Summary: Memories of Dorothy Dew on the footplate of ‘Silurian’ Pacific. . . . . .
Reading my Autumn 2021 copy of the Friends of the NRM ‘Review’ I came across a photo of A1 Pacific ‘60121 ‘Silurian’, chalked up outside the paint shop at Doncaster Works in the early 1960’s. An interesting photo, I thought, and then I remembered something else from the oral history archives.
‘Dorothy’ had contacted Radio Leicester’s transport programme ‘Platform’ in December 1987 to see if they could help get tickets to the celebratory train commemorating Mallard’s speedy exploits in 1938. No luck – but Dorothy came to see them and told an interesting story.
‘I was always interested in trains. As a 3 year old we lived close to the Kings Cross mainline and I used to watch the trains go by. I remember
‘Flying Scotsman’, the train not the engine. As I got older I went to another school and used to catch a train to school. I was standing on the station platform with some friends when ‘Silver Link’ – 2509 - came past us. Oh, it was like falling in love, my hair stood on end. Then I saw lots of different engines – the Silver series and then birds, Mallard. I used to get the autographs of drivers and fireman if they stopped and I always asked for a small lump of coal.’
Dorothy’s story, told in disarming anecdotes, reminds us of the golden days of steam and what it must have been like to be bowled over by such sights – boys or girls. ‘They were so clean,’ she remembered. ‘Spotless. The drivers would get out and give them a polish sometimes. You know, jackets done up only with the top button, and those flat, shiney caps. I sometimes stood on the bench in the school’s science lab at lunch time to watch them go by. Lucky I wasn’t caught!’
Dorothy worked at Cambridge for a while (views of the loco depot turntable from the office). ‘That was when I first wrote a letter asking for permission to stand on the footplate. I didn’t get a reply. They were all very kind, those who knew, they didn’t make fun of me. I transferred to Knebworth and wrote again. I was almost treated as an idiot. You know ‘quite impossible’ my bosses said. But then something changed. Dorothy got a phone call.
‘This is Chief Inspector Jenkins,’ a deep male voice said. ‘It’s come to my notice that you want to go on the footplate of a steam locomotive.’ Wonderful, it must have sounded like an army General ringing you up. Unbelievably Jenkins told Dorothy to meet him at the Dirty Duck, next day at Liverpool Street.
Then, tragedy. ‘My bosses said I couldn’t go so I had to ring up the Chief Inspector and say I couldn’t go. He wasn’t there so I asked to leave a message. He didn’t get it’. The day after, Mr Jenkins called back. ‘Where were you?’ he asked. ‘I explained and he said ‘Leave it with me’’.
‘Well 2 days later I was asked to meet the Capitals Limited express when it stopped (unscheduled) at Knebworth station. Mr Jenkins was a big man with a bowler hat and a watch chain on his waistcoat. My bosses were there and Jenkins said to meet him at 8 am the next day, platform 10 at Kings Cross. It was agreed I could go this time. Well, I
was a sort of mountaineer, then, so I got myself kitted out with trousers and hob nail boots. When I got there, the engine was Silurian, 60121 in a dirty blue colour. It was awful, it didn’t suit.’
‘In my head I pretended it was Mallard. I got on the footplate with Inspector Jenkins. I was almost paralysed with a mixture of joy and fear. The noise was absolutely tremendous. They explained the controls to me but I couldn’t hear anything. They were used to lip reading you see, but not me. I was just enjoying the beauty of it.’
As we went through Wood Green one of my bosses waved to me from the platform and through Knebworth I was allowed to hold the – errmm – regulator? I didn’t do anything, just held it. And the noise, and everyone looking at me as we sailed past.’
Dorothy got off the footplate at Hitchin, and has dined off her story ever since. And what a story!
Listening to the recording again it’s full of such obvious enthusiasm from a woman remembering events 30 years or so before. Once or twice I didn’t think it ran completely true so I checked the facts and, mostly, they fitted. Her recollections of the days of Gresley’s streamliners on the ECML really came alive. Maybe she misplaced a pub or two, a train time here and there but Jenkins was an influential man. He had been on the footplate of Mallard when it broke the speed record for steam. He had the authority to stop an express briefly, to allow a young woman on and off the footplate.
Dorothy’s story is a reminder of days gone by and how the romance of steam captured impressionable minds, boys and girls, and their experiences have stayed with them forever.
And there’s that photograph of Silurian outside the Doncaster paint shop, looking rather in need of some attention. But, just a minute, pass me my magnifying glass! Is that Dorothy waving to the camera through the cab window? I believe it is.
By the way Silurian (1948-65), always a York based engine, was named after the 1923 Doncaster Cup winner, owned by Lord Derby, one in a long line of LNER/BR locomotives named after racehorses. It was blue, briefly, in 1950.