1944 ~c1953

George Farmer started his Railway Career in 1944 and
retiring in February 1995 

It was May 8th when I started as a Temporary Fitter's Apprentice at Three Bridges, at the age of 14 years. I worked with Mick Burwell (fitter)Perce Edwards (mate) and Ben Worsley (fitter), I cannot remember what his mate was called, but I do remember that he had close cropped grey hair with a tight curl on his forehead; apparently he was in the cavalry in the First World War. We also had a fitter and his mate from Brighton Perce Pringle and Cyril Wallis. We also had the Brighton Steam Crane based at Three Bridges because of the war, the cranedriver's name I can't remember, only his nickname of Wee- Legs, as he was only about 5 feet tall.

My main duties were fetching and passing various spanners and packing for pistons, when the fitters were re-packing piston glands or spindle glands. After that I had a job which was entirely my ownthat was replacing donkey lubricators. I was very pleased with myself when I had completed the taskI suppose there are a number who may read this thinking, what's that, the Donkey Lubricator was screwed on top of the Westemhouse Air-pump supplying air for the braking systems and supplying oil to the piston driving the pump. But when I had the chance I used to sneak off with Jack Oakes (the fire-fighter) which stood me in good stead, as at 15 years old I automatically started cleaning. And I can only remember cleaning one engine and that was never finished. Us cleaners at the time were on the coal stage or unload trucks of sand, 
throwing it on top of the furnace when dried out for the Loco Sand Boxes and when you filled the sand into the bucket
It was very hot and at times in the dark you could see it glowing red. 

When you were filling in for the firelighter, your job was to check all the engines on shed in steam, for water level in the boiler and the state of the fire. Engines which had there boilers washed out you had to light there fires, which entailed taking a hod of burning coals from the furnace carrying it on your shoulder, on arrival at the engine you placed the hod on the footplate then climbed up and placed the Goals into the fire box, usually you took three or four full hods then added a few shovels of coal just inside the fire box doors gradually builthe fire up. It was a far better job than on the coal stage. I always seemed to be on the late shift, not only did you have to empty the truck on to the stage, then throw from the stage into the bunker or tender, depending what the engine was. I was very disheartened when you arrived on the stage to find hardly any 
coal chucked out of the truck and there are four or five engines on the coal road and you were on your own. Sometimes when the shed crew was booked to put away and stable and their sheet was nearly full, the fireman would help, so they could get away. 


Then at the age of sixteen I became a passed cleaner and started firing, shed duties, pilot etc. 

I made a mistake on one occasion as a cleaner, available for firing turns, you always looked on the notice board to see if you were booked a turn, On this particular day I noticed a junior man was booked a turn Eastbourne to Kensington excursion, the loco was the bait, it was a West Country. I had never worked on a West Country, so I claimed the turn, after the event, I should have claimed credit for the turn, because as it turned out it was a Atlantic and I had never worked on one eitherWhat made matters worse were when we arrived and saw the coal, the tender was piled high with a mountain of dust. Well we were booked to take water at East Croydon, by the time we passed Pole gate I was in trouble. My driver that day was Burt Buckle ex Stewarts Lane, he said "Forget the injector, I will work the weir-pump", as some will know the drawback is cold water which did not help my situation. To condense the story, we stopped at Three Bridges took on water as an excuse, while I had a blow up to recover some steam again, at East Croydon until we arrived at Kensington. We were released from the train and was booked light to Stewarts Lane, we had half a glass of water, the tender was completely empty, not a scrap of coalBert looked into the firebox; the fire was dead down the front nothing. He said we will make it, luckily we did not get stopped had a straight run in, arriving at Stewarts Lane we had an inch of water in the glass 80lbs, steam and glowing embers under the door. We dumped it just outside the shed and took a runner.

My first regular driver before I got my appointment was with Bob O' Donnel, we got on rather well, until at Brighton when we were disposing and preparing a 'N' class loco, I was cleaning the fire when he informed me he was going underneath, so I shouted "you can rake out the ashpan while you are there", I can tell you now, he did not, but I got a long lecture on how he had spent 22 years on the shovel before he got passed fireman and he was not starting again. 

He still remembered it 14 years later when I saw him at Gatwick Airport in 1958, where I was a signalman. While I was at Gatwick Airport, I was on duty for the official opening by the Queen; I also covered over 12 Royal Trains, including the first electrical hauled one. The loco failed at Earlswood bringing down the empty stock that caused a bit of excitement but the standby steam loco went to the rescue and the train left on time from Gatwick. 

Now back to my loco days, I go back to the winter of 1946, very, very, deep snow and the conductor rail iced up, I was spare cleaning 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., my last train home was 8.50 p.m. to Tunbridge Wells at 10.00 p.m. it was still in the station, I was hoping to get there before it departed, when the Foreman Sid Tyler said, "When are you going home, I've got a job for you". He took me into the Driver's lobby and Bob Fermore, a passed Fireman was there. Sid said "this is your mate, take that W.D. to Balcombe". When we arrived, in the Up platform was a 12 car electric Ore to Victoria, we dropped on the front, the Station Master arrived looked on the footplate and said "Couple up Fireman", to which I replied "No not my job". The Station Master said "I am telling you" and that's when Bob stepped in "I suggest you tell the guard", and with that he got Dow n and coupled up himself. We thought we were taking it to Victoria but it terminated at Three Bridges. It was very busy that night; I went home on a light engine, at 05.30 next morning I was back at work. The same afternoon when a van train came round by the loco on the Horsham Branch they realised it was the Bognor Vans, they worked out the crew must have been on duty for 22 hours. 

When the thaw set in there was a landslip down the quarry and it was blocked for a week, which was where I first saw a Mechanical Digger work to clear the track. 

 Just before I got my appointment, I recall that I fired to Jim Sayers, whom I happy to say it at the time of writing, is still with us (Jim died in 2013). It was a Saturday in the summer, we went pass. to Victoria to work the 2.30 p.m. to Tunbridge Wells via Edenbridge Town. We walked of the end of the platform at Victoria to pick up our engine, a “Q” class No. 541 which is still alive and working on the Bluebell Railway and travels over the track it quite often worked in the old days. Well as we climbed on to the footplate Jim remarked “we will have a good clean up,” whereupon we started cleaning up the boiler front with oily cotton waste. It looked really smart and then I washed down the footplate with the injector hose, which sprayed the floor with hot water. That done we stood in the sidings just over the turntable and waited to set back on to our train, that’s when Jim informed me that he would make the fire up and we would run all the way to Tunbridge Wells without closing the fire box door, which we did. I took no part in the journey, except for working the injector/ on arrival Jim said “there you are and some say she won’t steam.” It was a very enjoyable trip for me.

I got my appointment as a fireman on the 7th July 1947, and strangely enough on the 7th July 1948. I was called up for my National Service in the R.A.F. So the things I recall happened to me in that one-year. I think my first disaster, it was no one’sfault, was a leaking tube, which actually put the fire out. It was the 08.50 Tunbridge Wells to Three Bridges at Withyham, we had a full head of steam blowing off, we had not travelled lmile and we had lost 40lbs of steam pressure you watch it going back, I was getting an earful from Pat Nash who had an artificial leg below the knee "one minute blowing the place down the next minute we had xxxx all", We finally came to a stand just past Laundry Bridge a 1/2 mile short of Forest Row. The injector was still working the water level 1/2 inch above the bottom nut. Pat turned off the blower, we looked into the firebox and it was black not a flicker of flame. He sent me with the staff (Single line of course) to Forest Row Box for assistance. 

I got my appointment as a fireman on the 7th July 1947, and strangely enough on the 7th July 1948. I was called up for my National Service in the R.A.F. 

So the things I recall happened to me in that one-year. I think my first disaster, it was no one’sfault, was a leaking tube, which actually put the fire out. It was the 08.50 Tunbridge Wells to Three Bridges at Withyham, we had a full head of steam blowing off, we had not travelled 1 mile and we had lost 40lbs of steam pressure you watch it going back, I was getting an earful from Pat Nash who had an artificial leg below the knee "one minute blowing the place down the next minute we had xxxx all", We finally came to a stand just past Laundry Bridge a 1/2 mile short of Forest Row. The injector was still working the water level 1/2 inch above the bottom nut. Pat turned off the blower, we looked into the firebox and it was black not a flicker of flame. He sent me with the staff (Single line of course) to Forest Row Box for assistance. 

 The second time I came to grief was the 8.37 p.mTunbridge Wells to Three Bridges. Engine No. 1066driver Peter Walls. We had relieved Norwood crew at Croydon and worked the train to Tunbridge Wellsno problemuntil we left Forest Row. Well we did not make it, we came to a stand just short of East Grinstead east home signal, we were rescued bthe 8.50 Three Bridges, which uncoupled from his train and hauled us into the platformwhere we waited for a loco to come from 3 Bridgesto take us home. There was no comeback over the incident, as on investigation, the ashpan was completely choked solid and tubes were partially blocked. On a lighter note, we claimed a record, Forest Row to East Grinstead platform 6 minutes from a standing start. The loco was a Marsh's Tank burning Bakers Nuts. The reason I mentioned the coal was as fast as you put it in the firebox, it came out the chimney. The driver was Driver Barratt (that is Don's dad). Without a word of a lie the blade of my shovel was red hot coming up the bank, but what a ride. 


Another story about a bank Forest Hill bank. We had a K class engine mogul, Driver Mac ExleyNew Cross Gate, Three Bridgesputting off at Merstham. Coming up the bank, banker at rear working very hardwe had a tender full of Welsh CoalG.W. men swore by itme I had never encountered it before. Coming up the bank Mac had noticed me keep shovelling it in the fire box, on approaching Forest Hill he pushed me out the way, got the pricker, shoved it in the fire box and said you have filled the box up, get the dart, and for the rest of the trip dart and prickerWe had a full load and as we approached Windmill Bridge things were improving, by the time we were about to enter Merstham Tunnel we had the safety valve lifted and I was very pleased with myself. I do not think many firemen could say they had a full load of freightfrom New Cross Gate to Three Bridges and did not have to touch the shovel from Forest Hill to Three Bridges. 


I have wandered off a bitthis last incident was when (was in the middle link and had my appointment). So I am going back a yearWhen I was with Bob ODonnel we had a classI.3 loco to prepare and it wasn't over a pitI used to crawl under the bunker and come up between the front of the firebox and behind the spectacle plate to oil the ecsentric strapsas Bob could not reach when not over a pitHow would that be now with Health and safety? 

I have to go back to before I got my appointment, as I have been putting this down and things come backWell it's been over 65 years so I am back as a spare fireman. I mentioned earlier I first went with Bob O' Donnell, I then fired to Bill Barrett that-was because young Don Barrett followed me in the fitters shop so when he became available for firing duties, he would have gone with his father Billand so we got swapped over. Father and sons could not work together. I will now mention a couple of drivers I worked with new to the depot and just signed their roads. The first was on the Old Oak Common Freight, engine and brake van to old oak, normally you had about 20-25 wagonsAs you will know, after leaving Kensington and approaching North Pole, you branched off and dropped down to Old OakI will always remember the Bridge you went under, because on the side there was a great advert for Durex, is it still there, well there was a signal as you approached which indicated whether you were going in the down yard, there was also another running signalThis proved a problem for him, he had only gone into the yard, and the reason it threw him was when the signal came off with an indicator stating up Birmingham Main. He said "where the hell are we going", I had been that route several times and explained that it went down the main, went over to the right and there was a ground signal situated on top of a post, which took you into the Up yard. He said "you know more about this, come over here, so for the rest of the week, on arrival, he went and made the tea, even when we arrived in the Down Yard with a load. 

The second occasion, another new driver to the depot, we were working the 8.37 p.m. Tunbridge Wells West to Three Bridges, pitch dark, stations only had oil lamps, when approaching Withyham at speed, when I saw we were passing the yard buffer stops with the regulator still open. I shouted, Driver slammed the regulator shut and dropped the handle; the coaches remained on the platform, apart from the front brake van. The rest of the journey was uneventable.

After my National Service I returned to the Motive Power Department, British Rail was now two years old and found myself out of the middle link and in the top. My driver was Pat Laker, I liked Pat, he never seemed to get rattled, he liked stirring others up though and when they took the bait, and it made his day. I remember very clearly now, we were 02.30 on duty and I used to catch the last bus from East Grinstead to the Bridges and several used to travel overnight from various places, so I told Pat not to hurry in the morning, as I would prepare the engine. Well what happened, Pat arrived at 03.10, went to our engine, no sign of me, fire still under the door. He went to the Foreman's Office who confirmed he had seen me before I had gone to get my head down. He got me out and to the engine, as we were booked to haul the Horsham freight from the down yard then propel it to the station into the Up Local Platform. We came off and shunted over to the reception road on the down side to await the arrival of the paper train, the Horsham electric loco would set back and pick up his train (they were referred to as the Hornby). After the departure of the paper train we would set back to pick up a detached van with the papers for East Grinstead and return to the down yard to pick up our own freight for Tunbridge Wells. Until then everything worked very well, as many of you will know it was a single line between 3 Bridges to Ashurst Junction, with 3 crossing points Rowfant, East Grinstead and Forest Row. thought that everything was o.k. until we changed the electric token (staff) and Pat brought the train to a stop, grabbed the oilcan and went up frontI had not prepared the engine, the piston rods were dark blue, and you could feel the heat standing on the platform. Pat was pouring oil and smoke was rising, oil cups over the pistons had oil, but I had notplaced the feeder wicks in. Luck was on my side, no damage done and Pat never mentioned itHe was so laid back.

On another occasion we were early Londonthat was a light engine to East Grinstead and work the 06.33 to London Bridge. went overnight, as usual, no sign of snow did not expect it April 1950. Billy Beer was the running foreman, he came over to the van where 3 or 4 of us were sleeping, banged on the door shouting "come on boys, we have a foot of snow out here", no one believed him until we tried to open the door, it was frozen solid. Aftea lot of kicking we got the door opened the snow had blown against the door and froze. Anyhow we prepared our engine and coupled to the engine, which worked the 06.38 East Grinstead to Brighton. We were the leading engine up the bank, a willow tree had come down across the track, I shouted to Pat, he looked over, grinned and opened the regulator a bit more and we went straight throughAfter picking up our coaches and were in the platform, I went around to remove the branches and Pat said to leave them, I think. He looked upon them as a trophy. We departed on time, until we arrived at Lingfield, where the Platform Starter was on (semaphore); the signalman informed us that he had no communication with Hurst Green, no phones or blockSo we were entering the section on the time interval system. If anybody has-forgotten what that is, it is a section time plus 5 minutes added, where a tunnel is in section its plus 10 minutes. Every single bay of the telegraph wires were down between Lingfield and Woldingham, so with those conditions and our decorations in the front of our engine we got a lot of attention from the waiting passengers. It was so bad the Royal Corps of Signals were called in, with our own Signal and Telegraph department to restore all the downed telegraph wires. 

The first time he shoved me over to the Drivers side was at Horsham, we were to work a Brighton service down the lingerwe picked up our own loco and Pat said "get out of the wayI will make up your fire"so I stood on his side for the dummy to come off to take us down to the station, when it came off I said "Dummy's off" he replied "Go "on then", that was when I realised that I was going to drive on the running road. It was quite an uneventful tripI did not know the road all that welland I soon showed when approaching Henfield that I was using my route knowledge. Pass the distant signalshut the regulator. Pat had watched this and said "bet you don't get there "I would not have done if I had not opened the regulator. As he watched me I also attched him. He only put the injector on when I closed the regulator running into stations and turned it off when we left. And another thing we only seemed to have just under 140lbs of steam, abest I would increase the blowerhe would step across and turn it backI pointed out the steam pressure and the water level, he replied "any fool can time a train with a full head of steamyou have to learn like I have to put up with you ". 

The next time he spoke was when we were running into Brightonhe called me overas you know running into No 2 Platform you are coming round a curve. He pointed to the end and said "see that red lightI bet you knock it over". I made sure that I did not, that was Pat

 Another memory recalled regarding Pat Laker, after my national service. That was also in the summer time, a good thing, because if it had been in the dark we would be in deep ***t, it is Tunbridge Wells again, the 4.55 p.m. to Three Bridges, as some who may read this will remember, after leaving Groombridge you soon arrived at Groombridge Junction continuing on to Ashurst Junction where we collected the staff (electric token), for the single line. We approached Ashurst Junction home signal at a tidy lick. As we approached the signal box the Signalman was standing with his arm raised and Pat shouted “you O.K.” I replied “O.K.” and then it all went wrong, the staff smacked me in the palm of my hand O.K. but I could not close my fingers around it. The staff shot forward, passed the end of the signal and down the bank. Pat dropped the handle and as the train slowed down I jumped off and started running back to the point where I thought the staff had fallen. The signalman stood rooted to the spot where he had offered the staff up and watched the panic before him. The train had come to a stand a good twelve coaches passed the point from where I should have collected the staff. Some 5 – 6 minutes later we continued our journey, all Pat said to me was “you said O.K.”

I will complete my reminisces with the shovel, it was not only used to maintain steamit also made a good cooking utensilI have fried eggs and bacon and boiled kippers when on ballast working. (More time standing still). Also when on a tank engine the back shelf (piano) was used as a grill, what you did if you had cheese or spam sandwiches, you placed them on the piano, heated the shovel until it glowed, then held it over until brown then did the same to the other side. Best I thought was 2 slices of bread with thick cheese on each and melted in the same manner as the sandwicheswith a nice raw onion to accompany it

"You must remember that we had extra cheese ration in 1946/47."

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