This guest post breaks new ground for the project – by focusing on the experiences of railway staff, written in their own words. As he describes, Dave Wilson started on the railways in BR days, and has been good enough to put a few recollections down ‘on paper’ for us, so far as his experiences with safety and accidents were concerned. Our thanks to Dave for this interesting and entertaining account – and we’re very open to similar in the future, if anyone else is so inspired!
My name is Dave Wilson and my railway life began in April 1962; I was originally employed as an engine cleaner at Farnley Junction, in Leeds. To the best of my knowledge we did not receive any safety training as such but there was a First Aid Man; all the sheds I worked at had one. The only training we did receive came from attendance at the Mutual Improvement Classes, which were run by the men themselves. However, this training was, in the main, designed to help cleaners become passed cleaners and firemen to become passed firemen; they were about rules, regulations, and the various parts and operations of the locomotive. The footplatemen did, however, have a vital role to play in the safety of the train and its passengers in the event of any mishap. Rules 55 and 189 – detention of trains by signals and protection of trains in the event of accidents or other mishaps – had to be learned by heart. And each member of the train crew had differing responsibilities, be they driver, fireman, or guard.
On the footplate everything is hard and hot; bruises and minor (and not so minor) burns were commonplace. Coal dust swirls about and gets everywhere, and I do mean everywhere; hot char flies from the chimney and in my own case led to a trip to Brompton Eye Hospital to have a piece of it pulled out of my eyeball. My driver at the time came to work on a motorbike and sidecar – he wore his motorcycle goggles on the footplate, at speed. All accidents were, in theory, meant to be reported, but they seldom were, and minor ones never were.
Part of the fireman’s duties was to ‘take water’, that is fill up the tank or tender – and one day, at Southampton, working a train to Bournemouth, I very nearly came to serious grief carrying out this simple task. The water column has to be swung through 90 degrees so that the pipe can be put into the tender and the way this was done was to climb onto the tender holding a chain which was attached to the water column, then, bracing yourself with your foot against the lip of the filler hole, you pull on the chain to swing the column into position. However, on this occasion as I pulled on the chain, the filler hole lip, which was rusted almost through, gave way and only the presence of mind to hang onto the chain saved me from plunging into the tender. In the event I scraped the skin off my back and soaked my boots, but it could have been a much more serious incident had I actually fallen into the tank. A lung full of water treated with water softening chemicals isn’t recommended. My accident wasn’t reported however, the damage to the locomotive was recorded on the driver’s ticket in the section for ‘Driver’s Remarks.’
This incident pales into insignificance when put alongside what happened to a young fireman, Eric Wilshire, with whom I shared lodgings. Running tender first is a hazardous situation, particularly when trying to look out for signals; you have to hang your head out further from the confines of the footplate in order to do so. On the day in question his driver, I believe his name was McCarthy, was decapitated by an overbridge as he looked out for signals approaching Clapham Junction; which meant that his fireman had to deal with bringing the engine to a stop, carrying out rule 55 and organizing ambulance, relief crew etc. An ordeal at any time or age but, Eric, like me, at the time was just 18 years old.
Another very serious incident during this same period happened to two enginemen who were struck by a locomotive. After their shift at Nine Elms shed, in London, father and son Fred and Tony Domme where struck by a light-engine coming on to shed. They were taking a very unofficial shortcut over the tracks to Queens Road station when the engine struck them. Fred Domme, who was a driver, lost a foot; his son Tony was more seriously injured and did not return to the footplate. Fred did return to work and one of his ‘party tricks’ was, when taking a PNB (Personal Needs Break) at a ‘foreign’ mess room, to proclaim, loudly, that his foot itched and then stick his prosthetic one on the table and scratch it, before reattaching it to his leg. Always got a laugh!
I was born in the late 1940s, in Leeds; none of my relations were railway workers. Like many young boys in the 1950s I was an avid train spotter and, in 1958, went to Leeds Central High School where I began my affair with O.S.Nock and Locomotive Practice & Performance – I wanted to be in his column. So at age 15 I signed on at 55C Farnley Junction as an engine cleaner. When my railway career ended I did all kinds of jobs, driver, warehouseman, that sort of thing including several years self-employment. By 1985 I’d had enough of being ‘unskilled worker’ and signed on for an access course with a view to going to University – in 1986 I started at the University of Leeds reading Philosophy & The History of Science graduating in 1989. For the next few years I produced Wilson’s Preserved Steam Railway Timetable – a nod to Bradshaws. From 1997 on I’ve written books, articles and taken photos and have, mostly, been supported by my wife – a university lecturer. We’re both now enjoying well earned retirement and I still take photos and write the occasional article – the next one will be in the August edition of Steam Days. I’ve put some more recollections of my working life on the railways on the page in the book In Memory.