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Douglas Flett – Recollections 2

In his own words.

Extract from NAROH interview 2001/115. . . . . .

I got a letter from the local District Traffic Superintendent’s Office in Aberdeen asking if I’d be interested in taking the leading porter’s job at Newmachar, where I lived, for the summer because the incumbent had moved off to a summer job somewhere and they tempted me

with a much bigger wage, because the wage for a leading porter at that time was 115 and six, that’s five pound 15 and six a week, whereas as a junior clerk my starting salary was £140 10 shillings, which I think comes to about two pound 14 and six, so I, was quite happy to take this job, even though it meant having my father as my boss., He was much tougher on me than he would have been on anyone else, and he didn’t approve of a youngster doing a responsible job like porter in charge at Newmachar .

Picture courtesy:

Anyway, I took this job and unofficially the first thing I had to do was learn to operate the signal box, so that the signalman in the morning could go home for his breakfast. If my father had known about that I would have been sacked on the spot, but, I always remember it was, a Tyre’s number five or number six, tablet instrument and that was the first thing, I ever really managed to do in the railway. I’ve another vivid recollection of every Monday morning I had to change the distant signal lamps because that would have taken the signalman out of the box for too long, he did the other signals but I had to do the distant ones and I wasn’t too keen on this for I discovered when getting up the ladder and up to the top and, the critical thing was changing the two lamps, because you had one in each hand and you’d nothing to hold on to. Another recollection was … deciding this took too long and getting my bike out, of course in these days you could bike very comfortably along the railway track because the, the path on each side of the track was kept very neatly in the days of the best kept length competitions and so on, one of the things– there was no ballast, no Matisa machines to spread rubbish all over the place, and you could cycle very comfortably.

I did this, with the signal lamps dangling over the handlebar.

Unfortunately, my knee hit one lamp, and the lamp hit the handlebar, and the whole lot of us, bicycle, lamps, the lot finished in the ballast and covered with paraffin so I didn’t, I didn’t use the bicycle after that. speaking of paraffin, that reminds me of the lighting in these places. There was no electricity in the station up where I was at Newmachar and … the lighting originally when I started was acetylene gas, what you call carbide– very similar to the old acetylene lamps in the old motor cars and, and push bikes, it was shaped in a sort of triangular shape with two jets at the top, just naked flame jets, water in the top portion of the light and the carbide at the bottom there, and you controlled the size of the flame by regulating the amount of water which dripped through and dripped onto the powder, produced a gas which came up in two tubes up the side of the light and you had this naked flame, and it gave you a very good light. The only problem was that it stank like nobody’s business … Then we had modernisation, these were replaced with Tilley lamps, the pressurised Tilley lamps which were excellent but we were accustomed to them because nearly everybody in the country areas used a Tilley lamp for lighting because the … hydroelectric board hadn’t reached the more remote places, they were still busy doing the, the densely populated areas, and the electricity didn’t reach all these places, a lot of them, until the 60s, and some of these stations closed without electricity ever arriving..

But the paraffin and the coal fires of course, enormous coal fires, and if it hadn't been for the engines, getting coal off the engines, our coal ration disappeared, for the winter, disappeared about November. You just got coal off the train engines, the fireman would chuck some big lumps out, sometimes of course in these days when food was still rationed then maybe they would get a half a dozen eggs or whatever and they would respond with a supply of coal … They certainly had, had a lot of problems with heating these offices and waiting rooms, the fireplaces were huge. The other thing, you got all the smells of the acetylene gas, the coal fire, pipes – all these old railwaymen seemed to smoke pipes with – and their favourite tobacco up in this part of the world was something they called Mitchell’s Three Star Bogey Roll, which was essentially the black, thickened black twist stuff, which … came in strips very similar to the old liquorice sweets, you got that smell. you had to make your own glue, glue arrived from the stationery stores in packets with crystals and you had to boil the glue up in water and it stank as well, and all these smells are almost as vivid a recollection as anything else, and then of course you had the steam engines with the hot oil The other thing I remember was the annual station inspection which happened when I was doing this job at Newmachar. The platform was ashes more or less, there was a bit of concrete paving but most of it was ashes, and you had to get a hoe and hoe this platform, my hands were covered in blisters, to get rid of all the weeds you see that grew up through the ashes, before the station inspection which was conducted by one Mr J W Barr who was District Traffic Superintendent, a fearsome character, he was ... I think one of the biggest tyrants, an old timer, an old North Eastern man … and he was in Aberdeen I think from about nationalisation until 1959 or thereabouts. He was a very strict old time railwayman, no nonsense, and a lot of people didn’t like him but I had a lot to thank him for because later he was a means of me being transferred into the District Office in Aberdeen which was quite a difficult thing to do and if it hadn’t been for that, my railway career probably would have followed quite a different pattern but for some reason he took a fancy to me and got me moved into Aberdeen. However, having spent the summer at, at Newmachar, much to my horror the next thing they did was make me junior clerk at Udny again under my father, and this just didn’t work at all. But I spent quite an interesting winter there, which was the next station down the line from Newmachar.

I had to get there in the morning, that was okay, I could get a train but there wasn't a suitable train home at night, so I either had to walk the three to four miles back from Udny to Newmachar because my father wouldn’t let me go early to get a train, or I had to get a lift in one of the goods trains, and I used to do that quite a lot, I would ride in the engine or the guard’s van, again my father wouldn’t have approved of that but what he didn’t know, or didn’t see is perhaps more accurate, he didn’t bother about.

Picture courtesy: Travel Scotland

I have a vivid recollection when working there of getting involved or observing a large batch of professional musicians from London, people from the symphony orchestra used to come to Haddo House where Lady June Gordon who is still alive and I think in her 90s now and Haddo House Choral Society and she attracted all sorts of people from London, famous musicians came there to give concerts and she had her own choral society which she conducted. Her husband was at that time Major David Gordon who later became the Marquis of Aberdeen, and they ran the estate. I can see these people yet, coming off the first train from Aberdeen, after having travelled overnight on the sleeper and being met by Lady Gordon and her husband, and they came staggering off onto the platform clutching their cellos and other musical instruments, and the look on their faces when they looked around them was something to behold. I can also remember their people like the local gamekeeper from Haddo House would come and send off all the game to London, Manchester and so on. We had huge amounts of potatoes went off., Goods arrived for all local shops, in these days tins of syrup, bags of flour, tea chests all this sort of stuff used to arrive every day and we had a lorry to deliver it round the local village and shops. A tidal wave of mail order parcels, which came from Great Universal Stores, people like that – this was the high noon of your mail order business, what they referred to in this part of the world as Club Parcel, because they paid up, joined a club and paid up so much a week, it was an early form of hire purchase. These parcels arrived by the hundred, it was an enormous business for the railway. Of course, at that time the railway was still carrying over 50 percent of the ton mileage, freight ton mileage … and if you allow for things like milk delivery carts, mail vans and the like which constituted a big portion of the road ton mileage, the railway was carrying a very large proportion of the tonne mileage over say 40 or 50 miles, and everybody was dependent on the railway to a greater or lesser extent. So we had, quite an important position in the local economy, and we used to get all sorts of people would turn up in the station office and of course life being where it was in these days they would stop and have a chat and you got all the local gossip. Everybody knew what was going on …, it wasn’t perfection because these communities were a bit introspective, everybody knew everybody else’s business, and it wasn’t really idyllic as you might think, human nature being what it is, but it was, it was very good in other respects. Another recollection the local telephone exchange was one of these manual exchanges, there was no dialling the telephone, you simply lifted the telephone, crank – turned the handle and the voice from the exchange would say, “Aye, aye fit like this morning.” And you would say, you didn’t give them a number you just said, oh “Well I’d like to speak to Willie McKenzie at so and so.” And they would say, “Hold on a minute.” And the next you heard was the voice at the telephone exchange saying, “Hello Willie, Udny station wanting you.” … You felt part of the community.

Douglas Flett joined British Rail in 1952 as a railman at Logierieve and retired in 1992 from the freight department at BR HQ. His recollections of 40 years working on British Rail were recorded in 2001 for the FNRM - NAROH project.

Find out more about NAROH here

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