A Swanage Branch Story
Early days as a young Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) Driver in 1966 at Windsor & Eton Riverside depot as it was known in Southern Region days brought me into contact with quite a number of railwaymen that I had never met previously. However there were many amongst them that I did know very well, for as young steam drivers they too had had to move on to secure their future. Sadly my steam days were over and I realised that a move from Nine Elms was inevitable so here I was at Windsor, actually right at the very end of 1965, having successfully applied for a Driver's position on the Vacancy list several weeks earlier.
Having travelled many times up to Waterloo on the route via Staines, usually in the cab I might add, I was now more than familiar with virtually all of the fourteen Drivers that were based at my new 'home' depot. Indeed the fact that one of these men, Jack Mansey, was about to be transferred to Chertsey in December provided the vacancy that I duly filled at the age of twenty-three.
The original line to Windsor had opened in 1849 and a two-road steam depot was established in the yard alongside the bank of the river Thames. When the line was electrified in 1936 the early electric rolling stock was berthed in either in one or more of the station's lengthy three platforms or in a siding that ran parallel with platform one.
The depot never had any night work and worked on a two-shift basis and as such there were seven drivers on each shift. Humorously the men on 'our' shift called the opposite shift the 'Banana Gang' as there was only bunch of them and were considered half bent! Whatever there was always plenty of banter among the young drivers and it was a pleasant episode in my life for all my Windsor colleagues were splendid chaps!
The senior driver on each shift was known as the 'Leading Driver', on our shift it was Jim Richardson, they were responsible for posting all operating notices in the cases provided in the Driver's Room. As such the senior driver on the 'other shift' was very close to retiring at the age of sixty-five, his name was Fred Cooley. Just before he left the railway and retired I engaged him in conversation one day, talking about his life and times. I learned that he was born in Dorset, this immediately provided some common ground as my mother's family were all from the same shire. He had started his railway career about 1916 at Bournemouth shed and was about thirty-five when the story that he told me actually occurred.
Bournemouth depot in the thirties covered a number of routes other more than just the Waterloo to Weymouth line. One such working being the Swanage branch line that dated back 1885. Local passenger traffic started from Wareham, usually from one of the bay platforms, and branch bound trains followed the line west towards Weymouth before diverging at Worgret Junction where the branch line headed south down through the beautiful Isle of Purbeck countryside. Thus Corfe Castle and Swanage were duly served on the almost 12 mile branch line to Dorset's Jurassic coast.
In the spring of 1935, as a locomotive fireman, Fred would regularly work on the Swanage branch. It was on several of these occasions that a rather refined gentleman, obviously with an interest in railway workings, would often engage his driver in deep conversation whilst they waited in the bay platform at Wareham with the connecting service. One evening Fred's driver asked the gentleman if he would like to travel across the branch on the footplate of their locomotive, an 'M7' tank. This offer was eagerly accepted and the trip was made without any problem. After returning to Wareham, Fred recalled that his driver remarked on the rather special motorcycle that was parked nearby that belonged to the gentleman. It was indeed a 'Brough Superior - SS100', one of the finest motorcycles that could be purchased at that time, if one had the money of course! The average wage in those days was £3 a week and to purchase of one of these hand-made machines was some £130! At that time the driver expressed his view that they were quite dangerous things and urged him to be cautious when riding!
Clearly at that time they had no idea as to the identity of the man in question but sadly they did not have to wait too long before all was revealed. All the newspapers of the day reported the premature death of one T. E. Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia'), a re-known scholar, writer and soldier in the First World War. Tragically he had died from injuries sustained in a local road accident whilst riding his motorcycle near his home, 'Clouds Hill' cottage. An extremely brave but complex man in his lifetime, he both refused to receive a knighthood and the Victoria Cross, and in 1927 changed his name to that of T. E. Shaw, possibly in homage to his friend and mentor George Bernard Shaw, but all in all to avoid future recognition no doubt!
What a remarkable encounter, whether it has ever been recorded before I'm not too sure, but after seventy-five years I'm more than sure that it is due time to remember dear old Fred, his driver and their very special guest that evening in 1935!
© 2011 James (Jim) Lester - 70A
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