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Sleeping Over

Summary: Railway lodging houses and stories. . . . . . . .

I came to this subject a long way round in my oral history interviews. I noticed how footplate men would relate the various turns they worked and where they ended up, sometimes far from home. I hadn’t really thought about staying overnight before but it was an important part of footplate life.

We can think of 3 types of places to stay – first, a straightforward bed and breakfast, probably on the shed’s list of willing landladies (‘willing’ meaning dealing with mucky men getting up all hours of the day and night), or, second, somewhere that was a recognised railway hostel intended for long term stays, and, third, railway lodging houses, intended for men needing sleep between turns and far from home. I asked around for a list of the latter places but I haven’t found one yet. (For a description of the more permanent railway hostel, this time the ‘Barracks’ at Woodford Halse in Northants., see my article in The Friends ‘Review’, Winter 2020/21, number 174).

Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, UK CREDIT: Chris Hepburn

The late Don Palmer started me off one afternoon with the recorder. Speaking in a thick East Midland’s accent, Don took me on a tour of railway places and hostels, intended just for overnights. There was Wellingborough, for example: ‘My turn got in at 2.30 am on shed and, after cleaning up the fire, I went over to the lodgings for a cup of tea and some toast. Then bed. The cubicles were OK but a bit noisy because they were shunting in the yards all day and night.’ Bristol meant a ‘lovely run’ before hand, ending up somewhere near the Bristol Suspension bridge for a sleep. Perfect.

Don got on to discussing London and various places at Cricklewood, Kentish Town and Euston. ‘Euston? But you were a freight man.’

‘Yes, and freight and passenger men were segregated at Euston. The A side looked over the station and you were awake all night with Lizzies coming out of Euston blasting away. So the A side was for freight men and the B side for passenger men – much quieter. We couldn’t use Kentish Town because it was being done up so my mate, who was a London man, spoke to the Euston steward. ‘My mate’s out of St Pancras tonight.’ So we got the B side. Strictly it was true but it was on the Somers Town freight that left from the sidings by St Pancras.’

Don drifted on to talk about more conventional over night lodgings – a week’s stay with an old lady at Southwell while he shunted beet trains.

John’s experiences were also more of the semi-permanent lodging type. John signed on as cleaner at Workington as a teenager but then voluntarily transferred to Annesley in Notts. where the prospects for career progression seemed better. ‘There was no lodging house at Nottingham,’ John recalled, ‘but they said they’d find me digs when I got there. Someone took me round to Mrs Cooper’s in New Basford. We were on a bike and a side car, (Wallace and Gromit style).

‘I remember knocking on the door and thinking this is the first time I’ve been away from home…. Sitting on the table was a pig’s head in a dish, which made me gasp. ‘I’ll show you where you are sleeping,’ she said, ‘and that’s not your dinner.’

John soon grew to love his time in lodgings, especially when he found out what two of his mates had done. They had transferred to Birmingham Saltley and ended up lodging by the gas works. ‘Mine was better,’ he thought, ‘more family.’ (On the other hand, John recalled them boasting about firing 9F’s until he discovered they were locomotives fitted with mechanical stokers!)

It was a job for each shed to find a place where footplate men could lay their heads, preferably with a pub nearby. Sometimes it was easy enough with a nearby hostel, but at other times it relied on a network of landladies to look after railwaymen, some of whom, like John, had never been away from home before. It was then that ‘family’ mattered whereas older hands were more interested in a peaceful sleep – not so easy when the working railway was nearby.

Time moves on and, like many of us, I’ve seen the trucks parked up overnight in road lay-bys near distribution depots. The equivalent would be, I suppose, sleeping on the footplate – warm maybe, but hard on the back. I never found an example of this but I imagine there were a few, in extreme circumstances. ‘Put a shovelfull on, Don, and we’ll go to bed. Would you like me to read a bedtime story?’ Maybe not……


John Swanwick

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