This month we have lovely little poem from old favourite, Roy Marriott, which allows us in to some footplate tales from Bill.

The Golden Years of Steam

By Roy Marriot

Rumbling, Clattering, pistons shattering

The intense silence of the night.

White steam billowing, in a long stream following

The engine speeding in its flight.

Carriages swaying, snake like shuddering

Staccato rhythms crossing metal points

Intensified screeching ear splitting hissing

Feels like the train is breaking at the joints.


Now through the tunnel, distant lights flickering

And the moon seems to be racing alongside

Passengers warm and sleeping, dreaming no doubt

Of adventures waiting at the end of the ride.


Rail travel was exciting, back in the old days

Before the airways were filled with jets and planes.

Train spotters in their hundreds crowded the stations

Marking down each peculiarity of the trains.


Being a child in the late forties

Often meant journeys to the seaside

With promise of rock and golden sands

Stopping at every station before reaching our destination

Then walking with my parents, hand in hand.


How I love to travel, brings back many memories

All the days seemed sunny, full of fun

No computer or television, making our own pleasures

And a bedtime story when the day was done.


Roy Marriott.



Bill, alas no longer with us, was an old workmate of mine and he would regal us with tales of his life as a fireman and later as a driver on the footplate in the age of steam.

One tale I enjoyed in particular was of the time Bill was caught short on the engine. There were no toilets on the engine itself of course nor was provision to get through to the carriage toilets – so evidently the common practice to relieve oneself was out of the side of the engine while it was passing through a tunnel. On this particular day Bill had left it a bit late and he was still in action as the train emerged from the tunnel, resulting in him spraying a gang of platers who were working on the line and were happily standing back to allow the engine to pass safely. Can you imagine this scene from the plater’s point of view? There they were standing back and waving pleasantly to an engine exiting the mouth of the tunnel and then the amazement of coming to terms with the sight of this bloke standing on the footplate and p…..g all over you as it flew past.

Bill had the ability to tell a tale and make it live He described as how he had been a fireman on a train bringing a line of empty goods wagons over the Pennines from Lancashire into Yorkshire. It transpired that the driver, who Bill described as a little gnome like creature who smoked a clay pipe, had been a bit lazy and he had not bothered to couple up the brakes on the wagons as he believed, wrongly as it seems, that the brake on the engine would be enough to hold a train which was only pulling empty wagons. Bill said we came flying down the Yorkshire side of the Pennines and seemed to be gathering speed rather than slowing down. We would meet the main line at the bottom and if a red light was showing we would have to stop to allow the express to pass. Bill said, I said to the drier, ‘don’t you think you should put the brakes on Burt’ and when I turned round he was wedged in the corner bracing his foot against the brake pushing for all his might, his clay pipe dangling out of his mouth. ‘What do you think I’m doing I’ve had the b…..brake on for five minutes and we’re not slowing down’. We shot out onto the main line at the bottom like a cork out of a bottle and thank God there was nothing coming.

Another of his engine tales concerned a tunnel again – on this occasion Bill was the fireman and he became concerned that the train was travelling very fast considering it had to stop at a station which came immediately after the tunnel, ‘Don’t you think we are going a bit fast for such and such a station?’ Bill had said to the driver. Bloody Hell!’ had replied driver, ‘I’d forgotten we were stopping there today!’ With that he had banged on the anchors so hard that the wheels locked and the train slid out of the tunnel and passed the platform with sparks flying from the wheels. An old lady happened to be waiting for the train and unabashed the driver lifted his hat to her and said, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute madam’, as the train slid past. In fact, they had to get permission from the stationmaster to change the signals and allow the train to reverse back to the platform. But yet again it’s the concept from the lady’s point of view that is so funny – the idea of a train sliding out of a tunnel, wheels locked and sparks flying and the sight of the engine driver tipping his hat as it slid past.

 hopper at east end pard

Hopper at East End Park


  1. Douglas Says:

    To me it is certainly not fine
    from the footplate to spray urine
    nor down the Pennines to streak
    though not needing a leak
    to intersect with an express train line.

    That (Roy’s – not my bit of doggeral) is a fine bit of poetry communicating in sound the clank and weight of the old steam trains, and the excitement they brought to us young kids going to the seaside. Thank you Roy. And as for the privations of the poor old driver and fireman on the footplate of the old engines, without much in the way of amenities, well, it “ought not to have been allowed”. I think the workers of old ought to have been provided with their own en-suites and refreshment kiosks hooked up behind the coal tender.

  2. Eric Says:

    I believe there was a class of loco/tender which had a “tunnel” through the coal tender, to allow the exchange of drivers on long, non stop journeys. Presumably, for those fortunate to operate such combinations, it could also be used for “comfort breaks”

  3. peterwwood Says:

    Yes Eric, on a recent documentary on the ‘Flying Scotsman’ it showed there was a tunnel hrough the tender so they could change drivers without stopping when the were trying for the record between London and Edinburgh

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