The late Bill Willams, cousin of Tom Rolt and son of the originator of the use of Sentinel engines as locomotive, was an apprentice fitter on the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire in the late 1920s. He recounted his experiences for 'The Colonel', the journal of the Colonel Stephens Society.
On the sixteenth of January 1928, I made my way to Kinnerley shed! Not a soul in sight! There were no lights of any sort and a general air of abandonment. I found my way into the shop where a vertical boiler was sizzling gently to itself! Someone must have been about. On a wall adjacent to the shed was a blackboard upon which was written in chalk the following:
•LOCO No 8 - 7 - 0
•LIGHT UP SHOP
•BOILER AND PUT FIRE ONE SIDE
It was quite some time before I interpreted this to mean that Loco No 8 was required at 7.00 am, and “light up” did not refer to illumination. If “boiler” had been on the same line as “light up shop”, I might have understood.
Shortly afterwards, Arthur Fardoe - known as “Tootie”, don’t ask me why - arrived. He warned me that the boiler was inclined to roar at times. If it did, “open the fire door a crack”, he said. The next arrival was the early morning train from Criggion hauled by Loco No 8 crewed by driver Frank King and fireman Teddy “Burbie” Jones. I think that Bill Cole was guard on this occasion.
Then came my boss, Charlie Owen. If he was in any way pleased or interested in my presence he very successfully concealed the fact. Handing me a wad of waste, he told me to clean the machine tools.
Things were gradually coming to life. George Beeston, the senior apprentice, arrived next. He viewed me with a mixture of disbelief and suspicion. When I look back on those days, I am not surprised. George and I however, got on very well and I soon took over such tasks as heaving coal for the shop boiler, maintaining steam and - to my disgust - drying and sieving sand. I should mention that I had received firm parental instruction to do whatever I was told without question. If word ever reached my father that I had jibbed at any job, my life would not have been worth living.
The layout at Kinnerley is well known to many, but for general interest, such details as I remember will follow. The shed was adjacent to the Criggion branch, on the right hand when walking from the station. Two roads entered the shed: at the side of the right road was a coal dock, at the end of -which was a high-level water tank for filling locomotive tanks.
At the back of the coal dock was a siding which in my time was generally occupied by Gazelle. To the right of the shed was a wind pump, an oil store and the “usual office”. I am unable to recall the pump ever lifting any water.
In the roof of the shed were the usual vents to get rid of smoke when lighting up. However, considerable skill seemed to be used to ensure that an engine was never positioned under one of these, so that when an engine was raising steam, the atmosphere closely resembled that of the infernal regions. In the far right hand corner was the general stores where, if one sought diligently one could generally find anything that was required!
In the shop were several ancient machine tools: a centre lathe, a stiff spindle drilling machine, a very ancient planing machine, the usual grinding wheels and a forge. At the extreme end was a small steam hammer.
All the machines were belt driven from a line shaft which extended the full length of the shop. From the same shaft were driven the forge blower and a small dynamo for lighting the shop and shed. During the summer of 1928, everywhere was rewired and tested. This was the only occasion upon which the dynamo was used while I was there.
The shaft was driven by an ancient, single-cylinder horizontal steam engine, supplied with steam by a vertical, centre-flue boiler built by Cochranes of Annan. I hasten to point out that it was not one of the well-known “Cochrane Patent” boilers.
Steam was also supplied to two Worthington duplex pumps. These drew water from a somewhat muddy stream and delivered it to the high-level tank. Water from this tank flowed by gravity to the tank at the end of the station platform and was controlled by a ball valve.
On the bank of the stream above the suction point was a creamery, which periodically discharged a repulsive waste product into the watercourse. At such times, the authorities sent a messenger to us and pumping was suspended for about thirty minutes.
It soon became my regular job to spread the fire in the boiler, raise steam and start one of the pumps. It also fell to me to get in enough coal to last for the day. Early in 1929 there was a very severe spell of cold weather and when I arrived one morning I found the line almost at a standstill. Shortage of water had prevented any locomotive from being moved. I say almost because the Rattlers (the petrol railcars) were not affected. Much time was spent siting “devils” and thawing out frozen ball valves.
Just beyond the shed were stored Loco No. 2 “Severn” and the Royal Coach. I never got into the latter and while I have no exact memory of it I think it must have been locked. Had it been open I’m sure I would have got in.
In charge of the shed was Charlie Owen, a blacksmith by training and a most versatile character. His general knowledge of steam locomotives was immense, and this extended to driving when necessary. If Gazelle and tramcar deputised for the Rattlers, Charlie invariably was the driver.
I say invariably, but on one occasion when he was ill, the job was done by Bill Austen with George Beeston as fireman! Similarly if the service was run by a Terrier and one coach, Charlie was the driver.
Next came George Beeston, apprentice. I do not know when he joined the railway, but he was there at the time of the General Strike of 1926. At that time, the staff must have been somewhat greater than in 1928-29 because George spoke of a boilermaker of all trades remaining at work. He and George had proceeded with general retubing and so on.
A floating character was Arthur Fardoe; as well as lighting up he fired and, upon rare occasions, drove locomotives. He invariably pronounced “steam” as “stem”. On one memorable occasion he was driving one of the Terriers (probably No 7 Hecate) on shunting duties without a fireman. He entered the shed in a state of great agitation and approached Charlie with the outburst:
“I can’t do anything with ‘er. ‘ER won’t stem. I’ve got no stem nor wayter. I’ve got no bloody wayter in the boiler nor in the bloody tank!”
As is well known, the Terriers had no injectors, only crosshead-driven feed pumps and this was at times highly inconvenient. On this occasion, Charlie, having ensured that there was water in the tank examined the fire. He rounded on “Tootie” and said:
“You have not got enough fire to boil a kettle, let alone melt a lead plug!”
He took No. 7 out and, in the manner of Jehu, drove her furiously to and fro until the situation was restored.
The footplate staff consisted of one driver, Frank King, and one fireman, Teddy “Burbie” Jones. To these must be added Sid Nevitt, the railcar driver. Frank King must have at one time worked on the Kent & East Sussex, as he often remarked “when I was on the Kent”. Prior to this, however, he was a driver or fireman on the L&SWR and talked of his days as a cleaner at Nine Elms (I think). Later he went to India as driver on the Bengal Nagpur Railway.
Of Teddy Jones I know very little, other than that he was a most genial man. In the period that the Sentinels were on trial, there were two locomotive crews and Teddy was a driver. The firemen then were Jimmy Congram, son of the local coal merchant Joe Congram, and Dick Ainsworth. Jimmy seemed to revert to the coal trade, but Dick, having been unemployed for a while, was helped by Colonel Stephens to go to India and become a driver on the Madras and South Marhatta railway.
Sid Nevitt was a most jovial character, and at times I was detailed to assist him. At first I considered this somewhat infra dig, especially if the railcars came to the shed for repairs. But Sid was such a congenial fellow with whom to work that I came to enjoy it.
I particularly enjoyed this work when the Rattlers broke down away from Kinnerley. A platelayers’ trolley was acquired, and Sid and myself pumped our way to the scene of the disaster. This seemed to often take place when they were doing a run to Criggion, and failure usually took place in the vicinity of the Tontine Hotel! Amongst other things he taught me that classic “It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse”
The late Bill Willans continues his description of S & M Characters
When I joined the railway in January 1928, Ilfracombe Goods loco No.3 Hesperus was situated on a siding to the east of the Criggion Branch and she was still there when I left in 1929. Her boiler had been jacked up clear of the frames and my first major job was to assist in sliding the boiler along two lengths of railway metal from the frames to a flat wagon. The boiler went to Ruston Hornsby for a new firebox and smokebox, as well as sundry other repairs.
Shortly after I started, Charlie Owen (shed foreman) went sick and Mr Austen, who was supervising the boiler job, transferred me from machine cleaning to join the gang, which consisted of Arthur Pardoe and the entire permanent way department! I am sorry to say that the names have faded except Mr Wye, the Ganger’.
During the summer, the boiler returned and the above process was carried out in reverse. During most of my time, the boiler remained on the frames, and was lowered in position early in 1929.
One of my first jobs on Hesperus was to disconnect the eccentric rods and valve gear ,followed by the lagging plate from below the cylinders. The latter necessitated removing the operating rods of the cylinder drain cocks and the cocks themselves. In doing so, one of the cocks broke off! I fully expected some adverse comments but Charlie took it in a very matter-of-fact manner: “We shall have to drill it out.’”
On the left-hand side some of the bolts securing the cylinders to the frames had worked loose. These were countersunk head bolts with no means of holding them if they turned during attempts to remove the nuts. Consequently the nuts had to be split with a hammer and chisel. This was a long and painful operation: every few strokes I missed the head of the chisel and hit my thumb. I received very little sympathy: “Chalk an eye on the hammer so it can see where to go” was the usual sort of comment.
With the offending bolts at last removed, the holes had to be reamed out. This was attempted but the only reamer was long past its first youth. Charlie forged a beautiful looking drill - at least it looked so to my inexperienced eye - but it succeeded in opening out the first hole to a shape that certainly was not circular.
The problem was finally solved by driving a hardwood plug into each hole, which enabled a twist drill to be used without it biting deeply into the metal and probably breaking off. As Charlie Owen put it: “These twist drills are so bloody greedy”. I must mention that this was all done with a hand ratchet. There were no electric or pneumatic drills at Kinnerley in those days.
Work continued intermittently on No.3 throughout my time. An ex-LNWR fitter, Albert Dodd, joined us towards the end of 1928 and took the job over. I managed to attach myself to him and we cut away the front plate of the smokebox to fit over the cylinder cover bolts. To use a naval expression, this was all done “handraulic” hacksaw, ratchet drill and hammer and chisel. The job was periodically interrupted by other pressing matters, such as the shed running out of dried sand .By the time I left, the boiler was back in the frames.
Two major breakdowns linger in my memory. In each case one of the llfracombes was the engine affected and, if my memory serves me well, it was No.6 Thisbe. Thisbe was the hardest worked engine at that time. On one occasion one of the big-end straps fractured and released the connecting rod. The piston rode punched a beautifully clean hole in the cylinder cover.
I cannot remember how we acquired a new cover, but probably the old one was sent to Boston Lodge where a new one was cast and machined. I have no recollection of one being machined in our shop. Also, I cannot remember if the piston sustained any damage, but I do recall the piston rod being set up in the lathe to check if it had become distorted. During this job, Tom Gatford was transferred from Snailbeach to assist. He was furious, and let it be known to all and sundry.
The second disaster occurred between Criggion and Kinnerley. On the left-hand side of the driving axle, the side rod crankpin broke off abruptly. The engine got back to the shed under its own steam and remained there for some time. The removal of the stump remaining in the wheel presented something of a problem and was tackled in the usual Kinnerley manner; with inevitable ratchet brace we set out to drill a row of holes across the crankpin stump approximately five inches deep. Work on Hesperus came to a halt and Albert Dodd and I took turns on the ratchet. The stump was ultimately driven out and a new pin was turned up on the lathe by Charlie Owen.
We did not even possess a blowlamp, let alone oxyacetylene equipment so with much ingenuity a grate was improvised in way of the hole for the pin. A fire was built up and for what seemed to be many hours I blew it with hand bellows! The first effort was disastrous. The pin, having been driven in for about three inches, stuck. It took several days and much heating to finally get it home. The flow of language must have assisted in raising the temperature.
Tubes, burst and leaking, seemed to require constant attention. At one time, for the retubing of one of the Terriers, a tuber named Ned Higginson was borrowed from Shrewsbury shed. Apparently Colonel Stephens had a standing arrangement with the LMS about this. Ned worked very swiftly and sometimes I assisted him at the smokebox end. On one occasion a tube was tight and I was instructed to file it down. I did this three times and finally the tube went home.
Ned’s comments were as follows: “You’ve made a bloody fine job of this tube: you’ve put a bloody sight more on than you’ve taken off!”
Upon reflection, I realised that I had filed the smokebox end and not the firebox end! However, the tube was in and I decided it would be wiser not to enlighten anyone. When the job was finished I seemed to have acquired several LMS sponge cloths, and Kinnerley had acquired some very superior tube expanders...
I only saw Colonel Stephens on one occasion. As was often the case, I went down to the railway on Sundays, particularly if my cousin Tom Rolt was staying with us. We were just walking out of the station when a taxi drove up and a tall, martial figure alighted, stared at us, and moved off in silence towards the bungalow of Mr H G Funnel.
My father saw him on several occasions and sometimes repeated what he had said, for example: “Bill Austen keeps asking me for new engines. I tell him “repair what you have got”.” I once saw a letter referring to myself: “Everyone speaks very well of him, but Kinnerley is no place for him to be for long. I suggest that he spend some time at Boston Lodge.”
At the time I was not very thrilled with the idea and from what I saw when I was with the Kerr Stuart diesel on the Ffestiniog I was very glad that I did not go there. The Kerr Stuart must have remained at Portmadoc for some time, because when Colonel Stephens was told that she was to be collected, his reply was: “I thought you had given her to us.”
Quite often- when Mr Austen was at Kinnerley, I was detailed to “wait” on him: hold a light and so on. I am unable to recall, with one exception, any particular comments of his, but I always enjoyed them. He was a most cheerful and entertaining character.
The one exception was when one of the Terriers had burst a tube: a common enough event, but this time Charlie Owen and George Beeston were both off sick. I discussed the situation with Mr Funnel, who said: “Well, you are in charge.” I next tackled Teddy Jones and asked where the tube was. He replied “ in the bottom”, which was not much help.
As Jones the Carpenter was absent, I conscripted his apprentice and between us we pumped water into the boiler until the defective tube revealed itself. I then set about removing it. During this process, Mr Austen turned up. “Hello, Billy,” he said. “Got a strong job on?”
By this time, the tube was well on the way out, and to my disappointment Charlie turned up. With an expression of disbelief he said: “Did you get it out that far Billy? Good lad.” He then took the job over and with my assistance it was soon completed. Later, Mr Austen expressed his appreciation to my father, for which I was most grateful.
Another interesting character was a bearded individual called Mr Bullock. He was the signals expert, and it would appear he had to cut his way through the undergrowth to reach the operating rods, wires and so on! I say this because he often arrived at the shed and asked for steam on the lineshaft to use the wet grindstone. His stock of sickles and similar tools required constant sharpening.
Sometimes a blacksmith was hired (do not ask me from where) to forge the point rodding and suchlike. It invariably fell to me to he his striker. Charlie once remarked: “He is a rough old smith.” The aforesaid Mr Bullock had a beautiful private set of stocks and dies which were greatly admired by Charlie, and Mr Bullock promised that he should have them. When I visited Kinnerley in 1939, 1 was told that he had kept his promise. The tools were left to Charlie in Mr Bullock’s will.
The aforesaid gentleman, referred to by Sid Nevitt as “the male calf”, also dealt with telephones and telegraphs. On one occasion, however, much to his indignation he was told to inspect the water tank at Llanymynech, and I was detailed to accompany him to fill the tank. My sole experience of filling S&M tanks had been, with the aid of duplex steam pumps, so I expected to have to raise steam and start up a similar pump.
Such hopes were swiftly dashed I was introduced to a semi- rotary hard pump and, having primed it with the aid of Mr Bullock, was left to get on with it much to the amusement of sundry GWR types. To my great relief, my companion probing and tapping various rust spots, succeeded in penetrating the side of the tank and a delightful stream of water was emitted. The tank was pronounced unsound - and I was released from bondage.
The staff at Shrewsbury (Abbey) considered themselves to be the Lords of Creation. Whenever I had occasion to go there usually to obtain a voucher for a privilege ticket, I was treated with somewhat lofty amusement. I am unable to remember any names. One very senior person had a dingy private office in which was a picture of an LNWR Coal Engine at the head of a train at Abbey Station. In the general office was a senior and uncommunicative type a second in command who persisted in addressing me as “Horace”, and an office boy. There was also one porter and general factotum.
Proceeding along towards Llanymynech one came to Meole Brace, which was presided over by one Gibbs: christian name unknown to me. He was an officious type who once questioned my right to a privilege ticket to Kinnerley without a voucher. I was travelling in the Rattlers and I protested strongly, calling upon Sid Nevitt, the railcar driver, to confirm that I was genuine. This he did. Gibbs knew perfectly well who I was and he ultimately capitulated.
I do not remember any of the permanent staff between Meole Brace and Ford and Crossgates. Ford had a passing loop and the section between there and Kinnerley was controlled by electric tablet. In charge at Ford was Bert Funnel, son of the redoubtable stationmaster at Kinnerley. Bert was a fine cricketer and footballer. He was ably assisted by his wife: on railway matters, not sport!
At Kinnerley, as already mentioned, was Mr H.G.Funnel, stationmaster and general factotum. I think that he came from the Kent & East Sussex Railway: he often talked about the county of Kent with great affection. Like his son, he was a great cricketer, but because of his girth and a heart complaint, he had to have a runner when batting. This did not, however, interfere with him coupling and uncoupling trucks on occasions.
He lived in one of the wooden bungalows around the station. I imagine that these were provided to accommodate staff transferred from another railway, but this is just a thought of mine. In another such bungalow, situated in the fork of lines made by the junction of the line to Llanymynech and the branch to Criggion, lived Bill Cole, porter and second-in-command. I remember very little about him other than that he was a cheerful character with a large family. Albert Dodd, the ex-LMS fitter, lodged with him.
Frank King and Arthur Pardoe each had bungalows, as did Arthur’s brother Jimmy, guard and general shunter. Teddy Jones was, I think, a local man: he lived elsewhere. The running shed staff have already been mentioned.
Proceeding towards Llanymynech, at Maesbrook there was the station mistress, Mrs Watkins, referred to in the Railway Magazine of December 1926. When I started at Kinnerley, her husband worked on the railway and occupied a small hut alongside the Criggion branch beyond the shed. His job seemed to consist of organizing the destination of loaded Granomac trucks, and I imagine it was connected with the Railway Clearing House.
Mr Watkins used to collect a shovel full of fire from the shop boiler for the grate in his hut. During the early summer of 1928 he left, and for a time the job was done by one of the Shrewsbury types - and I had to provide the fire for him! He was succeeded by a most amiable middle-aged gentleman and I regularly lit up his fire. Charlie Owen, for some reason, referred to him as “Father O’Flynn”, though he did not sound Irish to me. At Llanymynech there was one permanent porter (and everything else): I do not remember his name.
Unless the Rattlers had broken down, there was one engine in steam and the routine was as follows:
•To Criggion with empties and back with loaded trucks. Driver and fireman have a break.
•Charlie Owen takes over and drives the early mixed train to Llanymynech and back to Kinnerley. Driver and fireman take over.
•Charlie to shed.
•Mixed train to Shrewsbury, with general shunting en route. Anyone wishing to travel to anywhere between Kinnerley and Shrewsbury avoided this train like the plague!
•Mixed train back to Kinnerley, followed by general shunting. This usually finished around 5.00pm unless there was a cattle special. This meant overtime, and was not unwelcome.
During 1928, the Rattler stock was augmented by a Wolseley railcar and a Ford lorry mounted on railway wheels. If one end of the Rattlers failed, the lorry - nicknamed “Tishy”- filled the gap: a most peculiar sight. It was quite a regular practice to light up No. 1 Gazelle every day in case of a disaster. However, I cannot remember a breakdown of the cars taking place when Gazelle was ready to take over.