Memories of Aston Shed
Frederick Gibbs, Top Link Driver at Aston shed (son of Albert Gibbs)
9th April 1904 - 18th December 1979
I entered the service of the London & North Western Railway Company in May 1918 at the age of 14 as a parcel van boy and after, on various rounds with different van drivers and doing a bit of acting porter at several stations when someone was off sick. I suppose as my Father was an engine driver at the Aston Locomotive Depot it was only natural that I should be interested in engines, so at the beginning of 1919 I started at Aston Locomotive shed, this was just before the eight hour day came into force in the Locomotive Department, and for a short period I worked 6 in the morning till 5:30pm of course with meal times. Cleaning engines and sometimes having to mate a fitter or tuber or brick arch man, I soon began to take my turn on night duty as the 8 hour day had now started, but for some years the Sunday times were 6am till 6pm and the night turn 6pm till 6am extra time being paid of course for over 8 hours.
I remember how on Sunday night, some of us would be helping the steam raiser and his mate, the fire carrier, as the shed and outside roads were full of engines. Some of these had been lit up by the day Sunday turn men and who also left a list of those which required fire bars dropping, and, if the water was low in the boiler and could not be seen in the gauge glass, required bagging as we called it. This meant taking out a plug on the front of the boiler on the footplate and inserting the nozzle of a large hosepipe connected to a water hydrant then turning the water on till there was sufficient water in the boiler, after, the plug was screwed in and the engine could then be lit up. This was done then by the steam raiser shoveling coal round the firebox after which fire would be carried in scoops from the furnace in the shed by his mate or some of us cleaners, and he would then put it in the middle of the firebox and then shovel coal on top after which it would be left to burn up.
The night running foreman would have a list of the drivers and fireman who had to be called up as all who lived in a certain distance a booked on after 12 Midnight up to 7am were called. I was very often calling up around Aston and this would also include Gravelly Hill and Erdington and at that time bicycles were not supplied, so we had to walk it or perhaps if you had a bike of your own you used that for your own benefit. What went on a lot then was to very often borrow a bike that a driver fireman had to work on and when they had gone off the shed with their engines, these bikes were very often used unknown to them for calling up. Occasionally a driver or fireman sometimes got back to the shed unexpected and found his bike missing and then there was trouble. The few men who came on bikes in those days were mostly firemen who lived outside the calling up area.
I was calling up on the Aston round for quite a while and what I would do to have a sandwich and some tea was to call in the pumping station known to us on the railway as 'The Well'. This was the LNWR pumping house, which pumped water and was situated between the Walsall line and Sutton line in what was then Aston Lane but is now Aston Hall Road, the water supplied which was used by the Railway round the area for the engines etc. I would then sometimes do a bit of firing the stationary boiler to get my hand in and also give the man on duty there a rest as I knew the 3 men who worked there one being on each shift by himself and he was very often glad of your company in the middle of the night, sometimes when there the telephone bell would ring and the foreman at our shed would be enquiring to see if I had called in as he had an extra man for me to call.
I remember how the police on the night duty around Aston had coffee bought round about 2am for each man on his beat and many times I have had a cup off them as I got to know quite a few of them and they were a grand lot of chaps. Sometimes I would tell them what calls I had to make and many a time one of them has said 'I will be along that road at that time and will call him for you'. Yes I will always remember those old time police around Aston for the splendid chaps they were. I must also remember one day when the famous 8' 6" engine No 3020 Cornwall , (she had the largest driving wheel in the world, 8ft 6in diameter) came to Aston shed, and we had to wipe her down, she had the engineers coach attached to her.
I had a weeks training on the footplate for firing on a saddle tank class in Curzon Street goods yard. These engines were known as 'Humpies' and the fireman had to work the handbrake as when the driver used the vacuum brake it used considerably more water and as these engines only carried a small amount, one had to take care of it, so, for the most part with these engines on goods shunting, the handbrake was used. After being on shunting work and also trip jobs I eventually went into the Special Link, this meant all kinds of work and times of 'booking on', the practice being when you got booked off duty you must be prepared to book on after having 12 hours off. When there was plenty of work you would very often be called to book on in 12 hours, but if things were slack you would be off for at least 20 hours. In the Special Link you could get main line work, booking off away from home at London, Liverpool, Manchester, Peterborough and many other places, also in the summer season Blackpool, Llandudno etc. How I loved that work and the engines which were used being mostly Precursors, Experiments, Georges, Princes and sometimes a Claughton, also on some jobs we had the famous Jumbos of which we had 3 stationed at Aston and I give the names and numbers of these, 193 Rocket, 381 Patterdale and 2183 Antelope and of course we had others stationed at other sheds.
After some years in various Links, I was for some years in the 2 top Links, which were mostly main line jobs, booking off away from home. One thing I must mention about the old days was the practice resorted to with bad steaming engines and which was known as jimmying an engine and consisted of hanging a hook over the blast pipe and to keep it in position an old spare coupling link would be hung on the bottom, the part which protruded over the blast pipe was shaped like an ivy leaf and when the engine was working the steam struck the jimmy and created a sharper blast on the fire, of course there were various kinds of jimmys some not requiring a link to hold them down, but being screwed in, these jimmys were not supplied by the railway as they belonged to the men because it was not an official procedure, but the company did not bother much about it being done as it was to there benefit.
Then, in 1937 I passed the examination for driving and as I knew various roads, which I had learnt when I was firing, I soon began to get plenty of mainline jobs including excursions up to 1939 when war was declared, when the excursions were stopped. During the war I was engaged a lot on driving trains to London and Liverpool and also Manchester, but mostly London and Liverpool and was on the footplate in most of the big raids on Birmingham also quite a few of them at London and Liverpool. I have been under the big glass roof at New Street Station all night when big raids have been going on, also under wagons at Liverpool taking shelter from the bombs and also London where I have been singing with some of the customers in a public house during a big raid on London.
One night during a big raid, I had an engine which wanted turning on the turntable for our job so, I asked my fireman if he was prepared to do it, he said he was so I said I will go and put the points right first, you stop on the engine till I come back as the incendiary bombs were dropping all around. I put the points right and then went back to the engine, we then went back on the turntable and both got down and turned the engine without coming to any harm. The first time I saw the flying bombs was early one morning, it would be about 1.30am just before leaving London with a goods train and I give the class and number L.N.W 0-8-0, 9313 which I was driving. I heard the first bomb and then saw a light on it, suddenly it went out and then the bomb fell with a tremendous explosion when it hit something, several more followed and then we left with our train.
One amusing incident during the war was when I went in the Railway Hostel at Liverpool after working a special goods train and I decided to have a bath about 3am. I went in the bathroom and saw there was a blackout blind up to the window that looked out to some land near the street. There was no raid on at the time and I had nearly finished having my bath when there was a knock at the window outside and a voice said, what about that light showing and what place is this? I said, it is the Railway Hostel, and then went to see where the light was showing, and tried to adjust the blind when it fell down and I had to switch the light out, dry myself and get dressed in the dark. When I came out of the bathroom there was a policeman with the Hostel attendant and he went in and examined the bathroom with his electric torch, after taking particulars also my name, age and occupation and private address he then left and I went to bed. When I got up I saw Mrs. Morris the Matron of the Hostel, she told me they would have to have the bathroom window painted black. I may mention that I saw the old Market Hall in Birmingham bombed, as I watched that raid from the footplate after working an express from Liverpool.
On Sunday August 20th 1944 I worked a special train from Soho for Poplar Docks, the train was from the Twist Steel Co., of Smethwick an all train load of special coils of steel for abroad for some runways of airfields just before the big offensive which culminated in Victory. The firm very kindly sent me a photograph sometime afterwards showing me with the train just before leaving Soho. After the war finished it was some time before things got back to pre war standards of train running, but when it did I was very glad as I have always been one for high speed, in the right place of course. I have had many passengers come up and thank me for a good run and making up time. I have drove steam engines up to 100 mph and have had many grand runs with the Diesels.
Aston shed closed completely on March 5th 1967, it had only been a booking on point for over 12 months and on March 6th we all transferred to New Street, some months previous British Railways put out forms to all drivers in the area over 60 years of age seeing if they were willing to retire on redundancy terms as there might be a surplus of drivers when the new diagram for March 6th at New Street, came out. I considered it and now at the age of 63 I am retiring altogether on April 8th after almost 49 years in Railway Service having enjoyed my job and will have many happy memories of it. If I could have my life again I would be on the Railway as an Engine Driver.
I also fired on the old Harborne express. I have been connected with Royal Train working on 3 occasions. I never used a watch for my train running. On 25th June 1944 I worked a special train carrying about 800 German prisoners of war all in field grey uniforms to Brindley Heath, Cannock Chase, where there was a big American camp also a big R.A.F station, we stood at the station while they were brought off the train. The American Guards were there with fixed bayonets.
N.B. During his working life Fred used to live at: 235 Aston Church Road, Washwood Heath, Birmingham 8.
Mick Bramich writes 'The shed was a trip on the bikes after school on several occasions. The motive power for the Four Oaks - Stirling motor rail trains were often A3 Pacifics and were serviced at Aston prior to the overnight run to the north. I seem to remember that we chained our bikes up outside the shed where two walls of the depot were alongside the streets.' Les Ronan wrote 'Aston was pretty well unbunkable as, not only did you have to get past the foreman's office, the foreman seemed to have a pathalogical dislike of trainspotters. On the other hand, if had let us in, the shed would have been over-run. Did go around once in a small group with a permit - otherwise didn't bother trying after the first couple of attempts.'