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Getting the meat to Smithfield

GWR “Tunnel Motor” number 9703, still carrying GWR livery 14 years after nationalisation, at Old Oak Common shed in 1961. This locomotive made frequent trips to Smithfield over 28 years’ work. Photo: Mike Peart

As a child familiar with red Underground trains, I remembered the excitement of seeing a steam train coming out of the tunnel into the London Underground station at Baker Street. The reason was meat. London’s Smithfield meat market opened in 1868 and the first train into the Great Western Railway’s goods depot there ran in 1869. This involved running trains of meat vans over the Metropolitan Railway’s lines for about four miles from Paddington to Farringdon. Steam operation for all trains on the lines continued until 1905 when the line was electrified for the Metropolitan Railway electric trains. In later British Railways (Western Region) years, the GWR’s 9700 class of locomotives, known to some as “Tunnel Motors”, were used as they were fitted with condensing gear to filter exhaust steam and smoke, and had GWR Automatic Train Control equipment that could be clipped clear of the middle electrified rail. They were also fitted with tripcock brake valves to match the London Transport signalling system.

Ventilated meat vans were used as early as the 1860s. Primitive refrigerated meat vans appeared in 1874, and in one experiment kept a load of beef fresh for nine days. Insulated vans with ice bunkers for chilled meat were introduced in 1897 as by now ships with refrigerating equipment were bringing chilled and frozen meat from overseas. The vans (known as “MICA” in the telegraphic code) typically had about 60 hooks in each for hanging carcases. Dry ice and improved insulation eventually took over from ice bunkers.

Old Oak Common Engine Shed, c1910. Photo:

In 1929, the GWR reported that it had 667 employees working round-the-clock shifts at Smithfield dealing with up to twelve trains of meat a day. The depot below ground level was permanently gas lit and equipped with platforms, turntables and capstans for shunting purposes. Hydraulic lifts operated between the two levels. The market both received large shipments of meat from the GWR trains and also dispatched meat via the GWR destined for retail butchers’ shops. By the 1950s, there were still nine daily Smithfield trips worked from Old Oak Common engine shed. One was the 3.30 a.m. Acton Yard to Smithfield which took meat on a trip working from the overnight goods train from Birkenhead known as “The Meat”. There had been a large abattoir at Birkenhead for processing live cattle being shipped into the Mersey docks.

Firemen on the Tunnel Motors were advised to build a good fire at Acton so that they wouldn’t need to fire on the way to Smithfield in the Underground tunnels. They were told that London Transport were pretty touchy about smoke in their tunnels and stations, and that a close eye was usually kept on them! Firemen were also advised to let the locomotive’s boiler level down over the Metropolitan lines so that the engine could be kept quiet at Smithfield which was underground. When setting off from Old Oak Common shed, drivers were asked by the [turn]tableman which way round they wanted to be facing. This was because all workings towards Smithfield had to have the engine running bunker first because of the falling gradient from Paddington. If they were running short of water on the way back - which could happen - an extra inch of water in the boiler over the firebox crown could make all the difference.

On arrival at Farringdon, they crossed over onto the “Widened Line” (as it was called) which came down from King’s Cross. They back shunted into the reception siding, unhooked and stood aside by the water column alongside the British Railways (Eastern Region) banking engine that banked trains up into Kings Cross, also running on Underground lines. The meat trains were backed into Smithfield at a maximum speed of 5 mph due to the wooden turntables there. The vans that had been taken in were moved and turned on small turntables for each reception road and shunted with ropes and hydraulic capstans. The enginemen then had 80 minutes to prepare for the trip back with empties. This period enabled them to take on water and build up the fire so that there would be no smoke on the way back. The train of empty wagons to work out was on an adjacent siding and they would be propelled out onto the Widened Line and then it was a wait for the signal to follow an electric train. Once they got the road, it was a climb all the way to Edgware Road station. As they went through each Underground station there was usually an Inspector watching to see if any smoke was being emitted: if there was, it was reported. Firemen used to do any necessary firing between stations in the tunnel, and as their train entered the stations the fire hole doors were open. In the tunnels, the tail lights of the electric train clearing ahead could actually be seen.

Every precaution was taken to avoid embarrassing incidents on the Metropolitan lines and there were specific instructions. With the exception of the hours between 12.45 a.m. and 5.00 a.m. when it was assumed no passenger trains were running, all trains working between Acton and Smithfield had to have more than a third of vacuum-braked wagons connected to the locomotive. There was a possibility of train wagons running back on the inclines in the tunnel, and the guards had to have sprags ready to put by wheels of Smithfield freight trains. In addition, they had to tightly screw down the brake van brake when they were stopped for any reason. Around 25 minutes was allowed for the journey between Paddington (Suburban) and Smithfield. In the reverse direction with empties it was normally 16 to 18 minutes. Smithfield depot finally closed on 1 August 1962 and the last train from Paddington had run a few days previously.

Mike Peart

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Thank you! That's the first really informative account I've seen of this fascinating working. I'll never forget my surprise on seeing a steam hauled Paddington bound empties burst out of the tunnel at Kings X Metropolitan station in the 'fifties.

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