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Quainton News Archive - Quainton News No. 12 - June 1972

Woman in Steam - Part 2 by Anthea Hanscomb - Easter 1972

"You are learning to fire an engine?"

"Yes indeed."

"Good heavens! This I must see! What on earth made you want to do that?"

"Well it all started rather a long time ago".

The rot set in with a general purpose Fowler engine which was chugging along pulling a threshing drum, trusser and baler, and I was following slowly behind on my bicycle. During the war I worked for a contractor farmer and one of our jobs during the winter was to go round the neighbouring farms with the threshing tackle. A job I thoroughly enjoyed and, without realising it at the time, I became hooked on steam.

I had always loved steam engines of any sort, and I can remember as a little girl in London getting wildly excited when I could hear a steam roller at work and having to rush off and watch it. There were steam lorries to be seen too, but the traction engine was fast disappearing as diesel lorries began taking over.

When in 1931 we moved into the country we did see many more of them, from the huge ploughing engines down to the light road engines. We even saw a portable working in a farm yard, I think it was sawing up logs. We met them on the roads too and my father, who was a very fast driver and the proud owner of a 1926 Sunbeam Talbot, would get very impatient waiting for a chance to overtake, but I liked following behind listening to the exhaust beat and sniffing the air.

In those days one quite often came across a traction engine in some sort of trouble, by the road wreathed in steam and sizzling hot, usually meant one thing only - a dropped plug; or something would break and the engine would be left at the side of the road while a new part was found. They sometimes ran out of coal and they sometimes ran out of water, and they could be seen filling up from any suitable water supply, pond, stream or tap. Sometimes when logging they would winch themselves over at an alarming angle, or even start winching themselves into the ground. They could very easily get stuck if the ground was soft and sometimes they had to go to one-another's rescue. They were marvellous engines, powerful and beautiful with an exhaust blast that was so fast and sharp when they were going at speed. I never tired of watching them whenever I could and I knew names such as Aveling & Porter, Burrell, Fowler, but I couldn't tell one from the other, until the day I met the general purpose Fowler.

I had never dreamed I would be lucky enough to work beside a traction engine, but for five winters I had the delight of doing so. It was a pleasure to see the beautiful gleaming Fowler gently and rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards to the piston stroke. When a rather larger sheaf than usual was fed into the threshing drum the engine note would change, the governor balls would drop, more steam would pass into the cylinder and the engine would pick up again. So satisfying to listen to, and the men who crewed the engine were so nice too - there was something special about them. They were very kind and patient and though they were amazed to find a girl on the team, once they had got over the shock they became very good friends of mine.

As I had my own cows to milk and feed, and some calves to attend to before leaving home, I was allowed to arrive later than the rest. The engine would be up to pressure by the time I turned up and they would-be ready to connect the drum to the engine by means of a huge driving belt. There is something about a threshing drum starting to move which is so difficult to describe. There would be the odd little squeaks and groans as it got up to speed, and the engine exhaust would be very light and then suddenly the first sheaves would be fed in, the exhaust sound would change and we were off again for another days threshing. During lunch break they would tell me tales of traction engines and their drivers, some of them very funny and some of them disastrous, but all of them very interesting.

The war ended, I had a family to bring up and, because I was so busy, steam faded away and except for train journeys I thought no more about it. Then in 1968 Mike joined the Dart Valley Railway, he had become mad on signalling. He persuaded us to go and have a look at a privately run railway. We went. It was early on a Friday evening when we drove into the station yard at Buckfastleigh. A pannier tank stood in the siding hissing and simmering to herself with quiet satisfaction, she had just come off the last train. I walked up to her and stood looking. I had never seen a pannier that close before. Someone was in the cab and I climbed up and said "Good evening" and sniffed the air - hot oil, steam, coal, smoke - it all came back, that gorgeous SMELL! That's what I've been missing all these years" I cried.

Some months and two Flying Scotsman trips later, I said to Mike "There must be a preservation society nearer than the DVR, do ask your friends." He did, and the rest you know.

As a postscript to Anthea's article, I think we should record that Quainton Road had women clerks in the 'twenties. One of these ladies left on 7th August 1926 and the vacancy was not filled again, saving £123 a year salary! (ED.)

The text in this Quainton Railway Society publication was written in 1972 and so does not reflect events in the 40+ years since publication. The text and photographs are repeated verbatim from the original publication, with only a few minor grammar changes but some clarifying notes are added if deemed necessary. The photos from the original publication are provided as scans in this internet version of this long out of print publication.

Woman in Steam - Part 2 by Anthea Hanscomb - Easter 1972 - Quainton News No. 12 - June 1972

Text © Quainton Railway Society / Photographs © Quainton Railway Society or referenced photographer
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