Life in a Blue Suit

Rod Liddiard (MGS 1955-66) looks back over his working life

I did nothing outstanding academically at school but liked playing sport. I had joined Moseley from Golden Hillock Road School and had played in the teams that won the South Birmingham League and cup double at soccer and Challenge Cup at cricket. I was already a keen Blues supporter and used to walk to the ground with a group of local lads for every home game. I only put Moseley down as my first choice as my cousin was in the year ahead. Yardley would have been a better choice for my shoe leather and cycle tyres, as it was a good deal closer to home.

Those who joined with me from Golden Hillock, if I remember well, were Geoff Briscoe, Malcolm Farley, Roger Palfreyman, Kenny Hewitt, Tony Jackson and Roy Cresswell.

School pastimes outside sport held no sway with me. My passion was loco spotting (notice I don’t say ‘train’). There was no school society for this hobby although many boys shared my interest. When most boys had spent Sundays at home I had been to Crewe, York, Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool, Paddington, Kings Cross and Waterloo, sometimes with the Birmingham & Wolverhampton Society where we would visit about 15 railway sheds in a day. The cash to pay for this hobby, as with most boys, came from a paper round. It also paid for visits to St Andrews (on foot), 9d rising to a shilling and a few away matches around the Midlands as well as visits to Edgbaston to see Warwickshire, again on foot. Collecting pop bottles at the close of play for the deposit money provided next day’s entrance money. I played for all the school teams at cricket and made some good friends, with whom I am still in contact  today, 50 to 55 years on; Dave Precious,  Derek Hathaway, John Sargent and Bob Dunn. Although I played Rugby for the school sides for the first few years I gave this up due to other commitments in the winter months, so only played for the Stiffs on games afternoons.

I regarded leaving school in summer 1960 with 4 ‘O’ levels with zero studying as quite an achievement. I should have done some studying, as I scored 40% in three other subjects. Still, I had no intention of staying on, as pressure at home meant I had two weeks holiday and started work in the accounts department at  BSA Motorcycles. This was a big mistake and after 6 weeks I handed in my notice. Every time I visited the gents I had looked out on Small Heath Station and the passing Western Region trains, so I took myself off to Tyseley Railway Locomotive Depot, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with.

I was interviewed by the Chief Clerk, who steered me away from the footplate to a job in the administration of the loco depot, with the proviso that I could join the footplate grade in three months if I so wished, with seniority from my start date. After three months I elected to go out on the footplate grades, starting as an ‘Engine Cleaner’, not recommended if you liked to stay clean! After a few months I passed the exam to be a ‘Fireman’ and as there were no vacancies at Tyseley I applied for one at Old Oak Common, the largest depot on the Western Region, serving Paddington Station. So, at 17 I left home to live in the hostel alongside the depot between Acton and Willesden Junction.

This was in 1961. I was mostly employed on shunting engines and working empty carriages in and out of Paddington. On occasions I prepared the big express locos for the main line workings. Occasional sorties were made across the Thames to Lambeth, passing Kensington and Earls Court, then over the Chelsea railway bridge.  During this time I played cricket for the depot and made visits to Lords and the Oval to see the Aussies playing England. I watched Bill Lawrie score a hundred in a day. I swear the grass grew quicker.

I was automatically transferred back to Tyseley when a vacancy occurred in October 1961, again working local passenger and freight trips. Longer trips came up to Gloucester and Banbury, normally from Bordesley Junction but also from Washwood Heath, which involved going tender first down behind the Blues ground at St Andrews then blasting back up the bank with a loaded train to cover the ground in smoke. In our link there was a working that involved going to Snow Hill and relieving the 6.10pm from Paddington. This was always a King class locomotive, the biggest loco on the Western Region. It was only a short trip to Wolverhampton but was used to give junior fireman and drivers the opportunity to work express trains. Now they were big, 135 tons with the tender and 400 tons of train behind. To my driver it was a breeze. I was terrified. The firebox seemed enormous and the exhaust was like thunder as it gathered pace up Handsworth bank. After 15 minutess of mayhem (to me) we rolled into Wolverhampton, having never exceeding 50 mph. After a week on this job I felt more accustomed to life as a mainline fireman. We would unhook the King at Wolverhampton and take it to the shed while another loco, a puny Castle or County class, would take the train forward to Birkenhead.

I remember one particular journey. I booked on to work a freight train to Banbury from Bordesley yards with my driver. This was accomplished without fuss and after being relieved the control told us to return to Brum ‘on the cushions’, i.e. on the train. The express rolled in with the ominous hiss from the chimney of the blower hard on. This assists steam production when the fire is dirty or clinkered. This was again the 6.10 ex Paddington, worked by Tyseley men. The train fireman, beckoned me to the footplate for assistance. The coal was well back in the tender, as the loco was now on the return leg from London. Both of us set to shovel coal forward while the engine was stationary. Soon enough we got the right of way and John says to me “get to it”. Then began continuous firing. After 40 to 50 shovels I stood up to take a breather and get the call “don’t stop now”. The fire is like the sun but all the time the pressure is falling back from 250psi. John takes the long bar from the tender tool rack and wrestles it into the box. This bar weighs about 50 lbs and is chiselled along the firebars to lift the clinker.  Now the train is up to 70mph and bucking over the crossings at Fenny Compton. The regulator (throttle) is wide open to keep time. John takes on the firing as I go in the tender to shovel more coal forward. Southam Road and Harbury flash past and we race down Fosse road bank to Leamington. Set to again whilst in the station; same procedure. We need a ‘Royal start’ (max pressure and full boiler) for the assault on Hatton bank. After two minutess of solid shovelling we are on a slight downhill run to the dip at Warwick, then maximum effort as we hit the bank, three miles of the steepest rise from London to Birmingham. Through Hatton Station the gradient eases. We are making 40mph and speed increases as we approach Rowington. Here the scoop is lowered to pick up water, 2,000 gallons flood into the tender at 60 mph. Now the track rises again as familiar stations flash past; Lapworth, Widney Manor then Solihull and the climbing is over. Now at 75mph, the regulator is eased; Olton, Acocks Green, then brake for 70mph at Tyseley and then the regulator is closed to the ‘idle’ position, as we can now freewheel almost to Snow Hill. Past Bordesley station and Moor Street the driver opens up again for the climb up the tunnel into Snow Hill. I drop off the engine as it comes to a stand, to meet my driver, who has passed a pleasant time in the first coach. John shouts after me ‘Thanks, and bring your sister tomorrow’.

Life continued in 1962 with great enjoyment. I liked the job, even if there were a lot of night turns. I played soccer on free Sundays for the loco shed and cricket during the summer. At the end of the summer service that year all the King class locomotives were withdrawn. A new raft of diesels were introduced, both on express and local services. Firemen were not needed on the local services, although on the mainline they were needed to take care of the steam heating boilers. Their coaches were steam heating only. I was moved back in the links and told I’d be redundant in the next  few months.