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Through the New Forest with an 'A4'

In the last years of Nine Elms I was a Driver in No.2 link. During the final summer of 1967 I signed on duty one morning at the time office just inside the Brooklands Road gate, picked up a couple of stencil notices relevant to the lines we were working over that day and greeted Tom Keating, the time keeper responsible for booking crews on duty. In the middle of a delicate repair job, Tom looked up from a partially dismantled watch, this was his sideline during the night hours and he received watches for repair and cleaning from many of the drivers and firemen over a large area of the South Western Division. After the usual brief discussion on the prospects of the weather that day he said 'By the way Peter would you contact the List Clerk today sometime, he wants a word with you'.

Later that morning, after returning to Nine Elms with a locomotive from Waterloo I put my head round the door of the Duty List Office. 'You wanted to have a word with me George' I said. George Rowe was one the great characters at Nine Elms, always cheerful and pleased to see everyone. Stored away in his head were the details of almost every Driver's route card. There he was, in his usual position crouched over a very large duty sheet about 2 feet long with a cup of tea in one hand and in the other a pencil hovering over the long list of names. 'Yes Peter' he said. 'No doubt you have heard on the grapevine that next Saturday LNER 'A4' 'Sir Nigel Gresley' will be here to work a special from Waterloo to Bournemouth on the 3rd June. It appears that you are the nearest spare Driver to the signing-on time for that job so as far as I can see you'll be doing it. Keep your eye on the Saturday duty sheet'.

Needless to say I was as pleased as punch to hear about this and after a cup of George's tea and the latest depot gossip I went to tell my Fireman, who at that time was Ray Harris. He was on the 'Merchant Navy' that we had brought back from Waterloo, shovelling the endless black ash from the smoke box. 'I've got some news from George Rowe', I announced and he replied 'It had better be good'. The bad sort, as often as not, had an adverse affect on his hearing but when told he was delighted. He had never in his wildest dream thought he would wield the shovel on a 'foreign' engine, least of all one such as this. What even made it more fortuitous was that steam operation now had only a matter of weeks to run before the final end on the South Western, on the 10th July. On the Friday of that week we brought another locomotive into Nine Elms and even before it had stopped on the coaling road Ray was off and over the tracks and into the shed to get his hands on the Saturday duty sheet. A few minutes later he returned with a big grin and thumbs up. Later on over a cup of tea in the driver's cabin it dawned on us that No. 4498 was going to prove to be an entirely different engine and to some extent we both would be feeling our way around. However strange this seems now, there was no thought of getting familiarised with the stranger beyond turning up on the day an hour early. Sixty minutes for the preparation on a 'new' engine would be 'a bit of a squeeze' but that was about it. It would be inconceivable today of course. Ray cheerfully agreed, he too would be in early for the shed preparation work.

The Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny. Arriving at the appointed one hour early I gazed across the 25 roads of the huge depot and pondered what a sorry sight it looked. With the end of steam so close the whole place looked dreadful. The engines were filthy and dilapidated and the yard hardly any better, everywhere abandoned piles of ash, clinker and rusting fire irons. In this entire mess and neglect one thing stood out, the spotless, shining, polished, garter blue liveried, 'A4' Pacific, standing on No. 3 road in the shed. It looked like a shining jewel in a pigsty.

I got the keys from the stores and was joined by Ray. He went to 'Sir Nigel Gresley' and opened the tool cupboards on the footplate. Everything was there, all spotless and neatly laid out on newspaper. The headlamps were immaculate in their own locker, the whole cab was clean, and the boiler front looked as if it had been polished and the entire brass fitting shone and glittered. We both stood looking and for a few brief moments were transported to a previous lost era. Soon though it was back to the business in hand. I took the oil bottles to the stores for the oil ration, then returned and filled the oil feeder, before setting the valve gear for ease of oiling on the pit. Again the spotless condition of everything made the process almost pleasant to carry out. Next we moved the 'A4' out of the shed into the daylight.

We opened the tender flap doors to survey the coal situation and were pleased to see that there was a fair amount of Yorkshire hard still in the tender, though it was not enough to see the job through to Bournemouth. We got into the tender and shovelled as much of the stuff forward as we could. I indicated to Ray that he should make the fire up with this and then get back in the tender again and get as much of the native Yorkshire coal forward. We'd then see how we were set. It was clear that we would have to top up the tender from the coaling plant before leaving the depot but the Nine Elms supply by then was poor stuff, dusty slack with not much in the way of lumps. It was known as 'Nine Elms - Super Sifted - Never Glow'.

At the back of my mind was what I had heard about these LNER Pacifics. They were intended to take good Yorkshire hard long flame coal and they did not give their best steaming performances on inferior quality stuff. While Ray was building up a good fire I finished oiling around the outside of the locomotive. As I had anticipated this took rather longer than usual being a strange engine. I had to check and double check that no oiling point had been missed because an A4 is a very big locomotive! Now that it was all done I got back onto the footplate and put the oil feeder away. Ray had built up a good fire so we now got up in the tender and shovelled as much of the good stuff forward as we could. There was not as much as I had hoped but it would get us part of the way to Bournemouth. We had carried out all the other checks; injectors, sanding, brakes, boiler gauge glasses and so on, everything was working correctly. The Foreman Fitter came along to report that he had carried out a complete examination of the engine earlier that morning and all was at it should be regarding mechanical condition.

The Assistant Running Foreman shortly arrived on the scene and told us that we could proceed along to the turntable as soon as we were ready. We backed slowly away from the shed and down to the table. Here we were turned on to the out-going coaling road, we paused at the water column to fill up and then gently rolled under the coal hopper. 'Kos' the coalman pulled his magic levers but, ominously, what went into the tender did not produce the clatter and loud rumble of good quality lumps. The 'Nine Elms - Super Sifted - Never Glow' just slid into the tender, like sand. Ray looked across the cab at me and pulled a face! We moved away from the hopper and stopped on the exit road. The coal, such as it was, was neatly trimmed and the cab floorboards were washed down with the pep pipe. Cab fittings and copper pipes were given that final polish and what a grand sight the 'A4' looked. A few old sleepers at the corner of the shed by No.1 road had long made a useful seat in the fine weather; today a couple drivers occupied the seat. They were sat in the sun for a smoke and watched the proceedings, joined by Sandy the cat who looked on with his usual inscrutable gaze. How that cat kept himself so spotlessly clean amid the dirt, dust, oil, filthy water and mess all about was a mystery? His ginger coat was flawless and his white chest immaculate at all times. His life was devoted to the slaughter of rats and mice and when not hunting he would be in the Driver's cabin scrounging tit-bits from their sandwiched, his favourite being ham or cheese. No wonder he was so big he was visiting all the mess rooms in turn as well as eating much of what he caught.

I looked at my watch and we still had nearly ten minutes before departure from the depot. Our early arrival on the locomotive for preparation work had paid off. Ray had made a can of tea and George Reynolds, Divisional Locomotive Inspector, who would be riding with us down to Bournemouth, joined us on the footplate. George had spent his working life on the South Western Division as an Engine-cleaner, Fireman and Driver before becoming a Locomotive Inspector. Indeed almost twenty years earlier, in 1948, he had ably represented the Southern as a Fireman during the famous 'Exchange Trials'. He was a real 'gentleman' and was a man that I was always pleased to see.

It was now departure time from the shed and with a touch of the chime whistle followed by a gentle opening of the regulator we moved up to the exit signal that came 'off' as we approached it. We stood in the siding adjacent to the mainline until our 'slot' came up between passing electric trains. Our signal then came 'off' and we were away up to Waterloo. We very gently touched on to our train and were coupled up, complete with corridor connection. We were booked to be on the train well before starting time for photography and that time was certainly needed, as the top end of the platform was crammed with people brandishing cameras! While Ray had built up a large fire he had left the front nine inches of the firebox uncovered to help keep the engine quiet and avoid blowing off steam from the safety valves at Waterloo. The boiler gauge glass showed full so we had space to put in more later to keep things quiet should the need arise. The 21 inches of vacuum for the braking system had been created and the brake test carried out so we were now ready for the off!

Driver Peter Steward (right), Inspector George Reynolds (left)

I remarked to Ray that, as this engine was in such excellent mechanical condition, when we were going at speed there would not be the level of vibration that helps to shake a fire down to the front of the firebox so he would have to watch carefully the front of the fire to make sure no holes appeared and to place more coal to the front of the box if needed. A few minutes to starting time he used the fire iron to push the fire over to cover the front of the box. The blower was on and a few shovelfuls followed to the front. With the firebox door flap left open we did not make black smoke, the steam gauge pressure increased and as it approached maximum the injector was put on to keep the safety valves quiet. A minute or so before starting time the signal came 'off' with a Green aspect and 'MT' indicator, for the Down 'Main Through' line. Cylinder drain cocks were closed, George looked back along the platform and got the Guard's 'Right Away'. I opened the regulator and when the engine started to move forward I almost put it back to closed then opened it again. This 'pumping' use of the regulator got us moving out of Waterloo without any slipping, Ray's good management of the fire prevented any black smoke and the train left the station smoothly and relatively quietly, just as it should have! Our moving off was then accompanied by cheers from the onlookers, and the clicking of dozens of cameras!

Once away from the station I pulled up the cut-off to 40% and opened the regulator wider. Even before passing Vauxhall station 4498, in truly wonderful form, seemed to promise it would do anything required of it with ease. If after 40 years my mind serves me right the train was of 10 coaches, 330 tons net, and 'Sir Nigel Gresley' just walked away with them towards Vauxhall. Some P/Way men were out on the track working and the warning chime whistle echoed out over the drab rooftops of Lambeth and Battersea. Many of our colleagues had come out of the shed to wave as we picked up speed past Nine Elms loco. Passing West London Junction at 50mph I shut off steam and before Clapham Junction I gave a slight touch on the brake to bring the train to the 40mph limit round the curve through the station. Once past it I opened the regulator wide with 30% cut-off and we rapidly gained speed on the rising gradient up through Wandsworth cutting towards Earlsfield. We were now overtaking suburban electric trains that were on the Down 'Main Local' line parallel to us. People stared out in astonishment at the huge, garter blue, streamlined locomotive that was rushing past them. Children waved from the windows and adults put down their newspapers and just stared at the polished, shining giant that was passing them. It surprised us too that so many people were out in their gardens next to the line, to wave to us on this fine sunny morning.

Fireman Ray Harris

We passed Hampton Court Junction in just under the 18 minutes allowed, at 68mph. On the footplate the cut-off was set at 15-18% with 20-22% from Woking to Milepost 31 and 'Sir Nigel' raced up these rising gradients seemingly without effort. Ray's firing was producing the desired results! He fired at regular intervals placing coal in the back corners, round the sides and front keeping the fire well up under the door. He adjusted the firebox door flap to give an intake of top secondary air that just produced a light grey smoke at the chimney. When this disappeared he would fire again and this was repeated throughout the journey. As anticipated at the start before leaving Waterloo, this engine did not shake, rattle or roll and the predetermined method of firing turned out to be correct and each time Ray fired he had to place a few shovelfuls to the front of the box. At speeds of 70-80mph the locomotive rode smoothly and was comfortable for those in the cab. From time to time Inspector Reynolds would go back through the corridor tender and then escort back, one at a time, members and officials of the railway society that had organised this special train. They were each one delighted to spend a short time on the footplate and see how the job was done at the sharp end and George was pleased to answer many questions that they had to ask! We passed Worting Junction 50 miles from Waterloo where the line to Bournemouth and Weymouth diverted from the Salisbury and Exeter route. The Yorkshire hard coal that we had shovelled forward in the tender at Nine Elms was still coming down into the shovelling plate, much to Ray's delight. Our efforts in doing this had paid off well, but we guessed that there could not be much more of it left.

Soon we plunged into Lichfield Tunnel that marked the end of the generally rising gradients from London, now we had 12 miles of falling gradient of 1 in 252. I slowly eased down the regulator to give just a breath of steam in the cylinders. Ray had prepared the boiler for this easy fast running by slightly reducing the primary air-flow to the fire through the dampers. This had reduced the steam pressure from the near maximum that we had enjoyed all the way from London back to about 30 psi below, so that there would be no blowing off from the safety valves.

Also the water level in the boiler had been allowed to fall to of a glass so that gave us more scope for proper boiler control. We were glad we had this extra boiler space as the boiler pressure began to rise again passing Winchester, to near blowing off point, but the injector was put on to prevent the safety valves lifting.

By now our speed had risen to over 80mph then 85mph as this locomotive, built for speed, showed what it could do. Winchester and Shawford went by in a flash. Passing Eastleigh Ray announced that the Yorkshire hard coal was finished at last and we had now reached the Nine Elms slack. Nearing St Denys I started braking to bring the speed down for the approach to Southampton. Emerging from the tunnel with a couple of touches to the chime whistle we ran into the crowded platform. I had to be careful here to stop right to get the water column arm over the tender filler. This A4 tender was longer than our Bullied Pacific's or other tenders, so I approached the column slowly but matters were not helped by the fact that the platform was the opposite side of the cab from my driving position. George leaned out and simply judged where to stop. He got it right and very quickly we swung the water column arm round over the tender and were filling up. A huge crowd of people, many with cameras, surrounded the locomotive all asking questions and more questions. We were grateful that George was riding with us as he dealt with the enthusiasts while Ray and I concentrated taking water. The platform 'start' signal was 'off', the tank was full, we were back on the footplate, which had been swept and washed down, and everything was spick and span. The 'Right Away' came and we move off to the cheers and waves of the crowd on the platform. We picked up quickly on the level passing Southampton Dock, Millbrook and Totton. With so many line-side photographers it crossed my mind as we sped by this was perhaps the first time that an 'A4' Pacific had been recorded against a background of the huge ocean liners in Southampton Docks.

After Southampton we let the engine run a couple of miles to allow the exhaust blast to get the fire incandescent white hot before firing with Nine Elms slack. Ray began firing 'little and often', sprinkling the dust to try and get the best combustion. It seemed to work as the pressure gauge needle stayed just below the red mark on the gauge. The engine leant into the curve through Lyndhurst Road station and we sped into the New Forest, regulator open, 20% cut-off, speed 60mph and the exhaust echoing back from those oak woodlands. Soon we were passing over the wide expanse of Setley Plain which in late summer is a sea of purple heather as far as the eye can see! Cut-off now 15%, regulator eased. We were now getting the first hint that 'Sir Nigel' was not too keen on the 'Nine Elms - Super Sifted - Never Glow', for the steaming was not nearly so free! Ray was now working harder with steam pressure needle showing a slight tendency to move back the wrong way! This was no more than we had anticipated and was not affecting our running. George was still bringing a visitor or two through the corridor tender to enjoy a few minutes on the footplate but now with the coal dust swirling around, despite hosing it down all the time, they went back into the train dirtier than they left it!

The climb from Brockenhurst to Sway was done with ease, some New Forest ponies raised their heads at the sound of the chime whistle, they were unimpressed and immediately resumed their grazing. The downhill stretch from Sway to Christchurch offered high speeds if needs be but, looking at my watch, I suspected that the previous semi-fast service from Waterloo might not be too far in front of us so I decided to take it easy. Sure enough the next 'Distant' signal that came into view was pulled 'off' as it came into my sight and it was the same with next 'Distant'. Taking it relatively slowly we had a pleasant, smooth run into Bournemouth. On arrival we handed over to a Bournemouth crew. Standing on the platform both George and I were happy to chat to many of the passengers who had enjoyed the journey. After some while we were pleased to have a wash and a good clean up in the station mess room and have a fresh can of tea with our sandwiches. We were not required for any further duties at Bournemouth so we returned to London as passengers 'on the cushions'. Inspector Reynolds was very pleased that the run had gone so well. Before leaving Nine Elms George had raised the possibility of bringing people through the corridor tender one at a time en route and I'd readily agreed. I hoped that for all the individuals concerned that it would be an experience they would never forget.

Looking back it was one of those rare days in one's railway career when the thought crossed the mind - 'we actually get paid for doing this'! The whole journey from Waterloo to Bournemouth was smooth and incident free, as it should be with a locomotive in superb condition and maintained to heights that were, by then, unimaginable to us at Nine Elms. In our normal day to day work in 1967 nearly every mainline trip was to some degree a struggle, against poor maintenance, run-down locomotives with rough riding and vibration, poor quality coal and the accumulation of dirt everywhere over everything. On this run to Bournemouth I kept a log of the run, with timings booked and actual load/tonnage, speed at various points and all relative detail. Unfortunately, during a house move not long after, this got lost, thus the en route details are rather sketchy. I much regret this loss for now, forty years on, it would have been fascinating to examine it!

Curiously, this had not been my first duty on an LNER Pacific. Four years earlier, on the 25th August 1963, I had driven 'A3' No. 60112 'St Simon' on another special from Waterloo, also to Bournemouth. My recollections of that day too, remain fairly well fixed in my mind. Again it was a beautifully maintained and spotless locomotive and on this occasion my fireman was Gerry O' Sullivan. We were accompanied on the footplate by a Kings Cross Inspector who's surname I cannot remember but his first name was 'George', a very pleasant man who it was a pleasure to have with us for the day's work. (Almost certainly Chief Inspector George Harland - British Railways Illustrated Editor). Gerry did a great job with shovel that day, the locomotive ran like a well-oiled sewing machine, and everything went perfectly.

A3 60112 'St.Simon'.
Photo by unknown Wimbledon driver - Jerry O'Sullivan collection

Many Nine Elms colleagues over the years have asked which loco I liked the best, the 'A3' or the 'A4'? Actually my preference was for the 'A3', because personally I've never taken to the 'look' of streamlined locomotives, they bring to my mind the image of an up-side down bath tub. For this reason when they were streamlined the LMS 'Princess Coronation' class looked even worse in my view. On the other hand the 'A3' positively looked a thoroughbred racehorse, built for speed with shape and line that to me was very pleasing to the eye. This is just a personal view based on looks alone. When our own 'Merchant Navy' and 'West Country/Battle of Britain' locomotives were eventually rebuilt I considered that they looked like a steam locomotive should!

Of course after driving 'St Simon' on the Bournemouth line in 1963 I thought that was it. I would never get another chance to drive a 'foreign' engine over Southern tracks, it was for sure only one of those things that probably comes along once in a working lifetime, if you are very lucky. To get another bite of the cherry, four years later with 'Sir Nigel Gresley', was just unbelievable luck!

A short while later in July 1967 steam finally came to an end and Nine Elms closed down. The great majority of Drivers and Firemen were transferred to a new 'mixed traction' depot at Waterloo where again I found myself in No. 2 link, the same as at Nine Elms. A few Drivers transferred away to other new 'mixed traction' depots such as Salisbury, Eastleigh or Bournemouth. Eventually the empty and forlorn Nine Elms depot, it's historic origins dating back to 1838, was pulled down and bull-dozed level and the new Covent Garden arose in its place. Now nearly forty years later when I go by in the train into Waterloo, on my way up to London for the day, I look at the vast Covent Garden and I think that somewhere in the ground, buried underneath it all, there are a few fire-irons, oil feeders, disc boards and indeed even some of that wretched, never to be forgotten, 'Nine Elms - Super Sifted - Never Glow' coal! As for Sandy the shed cat, whatever happened to him? The last I heard he was transferred to Selhurst Electric Maintenance Depot where he spent his remaining years terrorising the local rodent population that infested the grass covered embankments and cuttings of the junctions that surround Selhurst Depot. He even had his own armchair in the fitter's mess room!

Some years ago I was walking across the concourse of Victoria station in London when who should I bump into but Ray Harris, my Fireman on the 'A4'. He was then an electric train driver based at Victoria. We stood there oblivious to the rushing crowds of commuters and tourists all around us while we reminisced over that long ago Saturday morning when the sun shone from a blue sky as we headed South-West with 'Sir Nigel Gresley' to the New Forest and Bournemouth.

© Peter Steward - 70A

'On Britain's Railways most of the steam men have now retired or just coming up to retirement. When the last of them have finally gone it will truly be the end of an era for we shall never see their like again'.

'Through the New Forest with an A4' originally appeared in the Irwell Press magazine British Railways Illustrated Vol. 17, July 2008. Appreciations are due to Chris Hawkins (Editor) for his collaboration with the Nine Elms website on this occasion. Photographs (except for the photograph of 60112 'St. Simon') were sent to Peter Steward for his collection soon after the trip and we are indebted to the unknown photographer(s) and to Peter for their use in this article. Thanks to Jerry O'Sullivan for the permission to use the photograph of 'St. Simon' from his collection - again photographer unknown. Finally, thanks also are due to Jim Lester for his work is transcribing the text for reproduction on the Nine Elms website.

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