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The not – so- Romantic Footplate

Fractured locomotive steam pipes, and water supply issues. . . . . . .

Midland Spinner 4-2-2 673 CAB. NRM

A previous post on the romance of the footplate (17th May 2021) made me (and a few others) wonder if I was over-egging it, so to set the record straight, here’s a not so glamorous piece.

Recording oral histories in the East Midlands inevitably led to many discussions about the closure of the former Great Central route. The general feeling of injustice and absurdity of it formed the general theme with further commentary about the parts Messrs. Beeching and Marples played in the closure decision. It’s a story that still provokes a lot of emotion and there were a few instances where I turned the recorder off while interviewees composed themselves – this, over 50 years after the event.

Among the stories recorded were several describing what it was like for footplate crews at that time, working with progressively more run down locomotives. Footplate work always had an element of danger about it with some hair raising accounts told with a relaxed air decades later when, at the time, they must have led to sleepless nights. As time passed and closure grew nearer, the route became host to a variety of locomotive types not wanted elsewhere – a boon for trainspotters but a nightmare for footplate men.

John remembered a Nottingham Victoria to London Marylebone train hauled by Royal Scot 46112 ‘Sherwood Forester’ which had been supplied by Annesley MPD. ‘Going down the bank at Loughborough - it was a double colour light there – he got a green so decided to let it go. Then, all of a sudden, there was a massive explosion and all the fire came back through the fire hole door and onto the footplate. The main steam pipe had gone in the smoke box. The driver stepped out onto the framing leaning through the cab and brought the train to a stop. His fireman jumped off and broke his arm.’ The wreck was later moved, fire out, to Leicester. ‘At Annesley that day they tested all the Scots they had and the main steam fitter’s hammer went straight through two more. The steam pipes were like paper.’

Then there were the Britannias. John again: ‘70047 was reported as having heavy banging between engine and tender and they found the draw bar had gone. It was running on safety chains! It was pulling trains with safety chains!’

WD “Austerities’ didn’t have much of a fan club, either, though they were sturdy and solid enough. Clive and Iain remembered they had to be turned boiler first on the main link of the triangle at Woodford Halse as they were prone to derailing their tenders. Dave explained how NER ‘Raven’ designs tended to have unusual fire door covers. ‘We swore at them, calling them ‘bloodspitters’ because you nearly always caught your knuckles on the fire door cover.’

If this piece is starting to sound rather gruesome to readers, footplate crews often had remedies of their own, usually well away from shed foremen. David put a strange looking metal object on the table between us. It looked like a trowel with a strange handle. ‘A Jimmy,’ he said, ‘or some called it a razor. It was for bad steamers and you put it over the top of the chimney. I don’t know why but it worked – probably split the blast more effectively, I don’t know.’

John talked about burning ‘rubbish’ coal (‘if you could call it that’) and using ‘rubbish’ water (lime scale). ‘Chuck two pills the size of baked bean tins in the tender, and another one, different type, for the fire. That’s how you got started before you left the shed yard. Best bet was a shovel full of sand. If we were struggling with an engine we went out with a bucket of sand on the footplate and when you were out in the countryside, you’d throw a shovel full of sand up around the brick arch so it went through the tubes and came out of the top. An effective way to clean the tubes.’ (Note to self – don’t try this at home!)

It was a hard – and a dangerous – life. Some of those earlier comments about the enjoyable moments on the footplate were balanced by what was otherwise a challenging job at the best of times. On a run down railway it was even more so. Viewing some of the exhibits in the NRM’s Great Hall in those long ago days before the pandemic I sometimes found myself wondering if a broader story might benefit visitors contemplating the job on the footplate – a sort of ‘what can possibly go wrong?’ storyboard.

But then, perhaps not. Let’s not stir up a difficult past; let’s stick to what we call ‘nostalgia’ – or do we call it ‘history’?


John Swanwick.

Read more about FARSAP (Film Archive of Railway Signalling & People) here

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