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The Men in the Serge Jackets

The skills of driving steam locomotives. . . . . . . .

Readers of these posts may have noticed a past reference to my career as a volunteer ‘host’ on the Great Central Railway, supporting visitors who had booked ‘driving experience’ packages. It was an interesting and enjoyable experience over the years. A double track railway has lots to offer the prospective engine driver and, given that the shed always turned out tender locomotives from the active roster, varying from BR Standard types to LMSR 8Fs and the occasional SR ‘King Arthur’, it was always a lively day. Occasionally, a 9F 2-10-0 would trundle down the platform ready for duty much to the delight (and some trepidation) of the ‘drivers’. Packages varied from a shared drive with another visitor up and down the line ‘light engine’ through to several trips up and down with an empty rake of coaches behind.

Footplate and controls. Mallard. NRM

After various preparatory stages the moment came for the ‘driver’ to be introduced to the regular footplate crew. Farewells were said to wives and girl friends (and occasional boy friends) as if this was a final parting. Then the ‘driver’ entered the strange cave of the footplate, festooned with pipes, gauges and various valves. Cliff, a regular driver, patiently sat the victim down in the driver’s seat and explained the important bits – brake, regulator, and so on. There was the regular patter – ‘We don’t have an ignition key, in fact we don’t always have a speedometer, just like the old days.’

The guard’s whistle sounded and the crew leaned out to look back. ‘All clear!’ The ‘driver was shown the whistle chain. This was always a good indication of what was to follow. A long, loud blast perhaps, signifying a ‘driver’ of some confidence; a peep instead, meaning a more timid approach. Cliff kept a keen eye and a nearby hand close to the steam brake as he pointed to the regulator. ‘Just a small tug at first.’ Tug administered. Silence – except that those in the know detected the regulator ‘cracked’ and steam beginning to flow. Too late to stop the ‘driver’ though. Thinking he hadn’t tugged enough, there was another tug. The locomotive sprang into life, usually with wheels slipping and a volcanic exhaust just beside the (closed) windows of the booking office. Struggling out of the station and gradually regained control, Cliff explained that steam needs time to reach the cylinders. ‘It’s not like putting your foot on the pedal and away you go.’ Quite so. Bets were taken and lost as the station staff decided if a driver would ‘spin it’ or not.

Family members would watch the departure from the platform. One mother, holding her young son’s hand, asked if it would be noisy. ‘He gets very frightened by loud noises,’ she explained. I said I’d warn her when they were about to set off. Sure enough, even without ‘spinning it’, high pressure steam shot through the cylinder cocks, deafening us all. Despite the warning, the young lad just stood and watched. ‘It’s OK’, mother said, ‘he knows it’s grandad driving so it will be OK.’

At the end, the coal dusted warriors dismounted from the footplate into the relieved company of onlookers. There were broad smiles, back slapping and congratulations and we all adjourned to the station refreshment room for lunch. Wow!

Revived by tea and coffee and an ‘all day breakfast’ (not fried on the shovel in the firebox for health and safety reasons, rather than taste) the realisation of what is involved in driving a steam locomotive sank in. I liked to refer to a BR film, shown in the 1950’s, depicting a day in the life of the ‘Elizabethan Express’ from Kings Cross to Edinburgh, including a crew change, on the move. It captured the work of the crew, throughout, hard at work, easing an A4 Pacific out of Kings Cross. ‘Imagine being responsible for all that, possibly 600 tonnes of train. No sooner are you away from the platform than you are into the gloomy, smoke filled Copenhagen tunnels on the bank, heading north.’

British Transport Films: Elizabethan Express

I think the message sank in on most days. Driving was no easy job. There were regulators and cut offs to manage, gauges showing steam pressure, water glasses, steam injectors to think about, blowers and brakes. It wasn’t all about instruments but about that blend of skill and experience to know what the locomotive was doing and what it needed to be doing and all the while, knowing where you were and at what speed. A dark, even foggy night, then, on a down fitted freight from Hornsey yards. Come on, get a move on, the express is right behind you……

Cliff and his mates used to say you could tell much of this from the feel of the regulator, the beat of the engine that only trained ears could pick out. Firemen I spoke to knew by the sound of the brick walks of a passing cutting that they were approaching Rugby Central, perhaps, or slowing to the curve at Peterborough North. It was a world of great skill and a highly tuned sense of what was happening and where and when. I like to think the ‘drivers’ on the day got a sense of that, once the sheer excitement of driving a locomotive had settled in their minds.

So, let’s raise our cups of tea to the men in the serge jackets and shiny topped caps, to those in dungarees and braces, shirts wet through, moving coal to the tender front. Their’s was a world almost lost to us but still, unforgettable, especially on a ‘driver experience’ day.

To imagine driving a locomotive take a look at the inside of the cab of a 9F, similar to ‘Evening Star’ at the NRM.

Class 9F 92220 'Evening Star' cab. Image: DingRawD


John Swanwick

John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. After returning from a management career interspersed with travel around the world, John settled down to develop a more extensive interest in railway history. After completing a Masters degree in Heritage Interpretation/Museum Studies at Leicester University, John began collecting oral histories for the proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The outcome is a series of recordings held in the archives of the National Railway Museum and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester. The human interest in historical material is a particular interest for John and has led to writing several books and articles drawing on such material. John has also written several books about his travels and is currently researching and writing about trees in the landscape of Yorkshire and Leicestershire. Share Your Thoughts. Sign in below to leave a comment. Become a Member of Friends of the National Railway Museum. Friends have supported the National Railway Museum for over 40 years Raising £1.5m to date.

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