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Short stories from the history of Britain's railways 


Midland Spinner 4-2-2 673 CAB. NRM

A previous post on the romance of the footplate (17th May 2021) made me (and a few others) wonder if I was over-egging it, so to set the record straight, here’s a not so glamorous piece.

Recording oral histories in the East Midlands inevitably led to many discussions about the closure of the former Great Central route. The general feeling of injustice and absurdity of it formed the general theme with further commentary about the parts Messrs. Beeching and Marples played in the closure decision. It’s a story that still provokes a lot of emotion and there were a few instances where I turned the recorder off while interviewees composed themselves – this, over 50 years after the event.

Among the stories recorded were several describing what it was like for footplate crews at that time, working with progressively more run down locomotives. Footplate work always had an element of danger about it with some hair raising accounts told with a relaxed air decades later when, at the time, they must have led to sleepless nights. As time passed and closure grew nearer, the route became host to a variety of locomotive types not wanted elsewhere – a boon for trainspotters but a nightmare for footplate men.

John remembered a Nottingham Victoria to London Marylebone train hauled by Royal Scot 46112 ‘Sherwood Forester’ which had been supplied by Annesley MPD. ‘Going down the bank at Loughborough - it was a double colour light there – he got a green so decided to let it go. Then, all of a sudden, there was a massive explosion and all the fire came back through the fire hole door and onto the footplate. The main steam pipe had gone in the smoke box. The driver stepped out onto the framing leaning through the cab and brought the train to a stop. His fireman jumped off and broke his arm.’ The wreck was later moved, fire out, to Leicester. ‘At Annesley that day they tested all the Scots they had and the main steam fitter’s hammer went straight through two more. The steam pipes were like paper.’

Then there were the Britannias. John again: ‘70047 was reported as having heavy banging between engine and tender and they found the draw bar had gone. It was running on safety chains! It was pulling trains with safety chains!’

WD “Austerities’ didn’t have much of a fan club, either, though they were sturdy and solid enough. Clive and Iain remembered they had to be turned boiler first on the main link of the triangle at Woodford Halse as they were prone to derailing their tenders. Dave explained how NER ‘Raven’ designs tended to have unusual fire door covers. ‘We swore at them, calling them ‘bloodspitters’ because you nearly always caught your knuckles on the fire door cover.’

If this piece is starting to sound rather gruesome to readers, footplate crews often had remedies of their own, usually well away from shed foremen. David put a strange looking metal object on the table between us. It looked like a trowel with a strange handle. ‘A Jimmy,’ he said, ‘or some called it a razor. It was for bad steamers and you put it over the top of the chimney. I don’t know why but it worked – probably split the blast more effectively, I don’t know.’

John talked about burning ‘rubbish’ coal (‘if you could call it that’) and using ‘rubbish’ water (lime scale). ‘Chuck two pills the size of baked bean tins in the tender, and another one, different type, for the fire. That’s how you got started before you left the shed yard. Best bet was a shovel full of sand. If we were struggling with an engine we went out with a bucket of sand on the footplate and when you were out in the countryside, you’d throw a shovel full of sand up around the brick arch so it went through the tubes and came out of the top. An effective way to clean the tubes.’ (Note to self – don’t try this at home!)

It was a hard – and a dangerous – life. Some of those earlier comments about the enjoyable moments on the footplate were balanced by what was otherwise a challenging job at the best of times. On a run down railway it was even more so. Viewing some of the exhibits in the NRM’s Great Hall in those long ago days before the pandemic I sometimes found myself wondering if a broader story might benefit visitors contemplating the job on the footplate – a sort of ‘what can possibly go wrong?’ storyboard.

But then, perhaps not. Let’s not stir up a difficult past; let’s stick to what we call ‘nostalgia’ – or do we call it ‘history’?


John Swanwick

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7021 “Haverfordwest Castle” with a train from West Wales to Paddington on Goring Troughs in 1962. Spray from a pick-up could stretch for two or three vehicles – hopefully watertight parcels vans in this case.

It was the London & North Western Railway that started using troughs to enable moving locomotives to pick up water. Their first troughs appeared around 1860 between Chester and Holyhead at a time when a tender might only be carrying up to 2,000 gallons. By the end of the 19th century other railway companies had cottoned on to the potential for time-saving and by the beginning of the 20th century there were troughs at 38 British locations. In 1896 the Prince of Wales’ train was able to run non-stop from Cardiff to Paddington thanks to new troughs near Bristol. The same year, new troughs allowed the GWR to start running non-stop expresses from Paddington to Exeter. In 1899, Queen Victoria wanted to travel by train non-stop from Windsor to Folkestone. The companies that eventually formed the Southern Railway didn’t have any troughs so the GWR had to enlarge the tenders of two locomotives. One locomotive was the pilot that ran light engine ten minutes before the Royal Train itself, and the second was the Royal Train locomotive itself. Fortunately, both locomotives completed the non-stop trip with water to spare and without melting a boiler fusible plug or needing to drop the fire urgently.

Troughs were normally placed on the level and were between 500 and 600 yards long. Gravity feeding and pumps kept them topped up. Permanent way gangers had to break the ice in the winter months to keep them open, but hard frosts and deep snow often meant that the troughs had to close. As time went on, only the Southern Railway didn’t have any troughs on its system. This meant that its express locomotives had to run with tenders containing between 4,500 and 6,000 gallons of water. Other companies usually managed with between 4,000 and 5,000 gallon tenders on their later locomotives which could be replenished at speed, with 2,000 gallons considered to be a good pick-up.

“Merchant Navy” class 35008 “Orient Line” heading the “Bournemouth Belle” Pullman express from London Waterloo and taking water to replenish the 6,000 gallon tender after 79 miles at Southampton Central in 1961. Note the magnificent signal gantry.

There was an art to the good pick-up. The pick-up scoop had to be wound down at just the right point and wound back up again extremely quickly against the pressure of water before the end of the troughs was reached. Sometimes things went wrong. In March 1914, a strange incident occurred on the GWR near Twyford, Berkshire. An up express from Plymouth headed by a “Star” class tender locomotive had taken on water at speed over the Aldermaston troughs. The fireman had wound the pick-up scoop back after successfully taking on water. However, he failed to put the safety chain back on the scoop handle in the tender and as the train ran through Reading at speed, the well-lubricated handle mechanism moved of its own accord gradually dropping the scoop. By the time the train was approaching Twyford 13 miles on, the scoop had dropped enough to catch the Automatic Train Control ramp for the Twyford West signal box distant signal. Unnoticed by the footplate crew, the steel ramp in the middle of the track was torn from its mountings, rammed through the back of the tender creating a water leak and into the front of the leading brake van! A very surprised guard saw the ramp come into his compartment and then project out through its roof. He applied his emergency brake and the train came to a stand. The guard was awarded one guinea by the GWR Directors for his action: it’s not said what happened to the hapless fireman.

On one occasion in 1924 with the GWR’s only “Pacific” loco, "The Great Bear", the insecured tender tank filler flew open when the loco was passing over troughs with the scoop down. The resulting torrent of water broke the vestibule connection to the first coach and flooded it to a depth of one foot. Some passengers claimed for their soaking and had to be compensated. Guards and travelling ticket collectors were responsible for ensuring that the windows in leading coaches of trains were closed on the approach to troughs.

The use of troughs survived the steam era, albeit briefly. British Railways Type 4 diesels and the “Deltics”, both of which operated on long-distance non-stop services, had water pick-up scoops to replenish the tanks used to store water for steam heating the coaches. As electric carriage heating took over, the scoops were removed along with the troughs themselves.

Words and photos by Mike Peart

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