Above: 9F No 92186 heads south on the ECML towards Essendine.
Inspired by the railway stories on the Tracks through Grantham website, Oliver Kew decided to ask his grandfather, Patrick Kew, about the time he worked for British Railways (BR) on the former Great Northern Railway. Oliver went on to discover that his grandfather had been a fireman based at New England shed Peterborough and he would sometimes pass through Grantham station. This prompted Oliver to make contact with Tracks through Grantham. Even though he knew that most of his grandfather’s story is based in an area just outside our usual ‘Grantham envelope’, Patrick’s memories are very similar to those railwaymen who worked out of Grantham. So in publishing this particular ‘off limits’ page we are sure that it will generate interest, enjoyment and a perhaps a little amusement for everyone who has an affinity with railways.
Patrick Kew was born in the village of Great Casterton, Rutland on 17th March 1938 (St Patrick's Day). During the war years his family moved to the hamlet of Pilsgate near Barnack , where he attended the Barnack School in the local village hall. This meant a long walk both ways and to quote Patrick directly 'there was no bus in them days.' Patrick is now 85 years of age and he has some fond recollections of his time working on the railway. As mentioned above, his grandson Oliver had made a note of those memories and in turn he has kindly shared them with TTG.
So here is Patrick Kew’s railway story, as recorded and submitted by his grandson Oliver Kew.
EARLY DAYS AT PETERBOROUGH
After leaving school in 1953 I applied for a job with BR. It wasn’t too long before an offer came through, in which it was explained I would undergo training to ultimately become a fireman. The job was based at New England shed (35A at the time, but from 1958 it became 34E) in Peterborough. I remember that for the first six months all I did was clean locos. Every single locomotive that came in, you had to get up on it and clean it. When I was cleaning within the footplate area I did get to learn about what all of the various knobs, dials and levers were, including all of the valves and the regulator, in fact everything. The six month period soon flew by and together with other lads on the job; I found myself having to take a test to see how we had all got on.
Well, before long I was very pleased to be told that I had passed the test! I was advised that I could move on with my career and become a trainee fireman. My first run out was on a passenger train along what was called the ‘loop line’ which ran from Peterborough to the east coast. On the outward trip I would fire the engine, but I also got the chance to use the regulator from time to time, including looking out for the ‘boards’ (signals). Halfway round we would get on another locomotive for the return trip. Now that was the worst part of the journey, because coming back you had to change the glass tube in one of the boiler water gauges, and if you were not too careful, you’d get scalded. The tube had a big square glass over it for protection. You closed the valves, took the water tube out and you had to replace it, and as I have already mentioned, you could easily scald yourself.
During these early trips on the footplate there would be an inspector on board. Upon returning to Peterborough North, he would either pass you or fail you. It must have taken about three days of similar trips before he finally passed me, so after that I went into a ‘link’. All firemen and drivers were in a link; in effect we were reserve fireman and reserve drivers. If a fireman or a driver failed to turn up for his shift, and you were top of that link, whether it was on freight, passenger, or a mail train, or anything else, then you would go out on the trip with that particular engine. This would always be with a new driver, well at least for most of the time!
OUT ON THE ROAD
My old driver’s name was Ron Griffin. He had been a main line driver, but he came off the ‘main line’ roster because he decided that he didn’t want to go too far. That being the case I was involved with Ron in doing shunting duties, such as going down as far as Fletton. On occasion Ron and I would travel a little bit further down the line to a shunt yard. Here we used to shunt all the brick wagons and rearrange them into the right trains. In those days a lot of the area around Peterborough was taken up by brickworks. Being as I lived near Stamford, during the holiday relief days I would be asked if I’d like to move to Stamford for a fortnight. This would only be for a short while; when the local firemen were away on holiday, which was ideal for me.
I often used to travel from Peterborough to Stamford East and start the loco up. I was with a local driver who lived in a nearby village. His name was John Marchant – a grand fella – and there was another driver I remember called Jack Day. Jack was one of the biggest men you’d ever likely see! He really had to squeeze himself onto the footplate – he were a monster - a well-known and likeable driver.
At seven o’clock in the morning we would work the passenger train to Essendine, stopping at Ryhall and Belmesthorpe on the way before carrying on to Essendine. There we’d take the loco off – there was no turntable available at Essendine – so we’d go down the line and come back up bunker first to Stamford with the passenger. Then again when the passengers got off, we’d shunt the coaches out, drop it off before shunting the goods for a local engineering company - Martin Markham and Blackstones. This again meant forming up a train to take on to Essendine. Once there we’d get it onto the main line and then we would be off, north or south – usually south from Essendine.
Trips from Stamford meant passing over an old wooden bridge over the River Welland. We all referred to this as the ‘pile bridge’. Now, I must say that crossing the bridge was a fairly frightening experience, because the old bridge would really shake when a loco was passing over it. That bridge would honestly vibrate so much that we were always ready and waiting to bail over the side! Once in the open countryside, and along the riverbank, we would set traps for rabbits. If we spotted that something had been caught in a trap, we would stop the train just for a second or two, all this with the passengers still on board, and hop down the embankment to fetch it. That’d be our dinner, but of course we’d always share it.
Sometimes I would cycle to work from Pilsgate all the way to New England shed and back on the lanes, a distance of about ten miles. The very first time I cycled home with my wage packet, it must've dropped out of my bag or pocket on the way. When I got home I discovered that I'd lost it. If I remember right that was sixty pounds - a fireman's wage were good money in them days. It was a long shot, but I cycled all the way back to New England on the wrong side of the road looking for it, but sadly I never did find it. According to the Bank of England's inflation calculator, £60 in 1953 equates to £1,400 in today's money!
Another man I remember working with on the footplate, besides Ron Griffin, was Charlie Swift, who eventually became mayor of Peterborough. Charlie Swift was a driver – he was a couple of years older than me and he was part of the top link for all the expresses. He always used to wear a white shirt and tie and never, ever got dirty – never. There were two other men from Barnack who were fireman when I was at Peterborough: Bill Nichols and Nigel Dartnell (by pure coincidence, Oliver’s future great uncle). They both finished up as Intercity 125 drivers.
TRIPS THROUGH GRANTHAM
If I was on a freight turn we used to run north through Grantham as far as Retford. At Retford we would change engines and bring one back which had worked up the line from somewhere further north. On one trip I was working with a driver who I think was called Curtiss. We had picked up this train of bricks at Essendine. Heading off along the down line we travelled up Stoke Bank and onwards past Stoke Signal Box at the summit, where we were switched onto the main line. Through Stoke Tunnel and down to Grantham we knew we had an express behind us! Very soon we sped past Great Ponton and then Saltersford came into view. Just to the south of Grantham Station our train swept under the old Great North Road Bridge. Quickly passing Grantham’s South Box, the station was rapidly getting closer. Just then Driver Curtiss said “Here, look at this” and as we both looked forward we could see that the passengers standing on the platform were all quickly stepping back from the edge.
Turning round to look behind me it soon became clear why the people on the platform were in such a hurry to move back. The wagons were absolutely snaking, it was a wonder they didn’t jump off the track! Later, the poor old guardsman at the rear of the train told us that his van, with its own little pot-belly stove, on which he used to have his meal, “shook with such severity that the kettle fell off the stove onto the van floor”. Everyone on the platforms at Grantham would stand relatively close to the edge, but they soon learned that when a brick train came into view, and it was snaking, they rushed back like a tidal wave. That particular trip was on an Austerity – I loved the Austerities.
Our daily freight workings often meant spending some time ‘in the loop’ at various locations, so when this happened, and depending on how long we were held, we’d go and see the signalman for a welcome cuppa. However, trips towards Grantham going down to Retford always resulted in being switched onto the ‘fast line’ to get us through and out the other side. When passing through Grantham the close proximity of the station buildings gave us a real sense of speed. We were, of course, not travelling as fast as some of the express trains, but it was still a thrilling experience. Once we had safely rounded the curve at the north end of the station, the long straight stretch through open countryside led us onwards to Peascliffe Tunnel. Beyond the Barkston Triangle we would have a fairly good run towards Newark and the Trent Valley.
Passenger workings north from Peterborough and on through Grantham to Doncaster, or maybe York and back, would also have memorable moments. We would pick up water at Werrington, north of Peterborough, where one of the water troughs was situated. The driver of the day would shout “trough” and I would wind like hell to get the scoop down in time, and then he’d shout “trough” again, so I’d quickly wind it back up. Sometimes at Doncaster the driver would say “leave the tender lid half-open...” and it was so funny, because on the return trip, when we got to the trough at Werrington, the water would fill up and then overflow before covering the first three carriages. After stopping at Peterborough we noticed that some of the passengers walking by us to the exit were all covered in black spots; looking like they had the measles. We did that just to have a laugh!
On passenger trips south from Peterborough to London, we were supposed to let the fire go down when passing Hornsey. This was to prevent the safety valves blowing off once we had arrived inside King’s Cross station itself. The stationmaster there would be livid if they did go off; consequently blowing the soot from the rafters and covering his station. It was great, back in the day. When you went into Kings Cross shed first, as fireman, I had to go down and undo the smokebox door, open it up and shovel all the ashes out. They had special bins there for it. Then you’d reverse out and go onto the turntable, same as at Peterborough East. That’s the turntable which I believe is now on the Nene Valley Railway at Wansford.
In between Essendine and Lolham Crossing, there was always a lady with a boat pram and two kiddies. They would stand there at the side of the line and wave at the passing trains; it seems that all the drivers knew them. In those days, I had to break the big lumps of coal up and I would try and do that before the train left. I would put all the big lumps to the side of the tender.
About half a mile before we got to the woman with the pram, Ron would tell me to ‘roll the lumps down over the side of the tender’. The kids would gleefully run along picking the coal up and put it in their mum’s pram. Of course, we knew that there was no endangered baby in the pram – it was full of coal for them to take home and put it on the range.
I fired any allocated engine that could be found on the East Coast route, such as WD Austerities, B1s, V2 ‘Green Arrows’, A3s, sometimes A4s, but not a lot because I wasn’t in the top link.
I usually found myself working on whatever was available, whenever I was needed. So many wonderful memories I have of hurtling down Stoke Bank, south of Grantham, always belting along at around 80-90 miles an hour and on through Little Bytham.
I did like working on the Green Arrows, they were good. Once I remember we had one light engine at New England all fired up, and the valves were closed and suddenly it run away by itself. All the driving wheels were sparking like Catherine wheels. A driver eventually managed to climb up into the cab to close the valves. He had both of his feet on the regulator handle and his back firmly against the tender trying to close the regulator, which the water had forced open. Thankfully he succeeded in stopping it, but when he had finished and they had moved the engine away, they had to replace the rails. It had worn them away, they were melted right through!
Another engine I remember was No. 60700, the W1. They used to call this the ‘Hush-Hush’ with an unusual boiler design. It had two axles under the cab which made the cab quite long. As a result there were two six-foot shovels for firing; otherwise the fireman would have to walk from the tender to the firebox! It derailed at Peterborough once – I was actually there that day. I remember that we all walked down from New England to have a good look.
You can read a report about this accident here
I also liked the 9Fs, also known as ‘spaceships’ amongst BR crew. They were good steamers, but unfortunately they had a massively wide firebox. You’d often burn your hands because you had to put the shovel in and twist it left and right to get to the back corners.
The B1s and V2s were also good steamers. Whilst working on the Stamford branch my favourites were the C12s. It’s such a pity they didn’t save any of those….
From Peterborough North (going north) we used to run alongside the LMS which ran out to the other side towards Stamford. We were often running locos virtually side-by-side until you got to Helpston where the Stamford-Leicester line branched off. So, for a joke, we used to throw small lumps of coal at the men on the London Midland and Scottish! They were good days.
FAREWELL TO THE RAILWAY
When I was 18 I had the old call-up card to go in the army, navy or air force. The people at Peterborough said, “If you just go for the 18 months in the army, when you come back you’ll move up to the top link.” It followed that with my uncle being in the Marines during the war, in the gunnery section, he said “I want you to go into the Marines.” Of course, I knew that there was no ‘national service’ in the Marines: it was a minimum service of nine years. I finally joined the Royal Marines in 1956 and served with 45 Commando, both in Gibraltar and Cyprus. It was good, yes, but one of my greatest regrets is not just enlisting in the army for 18 months’ national service, and then coming out and going back to British Railways as a fireman.
As my continued interest in railways allows me to enjoy the occasional visit to heritage lines, I thought I would share a few photographs.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my short story just as much as I have enjoyed writing it!
©Patrick Kew as narrated to Oliver Kew December 2023.
If you would like us to create a record of your own railway story, then please do get in touch. We would love to hear from you - TTG