First transmitted in 1962, John Betjeman presents a documentary exploring the impact of the removal of steam locomotives from British railway services on the local workforce.
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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.
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and other BBC Four Collections
are available on BBC iPlayer.
There used to be an old saying how any fool could start a steam engine
but to control it and bring it to a stand is an entirely different thing.
The thing about the job and the boys and that,
there's nothing like a steam engine.
I like the new work, if you can term it,
but there is still that old fascination for steam.
Whilst I don't want to see it again, there's always that
element of love for the old machine that you had for many years.
There are plenty of men in London clubs ready to write letters
to the papers about how the railways ought to be run
and there are plenty of cold-hearted Treasury nominees who will
invent arguments against having railways at all,
statistical ones, and, of course,
there are enemies of the railways in the road haulage industry but
this film, or rather programme, isn't about them -
it's about human beings,
men of steam,
and one particular bit of line.
You know its name already
because it said so at the beginning of the programme.
The line from Bristol to Paddington with one branch to
Bradford-on-Avon, one of its branches.
The Great Western Railway.
And here I am in the Railway Museum in the railway
town of Swindon where the Great Western Works are.
You know, the Great Western, it had great names.
Brunel, Daniel Gooch, Charles Saunders, William Dean,
And, even now,
it's a great honour in Swindon to be in the Great Western Works.
That is to say what's called "inside" here in Swindon because,
in the past, it was connected with safety and a way of life.
Men could come in from the fields and find a job inside
and they were looked after all their lives by the Great Western.
It's a paternal thing and it goes from father to son
and there are plenty of people in Swindon whose fathers
and grandfathers and even great-grandfathers were inside,
as it's called, in the Great Western Works.
It's not surprising, really, as it's been going, the Great Western,
for over 120 years.
The Great Western was another word for the West of England.
It did everything.
It took us to the races, it ran four-horse brakes
and high-powered steamers,
it carried us on excursions to the seaside,
it brought us our food and coal.
True, there were other railways in the west
but the Great Western was the king of the lot.
It spread over Wales and up north to Birkenhead
and it sent boats from Fishguard to Ireland.
It bought up smaller lines and made a profit
right until the days of nationalisation.
It was as official and established as the cities of London and Bristol.
And there, in the company's crest, you can see
the arms of these two cities, the Great Western was built to join.
The cross and sword of London on the left, the ship and castle of Bristol.
The first engine for the new railway was ordered from Robert Stephenson.
There it is - the North Star.
And in 1838, it drew the first Great Western train
and it cost £4,000.
And by 1870, when the North Star was put out of commission,
she had done 420,000 miles.
Well done, old thing.
But what about the man who laid the track along which
the North Star was to go? What about him?
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who died aged 53 in 1859,
a cigar-smoking, humorous and practical genius.
He wanted to link the world by steam
and designed this ironclad vessel to go from Bristol to New York,
a continuation of his Great Western Railway
from Bristol to London.
That drawing he made for Clifton Suspension Bridge
when he was only 24 shows the two sides of his character.
The bridge is drawn with all the precision of an engineer
and the gorge below it, with all the depth and romance of the artist.
And I think it was the artist in Brunel which made him
choose the Gothic style for the terminus of his railway at Bristol.
Gothic to go with the ancient city.
Paddington, at the London end of the line, is a complete contrast -
severely modern. Just glass and cast iron.
Brunel took great pride in Paddington Station,
because it was what it still is - the biggest building in London
with no outside walls.
it is just a cutting, roofed over with iron and glass.
When the young Brunel was asked to survey a route
from Bristol to London in 1835,
he refused to do so in competition with anyone else.
He told the directors of the new company
he would agree to survey only one road from Bristol to London
and that would be the best, not the cheapest.
And so it still is today - faster than any road route,
straight and level for the broad gauge engines of Daniel Gooch.
In the 1840s, a book of pictures of the line was published
and here's one of them coming.
The Wharncliffe Viaduct at Hanwell
in the Egyptian style Brunel was so fond of.
Just the same today.
Notice those flat brick arches
and then those flatter ones still over the Thames at Maidenhead,
the flattest brick arches ever made.
Critics thought the bridge would collapse
once the wooden centring was removed,
so for a joke Brunel left the centring
until it was blown away in a storm,
but the bridge has carried trains ever since
and so has Basildon bridge, there higher up on the Thames,
built on the same principles.
Brunel was a genius all right.
Look at the trouble he took over detail -
for instance, country stations.
There is the Pangbourne station as it once was
with a broad gauge engine waiting on the down platform.
Now, it so happens that there is one country station left on the line,
just as it was when Brunel designed it.
There it is - Shrivenham in Berkshire.
It's worth getting out and having a look at the trouble that he took
with this little station and with the house under the broad veranda.
You see, it was meant to look like the gate lodge of a great house,
but on the new iron road instead of the old turnpike.
Carved stone, Tudor style, to give a historic look
and local flints from the downs a few miles off
so that passengers would recognise
the nature of the country they were in,
and the flint all knapped at great expense.
Swindon was the place Daniel Gooch,
the company's first locomotive engineer,
chose for the Great Western works and repair shops.
It was on level ground, near a canal
and where the railway to Gloucester branched off.
The works now cover hundreds of acres
and there's no sign at all
of that original wooden engine house you see there
where Gooch stabled his iron horses.
But here's the remarkable thing about Swindon.
Do you see that recreation ground
over there beyond the houses in the middle distance?
It was once a cricket field.
Well, that ground and this church - the famous St Mark's, Swindon -
and that inn, and a mechanics institute near it
and all these little streets of well-built stone houses
were built by the Great Western for their own people.
It must be the first industrial estate in Britain, about 1840,
and it once stood in green fields away from the smoke.
It shows the paternal spirit of the Great Western,
which makes Swindon to this day such a friendly place.
When I came to Swindon 30 years ago,
I didn't have no intentions of staying here.
But I found it such a lovely place to live in and work in.
I found the Great Western at Swindon -
which was the home of the Great Western -
I found they were such a happy place here.
The management and men, it was one happy family in those days.
And I was very interested in the amenities that they had here.
If you wanted a doctor, if you wanted a bath,
if you wanted to read, if you wanted a book or anything at all,
you went to the Great Western. The Great Western ran the town.
But as the years have gone by, those things have changed.
Swindon today is not a railway town in any shape or form.
We're just a secondary consideration today
as far as railways are concerned. Everybody looked for a job -
everybody worked for the Great Western.
Well, they did go, our engines wanted some beating,
there's no doubt about it. There's no doubt about it.
The old... Castles, the Abbey class, they wanted some touching.
The 29s were good, but...
The four-cylinder engines, the Castle class and the Abbey class,
they were good engines, there's no doubt about it.
Now for the greatest obstacle on Brunel's iron road from Bristol.
The limestone hill between Corsham and Bath at Box.
Terror struck all England at his daring to drive a tunnel through it.
People said that only death and black disaster were ahead.
Out on the other side, after five years' work by thousands of men,
Brunel built a triumphal arch to the success of his Box Tunnel.
Over a bridge built to fit in with the Roman city,
smoothly the Great Western glides into Bath.
For the station, Brunel could not resist his romantic Tudor style
and it once had a wooden roof
like that which still survives at Temple Meads.
The street entrance was made to look like an Elizabethan country house
and something of the country house atmosphere survives at Bath station,
with the station master as a grand major-domo welcoming his visitors.
STATION MASTER: My usual day starts at 8.20.
The first train I have to see away is the 8.32 Pullman to Paddington.
After that I return to the office where the morning correspondence,
the morning mail, is ready.
I see the 9.32 out to London.
I then meet the 7.45 in from Paddington, which departs at 10.07.
It's followed by the Bristolian leaving at 10.28.
And returning again to the up platform for the 10.32.
And this is the mould and procedure, really, throughout the day.
Well, at a station like Bath,
one of the principal phases of the work here
has us in contact with the travelling public,
which includes many overseas visitors
and, of course, many people of rank and importance,
nationally or otherwise.
It's fallen to my lot to meet three members of the Royal family.
The Queen Mother, Princess Marina and Princess Margaret,
who is now, of course, a fairly frequent visitor to Bath.
And also many ambassadors visit Bath.
And it has been my duty on occasions when they are private visits
to receive them and to see to their wants to and from the station.
NARRATOR: The signal box at Bath is poised above the station platform.
The Great Western -
what is it, I wonder, which makes men so proud to have belonged to it?
STATION MASTER: Well, I think that goes back
to the time of Sir Felix Pole
who instituted a motto that the Great Western was a family concern.
You see, I in turn served under Mr Randolph Pole,
the brother of Sir Felix,
and they instilled into all around them
the theme that Great Western is a family concern.
And the Great Western employees were one large family.
And that did, no doubt, permutate down through...
Right from the top to the bottom of the old Great Western Railway.
And I think you will find that if you question any of the old members,
whether they are drivers, guards, signalmen, shunters, anybody,
that they all had that feeling that we were members of one big concern
and whatever we did, if we did it well it was to the good.
If we did it badly, we'd let the whole concern down.
NARRATOR: Away down the Avon Valley, out of Somerset into Wiltshire
on the branch line to Bradford-on-Avon.
My goodness - nothing like the peace of a branch line
and a well-kept country station.
It's a satisfying peace.
With plenty of life and plenty to do
and where the porter has time to dream of the station competition.
RELIEF PORTER: Well, I came on relief when the resident porter passed away.
I didn't like to see the gardens go back
so I just took them on and started doing them.
I asked if it'd be all right.
We might as well keep them up together now they are up together.
But I had thought about taking the garden prize,
or having a go at it anyway,
but they've cut that out now as a garden competition
and they've got in as a station competition.
Well I wish we're lucky enough in that. I don't know.
We're going to have a try anyway to keep the station up together.
In the past there was a Mr Davies. A retired porter, he recently retired.
He was here, I believe, 40-odd years.
He took several first prizes and special prizes.
So I thought we might get some of them back again,
but unfortunately it doesn't sound like that now.
We've only got the three relief porters here.
There's no permanent porter here at all now.
They get the credit for the station the same as I do.
I just do the gardening, that's all.
I can't take the credit for keeping the station altogether
because when they're here, they do it
and I just keep the gardens up as well as the station.
We haven't had any complaints yet from the station master
about the dirtiness of the station.
NARRATOR: That's the 3.45 from Westbury.
She'll call at Limpley Stoke and Bathampton
and she should be in Bath by 4.23.
FARMER SHOUTS INDISTINCTLY
Oi, oi, oi, oi, oi. Come on, come on.
PORTER: I think she lay down in the gutter now.
That's right, farmer, shut that gate up.
I can't get 'em back through the wire.
THEY SHOUT INDISTINCTLY
NARRATOR: I think you can get nearest to the heart of the railway
and know what being a railwayman is by talking to the engine drivers.
They have calm judgment, knowledge, skill and experience.
They've gained these from each other since the days of Brunel and Gooch.
Well, in our days under the old Great Western Railway,
we didn't have no fire inspectors or anyone like that in those days.
We had locomotive inspectors but not firemen, not fire inspectors,
and we were tutored and taught by the drivers.
See, the first job we did was to go on the pilots
and we were learnt from those drivers that were..
..what you can call...
..real railwaymen. There was no doubt about that.
They were railwaymen, there's no doubt.
And we were taught under those men our tuition.
See, when I was made a fireman first,
they had their own engines in those days, their own shunting engines,
and they would look after those engines
like they belonged to them personally.
See, they do all sorts of little things.
We were taught to...
The first three days I was made a fireman,
I wasn't allowed to touch the shovel.
The driver did the firing and the driving
and when I started the fire,
he put one up on the left front corner,
one on the right back corner and reversed it.
A few rubbers under the door, one up the front
and he'd tell you why he put the rubbers under the door,
always put your small up under the brick arch
and all that sort of thing
and that's what we were taught in our time.
Well, the drivers, the old drivers, would see you did your work properly.
It was really good training, really,
and it would stand you in good stead now.
It's a thing you never grow out of, sort of thing.
It's rooted in you and you just can't adopt
this couldn't-care-less attitude.
Of course, we still maintain that pride right throughout our career.
It's the way you're brought up.
And I think once that gets into you, you can't get rid of it.
Oh, I remember a great many of them.
I remember my old mates when I was in the day.
I had nearly ten years in the double-O at work.
Harry Crumpton, he's retired and still going about.
George Hicks is still alive.
I suppose George Hicks is somewhere about 80.
I can remember my first mate, but he's gone - Ern Wakely.
Bill Luton - I remember quite a lot of 'em.
Bill Bright, another of my old mates. One of the best.
Done hundreds of miles with him.
We always had an idea as firemen, "We can do that job," you know?
But my old mate always said to me,
"Ah, but it's a very lonely life being over here,"
but we never realised that.
Well, since I've been over there I found his words are very true.
It is a lonely life because, you see, if you have a train,
say it's a coal train, well, the weight behind you is tremendous.
Well, you must be able to gauge the distance between signal and signal.
It's not like a wheelbarrow where you can say put your foot down and say,
"We are going to stop." Because you've got a man behind, a guard,
and you've got a series of loose curtains between them all.
Well, eventually, as you are applying the brakes,
if you give too much brake then you're going to have
a build-up of pressure continually
and this man at the end really is going to be rapped about, you see?
So you must be able to gauge the distance between signal and signal,
especially if the distant signal is on.
That means to say that the next signal could possibly be a danger.
So you must be able to bring that train,
you know, to a stop at the signal.
So it takes a lot of skill.
And the evening, especially at night-time,
it seems as if you're on a different railway altogether.
There's a vast difference between the railway at night-time and daytime.
All you have then is just green lights to control you.
You can't actually see the signal itself.
You can't see the outlying district, you know?
If there's a bit of fog, etc, well,
then you must use your experience to guide you to these various points.
So you can never say to the fireman, you know,
"It's your fault." But it isn't - it always your fault.
So it's rather a lonely life.
It was a good railway.
The Great Western Railway always thought a lot of their loco men,
always did. I think more so than the other regions.
Because we had the automatic safety device,
which cost a lot of money in them days.
We were the first railway to have that.
And it was a wonderful thing, and it still is now.
NARRATOR: And perhaps it's because of this human side of engine drivers
that they are their own masters and elect their own representatives
from among themselves to organise their duties.
MAN: Well, it's an easier job altogether
driving a hydraulic after the steam engine.
The hydraulic is mechanically controlled
and it's automatic gear changes and all that sort of thing.
You haven't got that on a steam engine -
you have to use your brains on a steam engine
to keep your boiler right
and not put the firemen down with his boiler or beat the firemen.
The hydraulics are much easier altogether.
SECOND MAN: I like the new...
The new work, if you can term it,
but there's still that old fascination for steam.
Whilst I don't want to see it again
there's always that element of love for the old machine
that you had so many years earlier.
Now, on the steam engine, of course, we used to get dirty.
As it is now, we have facilities of washing etc,
being able to go home tidy,
but to me the whole thrill is still gone.
There's something missing and always will be missing.
So now it's a matter of coming to do your job
to the best of your ability and leaving it be at that,
whereas when we were all steam
the conversation we used to eat, drink, sleep railway work.
I've gone out for an evening and met various railwaymen,
so instead of it being concerned with the evening we were there
I suppose for the next three hours
we'd be arguing the toss about railway work, you see?
So it was all our lives.
You can see what I meant about this being a programme on human beings.
The Great Western - it meant something.
Great Western men were proud to belong to it
just as a soldier is proud of his regiment,
or a sailor of his ship.
But since nationalisation, railwaymen have been messed about.
But the railways are a way of life
and they could be again if each line was given back
the individuality and humane touch it once had.
It shouldn't be difficult.
The spirit and the traditions are there.
First transmitted in 1962, John Betjeman presents a documentary exploring the impact of the removal of steam locomotives from British railway services on the railway men who have maintained the system since the days of the Great Western Railway. The introduction of diesel engines meant a real departure from usual operational practices for the railway men who had dedicated their entire working lives to operating the iconic steam locomotive.