not to squeeze the waste too much because the feel of cold dirty oil running down my arm and past my armpit was distinctly unpleasant!

One of the best things about No 5076 Gladiator was that it had a smooth-sided tender which was much easier to clean than the earlier, rivetted, versions. This locomotive would normally take us most of the morning and we would have our oil-soaked sandwiches on the bank by the main line behind the shed to see our handiwork as she blasted out of Reading. The train was frequently late off the Southern and the crew would be trying to make up for lost time.

The rest of the cleaners were a motley crew. I was sad to see that there were very few intent on making the railway their career. One lad will always remain fixed in my mind. Titch was no more than 17, very short, and wore enormous hobnailed boots. He was the sort who could not keep clean and was usually covered  in grease within five minutes of booking on. I asked him if he intended to stay on the railway. His reply surprised me being:

 'Naw, I'm only doing this until I'm old enough to join the Grenadier Guards.'

'Why do you want to join the Grenadier Guards?', I said, to which he replied,

'Well, I want a little excitement in my life. I want to go around killing people.'

I often wonder what he is doing now and how many people he has killed!

Reading locoshed was set in the 'V between the main line and the New-bury/Basingstoke line. The line between Reading West and Reading West Junction completed the triangle. The running shed had eight roads, four of which were through lines. The offices and mess rooms were on the north side in between the shed and the main line. Heavy repairs were carried out in a separate shop close to the main line. Minor repairs and washouts were carried out in the running shed. Access to the shed was from either end, both ends being at the foot of a gradient. The coal stage and ash pits were on the west side and engines coming on shed would enter from this side, those coming from the east would use the bypass road which was to the south of the running shed. Arriving locomotives would be coaled and have their fires cleaned before being moved over the turntable and stabled in the shed. The soft welsh coal had to be loaded into skips and dumped by hand.

We had an interesting variety of locomotives, the mainstays being the 'Hall' 4-6-Os, the '28xx' 2-8-Os, the '63xx' 2-6-Os and the '2251' 0-6-0 tender engines and the '57xx', '94xx' 0-6-OTs and '61 xx' 2-6-2T types. There were several 'Castles', Nos 5076 Gladiator, 4096 Highclere Castle and 5085 Evesham Abbey which had been displaced from the main line passenger services by the diesel hydraulics. Evesham Abbey was only used when one of the regular engines was not available. It was in poor shape. Obviously the depot that had last had it chose their worst engine when it came to transfer a locomotive to us. No 5067, St. Pagans Castle was stored unserviceable ready for cutting up. It provided a useful source of spares to keep the others going and No 5085 Evesham Abbey was greatly improved by the fitting of items such as cylinder cocks from poor St. Pagans Castle which eventually even lost its tender.

It was the visitors that made Reading interesting. We saw ex-GWR 'Granges', 'Manors' and 'Counties', Standard 4-6-Os and 2-10-0s and a wide range of the Southern types. Reading Southern locoshed had just closed and we provided servicing facilities for the residual Southern locomotives that found their way into Reading. They were universally hated as they took up valuable space in the yard and the Western men were not familiar with these strange engines that had the driver on the left-hand side and made the fireman work 'cack-handed'. 'King Arthur' No 30765 Sir Gareth was on shed one Monday having failed the previous day and it took until Friday to get rid of it! The fitters would work on it and we lit it up every day only to find something else wrong. It was eventually sent back light to Redhill where it would have received more loving care than it received at Reading.

The most distinguished visitor to Reading while I was there was ex-GWR 'King' No 6000 King George V. The 'King' was in poor condition having failed the previous evening. The cleaners collected around KGV and would have liked to do something about its neglected condition but it was booked to go light engine to Swindon so all we managed to do was to shine up the brass bell which was carried on the front buffer beam. The Reading fireman who took the 'King' back to Swindon was as excited about it as we were and made sure that his driver let him have his first, and last, drive of a 'King'.

There were many bolt-holes around the yard where cleaners could hide out of the way of Eddie the chargehand cleaner. The sand-house was a favourite place to go, especially when the weather was cold or wet. There was always a good fire burning to dry the sand which was carried in buckets to the sandboxes of the locomotives. The sand house was presided over by a driver who had been involved in an accident which had created not only physical but also mental problems for him. Other duties included filling the oil lamps and trimming the wicks. One danger of going into the sand house was that we might be delegated to clean a few lamps - a small price to pay on a wet day.

Another place to hide was the mess-room under the coal stage which was used by the coalmen, the firedroppers and the shed crews. It was here that I first met 'Snatcherdrop'. This driver was very cautious and would never pass a water column without taking water. In reply to his mate's question he would invariably say,

'I don't know matey, I think we'll just snatch a drop.'

The danger of hiding in the coal stage was that one might be forced to help coal a locomotive or, worse still, to clean its fire. I found it a little unsettling to see the firedroppers, many of them in their 50s, having to drop a fire the hard way (the GWR had never heard of rocking grates) knowing full well that, with the demise of steam, there would be no work for them.

Locomotive preparation was very thorough. The fireman would first throw on a couple of shovelsful of broken brick arch over the firebars which would help prevent the build up of clinkers. The live coals would then be thrown over and the fire would be made up, literally by hand. The soft Welsh coal would be broken up to the correct size and would be pitched on to the fire, lump by lump, exactly where it was needed. This was a tedious process but it did ensure that the firebed was built up so as to burn through thoroughly. When the fire was burning properly the shovel could be used to build up the back end. It was extremely important to do this slowly and to use only lumps, not dust. A firebed that had been made up too quickly or with dust would go into a solid mass that would not burn properly and would give problems on the road. I once had to break up the back part of Gladiator's fire which had been made up too quickly. I managed to get the chisel bar into the fire and had great difficulty in breaking up the coal. In fact, two of us hung on the bar, which bent before we managed to break up the fire.

Perhaps the worst part of locomotive preparation was filling the sandboxes. Sand had to be carried in a bucket to the engine which was invariably at the other end of the shed from the sand house. Buckets then had to be carefully lifted on to the running board and poured into the sandboxes making sure that none was spilled into the motion.

Just before leaving the shed the fireman would put the final touches to his fire. This would be mainly at the back and would turn it into the traditional Western 'Haycock' fire. Coal would be placed at the back right above the firehole ring, sometimes above the top of the firehole. This meant that the fireman would be firing uphill all the time but could use the back end as a platform from which to bounce the coal up to the front. This method would produce a very constant rate of steaming and the deep Western firebox was well-suited to this treatment with Welsh coal. This was the universal method of firing, although I met firemen who had experimented with a thin shallow fire. A saucer-shaped fire would require almost constant attention and any slight holes that developed could mean big trouble unless found and rectified at once. As it was, I never heard on a Western engine the curious juddering sound that signified a hole (and trouble) on the Shoeburyness LMS tanks. This was mainly because the back part of a Haycock fire was very thick, while potential problems up front could quickly be rectified with the pricker by knocking some fire down the steep grade from the back end.

I preferred the shed turns to the shed preparation turns. A driver and fireman would be booked on each shift to move locomotives around the shed. This was great fun as it allowed me the opportunity to drive engines. Theoretically, two men had to be on each engine whenever it was moved, but this proved impossible because of the large numbers involved. The driver would let me have a go while he was there and, once satisfied that I knew what I was doing, would let me move one while he was moving another. I quickly gained confidence but it took some time before I was prepared to set an engine in motion, leave the regulator open, and cross the cab to the fireman's side to look out.

One trick I never tried was to leave the footplate with the engine in motion and the regulator open. This was occasionally done when an engine was being driven by one man who had to take it to the top end and back it over a set of points to put it on an adjacent road. The procedure would be to set it going forward at a good pace, close the regulator, wind the reverser into backward gear, open the regulator slightly and jump off at the points. The forward momentum would take the engine past the points which could then be changed. The engine would stop itself and, assisted by the falling gradient and the open regulator, would come back to the waiting fireman who would climb aboard and assume control. This manoeuvre saved a lot of time and effort but would not be carried out when there were any bowler-hatted individuals around!

The turntable was of the balance type Swhich caused me great difficulties because the larger engines had to be positioned to within about six inches so that the turntable would turn. I would drift down towards the table, shut the regulator and give a whiff of vacuum to reduce speed. The large ejector would then be opened to keep the engine moving slowly, but most times 1 would have to give more steam to keep the engine moving and then I would overshoot. I remember running No 4082 Windsor Castle backwards and forwards over the table at least four times but my driver did it the first time.

Shed turns were fun but they could not compare for interest with the firing turns. My first firing job was on the Coley (Reading goods) branch with No 3219, one of the '2251' class 0-6-0 tender engines. This was a pleasant job which started at 5.30am. We would take our engine to West Junction where we would pick up our train and run the three miles or so to Southcote Junction. The signalman would hand us the wooden tablet giving us sole possession of the three mile Coley branch to the Reading Central goods depot. After some shunting we would have a mid-morning break and then saunter back to West Junction where we would be relieved at around 1.00pm.

My first day was uneventful but the next day was quite a different matter. We had No 2261 which was painted green and which I had cleaned a few days earlier. We picked up our train at West Junction where the shunters were anxious to get rid of us.

No 2261 was in good shape and behaved well as we moved our train, tender first, through the deep cutting by Reading West station. We were moving relatively slowly because the only brakes on the train were the steam brake on the engine and the hand brake in the van. At Southcote Junction the signalman was waiting for us with the tablet. I was on the bottom step of the engine but the 'smart-alec' signalman pointed the tablet at me instead of holding it out so that I could take it properly. He thought it a huge joke that I could only just hang on to it. If it had been raining he would have made me go to the box to fetch it. I climbed back into the cab and as 1 called out the wording on the tablet (not that there was any chance of confusing it as it was the only one for miles around) 1 was thinking of ways of getting even with that 'bobby'.

It was a beautiful day and the sun was just burning off a slight mist hanging over the Kennet and Avon Canal. A water rat swam for cover as we passed over a small stream and an owl looked on from its perch in a tall tree. The cows in the meadow were munching contentedly and the sun glistened off the morning dew while a couple of swans swam majestically along the quiet canal which was flanked by pollarded willow trees. It was a surprisingly peaceful and rural scene bearing in mind that within three miles we would have changed direction 180 degrees and would be back in the centre of Reading. With the fire in good shape and no signals to look for, all I had to do was to admire the scenery as we ambled towards the goods depot and the adjacent brewery.

A touch of the steam brake was enough to bunch up the wagons as we passed some large petrol storage tanks and came to a halt at the Central goods depot. These tanks form a part of this story and I had better explain their location. The line was on a gently falling grade all the way from Southcote Junction and the final stretch was quite straight leading directly towards the tanks. There was a sharp curve into the goods depot just in front of the tanks, the points and siding to which made a continuation of the main line.

After an hour or so of hitting the wagons around with gay abandon,   peace descended on the yard as we adjourned to the 'toad' (the GWR term for brake van) for our break. We were joined by Jock, the instigator of the mayhem. He had a long, bulbous nose and a very limited vocabulary as every other word was a swear word and even that was the same one. The conversation quickly developed into a monologue.   My driver was a morose type who sat silently in a corner of the van. He finished his sandwiches, got up and said,

'I'm off''

and walked out. I asked Jock where he was going, and in his usual manner said that he had gone to the pub.

'He'll be back before we have to leave this place.', he said. The monologue droned on and on as Jock put the world straight and I found myself day-dreaming I snapped out of my reverie, realising that the monologue had stopped and that No  2261was  being moved.

Running back to my engine I could see a bulbous nose pointing out from the driver's side and found that Jock wanted to do some more shunting. He quickly left me in charge so I could have some fun with No 2261 hitting some wagons around. This locomotive had a screw reverse and it took a long while every time I needed to change direction. I wound furiously to the shout:

'What the do you think you're doing up there?', he retorted in his usual explicit manner.

It surprised me how much effort there was to driving a locomotive and was glad when we were ready to depart. My mate rejoined me on the footplate wiping the beery froth from his mouth with his sleeve. The sun was now beating down on the cab and I had been shunting alongside a swimming pool full of happy youngsters.

As we pulled out past the petrol tanks I was busy repairing the damage I had done to my fire. It was not far to West Junction but there was a sharp pull up to Southcote Junction and, with a heavy train, my driver needed all the steam I could give him. The cows were still munching and the owl had a contented look about it (so far as it is possible for an owl to look contented) - perhaps it had eaten the water rat. At least I had thought of a way to get even with that 'bobby'. There was a net set out for the fireman to throw the tablet into. The signalman was then free to come out and retrieve it at his leisure so I decided to miss the net and throw the tablet into a bed of stinging nettles close by.

However, the signalman was standing outside waving for us to stop and took the tablet personally. There were some Engineering Department wagons on the other side of the main line and we had to cut off from our train, drop over the main line, pick up the wagons, come back to pick up the rest of our train and then make our way back to West Junction. This was a very simple move and our loquacious guard was even more so as he signalled the driver to ease up so that he could uncouple. No 2261 came back a bit hard and the train, minus engine, and therefore brakes, started to roll back down the grade. As we watched the train disappear in the distance Jock informed us that he had not pinned down a single hand-brake on the train. Suddenly, the thought of the petrol tanks came into our minds - unless we could stop the run away we could have a major conflagration on our hands. The only chance was for Jock to ride on the tender buffer beam while we gave chase and to hope that he could throw the coupling over with his shunting pole. The runaway was travelling at a good pace but we managed to stop the train before any damage was done. Jock was now visibly shaken, so much so that, for once he was silent. The driver, imitating him sarcastically, said:

'Next time you should pin down a few brakes!'

The cows were now upset at this unaccustomed break in their routine and so was the signalman He had already recovered the tablet and we didn't have authority to enter the branch a second time. By this time Jock had recovered sufficiently to tell him to mind his own business. Thinking that perhaps it was his business we left for West Junction in a hurry. Our relief was waiting for us when we arrived and it only took a 'What kept you?' to start a whole new tirade from the rear.

The next day I had No 3219 with the same crew. This time we approached Southcote Junction with some trepidation and were going faster than normal because we did not want to talk to the signalman. As it turned out there was a relief signalman on duty that morning. He was smiling to me as he held out the tablet. His expression turned to one of alarm when he realized how fast we were approaching and this changed to one of dismay as I nearly wrenched his arm from its socket making my grab for the tablet!

No 3219 was a good engine, although she did look a little strange being painted black but sporting a green tender! I had decided to try an experiment in housekeeping. Very few British firemen wore gloves because it was regarded as unmanly and the only ones who took care of their hands were those who were courting. Firing a locomotive was a dirty job but I was convinced that if I started with a clean engine I should be able to keep clean. With this in mind I cleaned everything that I was likely to touch. Backhead valves, injector water control handles, handrails, handbrake - they all came in for my attention. My mate was convinced that I had flipped when he saw me cleaning the coal shovel and coal pick with paraffin. When I explained my theory he joined in whole heartedly and helped to clean off the coal bucket. But for all my work the experiment only met with limited success. It is possible to fire a locomotive and stay clean but it is essential to keep everything clean and not to miss anything. I had overlooked the end of the pep pipe and dirtied my hands when I went to water down the coal.

After a few days on The Coley Flyer', I was given jobs on the two remaining steam-powered shunting jobs at Reading. These were the coal yard and the low level turns for which we had pannier tanks of both the '57xx' (Nos 3715 and 9763) and '94xx' (Nos 8496, 9404 and 9450) classes.

The '57xx' locomotives had a very confined cab and were extremely hot to work on. I noted in my diary that No 3715 was the hottest engine I had worked on. The small, square firebox could be made up saucer-shaped and it would steam on indifferent coal. On my first trip I looked at the bunker of No 9763 and found some nice big lumps of coal which were unfortunately lying above several feet of dust. I eventually managed to get to the lumps but not before feeling like a Welsh coal miner. One disadvantage to firing Welsh coal in large lumps was that unless one hit it along the seam it would shatter and the footplate would finish up ankle deep in dust.

Taking water in the coal yard was always a problem because of the leaky water tank. The fireman would put the leather hose-bag into the engine tank and pull on a chain to turn on the water. The chain was short and it was impossible to avoid getting soaked from the leaky valve. Having realised that I was going to get wet every time I worked in the coal yard I decided that I might as well do a proper job and so it was that on No 3715 I first tried out my washerwoman routine. Next day I brought in a washboard, scrubbing brush and a bar of soap. We stopped for breakfast and I jumped down, already wet from having taken water, and hung the bucket over the injector overflow. I climbed back into the cab and filled the bucket with cold water by opening the injector water-valve. The injector steam valve was then opened to bubble steam through the water which quickly became hot. This produced cleaner water than by taking it straight from the boiler through the pep-pipe. A couple of changes of water soon removed the grease and a quick scrub would get them quite clean. After two injector rinses, I would ring them out and 1 then drape my pristine overalls across the backhcad to dry. By the time I had had breakfast and admired the latest centrefolds in the shunters' cabin, my overalls would be dry enough to put back on again. One advantage of those hot engines was that they were good for drying clothes! It often occurred to me that when they changed from steam to diesel British Railways missed a golden opportunity to go into competition with laundries.

The Theale goods was another pleasant turn. A 'Hall' would be provided as the train would often be heavily loaded with engineers materials from the Theale Permanent Way Depot. We would book on at 6.00am and leave the shed at 7.00am. No 4998 Eynton Hall was a Reading engine so it was well looked after. It did not take much preparation and we were quickly on our way to the down Old Yard to pick up our train. Making the first move, the driver broke a coupling and our train moved gently backwards along the headshunt and demolished the buffer stops at the end. No real damage was done, apart from to the buffer stops, and we made up our train and were soon on our way. As we left the yard the permanent way gang were surveying the pile of splinters which had previously been buffer stops. We pretended not to notice by looking out for signals. We ran along the Berks & Hants main line for some six miles to Theale where we spent the morning shunting the goods yard and the permanent way depot.

At that time, Theale was a fully-staffed pretty country station. Shunting in the yard was light but we had to make a move through the ancient wooden goods shed. The guard let us know well in advance so that I could let the fire settle down and we entered with the blower barely cracked and the regulator just off the jockey-valve. In this way we created a minimum of sparks. Both of us kept a close watch out and were ready with the pep-pipe.

We had breakfast on the footplate and it was there that I discovered a third use for the bucket (the first two being to carry sand and doing my washing). My driver turned it upside down and sat on it while he boiled an egg in the shovel.

The trip back to Reading, tender first, was accomplished in good order and as we entered the down Old Yard the gang were just putting the finishing touches to the new buffer stops. The ganger was standing back admiring this work of art with a can of red paint in one hand and a brush in the other. As we came to a stand we found we had broken another coupling. By this time the shunters were getting a bit upset and one said to us: 'Bet you can't make it three!' 'Just you couple 'em up and I'll show you what I can do!' was my mate's reply.

I was watching him closely and he was very careful not to create any undue strains in the train but the inevitable happened and we broke a third coupling. This time a cut of wagons sailed along the headshunt, scattering permanent way men and demolished the new buffer stops. As we made our way hurriedly to the shed the gang were looking dejectedly at the new pile of splintered wood which, this time, was complete with bright red, wet paint. We both hid in the front part of the cab where we couldn't be seen - and laughed our heads off!

On our return from Theale we would occasionally be routed into the Goods Loop in the West Yard. One day there was a train taking water in the loop ahead of us. On this occassion our train was too long by one wagon length to get in clear of the main line and, as our relief had not arrived, we could not leave the train until we were in the clear. We started by whistling to tell the driver of the 'Austerity' 2-8-0 to move forward. This produced lots of whistling in return but no movement. We then buffered up to the van and tried to push the train forward. The guard was leaning out at the back laughing at us. It was now time to take more drastic action. We backed about 50yd and charged the train with the whistle open. The guard saw us coming, thought that a collision was inevitable and jumped out of his van. At this moment the driver ahead started to move forward. It was now our turn to laugh as we watched the guard chase his train, climb aboard the van and shake his fist at us as we eased to a halt clear of the main line and ready to go home.

Several weeks later I saw No 2261 with the front buffer beam caved in and I would not be at all surprised if it had happened in the same way. In that case, the driver probably gave his mate the same look that I received, which said: 'You didn't see a thing did you?' A note in my diary for 25 July starts off 'A really red, red letter day today'. I started by spending some time clearing up the yard by collecting up fire irons and throwing lumps of coal back on to tenders. Around 9.00am the foreman told me to go with No 5094 Tretower Castle light engine to Didcot. It had failed the previous night on a milk train and Reading was anxious to get rid of it. It was in poor condition with inoperative sanding gear and watering cock. So it was that I came to fire a double-chimney 'Castle' on the main line. Not much of an assignment but I had never dreamed that I would ever get out on a 'Castle' on my own. I kept a thin fire and had no trouble for steam or water. I was conscientiously looking for signals when my driver beckoned me over to his side and said,

'Come and admire the scenery.' 

It was a beautiful day. The sun shone in a cloudless sky and showed up the river and the Thames Valley at its best. We drifted through the villages with the ATC bell ringing pleasantly and to top it off I had a 'Castle'! We ran into Didcot shed past a barrage of trainspotters and I tried to look my nonchalant best hanging out on my side as one or two jumps for joy signalled a 'cop'.

We just dumped Tretower Castle on the coal stage road and walked off to the station where we caught a passenger train back to Reading. I often wondered how long it was before they realised that their engine had been returned.

My last day at Reading was one I would prefer to forget. I spent some time working in the shed yard and towards the end of the shift I brought No 3821 out of the shed and spotted it to take water. I was in a hurry to get away and in my haste I turned the water on too hard. The leather hose bag flew out of the tender with the force of the water and soaked me. It was a very soggy student who received his cards that day from British Railways for the second time in his career! It had been a wonderful summer and I now realise how privileged I was to experience the steam era on British Railways.

Steam Days, September 1992.

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