(originally published in Journal 38, Winter 2004/5, of the NLRHS)
Several things will evoke memories of when my father stoked (and later drove) steam engines on the Poplar to Broad Street line during my childhood. For instance the smell of coal dust will conjure up memories of my mother’s task of washing Dad’s coal-blackened overalls in those days of no running hot water and no automatic washing machine.
The water was heated in a copper, with its own fire beneath, which was built into a corner of the scullery. The water was ladled into a nearby zinc bath by means of a shallow, long handled zinc bowl known as the dipper. The overalls were then rubbed down a washboard in sudsy water, using a scrubbing brush for the extra grimy areas. The suds were produced by sprinkling soap powder into the water – Rinso or Oxydol were Mum’s favourites – plus a bar of Sunlight or Fairy for the stubborn areas. I do not know how often Dad was issued with new overalls, but I recall that they gradually changed from dark navy to a light, variable blue.
After washing, the overalls were put through the mangle or wringer to extract the sudsy water before they were rinsed in cold water in the scullery sink. Then they were passed through the wringer once more before pegging on a line suspended between a tall post and the corner of the back wall of the house. The line could be raised quite high by means of pulleys and the washing would flap high above our backyard-cum-garden.
The wringer was a tall cast-iron structure with large wooden rollers through which the washing was passed and which were turned by means of a handle fixed to a large wheel at one end of the rollers. This cumbersome affair had to be kept outside by the back door as it was too large for our tiny scullery. Turning the handle in bitter winter weather or hot summer sunshine was no joke. The wringer had to be protected from the weather when not in use, by means of a heavy waterproof cover. Another evocative smell is that of sandwiches which have been kept some hours in a sealed container. Dad did not always manage to finish his sandwiches, so we used to toast them in front of the kitchen range to save wasting them.
I need no evocative smells to remind me of the difficulties of keeping quiet when Dad was on night shifts and needed to sleep during the day. My younger sister and I had to move around the house quietly, shutting doors gently, and carefully walking, not running, upstairs, nor jumping down the last few stairs. It was particularly difficult to walk quietly yet swiftly on the linoleum-covered passage from the kitchen-cum-living-room when a caller knocked. We were anxious to reach the front door before the caller knocked a second time, as the front door was immediately below our parents’ bedroom. Later, when an electric buzzer sounded in the living room by means of a push-button on the front door, this problem was solved (provided the caller chose to use the button rather than the knocker.)
Like most railway workers in those days, we lived in a street of terraced houses which opened directly on to the pavement (no front gardens). Our street was called Lochnagar Street and had the River Lea at one end of it and Brunswick Road, which was a busy road even in those days, at the other end. Lochnagar Street was joined by a curved street called Ailsa Street. These two streets were close to the wharves which flanked the River Lea and consequently there was plenty of traffic to and from the wharves. As two of the companies using the wharves were oil companies, some vehicles were quite heavy and noisy.
The houses in Lochnagar Street had three rooms plus the scullery downstairs and three rooms upstairs. Many folk let the upstairs rooms but we had the whole house. There were two back doors to each house, one for the use of the upstairs tenants and the other for downstairs, but there was only one toilet per house and that was outside. There was no bathroom.
By today’s standards, our living conditions then were sub-standard, but we experienced much happiness nevertheless. There were also firm guidelines for living which helped us throughout our lives.
I have never been ashamed of my father’s work on the railway but always took a keen interest in it. When Dad passed his exams after a certain number of years as a fireman and became a driver, I proudly announced this fact to my teacher at Junior School.
When I passed “the scholarship”, as it was known in those days, my parents chose a school at Dalston. This meant I would be travelling on part of the same line that Dad worked on. The day of my interview at my new school, to which my mother accompanied me, we were able to chat to Dad at Dalston Junction Station on our homeward journey.
I like to think that he drove the train on which we travelled, but am not entirely sure that this was so. However, we did chat to him at Dalston Junction about the interview, of that I am certain.
In those days there was a compartment marked “Ladies Only'” and my parents urged me to travel in it if I was alone. I frequently travelled with friends, so did not always use that compartment, but it was good to know it was available. Even in those far off days, young girls were sometimes molested or murdered.
After two years of travelling to school on that line. I was evacuated, together with my little sister, because the Second World War had broken out. However, my father still drove trains on that line – goods trains – and had some hair-raising experiences from time to time. The enemy was keen to bomb any train likely to be carrying armaments or other vital supplies for the forces but Dad remained in one piece and lived to the ripe old age of 94.
Dad had great affection for the steam engines in his charge, but when diesel trains came on he did not seem to develop any affection for them, and when in his final years he talked of his life on the railway it was of the steam engines he spoke in great detail. Alas, as my own age mounts up, I find I have forgotten many of the details I once knew but I hope what I do recall is of interest to someone who never knew the difficulties, achievements, joys and disappointments of those years in that section of London’s railways.
Helen A Piper