Sins of the Fathers by Jack Haddock

A fine July morning in 1932 found a young LMS Walsall Ryecroft Shed foreman named Tommy Bates walking through the Ryecroft streets at the early hour of 5.30. Due to book on duty at 5.45, he found the freshness of the slightly cool air exhilarating; passing public houses, the smell of stale beer was the only reminder of the previous long hot day of the current heat wave.

He was booked for a Walsall to Blackpool North day excursion. Thinking of his forthcoming task, he knew that when the sun rose higher and the temperature rose with it, he would be on the footplate working virtually a double trip to Blackpool: the down run between the hours of 7.30 and booking-off at Blackpool North shed approximately at 13.30; the up run departing Blackpool North about 19.30, arriving at Walsall around midnight - but because of congestion on the road, this time was seldom achieved.

Most firemen and drivers on Blackpool excursions took advantage of using the old rolling stock at Blackpool North shed, converted to sleeping compartments, for the rest before the gruelling return trip.

Coming over Mill Street Midland Railway Bridge; Tommy Bates viewed the Sunday congestion of smoking locomotives on the outside links of Ryecroft shed, wondering which steed he would be wrestling with until after dinner time. Lined up were Prince of Wales class alongside Experiments, George the Fifths, Midland Compounds and Class 2s. All the ex-LNWR engines being notorious fire eaters, Tommy knew what to expect: cautiously wending his (illegal) way over the Cannock line, he walked down the shed, passing the dead local shunting and freight engines, at rest for the Sabbath. Perusing the notice board, he espied that his engine was Experiment class 4-6-0 number 5504 Ethelred. This together with the fact that the previous evening he had been allocated to fire for Simeon Foster, caused him to wince at the thought of his combination of locomotive and driver.

Tommy Bates' problem was firstly the class of Experiment locomotives allocated to Ryecroft shed, which had seen better days and were now approaching their time for the scrap heap. After many years on mainline work, small local sheds had acquired than for secondary duties, and subsequently they were in run-down condition. This made them notorious fire eaters and rough riders on long trips; - not a thought to be relished in the 240 mile trip to Blackpool and back.

The second problem for Tommy was his driver: here, one must explain that driver Foster was an extremely popular and well-liked driver at Ryecroft, a shed that was always well known to many outside railwaymen as a happy shed, practical jokes being a regular part of Ryecroft life. The fact was that, like many former LNWR drivers, Simeon Foster had a fixation that the only way to get the best out of any locomotive was to drive with the regulator fully open, and literally thrash it as hard as possible between points A and B.

Time must be kept at all costs, and if possible time was to be saved. It was acknowledged that Foster was the hardest and most exasperating driver for any young Ryecroft fireman to serve. Upon him was bestowed the nicknane ''Major Segrave", after the famous road motor racing star of the halcyon days of the 1930s.

Excursion trains at Blackpool in the 1920s. The occasion was a Cannon works outing, believed to be the train on the right. Experiment class 4-6-0 No. 2022 "Marlborough", on the left, and No. 1652 "Middlesex" of the same class, both received a number change in 1927, which sets the photo prior to that date. Notice the Midland carriage behind "Middlesex". M.R.S. collection.

On this particular day Tommy Bates drew his tools and equipment from the stores and proceeded to the footplate of "Ethelred". The locomotive had been prepared by the shed turners and was fully loaded with maximum coal capacity of ten tons, ten hundredweight carefully stacked just above tender height. Because of congestion of traffic on Blackpool North shed, most locomotives had to make a round trip without recoaling. Presently Simeon Foster joined Tommy on the footplate and "Ethe1red" began to move slowly among the row of smoking excursion locomotives down to the ringing-off hut.

Permission to leave shed was immediately granted by Ryecroft signalbox, the small "Tommy Dodd" (ground) signal indicating right of way. "Ethelred" drifted off shed, down the cutting and through the station to the Midland Yard carriage sidings, using a spare road to the New Mills Bridge end of the sidings. Immediately a train of ten corridor coaches was propelled from the Midland Yard goods sidings by the small ex-Midland Railway shunter No. 1690, affectionately known as "Jacko", onto the waiting "Ethelred".

With the departure of "Jacko" back to its goods sidings, Walsall No. 1 signalbox had prepared a road in liaison with Walsall No. 2 and "Ethelred" propelled its train down into No. 2 Platform at Walsall Station. This movement was carried cut with usual railway efficiency in the minimum of time. From the point of arriving in Walsall Station and the mad scramble of passengers for seats, Tommy Bates' agony had begun.

With a clear road by Bodleys and Pleck Junction signalboxes, Simeon Foster slowly notched up the regulator wide, whereupon Tomny began his stint with the shovel. By Portobello Junction, ''Ethe1red'' was moving at a good 60 miles per hour, with only a small cut-off. This meant Tommy being continuously at the shovel, except for a few moments only. Glancing out of the cab he viewed the sky - not a cloud in sight, the heat wave was obviously still in evidence. As the excursion clattered over Bushbury Junction Simeon blasted the whistle, probably to let the Bushbury shed men in sight know that Ryecroft men also knew how to work fast trains.

On to Stafford ''Ethelred'' continued flat out, rocking, lurching and vibrating along the track. Here one can only ponder the inequality of human endeavour. On this train of some five hundred people, including many children, sat all the passengers having not a care in the world, idly viewing the rural landscape with its grazing cattle and town back streets. Most of them would be engaged in casual gossip, together with their yelling, excited children absorbing quantities of sweets and bottles of pop. Of the two men on the footplate, the driver was having the grave responsibility for their safety, accompanied by his poor fireman, working his fingers to the bone.

By the time Stafford had been passed, the sun was rising higher to add to the footplate discomfort. Beyond Stafford to Crewe, the tracks became quadrupled: "Ethelred" was allocated the down slow line. Presently, a northbound express was pulled alongside on the down fast line by 'Royal Scot class locomotive No. 6111, "Royal Fusilier".

Simeon's answer to this challenge was to try and coax even more speed out of the already extended output of ''Ethelred''. The ''Royal Fusilier", however, gradually outpaced the seaside excursion. It must have been quite a sight from the coaches of the northbound express with steam emitting from various joints in the Experiment, together with the volume of sparks and char blasting skywards from the chimney.

Meanwhile, Tommy Bates just fired away mechanically into the insatiable ''Ethelred's'' firebox. He found time for a quick drink of cold tea from a pop bottle, while slowly running through the maze of the Crewe Junction network: firing not being required, he had to assist Simeon Foster concentrating on the many complicated signal patterns. After the Crewe slack, ''Ethelred'' was again soon gathering speed towards Weaver Junction. Heavy firing, corresponding with the sun’s increasing heat, made footplate life very uncomfortable.

About 11.45, after a number of distant signal checks around Warrington and Wigan, Preston Station was reached. Coming to a dead stand here, ''Ethelred'' was only one of the very many Blackpool excursions filtering down the Fylde Coast lines (all signal boxes to Kirkham & Wesham were fully occupied for short section working). ''Ethelred'' finally got right of way, and proceeded on a stop-start routine all the way on the Blackpool North, Talbot Road excursion sidings, taking about an hour to cover this last short stretch.

Approaching Talbot Road, Tommy looked out of the cab towards the assembly of coaching stock and disgorging passengers. The sun was scorching and there was no wind whatever. On the footplate the heat was almost unbearable: even Simeon Foster was beginning to wilt, for on the way up he had been able to lean out of the cab for long periods, to cool in the slip stream. Tommy got down to uncouple from the coaching stock, to allow a local engine to draw away the stock for disposal.

"Ethelred" as LMS No. 25504 draws stock from the carriage sidings at Pleck in this 1930s photograph. Walsall gasworks can be seen behind.

With the numerous excursions to Talbot Road, within the eight hours until midday, most Ryecroft men wondered and marvelled at the disposal problem. Because of siding congestion, Blackpool excursion stock was filtered back along the line as far as Preston, Wigan, Southport and Blackburn, hauled by the useful ex-Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway 0-6-0 tender and 2-4-2 "2P" tank engines.

Some five minutes after uncoupling, Tommy gave a sigh of relief as the coaching stock drew away. Almost immediately, the call-on signal cleared to run light engine out of North Station; Blackpool shed confines were shortly reached and Simeon Foster handed over ''Ethelred'' to the disposal men, who had the thankless task of cleaning the fireboxes of scores of locomotives in a mean temperature of about 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Simeon and Tommy at first decided on a good cold-water wash before some "snap". At this point it was common for any visiting train crew to visit Blackpool sands for a session in a deckchair. Alternatively, the men could get their heads down for a few hours in the specially converted old railway coaches with fitted bunks. Simeon and Tommy chose the latter, and somehow managed to get some sleep in the still baking hot conditions.

A call lad came into the coach about six o’clock to give Simeon and Tommy time to prepare ''Ethelred'' with full steam for the run back to Walsall, leaving Talbot Read excursion platform at 19.48. He was just as apprehensive with regards to the return journey as he had been before the outward journey: admittedly the sun was beginning to wane, but the continuing ridge of high pressure over England could only mean a warm, humid evening and night. Tommy knew he was in for another gruelling stint with his gleaming work shovel.

There was no hope of Simeon changing his driving methods, so Tommy just accepted his fate as ''Ethelred'' left Blackpool North shed and backed onto its waiting stock. Looking down the platform from the cab of ''Ethelred'', Simeon and Tommy viewed their Walsall day trippers searching for empty compartments. Every child it seamed carried a bucket and spade and was, as usual, full of noise and (generally) laughter. Their fathers mostly appeared to have in their pockets a few bottles of ale, having realised it would be closing time when they reached Walsall. To go without a drink on a Sunday night was sheer torture to some. Of the mothers their expressions generally were: "Oh I will be glad to get back home, having been up very early to get the children ready". Considering their thankless task of damping down the children's spirits towards bedtime, and thinking of the Monday washing, one can appreciate the housewife's lot on a Sunday day excursion.

With the train full, Simeon watched for the signal and, when cleared, slowly moved ''Ethelred'' away from Talbot Road to join in the usual stop-start procedure all the way back to Preston. Simeon was set to drive in his usual manner of continual thrashing, causing Tommy to fire just that bit harder than for other drivers, who preferred to ease and coax their locomotives along.

It took about an hour to reach Preston, with anxious looks passing between footplate and signal cabins. After Preston, running along the slow lines, progress was improved.

Passing Wigan and Warrington and other small towns, Simeon’s heavy method of driving was responsible for cascading red hot char and small lumps of coal skywards to descend into back gardens and rows of Coronation Street-type houses. But the Lancastrians were used to this procedure and had long learned to live with the ex-LNWR engines.

During a brief respite from shovelling, Tommy stole a few moments from his ordeal to take a drink of cold tea, again from the usual pop bottle, finding time to answer the waves of schoolchildren who were always in evidence with their notebooks full of engine numbers. On the approach to Crewe, signal checks began to put the Walsall excursion behind schedule. The good point was that night was drawing in, and Tommy was more than pleased to see his enemy the sun disappear below the horizon.

Just after ten o'clock "Ethelred" was given a road through the Crewe bottleneck, by way of the up goods loop lines, bypassing the station under tunnels, and rejoining the up slow lines at Basford. Tommy Bates, shortly after leaving the Crewe lines, managed to put down the shovel for a chat with Simeon Foster. It was just before Norton Bridge Junction Signalbox, where the driver of an up train was required to whistle appropriately to the signalman for the road to Wolverhampton. This procedure was for the Norton Bridge signalman to inform the Stafford signalbox responsible for working the Trent Valley and Stour Valley lines. Tommy reminded Simeon because Simeon had been known to forget. Once he had been in charge of a Crewe to Curzon Street fish train and, having forgotten to whistle, was diverted along the Trent Valley line. Too late to rectify his mistake, the only alternative was to stop at the nearest signalbox to ask for a road via Cannock and Walsall, causing some heavy graft for the poor fireman concerned on the Cannock Chase incline. In ''Ethelred's'' case Tommy had no illusions about firing this ageing Experiment over that route.

With the correct whistle given at Norton Bridge box, Simeon literally thrashed the rattling Ryecroft locomotive towards Stafford. By this time, Tommy was spending most of his time down the bottom end of the tender, facing the footplate end, throwing coal forward. Tommy viewed the cascade of sparks blasting upwards into the night sky, thinking that some drivers would work out a less demanding firing routine by skilfully adjusting cut-off and regulator openings. But not Simeon Foster - just full bore, and wide open regulator.

Eventually "Ethelred" rattled through Stafford Station and Junction and on towards Wolverhampton, where Tommy checked his coal supply, and calculated that he could just about make Ryecroft shed with a few shovelfuls to spare. He had by then thrown nearly ten tons into ''Ethelred's'' firebox. Among Ryecroft shedmen, it was common knowledge that Simeon had once completely emptied a tender on a previous Blackpool excursion around Four Ashes Station, and had to call on Bushbury shed for extra coal to get the last few miles to Walsall.

Given a clear road to Bushbury Junction, "Ethelred" thrashed on, and Tommy, almost dropping asleep, was firing purely by reflex action. Simeon still continued to emulate the legendary ''Major Segrave" however, and from Bushbury and down the "Old Road" "Ethelred" sped on, thence through Pleck Junction, eventually entering Walsall No. 1. Platform at approximately 0.30 on the Monday morning. Bleary-eyed parents and still noisy children clattered their way up the curving steps to the LNWR-style covered passage leading into the concourse for tickets to be collected. The glad news for Tommy was the arrival of an inspector, who instructed him to uncouple ''Ethelred'' from its stock and run light engine to Ryecroft shed. The Stock was to be withdrawn into Midland Road carriage sidings in due course as available, by the yard shunter. So, with about two hundredweight of coal left in the tender, ''Ethelred'' retired to its home shed.

Simeon Foster drove by the ringing-off hut, with its shed arrival bell ringing busily, and ran onto the disposal road, behind another Experiment and an engine of the Prince of Wales class, just in from similar excursions. The shed turner arrived to ask Simeon if ''Ethelred'' was still in one piece, knowing "Sim's" way of thrashing the ex-mainline veterans.

Tommy wearily gathered up his snapbox and tools and proceeded to the booking-off office. Into the shed and down No. 1 road he staggered with aching knees and arms. On reaching the bottom end of the shed he noticed, peeping through the dim gaslight and drifting smoke, a figure at the drinking-water fountain, in the act of filling up the huge one gallon iron kettle for the mess room firegrate. The figure was indeed Simeon Foster’s young son Les, working the night shift on calling-up and mess room duties. Les Foster, who had joined the railway with the object of following in father's footsteps, became uncomfortably aware of Tommy leaning on his well-worn shovel and glaring in his direction with a look to kill. Suddenly, from the lips of Tommy Bates, there leapt an exclamation that was to live in the memories of Ryecroft shed staff until the present day - "Young Les, it is said somewhere in the Bible that all Sins of the parents shall be passed down to the first, second, third, and fourth generations, and so be it, that if I ever get you on the footplate as my fireman on a Blackpool excursion I shall make you suffer, sweat and toil in the same manner that your bloody old man has treated me today". Tommy Bates tottered away to the toolroom stores, leaving a bewildered young Les Foster speechless.

Considering that Tommy had not been to Sunday school for many years, it was amazing that in his mind still remained the learned text from the Bible, taken from the Second Commandment - "I the Lord, am not easily angered, and I show great love and faithfullness, and forgive sin and rebellion, yet I will not fail to punish Children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations for the sins of their parents".

Fortunately, in the vicinity, overhearing this classic remark, were fitter Frank Rigby and fireman Walter Franklin, who found this confrontation most amusing. It took little or no time for the whole of Ryecroft shed staff to hear of this encounter, and they looked forward to the day in a few years time when Tommy Bates might have passed fireman Les Foster on the footplate with him. Alas, this true Story has a sad ending.

Tommy became a very efficient fireman, and duly passed-out on his examination to be a driver on Ryecroft shed. On only his second week driving one of the shunting links, he duly booked on duty one morning full of zest and enthusiasm for a day’s work, when in the act of putting his snapbox on a high point on a Super D’s tender, he Stood on the tender brake wheel to lift himself. Unfortunately, he slipped as the loose wheel revolved, and fell awkwardly, hitting his head against the steel tender frame, to be killed almost instantaneously, and so never lived to carry out his threat to young Les Foster.

Return to Priestfield Return to the Beginning Proceed to