Did You Know?

Short stories from the history of Britain's railways 


A large Beyer Garrett steam locomotive moved slowly over the girder bridge spanning the Zambezi river, far below. It had come from Zambia and was heading south to Hwange in Zimbabwe. When it stopped at the platform I picked out its name painted in yellow letters on black – ‘Isisiba’. Lost in my thoughts, I jumped as I was tapped on the shoulder. A tall young man dressed in grey slacks and dark blue shirt asked if I would take his photo.

‘Is that yours?’ I asked, pointing at the locomotive.

‘Yes. You want to look?’ We walked across the tracks, he barely looking, and climbed onto the footplate.

Inside, the cab was an assorted selection of gauges and levers, some hanging down like stalactites from the cab roof. The heat was overpowering, this being Southern Africa at near midday, but my man seemed not to be troubled. Peering out from the sooty windows I could see water being fed into front and rear tenders simultaneously. Picture duly taken, I asked where he was coming from and going to.

‘From Lusaka,’ he said, ‘to Hwange, then I come back.’

We were on Rhodes’ great project, a railway linking north to south, through Africa. From Lusaka, the line crosses the Zambezi to Hwange and then on to Bulawayo and across the border at Beit Bridge, into South Africa. In those days the line was the province of Garretts, working heavy trains of copper ore and coal, with exchange sidings at Hwange. They were magnificent engines but, like all Garretts, their flexible steam pipes sometimes made it look as if more steam was escaping into the open air than ever entered the cylinders.

My man waved as he set off, leaving behind a grubby slip of paper explaining where to send a copy of the photo. ‘Mark, Victoria Falls station,’ it said.

That night we were camping in the forests not too far from the line near Hwange. I have to admit, reader, that, while most of my colleagues were up and about listening out for wildlife, I sat listening to the big trains pounding up the grades towards Hwange, every bit as exciting as the sound of an elephant, the distant roar of a lion.

That was long ago, and much has changed in southern Africa since. The Garretts are long gone and now we have only photos and paintings to remind us. (Except that I once found a Garrett from the South African national collection in a railway museum in Berlin – see the post of 25th January 2021 on this site).

Some years after my Victoria Falls experience I was driving along the coastal highway in Cape province, the so called ‘garden route’, near the town of George. Someone whispered to me that I might find some Garretts in the vicinity so I turned off the highway and drove a few kilometres to Mosselbai, right on the coast. And there they were, a collection of long disused black hulks, spattered with bird lime and gathering weeds. It was a sad end. They were the locomotives that hauled the trains across the Karoo desert from Germiston in Jo’burg, through to the towns and cities in the Cape. If we think of steam locomotives as somehow alive when in steam, when dead and on a scrap line, quietly rusting away, it’s very sad. I drove back to the main highway with a heavy heart.

I don’t know if my photo ever found its way to Mark but I like to think it was stuck behind a steam pipe in a cab somewhere, at least until the end of steam. I meant to ask him what ‘Isisiba’ meant but forgot. For years afterwards I asked around but no one seemed to know. There were suggestions – ‘powerful’, ‘monster’ and so on. I’ll never know, so I have invented my own – ‘dragon’, for so it seemed.

Much has changed in southern Africa over the years.

NRZ 15th class No. 406 Ikolo (Hornbill) with a passenger train at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 1997

Perhaps some of you went on tours to the sheds at Bulawayo or Germiston, where they were kept. Don’t go now, though – Germiston can be a pretty scary place, even without a pandemic.


By John Swanwick.

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Trusting Eton College boys under a “Star” class locomotive at Swindon Works in 1927. Photo: Great Western Trust

The Great Western Railway’s original application to build a line from London to Reading with a branch to Windsor was opposed by Eton College as early as 1833. The Provost of Eton College wrote that year that “no public good whatever could possibly come from such an undertaking”. In 1834, Eton College then took formal action against the GWR to try to prevent the new line from London to Reading with a branch to Windsor coming anywhere near the College. The GWR offered to withdraw the idea of a branch to Windsor provided that Eton College didn’t object to the route of the main line through Slough.

In 1835 the Provost of Eton again vigorously opposed the building of the GWR and insisted on amendments to the Great Western Railway Act. These included asking that no diversion, branch or station should be built within three miles of the College and that the GWR should employ staff to prevent Eton boys from gaining access to the railway. The Provost feared that Eton College would be ruined. “London would pour forth the most abandoned of its inhabitants to come down by the railway and pollute the minds of the scholars, whilst the boys themselves would take advantage of the short interval of their play hours to run up to town, mix in all the dissipation of London life, and return before their absence could be discovered.” However, the Act received the Royal Assent on 31st August 1835. Conditions were set in the Act so that the railway was not to be used by boys from Eton College and that it should have a wall or fence on both sides of the line where it passed through the nearby length of what is now between Langley, Slough and Burnham.

It was pressure from the Royal household that finally brought the railway to Windsor. When the line of just under three miles from Slough to Windsor was finally approved to be built, Eton College insisted that two constables, paid for by the GWR, should be provided to keep Eton boys away from the construction works. Thus, Constables Bott and Dickins, duly approved of by the College, started work in 1848. The College relinquished the right to the services of what was by then one constable in 1886 with the proviso that constables could be re-appointed if necessary. Additionally, Eton’s authorities demanded the right to be able to search Windsor station for fugitive boys and receive the full co-operation of railway employees in doing so. Screens or planting was also required to ensure privacy of those using the College’s bathing place by the Thames at Cuckoo Weir. There were complaints about work taking place on Sundays, that work strayed into College property and fears that the works could cause the River Thames to flood.

The GWR's first special trains ran in June 1838 between Paddington and Maidenhead for the Eton Montem ceremony held at the Montem Mound at Salt Hill, by the Bath Road at Slough. The tradition had originally started in the 16th century as an initiation rite for boys at Eton College. With the coming of the railway, it is said that “large, rowdy crowds from London” came down and this finally persuaded the Eton College authorities to put a stop to the ceremony a few years later.

Despite years of vigorously opposing the railway, Eton College relented somewhat and ordered a series of GWR special trains to take Eton boys from the temporary station at Slough for the coronation of Queen Victoria in June 1838. The temporary station, which didn’t have a platform, was a way round the College’s objections. By 1840, the College had given in and had finally allowed the construction of a permanent station at Slough. The GWR had bought a field next to the North Star pub in Slough, a ground floor window of which was already being used as its booking office. The more permanent Slough station didn’t open until June 1841. This was due to provisions in the Act of Parliament which prevented the GWR from building any station or depot within three miles of Eton College.

Had Eton College finally given in? Not quite. Despite a party of a hundred pupils from the College visiting Swindon Works in February 1927 to learn more about railway engineering, there was another protest. A new halt at Chalvey very close to Eton was proposed on the Slough to Windsor branch. There was a strong letter from Eton College who didn’t want their pupils to be distracted by the railway or given an escape route from the College to the fleshpots of London. Nonetheless, Chalvey Halt opened in May 1929. The GWR hoped it would attract new passenger traffic, but it didn’t and the halt was closed after a year. Eton College remains open after 581 years…..

Mike Peart.

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Their stories cover life on the footplate that was both hard work and dangerous, shared to varying degrees between driver and fireman. Sometimes the relationship was harmonious with the driver getting the best out of the locomotive to help his mate, sometimes less so, usually on the basis of the driver’s view that he had done his time as a fireman the hard way and so should his mate. There are stories of recalcitrant locomotives and temporary fixes, good and bad parts of the various routes, fry ups on the shovel, washing from the slacker pipe. But there’s also a streak of the romantic about it all – not just the nostalgia for the past but a general sense of the emotions the footplate could offer. Here’s Clive talking prosaically and at length about ‘the Nibble’:

‘The Nibble was called the Nibble for some reason. Stratford on Avon and Midland Joint, (SMJ), or Midland Junction. The area was sparsely populated and you would be out going across the area in the early hours of the morning. There would be no lights anywhere at all. It would be absolutely pitch black. The only light you would see would be a signal box in the distance, and that would come up towards you like a lighthouse at sea and then go away behind you and that was it - you were in pitch darkness, absolute pitch darkness.’

‘I only went over there once in daylight. I was always on in the early hours of darkness ……. I do remember going on it once in daylight, but (on) another line I think. …… Being out in country were the Didcot jobs, from Banbury southwards through Oxford, and the countryside was magnificent in the early hours of the morning.’

The excitement of it was tempered by hard work. Most of the former firemen I identified were partly crippled by back, hip and knee problems in later life. A fireman might well have to shovel several tonnes of coal into the firebox in a shift, with a firebox the size of a small bedroom in late model express locomotives. This would involve turning through 180 degrees and aiming the shovelful through the opening of the firebox door, whilst the locomotive and tender footplates were moving independently. Woe betide you if your shovel hit the edge of the firebox door! Mechanical firemen? Good idea but, well, too late for many.

‘I can still remember the sound of the shovel scrapping on the steel floor and the coal moving down the tender. If I hear something like that I always pause a moment,’ admitted Les. ‘Then I remember how tired I got, even as a young man. The coal was either in big lumps that needed breaking up or not much more than slack.’

Midland Spinner 4-2-2 673 CAB. NRM

Most of us can have only a limited idea of what it was like on the footplate of an express locomotive travelling at speed, or even a slow moving freight passing through night time countryside. We have films to watch, we can lean over the cab side and look at the array of pipes and levers in locomotive cabs at the NRM, but it’s hard to imagine it all. If I look carefully, though, alongside that little boy staring wide eyed alongside me, we can just see the chain for the whistle. Now, there’s the real thrill! A long blast as the station approaches and we hurtle through, wind in our faces the flicker of passing lights and then – darkness, one’s mate and the fire for company.


By John Swanwick.

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