One man’s recollections of railway duties during World War II. . . . . . . .
Collecting oral histories is sometimes a race against time as those remembering pass on. ‘The Luftwaffe Visits York’ story is a good example (see 2nd May 2022 entry on this tab) where those remembering the event are shrinking in number. I have always been keen to collect the stories of those remembering the Second World War and so my search eventually took me to a sheltered housing complex on the edge of a small Midlands town. Jim’s daughter had contacted me about her father and so, one afternoon, the three of us sat down in Jim’s living room and switched on the recorder.
Jim was born in June, 1925, and joined the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) in 1941 aged 15. He had hopes of a career in engineering but the war changed that and he became a Junior Clerk at Bedford and Luton instead. Stories of illegal rides on the footplate and visits to signal boxes followed as Jim built up his railway knowledge in a time of war.
‘I remember the LMS had an internal letters numbering system. So, like, Birmingham was 6, Rugby was 4 – I think. They used that for parcels too, made it easier for newcomers to understand without knowing too much about where individual stations were. Then they had it for elsewhere – like E134 for Norwich - Eastern.’
‘There wasn’t much training then. It was learn on the job mostly. Couldn’t do some of it because of the war so they had all sorts of local rules. In some places you could have more than one train in the block and the bobby would use green flags and so on. The learning was OK…… I remember I was on £44 a year at the start and that went up by 10 pounds a year until you were 18.’
‘Do you remember much about the war, itself, Jim? Or were you a bit too young to be really affected by it?’
‘Well, there wasn’t much going on in the Northampton area, no bombing, that sort of thing. Most of what I knew came from footplate men taking trains into the London area.’ The conversation paused while Jim tried to remember. The clock ticked. Eventually his daughter prompted him.
‘I can remember some of the blokes who were on the footplate,’ he went on. ‘The turn they didn’t want was the delivery of gas to the London area - for barrage balloons, you know.’
‘Really?’ The answer startled me but then I thought that must have been an issue. Just how do you get gas for barrage balloons into London during the Blitz?
‘I don’t remember any of their trains getting hit.I think they did it during the day ‘cos most of the bombing then was at night.Control would get a message to them to tell them to stop if something was going on.Like, stop inside a tunnel for shelter if there was a raid going on – near enough to the end to get the fresh air but not too near in case a bomb went off.
They had a system of fog detonators to tell the train men if there was a damaged bridge ahead. I think it was normally 3 at 10 yards intervals, but 4 if the damage was bad.’
‘Course it all assumed the locos were all right, but the coal was really bad. Sometimes they couldn’t get enough steam up to blow off the brakes so they were sitting out somewhere waiting to get pressure up.’
‘For me, though, I thought it was exploitation.’ I sensed a long memory which still rubbed Jim up the wrong way. I caught sight of his daughter looking up to the ceiling. ‘See, junior clerks were doing a lot of senior work with no recognition, no extra pay. And on top of that, they were always promoting on seniority, not suitability.’ Jim was conscripted in 1943 and demobbed at Rugby in 1947 where the problem of seniority came up again. Examples followed with Jim holding forth, animated about a situation that still rankled, 60 years later.
‘Don’t get me started,’ he said, after 10 minutes of this. We trotted through his subsequent railway career at places like Uttoxeter and Derby, his views on nationalisation (‘a mistake’) and Midland Railway engines (‘not like the London and North Western, a get on with it railway’). He left BR in 1954 for that long imagined career in engineering. In later years he had started researching railways again, the history of railways in Northampton, but then gave up.
But it was those war years that seemed dim in the memory at first, but slowly came alive. A mixture of his own relatively uneventful war and the experiences of others, I though Jim typical of his generation remembering such a traumatic event in their young lives. Some stories stood out, possible embellished in the telling, but others showed the mundanity of Britain at war on the home front. Unspectacular but important to historians, even so.
Now, about the wisdom of promoting on seniority not suitability ………
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Northampton had 3 stations, the two main ones being Bridge street and Castle. Jim was discussing Bridge street and, in particular, his home at Far Cotton.