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Now Available in Oily Grey

Washing, and the practicality of railway uniforms in all weathers. . . . . .

Members of the crew reflect on their achievement following Mallards record-breaking run. Image: NRM

Let’s talk about clothes this week, railway clothes. You know, look at the descriptions of the various railway uniforms in the NRM’s collection and you will see a whole selection, from the flamboyant to the austere, some looking military in style, others more ‘casual’. For those meeting the general public there’s obviously a good reason for distinguishing a railway employee and, in doing so, conveying some sort of sense of what the railway was about. We can debate the wisdom of various styles, particularly in the BR era, but looking through the uniforms of various porters, stationmasters, guards and so on, of the various railway companies before 1948, you can soon build a sense of what the company was trying to convey.

‘Here’s Albert, modelling the latest guard’s outfit from the Southern Railway, c.1925’. Albert looks vaguely uncomfortable – a real guard, then, not a model. I cast an eye over the ensemble and wonder how practical it was – in all weathers, all situations. None of this hi-viz stuff, strictly male, a hint of ‘fashionable’ but not so much. Would a pistol in a holster on the belt help the image? Would it help crowd control?

What about the footplate crews, though? A previous post in this series mentioned the serge jacket, a source of pride among drivers, signifying status and responsibility. Not quite so good, though, for newcomers starting a railway career. Albert recalled how he started: ‘The overalls and your hat, and rags, things like that. But you had to provide your own shoes.’ Ken remembered the same with a slightly begrudging ‘You had to buy your own boots’, still rankling after all these years.

Good stuff, though. Albert recalled courting a girl at Bugbrooke in Northamptonshire and riding over on his motorbike from Woodford Halse to see her. One day ‘it tipped it down with rain all the way back – 13 miles. I had this big railway coat on and leggings and when I got to Woodford the only place that was wet was between my legs where water had run down the tank. The overcoat was absolutely saturated but it hadn’t gone through. I think it took that coat about 3 weeks to dry out. It weighed a ton….’ I didn’t record if Albert ‘got his girl’.

Karen Harrison at Old Oak in 1980 with some of the other secondmen

Ken remembered you had two sets of overalls, one ‘on your back’ and one in the wash. Some fitters, like Eric, recalled having three sets in later years – suggesting that some sheds had discovered ‘luxury’.

But of all the memories I have recorded the one I thought the best was that of Keith. He was slow to start, either because he didn’t feel he knew me or because memory takes time to re-activate. He recalled living in a terraced house in Leicester with his father, a railwayman, and mother and brother. He was still at school but he recalled how his brother was getting on as a cleaner at Leicester Central shed. ‘I can remember coming back from school on – I think it was Mondays, but I might be wrong there. The house smelt of soap and new washing. You know what I mean? I felt sorry for my mum. She had several sets of overalls from dad and my brother but she only had a dolly tub and blocks of soap. It must have taken her ages to scrub the dirt out. But they always looked clean and smart when they went off to work.’

‘Every day?’ I asked. No, she didn’t do it every day but it was more than once a week. I can remember the house being full of washing drying when it was a wet day outside.’ Listening, I thought I, too, could smell the soap, the ‘plonger’, the dolly tub. Railway life wasn’t all about working on the footplate. You needed a good back up team at home too.

But, then, at least it was a suitable colour. A few years ago, two Australians, father and son, arrived for a driving experience on a steam loco. As the ‘host’ it was my job to check everyone was suitably dressed but the Australians posed a challenge. They were dressed in striped overalls with a peaked hat, ‘Casey Jones’ style, apparently purchased at Harrods a few days earlier, by mum. We laughed about it, fortunately, since they knew how unusual it would be – it was for laughs. But, then, I wondered how practical they thought their outfits were – after all, they were replicas of engineer’s uniforms in North America. ‘Actually, really good’, they said, pointing out plenty of leg and arm room, good protection. Nobody mentioned keeping them clean, so I asked.

‘Oh well, we’ll just throw them in the machine ready for next time’.

No dolly tubs now but, then, not many steam engines either. Me? I prefer that blue serge jacket on the footplate because, if I had one, everyone would know I’d earned it.

See a selection of LNER uniforms after Mallard’s record breaking run and for the Southern Railway


John Swanwick

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