At Gateshead Railway Club, the team working on our Station Stories project met a group of former railway workers who’d started work as young lads in the 1940s and worked together through to their retirement.
The lads started out working at Borough Gardens shed in Newcastle as engine cleaners. Here’s a few anecdotes about those early days:
We started on two pound and six pence a week. I just give mine to me mother. We were all fifteen or sixteen. When you cleaned the engines all the dirty cotton waste used to run down your arms. To stop this you’d put a rag round your wrist. It always got soaking wet with paraffin. It wasn’t very nice.
We worked such long hours. Once, tired from our shift, and with only an hour to go until our next one started, my mate and I thought it wasn’t worth going home. We fell asleep in a Ritz cinema doorway. We were only young lads. We were woken up by a couple of policemen.
The lads all socialised together too:
When you started on the railway you lost touch with a lot of your old school friends. Your railway friends became your life. We had a football team at the Borough Gardens depot. It was formed for one purpose only: the annual charity game against Gateshead shed. Apart from the occasional kickabout, the team never played together until the charity match which was always Good Friday. The match was followed by the annual Good Friday Dance in Gateshead Town Hall. Both events were in aid of the Railwaymen’s Widows and Orphans Fund.
The lads all progressed up the career ladder at the same time:
You did a year or so as an engine cleaner, then you got passed as a fireman, and eventually after about thirty years you got made a driver. But being an engine cleaner wasn’t a lowly job, it was part of the line of promotion to be a driver.
You sometimes got a tip on the London trains. I’d heard a rumour about this driver that used to say to passengers, “Give it to the boy” – meaning the fireman. One time I was on with this driver, and a bloke approached us with a pound note for the driver. Foolishly I said, “I’m not the driver, he is”. Well, he didn’t “give it to the boy” that time.
You were waiting for dead man’s shoes. If there was a vacancy for a driver you got it in order of who’d been in the job the longest. Seniority wasn’t based on ability. You often had to wait for someone to retire. That was how it worked.
The lads started out as engine drivers in age of steam:
In the steam days everything was more casual, particularly on the branch lines. If you were trundling along in a rural area and you saw someone running for the train you’d say, “Come on now, hurry up,” and you could stop and let them on. There was plenty of time.
They experienced the transition from steam to diesel:
Drivers who had worked on steam locos for forty or more years were not convinced that these clean shiny noisy brutes could do the job they knew steam engines could.
As HST drivers they regularly worked the Edinburgh to Kings Cross main line:
I was never given any money but once an old lady came up to me at Kings Cross. She said, “Eee driver you were right in on time, there’s a couple of sweets for yer.”
When you worked the Kings Cross mainline down from Newcastle you lodged overnight in Kentish town. There were open top cubicles in the hostel rooms. One night I was in with this other driver, and boy did he snore. In the morning he complained, “I cannae sleep in those bunks.” I said, “Well we must have had a pig in the room”.
We’re still looking for your station stories. If you’re a former station worker with a story to tell, we’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch by filling in our online Station Stories form or emailing your story to firstname.lastname@example.org