The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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3 January 2006

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A Shedmaster's Life at Stewarts Lane
by Richard Hardy
13 September 1999

On 13 September, Richard paid a return visit to the Group, to give a further talk on his reminiscences of life in the railway industry. This time it covered the period from August 1952 to January 1955, when he was in charge of this important Southern Region shed. He got the job because the district superintendent, who was also relatively young, recognised that the job was very demanding and required someone to stand up to the pressure. When he first walked down the yard he had never seen so much smoke, ashes, coal. He asked a driver for directions to the foreman's office and, when he found out Dick was taking over, his comment went along the lines of not only were they sending an Eastern man but a college kid as well!

There were 126 engines allocated and 700 men employed with a further 130 motormen dotted about the area at various signing on points. Stewarts Lane was still very much a Chatham depot despite being in the Southern for 30 years. The men were very willing to take on any duty provided there was money on offer. The turns included Boat trains, Kent coast traffic and a lot of specials. There was plenty of heavy freight turns and empty carriage work. On the Brighton side there was plenty on commuter traffic as well as freight. The engines included visiting Brighton Atlantics, Britannias, Merchant Navies, West Country and Battle of Britain, Some of these had small tenders which was a problem for the Boat Trains, but the King Arthurs, in particular, were good sloggers. There were a number of converted D and C class copper caps; these had been modified to produce a quite modern 52 ton engine for Victoria work. There were some L class engines but these were too heavy to get over the arches into Victoria. Overall there were too many engines in the Winter and too few in the Summer.

The men knew every trick and he had to fight tooth and nail to get their respect. Some of the men came from Cornwall and Devon - most of the others couldn't understand their strong accents. The fitters were excellent, even better than Kings Cross. The staff consisted of a chief running foreman, mechanical foreman, six running foreman, a stores clerk and assistant, two pay clerks, a list clerk, chief clerk, and two assistant clerks. One of the latter lived at Goring and still managed to get in every day on time. The money was not the primary reason why people were there. Rather, it was because it was a way of life. This is still the case, as there are regular reunions of Stewart's Lane men.

There was plenty of fiddling which Dick had to sort out. There was one diver who would not get in on time; as a result someone else had to get the engine ready. He had several dressing downs but there was no effect, until Dick said it was curtains unless he turned up. While Dick watched he did so, but reverted as soon as he left. One day Dick stood in the timekeeping office at 16.20 and saw as slip come through asking for 20 people to be booked off at 20.00. Richard asked what was going on, and told the booking clerk to book them off at the 1620. There was a real volley of complaints the following day, but the message got across.

The job was still a good one, with heavy traffic on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Easter Day and Monday, which, when worked, earned an extra weeks holiday. Planning a Summer Saturday was a real education. There were far more jobs than engines which were suitable for them, so engines were escalated up to heavier loads. The engine roster for the Saturday was worked up on Friday afternoon. Engines were sent off at frequent intervals and if one was out of sequence it could disrupt the entire operation. Nevertheless, there still had to be a good deal of flexibility, especially from the drivers accepting additional duties. Even so, they would still turn up on Sunday for the double-time working!

Punctuality was essential. Richard was accountable for any loss of time. There was a league table but, try as they might, they could never get to the top. This was because there was a lot of empty carriage stock turns, drawn by 50+ year old tanks. These would often stop on Herne Hill bank causing delays. In Summer 1954, a driver lost 2 mins on the 7.30 Boat train from Folkstone. The following day there was a lost time notice on Richard's desk with a telegram saying that the Superintendent of Operations was travelling on the same train that day. So Richard went down to Folkstone, got on the engine and told the driver there was a "vip" on board. He was the same driver as the previous day who apologised that he had taken it too easy, but said "right - we will be on time". On the climb up to Coalshill Junction they got a caution but as they approached, the signalman pulled off. At Poleshill distant it was the same story with another "late pull". Keeping going, with a clear line, they got into Victoria a minute and a half ahead of time. The Operating Superintendent came up and congratulated the driver and fireman but asked Richard who he was. Richard said he was shedmaster and reported the late pulls. The Superintendent congratulated them on their good railway work. It certainly raised morale.

On one occasion in 1953/4 Dick was late arriving at the shed. Britannia "William Shakespeare" was being prepared to take out the Golden Arrow. Despite the rules, the engine went round to top up with coal and, when Dick arrived, there was a big fire, and the safety valves lifted. Dick was not amused and berated the driver. Sometime later, Dick wanted to get to Cannon Street and got on an engine which was about to depart for the station. As he showed the driver his footplate pass, he noted it was the same man he had argued with. The driver turned his back on Dick but, despite this, Dick took over the fireman's duties. At one point the fire was making a real roar, the driver had gone into full gear - just to get his own back!

At Stewart's Lane, the young men got to be passed firemen at around 24 years old. One had just been passed and was disappointed to have only "chimney pot" duties - i.e. empty carriage stock duties from Victoria. Richard asked for him to go on a mainline duty. He was given "King Arthur" No 795 to go on a Boat Train with a full load of 13 coaches. Despite a need to stop for water, they were only 13 minutes late. Richard congratulated them on the effort.

There was a miserable driver who was difficult for any fireman to work with. Every 12 weeks promotion were made and one rough, uncouth man, was promoted and put with this driver as his fireman. Dick thought they would be at each others throat, but they got on well - they never spoke a word to each other for two years! Another driver, who retired from Stewart's Lane in 1962 to Dundee, regularly wrote to Dick every Christmas. One time he sent Dick a story about another driver who lived on beer. He said he had 4 or 5 pints before he was ready to work the train. On one run, approaching Faversham where they were to stop to attach the extra portion, he sounded the whistle twice and then,as soon as they had halted, jumped off the footplate and ran to the adjoining pub, where there were two pints pulled and waiting for him. Something said he had done this before!

One man moved from being a miner in South Wales to start work on the railway at the age of 21. When he became a fireman he painted his wife's name on his engine. He only got into the top link when he was quite old. One day his fireman was taken ill and had to go to hospital. A relief was sent from Stewart's Lane. He was only 16 and had never been out except on shunting duties. Nevertheless, the driver told him to keep shovelling the coal in and he would do the rest. The coal went everywhere, apart from in the firebox. At Chatham, the driver, although 64 years old, took over and got the fire up before handing back to the youngster. At Faversham the fireman was wacked, so the driver again took over. At the end, the driver normally bought his fireman a pint, but this one was too young, so he bought him an ice-cream instead!