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The Art of Firing

Techniques of firing steam locomotives. . . . . .

‘Never thought about it much,’ said Chris staring into his mug of tea. ‘We were young lads who had been set on to cleaning the locos but we wanted to get on the footplate. Firing was the next step. It just seemed like chucking plenty of coal on the fire.’

‘Do you think it’s a skill or an art?’ I asked, chancing my arm in case Chris, in his usual style, told me to stop being ‘intellectual’.

‘Both. It depended on the loco and who you were with, and then on the road you were on. Most of us thought we’d be on a tank or something – just like when we were trying to be ‘passed’ cleaners. But in them days it were often an 8F, much bigger. You needed a good mate. You know, only use steam when it was needed. But some of them thought that since they had learnt the hard way, so should you. I remember Horace, a grumpy codger, on the down from Marylebone. I thought ‘if he doesn’t cut off soon I’ll pass out’. That was well past Aylesbury. Some of the others were OK – give you a few tips, like, go easy on the steam, even give you a hand sometimes if you were in trouble.’

‘And the locos. You could have one engine in its class which was a poor steamer for some reason no one knew. Other times you knew you were in for it just because of the loco type.’

It was an obvious discussion point with many ex-firemen in the oral history collection. There were ‘thin’ fires with holes in and thick, badly made up, too much clinker, the use of the pricker. And the coal. ‘Some of it was rubbish at the end,’ said Dennis. ‘Slack really or those briquettes which weren’t much better. Hard to get any steam at all.’

If the question of firebox arrangements and drivers wasn’t enough, there was also the road. Imagine the ‘long slog’ up to Blea Moor on the Settle - Carlisle line, or the switch back of the Somerset and Dorset. ‘Make steam on the gradient and then blow it off coming down again.’

Retired firemen were full of stories. John remembered transferring with his mates from a shed in the North West. He went to Nottingham, the other two went to Saltley (Birmingham). ‘We went out one Saturday day off and I started going on about firing Annesley 9Fs. Then I found out they were on 9F’s too – but those fitted with mechanical stokers! But they got the same money as me!’

The firedoor into the firebox of a steam locomotive. The firebox peak temperature is approximately 2,500 °F (1,370 °C)

Further back in time Joe recalled firing during the war. ‘I was a young lad, then, but I thought firing locos better than firing for real. We were instructed not to open firebox doors in York station at night, so as not to attract enemy bombers. Sometimes we were almost at Naburn Bridge on the up before we opened the doors. That’s a long time without fresh steam.’

‘Surely you’d know if bombers were about?”

‘Not over the noise of the engine. Sometimes you had no idea what was above you.’

I was reminded of all this reading through O S Nock’s account of the arrival of Stanier’s ‘Princess Royal’ Pacifics in the 1930’s. ‘It was realised you couldn’t fire all around the box as had been the case with Claughton’s. It would have been a colossal task made even worse as the coal got further and further back in the tender as the journey progressed. The box on ‘Princess Royal’ was 45 square feet. Later practice was to prepare a taper fire – a thick fire at the back end, tapering out to the front.’

It was a tough job, firing, and especially if your loco had a firebox the size of a small bedroom. Beyer Peacock used self trimming tenders on their Garratt locomotives. Crewe tried fitting steam powered coal pushers on the back of ‘Duchess’ Pacific tenders to save firemen crawling back into the tender to pull coal forward. I remember watching them cruise slowly past Rugby station on the up with a big express and seeing wisps of steam coming from the vent pipes on the top of the steam pusher (Check out ‘Duchess of Hamilton’ in the NRM). The steam pushers also sprayed water over the coal – helpful except that the footplate often flooded!

It was hard, manual work, but if you learnt all the skills you developed the ‘art’ of being a good fireman. Later in life, most of those I talked to suffered the consequences of standing on two moving plates shovelling coal into a small fire hole and trying not to miss. Back troubles were, and are, common but also limb joints, almost any joint.

Interviewing Bob and Alma at their home in the suburbs of Leicester, they talked about Bob coming home and having to be thoroughly washed down, first as a cleaner and then, as a fireman. ‘I used to wash out his hair. It was filthy. Grease used to stay in his skin, the pores,’ added Alma. Bob summed it up, ‘Yes, I was 19 years on the spade’. In later life Bob and Alma have taken to travelling by train all over the UK and into Europe, gliding along under diesel or electric power. Steam seems a long time ago.

A few months after seeing them I wrote up my dissertation about railway oral histories. Guess what I called it? Yes, that’s right, ‘Nineteen Years on the Spade’!


Not sure about fireboxes? Find out more here

John Swanwick

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