Recollections of Saltley Depot 21A (2E) by Alan Pratt
Always as a boy I wanted to drive a steam engine. I started on the railways straight from school. I wrote to the shed master at Saltley who was I think at this time a Mr Lowe asking for a job as a engine cleaner. I received a reply arranging an interview and I had a medical soon afterwards. I was initially failed on colour blindness but got a second opinion which was positive and after second medical was accepted for the position of engine cleaner. Much to the surprise of my parents who had no idea I had applied.
On my first day with some other boys of about my age (15) we were introduced to the shed foreman Mr Mitchell (nicknamed Mad Mitch as we found out later). He was OK, it was just the way he rushed about red faced giving instructions to crews on the days working, pretty hectic job really organising the positioning and availability of locomotives plus various other duties. We were thrown straight into the cleaning off the locomotives being allocated an engine for the day (sometimes two if time permitted). You were given a pile of cloths (looked like knitted dish-clothes) plus scrappers for removing built-up grime from chassis and wheels. We were also given a drum of cleaning fluid which was a mixture of paraffin and something else (never found out what the something else was). The liquid looked like creamy milk, though you would not want to drink it. The occasional cleaner being thrown in the drum of fluid if you were not careful.
It was a filthy job cleaning a travel-stained locomotive (I never understood why steam cleaning was not used). Although I think they thought the hands on approach was the best way to get to know the workings of a steam engine. Some cleaners took on the job of cleaning the inside of fireboxes for extra pay. I reckon they were welcome to it. If you thought engine cleaning was dirty then work firebox cleaning was doubly as bad. They looked like someone had thrown a skip of ashes over them. Health and safety was not top of the agenda when engine cleaning. You gained knowledge of the locomotives by asking crews and talking to fitters. Not long after starting cleaning duties at the shed we began attending firing school. This was a small classroom in a small building in the shed-yard (a picture of this building is in my Saltley photo's on Flickr). As cleaners we were only employed as such for a few months before taking a verbal exam given by the shed-master to each individual to gain promotion to a passed cleaner. You were expected to have a good basic understanding of the steam locomotive and the rule book concerning a fireman. Footplate experience was given prior to this exam by going out with experienced crews on local trip workings. My first trip was on an ex-LMS 4F 0-6-0 goods locomotive.
As a passed cleaner (a cleaner cleared to carry-out firing duties) you were allocated to the Trip Link (this was local freight workings). You were paired with a driver in this Link (a Link being a group of crews allocated to a class of train workings), my first driver was Harold Reay. An amiable and friendly driver who was willing to teach you the art of firing a locomotive. Believe me some were very anti-fireman and left you to sink or swim (not a majority however), and you had to learn fast (I was on the footplate at the age of sixteen). After completing a set amount of firing turns you would be promoted to Fireman. This gave you a raise in pay. Firing pay was around £10.00 a week a bit more with overtime. If you managed to get on the banking engines you could get bonus pay for the number of trains you assisted. Trains were banked from Washwood Heath Sidings to Camp Hill using British Railways Standard 4MT 2-6-0s and the occasional ex-LMS 4F 0-6-0 locomotives. British Railways Sulzer Type 2 diesels eventually took over banking duties.
The drivers in the Trip Link were generally drivers retired from the Top Links due to age or medical reasons. The Top Links being the passenger turns, the next being the longer distance freight Links. In between these Links was the Special Link or Spare Link. I was eventually moved to the Spare Link, which was good because you were not rostered on a particular group of workings but could pick up any working where there was a shortage of a fireman. Although this could sometimes put you on shed duties, being the preparation and disposal of locomotive. Disposal of locomotives (the dropping of the fire) was an arduous job, more so if you were on shed duties, where you were expected to dispose of eight engines over an 8 hour shift. This was not too bad if you got a few British Railways Standard engines with their rocker grates. Otherwise you ended up with a run of former LMS types which were without rocker grates (there were exceptions).
Disposal of the locomotive began by filling the tender with water on the disposal road and then moving the locomotive to the coaling tower were the tender was filled with coal. Making sure the tender access door was firmly latched first or you would soon find a ton of coal on the footplate (as I found out to my cost on one occasion). I never made that mistake again though. The locomotive was then moved over the ash-pit. A check was made on the water level in the boiler (topping up if required with the live steam injector) and ensuring there was sufficient steam pressure to move the engine once the fire had been dropped. If the engine was a British Railways Standard engine it was just a matter of operating the grate rocking levers to drop the fire through the fire bars into the ash-pan (breaking any large bits of clinker with a fire iron if required) and then into the pit. The ash-pan having been opened prior to dropping the fire via a bar operated lever on the frame.
If the locomotive was an ex-LMS or ex-GWR type it was a different matter. The fire having to be shovelled out of the fire box after being pushed towards the front of the firebox to permit removal by long handled disposal shovel. The ash-pan doors having been opened from underneath the locomotive. If the engine was not to be kept in steam you could remove some of the fire-bars (using large tongs, bit of an art as you could drop the bars into the ash-pan) so that the fire could be raked into the ash-pan (on non rocker grates). The ash-pan was then washed out to clean away any remaining ash after raking out (in the case of non-BR Standard locomotives from underneath). Once the fire was dropped and the ash-pan cleaned and washed out you had to make sure firebox doors and ash-pan doors were closed and blower turned off to reduce cool air entering the fire-box and boiler tubes. This would cool the locomotive too quickly causing stress to a boiler and firebox. The smoke-box door was then opened and any accumulated ash removed and thrown into the pit. A dirty job if the weather was a bit windy, ash blowing into your eyes. Ash was required to be brushed of foot-plating.
The locomotive was then moved to the head-shunt and then to its allocated position in the designated roundhouse. Moved with caution as steam pressure was falling by now thus effecting braking. If you were doing this as a shed duty turn you generally disposed of and stabled the locomotive on your own. Taking it turn about with your allocated shed driver (shed link was composed of drivers retired from mainline duties). If you were bringing a locomotive off a mainline turn and if you were booked to dispose of and stable the locomotive as part of your rostered duty, you would ensure the fire was run down prior to arrival on the shed, so as to make disposal easier. The procedure for disposal would then be the same as above. Care had to be taken when disposing of locomotives as you had to keep your wits about you. One fireman had his leg cut off after slipping on a pile of ashes and ending up under the wheels of a locomotive as it moved off the ash-pit. I was also nearly badly injured when a driver moved a locomotive off the ash-pit whilst I was raking out the ash-pan. I managed to dive to one side avoiding being impaled by the rake. A few choice words were said after that.
Locomotive preparation was less hazardous, consisting of collecting (in the case of the fireman) the required tools. These consisted of shovel (handy to have two in case of loss), locomotive oil lamps, plus water gauge lamp (trimmed and filled with paraffin), bucket (handy for washing face and hands), box of detonators with red flag, footplate brush (usually firemen carried one with them), coal pick (for breaking up large lumps of coal), lubricator spanner, smoke-box spanner (some locomotives required spanner to open door), water gauge spanner, spare water gauge glass tubes. Boiler water gauge glass tubes would occasionally break instantly filling the footplate with steam. This first happened to me on a WD 2-8-0 climbing the bank to Camp Hill. It certainly made me jump and I could not see a thing. Good job the driver was aware enough to realise what was happening and immediately isolated the gauge. It happened one more time to me on a Stanier 2-8-0 on the Kingsbury Branch. Knew what it was that time, although it still made me jump.
Continuing with the preparing of the locomotive you would then proceed to the locomotive on entering the footplate you would check the boiler water level, ensuring sufficient water level before attending to fire. If the driver was not yet present you would ensure the regulator was closed, the reversing lever was in mid gear and the cylinder cocks were open and the tender brake applied (this was the procedure whenever leaving the foot-plate unattended) to ensure the locomotive did not move when boiler pressure increased. After ensuring the fire-hole lip and baffle plate are correctly fitted and having made a visual check of the brick-arch, you would then attend to the fire by spreading the coals over the grate and applying fresh coal until the fire was sufficient to raise the temperature of the boiler. To increase steam pressure you would then open the dampers to regulate air to the fire. Once there was sufficient steam pressure the blower could be operated to increase the draught to the fire. When steam pressure allowed the injectors would then be operated to ensure they were working correctly. Failure of an injector would fail the locomotive (a fitter would be called to hopefully rectify the fault if possible). The water gauge glasses would then need blowing by using the blow-down cocks to ensure there was no blockage caused by scale or sludge which would have give a spurious water level reading. Duties off the footplate included checking the smoke-box had been emptied and, if the locomotive was fitted with self-cleaning smoke-box baffles, they were correctly fitted, securing the smoke-box door, sweeping any ash off the front foot-plating, topping up the sand boxes, checking the coal was safely trimmed in the tender (if fully coaled) and the tender water level. The engine would be coaled and watered in the yard later if required.
In the meantime the driver would be carrying out his duties which included checking route restrictions and any other relevant notices. Other duties included the checking of defect cards for the locomotive (to see that they had been rectified), and the collecting of oils and oil cans relevant to locomotive. He would then proceed to locomotive to carry out the oiling and visual inspection of locomotive during oiling. Sometimes the fireman would assist in oiling the inside motion if this was required and the driver was a bit portly or not agile enough. When ready the locomotive would be moved out of the shed to the departure roads having been coaled and watered if needed. Finally it would be checked out by the shed foreman before departing the depot.
This is a fairly brief run through of the disposal and preparation of the locomotive. Although it could be a fairly dirty job out on the road it was not so bad as long as you kept the footplate clean and laid the dust using the cab water hose. There were times however when I rode home on my bike looking like a chimney sweep. Most drivers liked to stay clean with some wearing white shirts. Drivers were very annoyed especially the older drivers if the footplate was not kept clean. Above all the most important duty off the fireman was to ensure he had a serviceable tea can and made a good cup of tea. It's not a highly detailed listing of jobs but a summary of what you would generally be expected to do as part of your duties.