Memories of a fitter at Eastleigh works in steam days. . . . . . .
A previous post on this site made mention of the dangers of working with run down steam locomotives in the last years of steam traction on British Railways. Those of us old enough to remember will have our own stories, probably mixed in with accounts of visits to various scrap yards up and down the country but notably Woodhams at Barry in South Wales. My own locomotive cemetery was just outside Kettering where a Saturday afternoon visit would involve a cycle ride, seemingly into the countryside, to find some sidings filled up with bits and pieces of steam locomotives, wagons and London Underground stock, some of it already loaded onto wagons for transit to a steel works somewhere. There was a smell of burning from fires lit during the week to burn out combustible materials like wood and accumulated deposits of grease. It was a sad sight, looking at the remains of SR Schools classes, MR 0-6-0’s and so on. In the end, 181 locomotives were cut up there – plus a few not mentioned, I imagine.
But if I have mentioned footplate crews battled the odds, and scrapyard men slicing through metal with acetylene without a thought to sentiment, I ought also to doff my cap to the shed fitters who kept the show on the road for as long as possible.
A favourite is Eric’s story. (Eric’s mate had an unusual pastime of drawing link motion of steam engines and trying to improve on the designs of Messrs Stephenson, Walschaerts and others. It beats Sudoku, I suppose).
Eric was at Eastleigh, near Southampton, repairing Bulleid’s once proud Pacifics in the 1960’s. ‘The run down of Eastleigh shed was in full swing when I began working there in 1965…. The shed conditions were absolutely filthy, squalid even,’ Eric recalled.
Bulleid designed his Pacifics with all sorts of nooks and crannies, difficult and dirty places to squeeze into if you were a fitter trying to undo a nut, fit a washer, or some such. Pride of place went to the chain drive enclosed in an oil bath system which had been largely replaced before Eric’s time, thankfully. ‘There were 50 plus bolts which were never oil tight,’ Eric went on. Once you had drained off 40 or so gallons of oil the chain would still drip for days afterwards. You were plastered with oil. Firstly, you had to get up inside via the oil sump orifice, followed by manoeuvring your upper body around the obstructing three row crank, which lay directly above you. With your upper torso now wedged inside, somehow you were expected to work….’ I missed the last bit as my mind wandered unexpectedly to visions of caving in the Yorkshire Dales.
‘On 19th May 1967 – it was a bad day because we all got 6 weeks notice of redundancy. On the 8th July that it was it for steam on the Southern. It was an ending by gradual withdrawal’
‘I recall somebody telling me that he suspected a tyre was moving on the wheels of 35005 ‘Canadian Pacific’. They got me to take a look,’ added Eric. ‘Well we put a chalk mark across the tyre and the wheel before it went up to Waterloo and back that day. When it came back the mark was discontinuous – only a bit but enough to show the tyre was moving slightly. I told the foreman and he condemned it for scrap there and then. That was its last journey.’
Speaking as a trained economist I suppose the analytic part of me would say that if you have decided to rid yourself of steam as quickly as possible, it didn’t really matter how you did it. It was a ‘write off’ in the books anyway and perhaps, ultimately, blessed relief for the fitters like Eric who kept the locomotives moving. But another part of me still wonders about the waste as well as the emotional sense of loss. Eric, though, was pretty hard nosed about it all. He went off to work for Ford. Looking back, he was asked if he missed it all down at Eastleigh. ‘If ever I should come into a large sum of money,’ he said, ‘I will buy an unrebuilt Bulleid Pacific. Once full restored I will then take great delight in cutting it up into very small, useless pieces, which I will give to any poor soul who professes to like these infernal machines.’
Perhaps, looking at him, you might see a glint in his eye – of mischief more than vindictiveness. But, even so, perhaps we need an armed guard on the NRM’s Merchant Navy, just to be safe – though it is partly cut up already and not ‘unrebuilt’. Next time you look at it, try to imagine Eric squirming around trying to get at those infernal, half hidden nuts and bolts which Bulleid liked to much.
To read more about Eric’s experiences see ‘In a lifetime’s loathing of all things Bulleid’ written by Paul Joyce, ‘Backtrack’ 22 (4) April 2008 pp 227-231
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