In which I start work as a temporary cleaner at Reading locomotive shed.
Reading Fireman - Steam Days, September 1992.
Monday 9 July
I started work at Reading (GWR) loco this morning. Although I was passed out at Shoeburyness last summer I must start again as a cleaner. I have been cleaning engines today because the school does not start until tomorrow. This morning I started off helping to clean Castle No. 5076 "Gladiator". This engine was on the shed's star turn of the day. It takes over the down Birkenhead train. (the Margate to Birkenhead train known as the "Conty". This was Reading's only lodging turn.) It was really wonderfully clean when we had finished with it, the copper cap to the chimney and brass safety valve cover were shining brightly and the green paintwork, red buffers, were gleaming. Gladiator had a rivetted tender which made cleaning much more difficult than the newer flat sided welded tenders - I distinctly remember the oil running down my upturned arm as I stretched to clean the large surface. It made a fine sight as it stormed past the shed as we ate our sandwiches. The train must have been late into General station because the engine was working very hard. This afternoon I helped clean No. 6960, "Raveningham Hall". It is amazing what a difference a spot of oil and a little elbow grease will make to the appearance of the engine.
Castle class No. 5076 "Gladiator", passing Didcot on the Oxford line with a Worcester to Paddington express.
Photo: David Anderson.
Tuesday 10 July
Went to the firing school today. we did some instruction on protecting a train etc., this morning while, this afternoon I was shown over the various types of engines and shown how to make up the fire correctly. This is very important with this type of soft welsh coal which takes much longer to burn through. A thick bed of coal, well burnt throgh, has to be made before the engine leaves the shed.
Wednesday 11 July
Firing school again today. This morning we were shown how to put in a new gauge glass while this afternoon we were taken around Oxford Road signal box (near Reading West) in order to see how Rule 55 is carried out.
I went to the pictures this evening to see Spike Milligan in "Postmans Knock". The other film was complete tripe.
Thursday 12 July
I have been preparing engines all day. This is much more thorough than on the LT&S and consequently takes more time. This morning I prepared a Hall No. 4915, "Donnington Hall" with another cleaner while this afternoon I prepared 2-6-2T 6108 on my own. I seem to be coming along alright.
Friday 13 July
Have been in the firing school all day doing revision for the passed cleaners' test tomorrow. Colin Lewis, the inspector, first asked me to clean the water glass which I did. He then put a wrench through it and told me to change it. It was an unpleasant job because the ball valves weren't doing their job correctly and there was a fair amount of steam and boiling water blowing around.
Saturday 14 July
Was passed out as a cleaner this morning, no trouble at all. Mr Vic Smith, the shedmaster, said that he didn't know what to ask me as I had already been passed out - he floored me by asking me to name the chemical constituents of coal.
Monday 16 July
My rest day today. From Orpington I came back to Reading this evening. I caught the diesel powered 20.55 from Paddington hauled by one of the Beyer-Hymek diesels (D70xx), a type I haven't travelled behind before.
Tuesday 17 July
Back to work cleaning. This morning I helped clean a Hall while this afternoon Titch and I did 2-8-0 2841 which was very dirty, I've been booked out on the Coley Branch tomorrow which means getting up at 04.00.
Wednesday 18 July
I feel very pleased with myself today as I have fired my first Western engine. This was 0-6-0 tender engine No. 3219 on the Coley branch. It is quite a pleasant turn really, The country between Southcote Junction and Reading Central Goods Yard is very interesting. I had to collect the tablet from the signalman at Southcote Junction and didn't miss it either time (the first time he pointed it at me deliberately which makes it difficult to latch on to, I read the names out to the driver even though this is probably the only wooden tablet for miles around). When we are going out (i.e. returning to Reading Yard) the wooden tablet (it is just a piece of wood with two brass plates showing "Southcote Junction" and "Reading Central Goods"). has to be thrown into a net bag. The engine behaved very well and I managed to keep the needle well round and she only blew off twice (when we were delayed by signals on our way back to the Reading Yard). These engines have the standard Western cab fittings except that both injectors work off live steam. We made two trips on the branch from Reading Yard, one first thing and one later on. At the Junction we would normally run into the arrival line and leave out train there. We had come back with a load into the arrival road and came right up against the brakevan of the train in front which was taking water. Our own train was fouling the entrance points and we couldn't leave it until the train in front moved forward a bit. The front engine brakes were hard on and repeated pushing and whistling weren't any use - the guard only mouthed obscenities at us. My driver then reversed his train and started to charge the train in front. The guard, seeing what was going to happen, jumped out of his van like a rat departing a sinking ship. At this moment the train in front whistled off and started to move forward leaving the hapless guard to chase after his rapidly accelerating brake van. I came off work at 13.00.
Thursday 19 July
I was on the same turn as yesterday with the same driver but this time we had No. 2261 of the same class as No. 3219 but No. 2261 is painted green (No. 3219 is black with a green tender). Today we only made one trip to the depot instead of two. It is very pleasant really rolling down te gradient, tender first, from Southcote Junction in the early morning. The weather was fine at this time in the morning. Saw a water rat in the stream by the oil depot. We had quite a bit of fun on the way back. While the driver was having a drink (!) at the pub the guard decided that the trucks were not in the right order so he gets on the engine and starts driving it around. Very soon I took over from him and had a great time driving the engine around. On our way back we were stopped at Southcote Junction and told to pick up some Engineering department wagons on the other side (west) of the main line. This meant uncoupling our engine on the gradient on the single line, going across to pick up the wagons and then come back to pick up the rest of the train which we had left on the single line. The guard uncoupled the train but didn't pin down any brakes at all (not even the hand brake in his van) and about 25 wagons started to run away back towards the Goods Yard. He jumped up on to the tender buffer beam with his shunting pole and we chased after the runaway. The guard managed to throw the tender coupling over the first wagon hook and we brought the runaway under control. By this time we were about a mile down the branch. When we returned to Southcote Junction the guard pinned down some brakes and we made the move without further incident. However, the signalman was really upset with us because I had already thrown the tablet into the net so we technically had no authority to be on the branch. The guard was quite a character, his vocabulary wasn't very large so he had to use the same swear word over and over again, it was quite amusing really.
Friday 20 July
Again on the Coley Flyer today with No. 3219. There wasn't quite so much to do today and there certainly wasn't the excitement of yesterday (thank goodness). I saw an owl this morning, we disturbed it as we went past and it flew from the grass on to a post. We made two trips from Reading West Junction. I tried an experiment today. I had a theory that it should be possible to fire a steam locomotive and keep my hands clean. I went over the engtire cab and cleaned everything that I was likely to touch. The driver climbed into the cab and thought that I was mad as I was cleaning off the coal shovel handle with paraffin. He quickly joined into the scheme of things and we merrily cleaned off the cab sides, firehole door handle, injector handles etc. It worked, in a fashion - the only part i forgot to clean was the end of the coal watering cock so I still got dirty!
Saturday 21 July
Back to cleaning today. I cleaned half a Hall and came off at 12.30. I washed my overalls today and went to the pictures this evening to see "The Waltz of the Torreadors" with Peter Sellers, it was very good indeed.
Monday 23 July
Came on at 06.00 but was not required for firing so I cleaned engines. We cleaned Hall No. 5914 "Ripon Hall" and were allowed to go home at 12.30. A Standard 2-10-0 was on shed and we had a look over it. The cab is not unusually large for such a high engine (No. 92239) and the controls are the Standard ones. Also on shed today was a County class 4-6-0 No. 1002. These are the last to be built of the long line of GWR 4-6-0s and have the standard GWR cab fittings (right hand side regulator, exhaust steam injector etc.), the speedometer didn't work, it was reading 50 m.p.h while standing still!
I haven't said much about the GWR loco depot itself. It is a large shed situated in the V between the main London to Didcot line and the Reading to Newbury line which runs away to the south. A curve from the Didcot line joins the line to Newbury forming a triangle in which the loco is situated. The shed itself has eight lines, of which four are through roads, parallel to the Didcot main line. The offices are on the north side in between the shed and the main line. The heavy repair shops are in between the shed and the Didcot line and slightly closer to Reading General station (east), minor repairs and boiler washouts are done in the shed roads. The approach to the shed can be made from either end, both being down gradients, the eastern one being considerably the steepest of the two. Engines coming on shed go to the western end, this is even done for engines coming from the east by means of a by-pass road to the south of and outside the shed. The engine is first taken to the coal stage where it is coaled, no mechanical coaling here, it is done by tubs filled with coal from wagons pushed up the stage; the fire is then seen to (either dropped or cleaned) - fire dropping is not done by the firemen - there are specialized fire droppers who do this work. The engine is then moved towards the turntable which is outside the west end of the shed on number four road.
Tuesday 24 July
Came on again at 06.00 but was not required for firing. All I did today was to clean half of a 2-6-0 No.6386. This engine came up quite well, particularly the brass rose. Eddie, the chargehand foreman, let us go home at about 13.00.
Wednesday 25 July
A really red, red-letter day today. I came on at 06.00 but was not required for firing. I was cleaning up the yard when the foreman told me to go second man on a diesel electric shunter which was to relieve a shunter in the West Yard. (A second man was required because the movement traversed running lines) We got No. 3953 ready and took her up to be refuelled, then back through the loco to the West Yard. There we changed over with D3195 which we brought back to the maintenance depot. It is very easy for the "fireman", all he has to do is to fill the sand boxes and change the points!
I went back with the driver to the cabin and sat there for about an hour when in came the foreman and told us to take Castle 4-6-0 No. 5094 to Didcot light. I couldn't believe my ears because I never imagined that I would ever get out on a Castle. "Tretower Castle" was in pretty poor trim. Reading was getting rid of her back to her home depot. The driver said it had been failed because the coal watering cock had gone but it must have been something worse than that. She was filthy and looked completely different from the those that haul the fast expresses, she was even fitted with a double chimney. As we were only going light it didn't matter much about such details as sanding (back sand wouldn't budge an inch) or whether the ashpan was empty. I also didn't have to worry much about the fire, in fact I kept a very thin fire, barely alight, This, however, was sufficient to keep a full head of steam and a full boiler of water. I was fussing over the fire and the driver said to me:
"Don't worry about the fire, just come over to my side and enjoy the view."
The views of the Thames Valley were superb on this sunny summer morning. We went slowly past the train spotters on the end of Didcot platform anxiously waiting to see whether they has scored a "cop". I just hung nonchalantly over the cab side - I was on top of the world.
When we arrived at Didcot loco we just dumped her in the yard and walked off, I wonder how long it was before they realised that No. 5096 was, in fact, back. We went to the station but had to wait an hour and a half for a train back to Reading which meant that I was on overtime by the time I arrived back.
The driver was quite interesting, he told me that he likes the hours he worked because he didn't like marriage! He twigged that I was a student almost straight away but it didn't seem to make any difference. He didn't like the GWR engines because he liked comfort, the best engines he has driven were some American ones during the war. The regulators were of the pull out type and fitted with a ratchet. The superheater tubes were so long that the engine would give about ten puffs after the regulator had been closed. They held their water well but if the boiler was too full, for some unknown reason, when touched, would fly open and then it was "First stop Twyford". (Sounds as if they wuld prime easily) He was also talking about right and left hand drive. On a left hand drive engine he had to keep coming over to the fireman's side to see where he was even though he had a perfectly good view on his own side.
Thursday 26 July
I came on at 06.00 this morning but wasn't required for firing, so, with another cleaner, I cleaned "Highclere Castle", No. 4096 which was on the Margate - Birkenhead train. No. 5067 "St. Fagan's Castle" is still lying on No. 4 road, dead, minus name and number plates. It is to be cut up and has been there since about Friday. Rumour has it that the name and number plates have been sold for £40, this seems high. Came off at 14.00. It has rained continuously for about three hours.
Friday 27 July
Another good day today. I came on at 06.00 but wasn't required until 07.30 when I was told to help the 06.00 shed pilot. He was a friendly, cheery Welshman who came up from Barry in 1936. We had to take the engines down from the coal stage, turn them if necessary, and then stable them in the correct order in the right roads of the shed. This doesn't seem much but it is enough to keep three sets of men fully occupied. I found I was pulling points and pushing engines around for most of the time which isquite tiring work. When I got to know the driver who was called Ron (or Ernie) I asked if I could drive a bit and he let me take down four engines although he was on the footplate all the time (I wouldn't have done it on my own). The engines I drove were two 61xx class 2-6-2 tanks, Nos. 6119 and 6131, then Castle class 4-6-0 No. 4082 "Windsor Castle" and finally Hall class 4-6-0 No. 6913, "Levens Hall". None of these engines were fitted with a steam brake which means that the ejector has to be used to blow up vacuum. This means that every time the brake is applied, the large ejector has to be used to get the brakes off, also the brakes would leak on. This is different from the engines fitted with the steam brake because every time the handle is placed in the off position the brakes would come off. It took quite some time to get used to this. When coming on to the turntable the brake has to be used to slow down sufficiently and then the ejector has to be opened quickly to prevent the engine from stopping completely. With the two 61xx engines I didn't open the ejector quickenough but I managed to get the Castle to come on to the table quite well. I couldn't control her enough, though, to balance her on the table. This has to be done correctly, almost to within 6 inches, with the big engines in order to allow the table to turn. Still I had a good time with the small amount of driving that I have done. Besides that we also moved 2-8-0 engines of the 2800 class and 2-6-0 engines of the 43xx class.
There is quite a variety of engines at the loco. Reading's allocation includes engines of the following classes:
Tender 4-6-0 - Castle (4073), Hall (49xx and 6959)
Tender 2-8-0 - 28xx
Tender 2-6-0 - 43xx
Tender 0-6-0 - 2251
Tank 0-6-0 - 57xx and 94xx
Tank 2-6-2 - 61xx
As well, there is a great variety of visitors which include the following:
Standard Class 5, 4-6-0 73xxx
Standard Class 4, 4-6-0 75xxx
Standard Class 9, 2-10-0
WD Austerity 2-8-0 90xxx
Southern: King Arthur Class 4-6-0 (No. 30765) West Country 4-6-2, S15 4-6-0, U and N class 2-6-0, Q1 0-6-0.
Western: County (1oxx) Grange (68xx), Manor (78xx) 2-8-0 tank (72xx) 47xx (2-8-0)
I came off at 14.00.
Monday 30 July
I was on the coal yard shunting job this morning. We had a 57xx class pannier tank No. 9763. It was the first time I had taken one of these out but I didn't get on too badly once the steam pressure started to come round. These have very small fireboxes which is a good thing as they are very cramped indeed. We left the loco about half an hour late because the fitters had to attend to a defective brake block and the sanding gear had to be corrected. We didn't do a great deal of work and were relieved at about 12.30.
Tuesday 31 July
I wasn't booked out today so I came on at 06.00 in case I was required for firing. Neither Bennall nor myself were required so we were put on to clean "Highclere Castle", No. 4096, which we cleaned last Thursday The engine is pretty dirty on those parts which aren't normally cleaned, e.g. footplating, wheels etc. When we had finished cleaning we set to and did some scraping. Next time we do her we will be able to get somewhere. I still think it would be better if, as far as possible, the cleaners were given the same engines to clean - i.e. an extension of the regular engine idea.