Railway Tea Tales

42509 at Shoeburyness
42509 (at Shoeburyness) was one of the better Stanier three-cylinder locomotives but it was getting pretty run down.
The yard is filthy and quite hazardous to walk around

1. Cold Tea

My first job on the railway was fireman on steam locomotives on British Railways for the summer of 1961.  The electrification of the line from Shoeburyness to London, Fenchurch Street, was behind schedule and the railway hired a number of students for the summer. My first day was Monday 17th July and on Thursday 20th I was sent out with another crew on the Shoeburyness carriage shunter.  We had a Stanier three-cylinder 2-6-4 tank engine 42520. 

The regular fireman welcomed me with open arms – then left!  So there I was, only just knowing which end of the shovel to use.  In fact, it wasn’t very difficult bearing in mind that we had only to move the passenger stock through the washing machine to get them ready for their next duty.  The biggest problem with the fire was not putting on too much coal because the safety valves made a lot of noise.  The switchmen were on the driver’s side so I had nothing to look out for – although I had to hold on for the unexpected changes in direction and to keep my head in when we went through the car washing machine. 

The engineer spent most of the time in the cabin looking at the page three girls in the tabloids but when he was in the engine he seemed to be behaving strangely.  He was a medical case who had been restricted to yard work but then I noticed that he was drinking copious amounts from a whisky bottle which he kept behind a couple of steam pipes just in front of him.  As the shift wore on he became more and more erratic and I was happy when our relief arrived and I could go home.

Next day, when I signed on I saw the fireman who had made a bee line for home as soon as I arrived on the scene the previous day. He asked me how I had got on and I told him alright but I was concerned at the antics of the engineer.  He laughed out loud and said.

“Old Bill’s always behaved like that since his accident and don’t worry about the scotch bottle – it is just cold tea without milk that he keeps in a whisky bottle”.

His words reassured me but I have never been completely convinced that there wasn’t something stronger in the bottle.

5906 at Reading
The fireman of Hall class 4-6-0 "Lawton Hall" is taking a break on the West End pilot at Reading.
He is probably drinking tea made with water from the infamous shunters' kettle

2.  The Strike

My first management position on British Railways was Assistant Station Manager at Reading.  We had about 350 passenger trains a day and there was a number of switchmen (known as shunters) who coupled and uncoupled passenger trains and moved them around the station.  They had their own mess room or cabin and this was also used by train crews before and between turns.  The shunters’ cabin always had a roaring fire going in the stove, winter and summer, not so much to keep the cold out but to keep the kettle boiling.  This was an enormous black cast iron monster with a large handle which must have stood three feet tall.  Everyone took boiling water from it to make their tea and the only rule was that you had to replace the water that you took out.

The water at Reading is very hard and kettles will quickly fur up with a white chalky deposit.  The shunters’ kettle had a white coating which was almost an inch thick.  We began to get complaints that the tea tasted awful and, without decent tea, productivity would suffer.  One man spent an entire shift with a hammer and chisel chipping the deposit away but this wasn’t too successful and the problem soon came back. We ordered a new kettle but British Railways did not have any that size in stock and it had to be ordered specially.

Time passed and still no new kettle.  Finally, one day the Foreman walked in the office after a particularly bad day and said:

“That’s it we are going on strike until we get a new kettle” 

There then followed a heated discussion at the end of which (somewhat) cooler heads prevailed and we were given a little time to produce a new kettle.

The great day arrived and the Station Manager visited the shunters’ cabin specially to deliver the brand new kettle.  Everyone was happy and we all enjoyed the first cup of tea from the new kettle.  However, there was one problem.  The cabin was small and the old kettle seemed to take up almost half the floor space.  How to get rid of the old one? Just at that time a freight train was passing slowly on the station avoiding line.  We all rushed outside and threw the old kettle into a passing empty gondola. 

A little while later I was chatting with a conductor who mentioned casually:

“You know, the tea doesn’t taste as good with that new kettle.  I preferred the water from the old one”.

You can’t please everybody.

Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders, The Interchange June 2010.

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