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A Watery Affair

Problems with water tanks on locomotives, mentioning a problem with Flying Scotsman. . . . . . .

‘Well, it’s basically a kettle on wheels.’

‘Think of it as a bomb on wheels.’

Two graphic ways of describing to the uninitiated what a steam locomotive is. I have overheard both, offered to visitors staring at the innards of ‘Ellerman Lines’ in the NRM.

Well, I suppose they are right, in a way. The whole idea is based on the principle of forcing water into the boiler using steam injectors and woe-betide any engine crew that had problems with the injectors. On the footplate there is often a slightly nervous tapping of pipes and gauges, a look down below the footplate to see surplus water pouring out of the injectors. All OK, then, because, if not, the boiler eventually over heats and, but for fusible plugs, would explode. As your kettle would have it, ‘boiled dry’. It was a point not lost on locomotive designers who thoughtfully provided two injectors though, if both stopped working, the only alternative was to drop the fire on to the track and hope.

Getting water through to the boiler was often talked about in the oral histories I collected. Albert recalled that, at Woodford Halse, they had a collection of ex-WD ‘Austerities’, prone to suffering jammed clack valves (the one way valve where water enters the boiler). The time honoured solution was to get out when it jammed, along the running board, and bang it with a coal hammer. ‘’Always did the trick,’ said Albert, ‘except that if you had an ex-GWR ‘Austerity’ they had a cowl (top feed) over the clack valve so all you could do was drop the fire and fail the engine.’

Ken Issett was a fireman on ‘Flying Scotsman’ when it ran on the old GCR route through Leicester. In December, 2005 he wrote a letter to the NRM responding to a call for stories about the ‘Flying Scotsman’. Ken was thanked for his hair raising story that always reminds me of the ‘bomb on wheels’ description.

© John Lowerson. Water color painting on canvas. Flying Scotsman

Sometime in 1958 (Ken has forgotten when, exactly), he and his driver took over Flying Scotsman on the up ‘South Yorkshireman’ at Leicester Central. They were told there had been ‘some problems with the injectors’ (plural). Passing Aylesbury, one injector stopped working and then, near Wendover, the other. Ken described frantic efforts by Cyril, his driver, to get them working again while Ken started dropping fire from the grate onto the tracks. When there was virtually no water left in the glass, it started working again and a weary, perspiring crew made it into Marylebone, a mere 5 minutes late. ‘A lady walked past,’ recalled Ken. ‘Thank you for my safe journey, she said.’ (!)

When the fitters got to work on FS they knew what they were looking for – the outlet pipes from the tender to the injectors, protected by a wire mesh. The mesh was pretty much blocked with algae and weed. They also found ‘three buckets of live fish – roach, bream, rudd – all swimming around happily and living off the algae in the tender.’ The back story is that pipes of about 9 inches in diameter would feed water into tenders, often straight from a river or a lake, taking in fish with it.

Feigning ignorance I asked a few others about how the water got from the tender to the injectors and why there needed to be a mesh over the tender outlet pipes. John recalled regularly finding frog spawn and sticklebacks in the tender tank. ‘But we didn’t go into the tender tank very often until they issued a notice telling us we had to inspect the pipes and mesh. Most of us didn’t fancy climbing down inside the tank. It was dark, wet, and who knows what you would find?’ Quite so. I, too, have looked down into the tender tank, peered at the dark water, and wondered. Monsters, perhaps?

Mick remembered occasional fishing trips. ‘Sunday mornings. Some of the lads would turn up at the shed with rods and line – simple home made stuff, to see what they could catch in the tanks. The bigger tanks were best, not the smaller side tanks. Better than the canal, though.’

At first, I thought these were old tales of footplate crews, embellished somewhat in the telling but, eventually, I was convinced because so many told similar stories. The best one, though, was one from Reg who remembered his time as a youthful cleaner at Leicester Midland shed. The shed had a large water tank on top of high, spindly steel legs at the back of the yard. ‘On Friday afternoons they had trouble finding cleaners because we were all up in the water tank with rafts!’ Thinking about this I asked him what else was in the tank. ‘Oh, a few fish, that sort of thing…’ Nothing abnormal, then.

Meanwhile, down below, the ‘bombs on wheels’ simmered quietly on the shed roads, waiting for their next turn of duty.

Ken’ story is told in more detail in his book ‘Firing the Flying Scotsman and other Great Locomotives – Life on the footplate in the last years of steam.’ (2012) Ken Issett, with illustrations by Chris Bates. The History Press. You might also bump into Ken recounting his stories at presentations, usually around the Midlands, but probably not in a pandemic.


John Swanwick

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