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The Romance of the Footplate

Footplate memories firing on the ‘Nibble Line’ in Northants. . . . . . .

Their stories cover life on the footplate that was both hard work and dangerous, shared to varying degrees between driver and fireman. Sometimes the relationship was harmonious with the driver getting the best out of the locomotive to help his mate, sometimes less so, usually on the basis of the driver’s view that he had done his time as a fireman the hard way and so should his mate. There are stories of recalcitrant locomotives and temporary fixes, good and bad parts of the various routes, fry ups on the shovel, washing from the slacker pipe. But there’s also a streak of the romantic about it all – not just the nostalgia for the past but a general sense of the emotions the footplate could offer. Here’s Clive talking prosaically and at length about ‘the Nibble’:

‘The Nibble was called the Nibble for some reason. Stratford on Avon and Midland Joint, (SMJ), or Midland Junction. The area was sparsely populated and you would be out going across the area in the early hours of the morning. There would be no lights anywhere at all. It would be absolutely pitch black. The only light you would see would be a signal box in the distance, and that would come up towards you like a lighthouse at sea and then go away behind you and that was it - you were in pitch darkness, absolute pitch darkness.’

‘I only went over there once in daylight. I was always on in the early hours of darkness ……. I do remember going on it once in daylight, but (on) another line I think. …… Being out in country were the Didcot jobs, from Banbury southwards through Oxford, and the countryside was magnificent in the early hours of the morning.’

The excitement of it was tempered by hard work. Most of the former firemen I identified were partly crippled by back, hip and knee problems in later life. A fireman might well have to shovel several tonnes of coal into the firebox in a shift, with a firebox the size of a small bedroom in late model express locomotives. This would involve turning through 180 degrees and aiming the shovelful through the opening of the firebox door, whilst the locomotive and tender footplates were moving independently. Woe betide you if your shovel hit the edge of the firebox door! Mechanical firemen? Good idea but, well, too late for many.

‘I can still remember the sound of the shovel scrapping on the steel floor and the coal moving down the tender. If I hear something like that I always pause a moment,’ admitted Les. ‘Then I remember how tired I got, even as a young man. The coal was either in big lumps that needed breaking up or not much more than slack.’

Midland Spinner 4-2-2 673 CAB. NRM

Most of us can have only a limited idea of what it was like on the footplate of an express locomotive travelling at speed, or even a slow moving freight passing through night time countryside. We have films to watch, we can lean over the cab side and look at the array of pipes and levers in locomotive cabs at the NRM, but it’s hard to imagine it all. If I look carefully, though, alongside that little boy staring wide eyed alongside me, we can just see the chain for the whistle. Now, there’s the real thrill! A long blast as the station approaches and we hurtle through, wind in our faces the flicker of passing lights and then – darkness, one’s mate and the fire for company.


John Swanwick

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