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BBC Four Collections -
archive programmes, chosen by experts.
For this collection Gary Boyd-Hope has selected programmes
celebrating Britain's steam railway legacy.
More programmes on this theme, and other BBC Four Collections
are available on BBC iPlayer.
MILITARY BAND PLAYS
APPLAUSE Thank you.
Sheffield Railwaymen's Club, Saturday night.
We'd just like to, before we carry on, we'd just like to say
we arrived yesterday, by the way, to make sure we were on time!
Not like the British railways, always late.
We'd also like to say that you may think that we're getting
a lot of money tonight, but we're not.
We're getting a free pass on the railways.
It's how it goes. Yes.
They've all got free passes in here, anyway, haven't they?
# Jezebel... #
A steam locomotive is the nearest approach a man-made machine
will ever be to a human being.
Every driver and fireman looks upon this machine as a female.
He always calls it "she".
Never "it", never "he".
And he has to pander to its whims.
And a steam locomotive has whims.
More so than what a diesel or an electric has.
Once a steam man, always a steam man.
Good on you.
Nothing to touch 'em.
You don't know what you're talking about.
- You're an electric man. - I don't. I've never been on it!
There's two or three of us here,
we've worked steam, electric and diesel.
And for the best engine of the lot is the electric.
MUSIC: "The Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba" by Handel
The Royal Scot leaving Euston in the 1930s,
when railways were still heroic.
They had been heroic since the beginning, since 1825.
When they opened a new line
and the first train steamed into the first station,
they played See The Conquering Hero Comes.
The Royal Scot, only a generation ago, was still a conquering hero.
And in those days, the railway had its part in many remembered moments.
When you parted, it was at Euston, or Liverpool Lime Street,
or Edinburgh Waverley that you said goodbye.
People travelled less, but remembered it more.
ORCHESTRA PLAYS MELLOW SWING
But this film is not only about railways.
It's also about the men who work on them.
In particular, about the men who run, or used to run,
two lines in the North of England, where railways were first built.
One line, the old Midland line from Birmingham New Street,
by way of Derby, Belper, Ambergate and Chesterfield to Sheffield.
And the former Great Central line from Sheffield Victoria
across the Pennines by way of Penistone and Woodhead
TRAIN HOOTER SOUNDS
The hourly Manchester train pulls out from Sheffield
for a journey of 41 miles,
running across high moors, or cutting through them.
The engineer who designed this line
said it would join the east and west seas.
He meant you would be able to sail from the Baltic
to a port on the English east coast,
come by rail to Sheffield,
then travel his line to Manchester, continue to Liverpool
and there catch the Atlantic packet to New York.
And just about here, his grand railway began, on December 22, 1845,
when the first through train
on the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway
left Bridgehouses Station.
For many years past, the old station has been used as a goods depot
and now they're pulling it down.
It was at Bridgehouses
that they had the potato siding engines must not enter,
because the warehouse floor wasn't strong enough to take them
and they would have fallen 30ft into the road.
But five years before the first train ran,
the first men on this line were navvies like these,
who built it with their picks and shovels.
In the 1840s, there were 200,000 of them working all over England
and a tough and rowdy lot they were.
# In 1841
# My corduroy breeches I put on
# My corduroy breeches I put on
# To work upon the railway
# The railway
# I'm weary of the railway
# Oh, Paddy works on the railway
# In 1842
# From Hartlepool I moved to Crewe
# And found myself a job to do
# A-working on the railway
# I was wearing corduroy breeches
# Digging ditches Dodging hitches
# Pulling switches # I was working on the railway. #
Tunnel building was the hardest task.
An artist of the time saw it like this.
The most notorious tunnel of all
was on the Sheffield-Manchester line at Woodhead,
where 1,500 men hacked and blasted three miles, 20 yards
through millstone grit, shale, slate and clay.
When he saw the plans, George Stephenson said
he would eat the first train through the tunnel.
CHOIR SINGS HYMN
These are the moorland churches where they never went alive,
but only to be buried.
Their deaths are recorded in the parish registers at Penistone
and in the Chapel of St James at Woodhead.
They died when falling rock caught them,
or they fell 600ft down a ventilating shaft,
or stood too close to the blasting.
John Young, killed on the railway, aged 59.
Robert Blackburn, aged 38.
John Thorpe, aged 24.
And their children died, too, in the shanty camps.
John Henry Newton, aged nine months.
And then there was cholera.
They suffered cramps, their fingers shrivelled, their eyes sank,
they turned blue.
A doctor from Manchester prescribed port wine as a remedy and they died.
The others, when they saw a load of coffins,
brought up to Woodhead to supply the expected need,
ran away and spread the infection over Lancashire and Cheshire.
28 died in one brief epidemic.
The last was Rachel Foulkes, who came to nurse the men on a Friday,
was afraid from the first and died on the Monday.
The navvies' greatest memorial is the tunnel they built,
which was, at the time, the longest in the world.
Under steam, it was always quite a task keeping to time.
A lot depended on the conditions of the engine
and these varied considerably.
Much more so than the diesel and electrics.
There was probably much more margin for error, let's put it that way,
both human and mechanical.
With the electrics and dieselisation, of course,
it was a different world altogether for locomotive men.
I think we look back on steam with a small sigh of nostalgia
and a great big sigh of relief.
MUSIC: Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No 2
We're approaching Penistone now.
Penistone, I should think,
is one of the coldest places in England in the winter.
During snow and frost, conditions can be rough, with the electrics.
We get quite a lot of slipping.
We have to take great care not to get the resistances of the engine hot -
they burn out and the engine is a failure.
And that means probably someone has got quite a long walk,
possibly the driver!
The Midland line. Now, the Midland was a solid railway,
which flourished by carrying coal and iron
and by looking after its passengers.
In 1872, it admitted third-class passengers to all its trains,
not just the slow ones.
In 1875, it upholstered all third-class carriages,
which was unheard of.
The other companies scoffed at first, but then were forced to do the same.
The Midland always paid.
the express from Poole and Bournemouth to Sheffield and York.
At the controls, Arthur Lindsay, aged 50,
33 years on the railway, basic pay, £19 a week.
Ken Morgan, second man, aged 27,
basic pay £14 a week.
Every loco man, his object is to do time, as we term it.
That is to leave on time and arrive on time
and there is nobody fumes more than the driver
if he is delayed by signals.
But even then, you have to do your best and abide by it.
The other week, in thick fog, we left Pancras on time
and arrived at Sheffield Midland two minutes late -
which I don't think is so bad, really, in dense fog -
and waited six minutes outside for the signals
and arrived eight minutes late.
Probably a points failure, something like this.
At least, you feel more satisfied when you've got to time.
Ten minutes to four, we're due in. Thank you.
Darlington. Change at York, madam.
- Thank you. - Thank you.
I've had occasions when we've run into Pancras on time
and someone's come up and said, "Thank you, driver,"
and it's really appreciated.
If you are on time, probably no-one will speak.
If you're a little minute before time, they will acknowledge it.
If they're late,
they all walk by with their heads down, sort of business.
Particularly, elderly people will thank you.
Old ladies, particularly.
HE LAUGHS I don't know whether we look
as if we need some sort of sympathy!
TRAIN HOOTER SOUNDS
I like the life. You get about, you know, meet different people.
It's not a job where you're stuck in one place all the time.
The newspapers have run this job down something terrible.
That's my own opinion.
There has never been a true picture put over as to what this job
actually involves and the time, the apprenticeship more or less,
what you've got to serve to get into, you know, your top post.
Some of the older drivers beyond my days were really...
I think they took the place of the jet pilot of today.
They'd gone from the stagecoach to the steam engine
and I think they've gone from the steam engine now
to the internal combustion engine.
We're bound to have found
a deterioration in the glamour of the job, I think.
These people, they were little tin gods, really,
in the old days of driving.
People used to approach an engine driver with awe.
Today, we approach pilots of airlines, I should imagine,
in the same manner.
This line, the Sheffield-Manchester, though it never paid,
was the first in the country to be electrified
for both passenger and goods trains.
But the change to overhead electrification
started before the war,
long before today's inter-city electrification out of Euston.
We've left Penistone now, on the road to Dunford.
That is the eastern end of Woodhead Tunnel.
MUSIC: Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No 2
After Penistone, the country is wild, with more sheep than men.
It's a place where nothing much has happened
since they first built the line.
There's still a vague tradition about the cholera epidemic of 1849,
only they talk about it as "the plague".
This is the new Woodhead Tunnel, built for the electrification.
The old tunnels, which are closed now, had an evil reputation.
The train smoke gathered so densely and hung around so long,
that the gangers maintaining the line often had trouble
feeling their way through, even with lamps.
Many got silicosis
and some became invalids after as little as six years.
It's always been damp and smelly.
Railwaymen called it "under the hill"
and said you could get an idea of the tunnel taste
by drinking bad port wine
and savouring the taste it left in your mouth afterwards.
Sometimes, the drivers were half suffocated.
The footplate was smothered in steam and dirty smoke
and the driver and fireman had to crouch low down
to get some breathable air.
I used to try to have a good fire on
and keep the smoke down as much as possible,
because it was terrifying in the tunnel,
because it hit the chimney and came back onto you.
You couldn't sometimes see your mate at the other side,
you didn't know what he was doing.
You were sometimes gasping for breath
and you were damn glad to get through in anything like reasonable time.
It was terrible to breathe, it was just like breathing carbon.
It's like putting your head in a firebox and breathing.
What we used to do,
we used to have a bucket of water on the footplate,
have a handkerchief or a white rag, as the company used to give us,
dip it in the bucket and wrap it around your mouth
and get in the corner.
TRAIN HOOTER SOUNDS
Woodhead signal box, and signalman Michael Gatenby, aged 21.
When he left school, he worked in a shop, then a factory, then a mill.
But he'd been interested in railways since he was five
and when he was 18, he decided to train as a signalman.
His is one of the loneliest boxes on the line, but a busy one.
His basic pay is £17 7s.
It's one of the most responsible jobs there is, signalman,
no doubt about it, come to think of it.
It is more important than a pilot's.
A pilot has got the life of the people on the plane in his hands.
A signalman has got the lives of two passenger trains coming up.
Look at all those lives.
One wrong move, there's no element of mistake in this job.
It's a job where you can't make mistakes.
Although they do happen and we've seen the consequences.
Woodhead. Hello, David.
Er, Z70 down at 47.
Two coupled for Penistone at 12:13.
That's it. TRAIN HOOTER
Just coming out now. Train engine section.
Tell Dunford it's gone.
That's the driver ringing in from that train
to tell me that he's arrived.
Er, aye, yeah. OK. Thank you.
Yes, I can't go before he gives me the tip.
The Poole-York express.
Keith Foster, aged 40, born in Calcutta,
the son of a district signals engineer
on the Eastern Bengal Railway.
He's been a cleaner, fireman and shunter,
but is now a passenger train guard on the Midland run
to Sheffield and York. Pay - £15 13s.
WOMAN: Smile for the birdie!
I was one of those youngsters who felt that I'd like to play
with a toy train and I've continued playing with them ever since.
About four years since, I left it,
due to all this modernisation and what have you,
because I felt uncertain in my position.
But, having left it, I had that period of separation for two years
from the railway, and I felt completely like a fish out of water.
I couldn't settle anywhere. I had a host of jobs.
Till, eventually, the calling was so strong.
You know the old saying,
you get sawdust in your veins when you work in a circus.
The same with the railway.
So the calling was strong again.
I decided to swallow a bit of pride because, believe you me,
there's a tremendous amount of pride involved
when you have to start back afresh on the railways.
But now that I've made the move and I've made the grade
in this particular department, I'm not a bit sorry.
I'm more than satisfied now. I'm a very satisfied man today.
Dedication to a particular type of industry,
that seems to have gone from the railways.
You don't get that feeling among youngsters nowadays.
They look on the railways as an oddity, a museum piece.
Something to be studied from a museum point,
to go and see at Clapham or at York. We don't like this.
We thought that when we started working in the industry,
we wanted to make it progressive to the point where everybody
appreciated travelling on the railway and would like to travel.
But this, what with the increased fares on the railways,
discouraging passengers one way or another,
they've made things a bit difficult.
Some people seem to be of the opinion
that all you have to do is to make the railways pay
and everybody's happy. I'm afraid they're disillusioned.
They haven't seen that in the majority of the railwaymen,
morale is very low.
Past years, we've had butchers, bakers, candlestick makers.
They've all had a go at running railways
because they've justified themselves as good economists
in their particular field. You don't have that today.
On the railways today, you can have anybody you like,
you'll never satisfy the people unless you get a railwayman
who infuses that feeling into the people that are working under him
that he understands what they're doing.
And Mr Johnson, who is our present chief,
he is about the nearest we've had to a railwayman
come into the industry now.
We're hoping that he'll give us a squarer deal.
Northwards towards Sheffield,
where the principal commodities carried are steel and coal in trucks
and businessmen in first-class coaches.
One tenth of all freight on British Rail
starts in the Sheffield division,
where more than £11 million have been spent to bring things up to date
in the last few years, and where 7,300 railwaymen work and live.
# Ob-la-di Ob-la-da
# Life goes on Whoa!
# La-la la-la Life goes on
# Ob-la-di Ob-la-da
# Life goes on Whoa!
# La-la la-la Life goes on... #
The Sheffield club is a place where any railwayman can come
and bring his wife and children, if he likes.
# Takes it back to Molly Waiting at the door... #
The younger men of British Rail drink,
play darts or billiards,
while the older men of the LNER and LMS,
or, still further back, of the Great Central or Midland Railways -
and they still think of themselves like that -
drink and talk in the back rooms,
remember their old distinctions with pleasure
and argue the toss.
There was more art, there was more skill, there was more,
what shall I say, there was more harmony
between the two men. The two men there, you had a job to do.
That was where the pride of craft...
- There's none of that today! - The pride of craft was there.
Well, listen, you've had your...
You've had your say, Jack. Just a minute.
A steam engine is out of date.
THEY TALK OVER EACH OTHER
And they don't expect to come through.
It may be out of date...
ALL SPEAK AT ONCE
Steam engines will come back.
A diesel, if it stops with a defect, it's a dead duck.
But a steam engine that stops with a defect,
even a side rod, you could get out of the way with it in the sidings.
There wasn't the delay there is today - two and three hours.
You had to clear the main line and you could do,
because you'd still got some power.
The steam engine is obsolete and I'll give you a case in point, Jack.
You take a heavy coal train from Sheffield, a single load, about 41.
Today, the electric will take more.
There's not the skill. I don't care a bugger what you say,
there's not the skill in driving an electric or a diesel engine
as there is in driving a steam train.
You've got nearly an unlimited power.
When they argue the superiority of steam,
they don't mean at all that it was more efficient,
because they know it wasn't.
But steam to them is better because it was a more demanding thing.
It was a difficult thing to do well
and they take pleasure in remembering how they did it.
We used to walk in the shed at Millhouses
when I was a young engine cleaner.
The smell of locomotives, it used to be like a bit of ozone, you know?
The smell of a locomotive, it's like the smell of ozone.
Yes, I've had some happy times on the old steamers.
Especially when we used to go down the West of England.
You'd get the other side of Bromsgrove,
it was like a different country.
Especially spring of the year,
approaching Ashchurch and all the blossom was on the trees.
The apple blossom.
You could smell it miles away when the wind was in the right direction.
Yes, those days will never come back again. Not for me, anyway.
I think if I had my time to come over again, I'd do it again. I loved it.
I loved the steam engines. They were smashing.
Euston, Britain's newest mainline station
and full of the latest architectural textures.
White mosaic, black polished granite, aluminium, glass,
reinforced concrete and blue-black stove-enamelled steel.
And people off to see friends this weekend.
23 acres in all and, in the concourse,
plenty of room for 30,000 passengers a day
to hurry to and from trains, but no room for anybody to sit.
There are no seats,
because British Rail says they would only attract vagrants.
The seats in the bars are plastic and hard
and the superloo is sixpence.
The only old things are the statues,
saved from the famous great hall of the old station.
The power box. All electric, with buttons to push and little switches.
Not so real, somehow, as the heavy signal levers of the Great Central.
More like playing with toy trains.
The 9 hours to Manchester will leave from platform 13.
Calling at Rugby, Stafford,
Crewe and Manchester Piccadilly.
Meals, light refreshments and drinks are available on this service.
Platform 13 for the 9 hours to Manchester.
It is not nearly so dramatic or so heroic
as the Royal Scot of 40 years ago,
but it's a lot cleaner and it's faster.
And this is the way railways are going.
Today's top expresses can do the 188 miles from Euston to Manchester
in as little as 150 minutes
and that, city centre to city centre, is faster than flying.
MUSIC: "Good Morning Starshine"
# La-da da da-da da Da-da da da-da da
# Ba-ba da ba-ba da Ba-ba da ba-ba da
# Good morning, starshine
# The Earth says hello.
# You twinkle above us
# We twinkle below
# Good morning, starshine
# You lead us along
# My love and me as we sing
# Our early-mornings singing song
# Gliddy gloop gloopy
# Nibby nobby nooby
# La la la Lo lo
# Abba dooby sabba
# Dooby abba nabba
# Le le lo lo
# Dooby ooby walla
# Dooby abba dabba
# Early morning singing song
# Song song song Singing sing sing song
# Song song song Singing sing sing song. #
The old goods train can be modern and glossy, too.
Twice a day, the Freightliner ships from Zeebrugge
come into the Harwich terminal.
The containers are pulled out of the hold, lowered onto lorries
and driven off to be lowered onto Freightliner trains.
"Containerisation" is a mighty big word.
But what it means is that goods are packed into containers
all the same size, which can be handled by the same cranes
and the same lorries
and loaded onto long trains of the same size trucks.
Freightliners only started in 1965, but by next year,
they hope to have 80 Freightliner routes,
carrying a million containers a year.
Five nights a week, around midnight, a Freightliner train leaves Harwich
It travels at 75 miles an hour and gets in by breakfast time
and there are no stops on the way.
# No more will I go
# To Blandford Forum
# And Mortehoe
# On the slow train
# From Midsomer Norton And Mumby Road
# No churns, no porter
# No cat on a seat
# At Chorlton-cum-Hardy Or Chester-le-Street
# We won't be meeting again
# On the slow train
# On the slow train. #
Sheffield, too, has a new way with freight.
At the new electronic marshalling yard at Tinsley,
the points change by computer tape
and the trucks are guided into one of 53 different sidings.
From the spot where they are automatically sorted
to the time they enter the right siding,
trucks have a quarter of a mile to run.
Tiny devices at the side of the rails sense how fast the truck is moving
and either brake it or give it a boost.
Tinsley covers 145 acres.
Everything here has been built since 1961.
It is one of the most modern and complex marshalling yards
anywhere in the world.
All this is a long, long way from the railways of 20 years ago.
From the railways of 50 years ago, it is an age.
I started on the railway at six shillings a week as a van boy.
Time I was 20, I was getting £2 a week.
I got married and raised a family up on 50 shillings a week.
The most you could get as a shunter or guard was 65 shillings a week.
You know, you're living on the poverty verge all those years.
It's only just this last few years it's got a lot better
and it's worth having now.
I will say it. A railway career is worth having today.
As a railwayman, I enjoyed every minute of it.
The bad hours, they had their compensation.
I, er, enjoyed them to the full.
But there's only one thing, one disagreeable part of this life,
it spoilt your social life
and, in consequence, the wife's life was spoilt, as well.
I think they're damned good women who stick to locomotive men.
You know, I think they are the salt of the earth,
for the simple reason their social life's ruined as well as ours.
I've had a good time, you know.
I've had a good wife to look after me and that kind of thing.
See to me when I get home and keep the kids quiet in the street,
that's one of the main things.
"Go out to the rag-and-bone man, have a row with them."
"Clear off, get off!"
"Rags and bones," they're shouting
Oh, gosh, I'm woke up again.
"Keep the kids quiet." The kids will come home.
"Is my dad at work, or is he in bed?" You know, that kind of thing.
That's how you were in those days. All these chaps know.
They're the same, they've had the same rotten hours as us.
A fellow came up one day selling fish on his fish cart.
I just hardly got to sleep and he's shouting.
And I got up to the window and I said,
"I'll come and break your so-and-so neck, if you don't shut up!"
Nicely gone off to sleep, perhaps in the middle of the morning.
Fancy getting home, on some of those jobs, at ten in the morning,
missus would be washing.
What could you do? If you went to bed, everybody was making a row.
Kids were in the yards, shouting and screaming and playing about.
After all, I think we all enjoyed ourselves.
I think railwaymen, they're a community of their own.
There's no other job, really,
that had the rotten hours to put up with as we had.
But, by and large, I've had a good time and I've done very well.
We used to come from Gloucester
with the seven o'clock from Gloucester in the morning
to Birmingham New Street.
I used to couple off the train, drop into the siding.
We used to call that sidings the parlour.
My mate's job, approaching New Street, was to swill the shovel out.
Get in the parlour,
bacon, a couple of Gloucester eggs in the shovel and have a good fry up.
Believe me, you can't get a better feed
than bacon and eggs fried on a shovel.
I've cooked steak, kippers, the lot on the old shovel.
In fact, the company got a bit old-fashioned to it after a bit.
They started drilling holes in the shovel,
so you couldn't use it as a frying pan.
Yes, I used to enjoy my breakfast at Birmingham New Street
at that time of day.
the first terminus of the Sheffield Manchester Railway, is in ruins.
The navvies are smashing it up and burning the rubbish
and bits and pieces.
There aren't any potatoes here any more.
Or any engines.
Only the bulldozers of the demolition men.
This was Bridgehouses in its glory, with lorries and clutter
and cramped, tiny buildings.
The potato siding in the background
and the long canopy of the goods station on the left.
Bridgehouses was one of four old goods yards in Sheffield.
They have all vanished now.
The old engineers built to last.
They said their works would last 100 years and, even after 125,
the bulldozers have a hard time tearing it all down.
The Poole to York express approaches Sheffield.
For years, the old Midland Railway was deadly enemies with
the patrician London North Western, which called itself the premier line.
To which the Midland,
which didn't have the fastest trains or the biggest engines,
but generally ran to time, replied that the London North Western
might call itself what it pleased,
but that the Midland was the best way.
This line will remain
as one of the railway's profitable north-south routes,
serving the South Coast, the Midlands, the North and Scotland.
Its future is assured.
But the future of the Sheffield-Manchester line,
the old Great Central route through Woodhead, isn't so assured.
For some years now,
there has been talk of closing the line to passenger trains.
What do the men who work the line think of this prospect?
Well, if they close this line to passenger traffic,
of course, it will be a blow to my depot...
..which will lose several jobs.
But I think it would be a crying shame,
because I think this is one of the best inter-city services there is.
Nearly an hourly service from each way
and we do the journey in about an hour.
I just think it would be a crying shame.
In fact, it's now been decided.
The passenger service which has run on this line
since the first ceremonial train of December 1845, is closing.
Freight trains will continue
and a passenger service by another route will still link the two cities.
But, by January 1970, the last passenger train will have run from
Sheffield Victoria through Penistone and Woodhead to Manchester.
We're approaching Manchester Piccadilly now.
It used to be called Manchester London Road,
this station, by the way.
Dropping down in speed now.
It's a dead-end station, this, so we have to drop in pretty carefully.
A slight touch on the stock locks could probably cause
quite a few injuries.
Coming into the station now.
That's it, now, just about on time.
MUSIC: "See The Conquering Hero Comes" by Handel