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Douglas Flett – Recollections 3

In his own words.

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

However after spending the winter there relations between my father and myself, I wouldn’t say they had deteriorated but it was, it was a difficult situation so I got moved to the Goods Office at Kittybrewster. This was a big time for me, Kittybrewster was a big marshalling yard, old Great North of Scotland marshalling yard, open 24 hours a day from I think 10 o’clock on

day night until six a.m. the following Sunday morning, or maybe they would work an early shift on a Sunday as well sometimes. Two or three shunting engines going along, it wasn’t long before I found my way up there and got a lift to go in a shunting engine, the drivers or a fireman, the firemen were always quite willing to let you have a go at firing, they would go off and have a cup of tea or somethin. Some of the drivers weren’t too keen, they were quite strict, would chase you off the footplate. But the the great thing about Kittybrewster was the livestock traffic. The Auction marts had grown up around the station and I think I’m correct in saying that Kittybrewster handled more livestock at that time than any other station on BR and … there was an enormous entertainment value with all these Irish cattle dealers, some of whom you had to watch like a hawk otherwise you wouldn’t get your money from them until they had come back the following year, they’d disappear back to Ireland.

Quite a number, settled in this area but livestock was a thing that people in the railway -- other parts of the railway it had died out quite a bit and they didn’t really know how to deal with it, both from the commercial side, and from the animal welfare side because there were rules about feeding, watering and how to look after cows in calf, cows in milk, day old calves, pigs, and of course the current thing which is in the headlines, foot and mouth.

Now foot and mouth seemed to me on looking back to be fairly common in these days, but it didn’t seem to spread over the whole country, they were able to confine it to areas where it broke out, and would get circulars, telegrams every day giving us the latest on foot and mouth, places where you weren’t allowed to send livestock to and what to do if things, if you did get involved in it, and strangely enough the railway at that time seemed to be the only organisation which had a comprehensive knowledge of the foot and mouth situation, because it wasn’t uncommon for the local auction mart, they would ring up and say, “Oh, we’ve got a man wants to send some cattle to somewhere in Lincolnshire or “… maybe in the Cotswolds or whatever, “is that okay?” Is the foot and mouth finished there?” And not only the mart would do this but the local police would do it, because they had to issues certificates allowing people to move livestock when there were foot and mouth outbreaks, and it wasn’t unusual for the local police to ring up and say, “Oh, we’ve got a licence to make out for Moreton-in-the-Marsh or somewhere, can you?” Their geography I don’t think was too good you see, especially when it came to places in the south of England, and their first reaction was to ring the Goods Office at Kittybrewster to find out if they could issue the certificate, and they would issue the certificate on our say so. To my knowledge it never went wrong. Of course they had also in these days the slaughterhouse in Aberdeen, or the abattoir to put it more politely, known as the killing house, was, down George Street, and we used to get a lot of cattle from places like Maud, Dingwall, Tain and all around the northand they just simply herded them down the road, through tramcars and the crowds, and every now and then of course the animals would break off and it wasn’t unknown for them to get into a tenement block, an apartment block and find a way up the stairs … At least one occasion I can recall one of them boarding a tramcar, much to the consternation of the passengers. This used to happen, and all this stuff, there used to be hundreds of head, thousands I suppose used to be herded up and down the road to the cattle mart from the station. We had some interesting times.

Mail order traffic was an enormous bussiness to the railway in the 40s and the 50s, especially in the 50s when things began to get a bit easier after the wartime restrictions and rationing was removed. You no longer needed coupons to buy clothes, this was the thing that gave the mail order a real impetus, and firms like Great Universal Stores, Littlewoods, set up very large organisations to develop mail order. People didn’t go to Marks and Spencers, or journey to the nearest town because it was difficult to travel from the remoter areas, and they bought all their new clothes, household goods, by mail order. This was something which originated in America, when they sold goods to people in remote prairies and so on, and it had found its way across to the UK like many other things find their way from America. And as far as the railway was concerned, they negotiated contracts with the mail order companies; they did it by taking a statistical sample of the traffic, working out the actual rates and charges for this sample and calculating it up for the total business. They would negotiate then a total payment from the mail order firms and usually these contracts were on the basis that everything had to be delivered no matter what the cost, and this caused great problems at rural stations where the cartage facilities were limited. Some of the recipients of the parcels lived in the most remote spots imaginable, where it was exceedingly difficult to get things delivered. Many a railwayman used to make a bob or two delivering parcels on their bikes, or the few, very odd ones who had a motorbike or a motorcar would do even better because there was a scale which was known as Out-Boundary Cartage Charges, and this money was paid out of the till to anybody who delivered parcels. I can remember the local postman used to take their railway parcels along with their GPO mail and deliver them as a sort of cottage industry side business. What the GPO in these days would have said about it if they had discovered that I’m not quite sure, but this stuff was delivered, eventually and the cost of delivering some of these parcels must have been much greater than the actual revenue received from them, but overall given the huge volume of the business the railway obviously found it profitable to do so.

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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