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Quainton News Archive - Quainton News No. 99 - April 2008
BR(WR) Modified Hall Class 4-6-0 No. 6989 Wightwick Hall
A Night on Sixty-Nine Eighty Nine - Christopher Tanous
The author tells the story of a September night in 1962, when he drove our very own Hall- 6989 Wightwick Hall- while she worked a parcels train from Paddington to Reading. As he readily admits, he was extremely fortunate, riding on some 450 BR locomotives between 1958 and 1967, without official permission and often driving. Ever since then he has been an engineman on a number of preserved lines, both on the standard and narrow gauge. He is currently a steam driver on the Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway and has recently also joined the footplate staff at Quainton Road. He is delighted to find that the Society owns not one but two locos which he drove when they were in service. 6989 as told here, and also Pannier Tank 7715 - but in her guise as L.99 on the London Underground. He drove her on a District Line works train one night from Earls Court to Upminster! The story of that trip might appear in a future Quainton News.
"My Ian Allan Combined Volume ABC, Winter 1958/59 Edition, is crammed full of manuscript notes, especially on the WR pages. Against 6989 Wightwick Hall I have written: '2 Sep 1962. Drove light engine from Old Oak Common to Paddington Platform 4 onto 8.21 pm parcels, then drove to Southall, and rode to Reading, firing enroute. Driver George Dyer.' For more than 45 years that's all I have ever written about that night - or any other footplate trips I made. The following article tells the story for the first time.
2nd September 1962 was a pleasant early autumn day, and I had spent the afternoon in Old Oak Common Engine Shed Signal Box. I frequently spent many hours there with two of the regular signalmen - Dick and Paul - good friends who allowed me to work the box as if I belonged there. Indeed, quite a lot of Old Oak staff probably thought that I was a genuine employee!
It was in the second half of that summer that my amateur railway activity reached its peak, having started at Penzance in August 1958 when I had my first footplate ride - on Pannier Tank 9463. Over the intervening four years I spent much of my time getting to know railways from the inside, learning that asking politely usually got me onto the footplate or into a signal box. I had taken final exams in early July, and was waiting to start full-time work at the end of September. In the meantime, I was spending most days each week on the railway, normally on the Western Region in London. I had started coming to Old Oak about a year earlier, when my signalman friend Dick was promoted from Kensington (Olympia) South Main box to work there. This was a wonderful chance for me to meet enginemen from all Old Oak links, and it quickly led to a big expansion in the range and variety of my footplate trips.
That evening was one of the moments when my horizon expanded quite a bit. I was already a good friend of George Dyer, an Old Oak Common driver with whom I had first ridden at Kensington (Olympia) when he was driving a 97xx condensing Pannier Tank on the station pilot. Since then I had done several more trips with him on this and other local turns. Of all the OOC crews I knew, I spent most time with George and his regular fireman Mike on various duties around West London, or on the main line down to Reading. By the end of WR steam in London in 1965 we must have spent a good 20 or more full days (or nights) together. By now I knew George well enough to phone him at home to fix my next trip; he had recently been promoted from a goods and shunting link, and was now driving some longer distance turns. He was to drive the 8.21 pm parcels train from Paddington to Reading, a trip which we were to do together six times in all during the next few months; on this evening we had arranged to meet at Old Oak at around 7 pm.
At the appointed time I left the signal box, and wandered off towards the main shed, walking beside the Passenger Straight. This length of track beside the coal stage contained a long line of larger locomotives, which had just come on shed after a day's work, to be coaled and have their fires dropped before being stabled. (The Goods Straight was on the other side of the coal stage, and was for tank and freight engines.) Past the end of the coal stage and just outside the shed buildings proper, I found George and Mike looking round their locomotive, 6989 Wightwick Hall, standing beside a water column as they topped up the tender. For George this was a significant period in his career, which he had started as a cleaner in his local shed at home in the Welsh valleys. He had done all his firing there, working mainly on tank engines on fairly short runs. He had very little to do with tender locos until he came to London to gain promotion to driver - for which be would have had to wait much longer at home. For the last few years he had worked in Old Oak Common's lower links, preparing engines for others to drive (three tank locos or two tender locos was a day's shift on 'prep' work), then shunting in the many yards all around West London, driving empty stock or light engines between Old Oak Common and Paddington, taking loose-coupled freight trains on short local trips, and so on.
Now be was to drive big engines far more often - and on a main line over which he had never worked during his firing days. Indeed, George's knowledge of the line to Reading was a bit sketchy even now; he had felt obliged to sign for the road after spending quite long enough riding with other crews, although he was not really confident that he had learned it properly. In those early trips together it was not unusual for all three of us to be staring ahead at rapidly approaching signals, debating whether they were ours or not!
This was all the more complicated at that period, because the line to Reading was being re-signalled progressively. In late 1962 it still had a mixture of three types of signalling. For the first few miles out of Paddington - I think to just past Old Oak Common West - it still had the old GWR colour light signals, which showed the same aspects as semaphores; then there was a stretch with modern four-aspect colour lights out to around Southall. Next came quite a distance still signalled with semaphores, to well past Slough if I recall, before another section, perhaps as far as Maidenhead, with four aspect colour lights. During the next year the old signals were replaced section by section on almost a monthly basis. Things had changed almost every time we did a trip together, and we were often a little uncertain as to what form of signal we would now be running under.
By now it was accepted that I would do most of the driving whenever I was around. Dear George was almost apologetic when he said that he felt he should take the regulator on the semaphore stretches that evening - which suited me fine, on a main line, which I had hardly seen by that date. So, now we were clear what we were doing, I climbed up into the cab and stowed my bag. It was around 7.20, so I wound the loco into back gear, pulled down the wooden handle of the small ejector and blew off the brake (i.e. created vacuum), while using the cancelling lever to stop the ATC (Automatic Train Control) siren, which always sounded when the brake was released. At a nod from Mike that the hand brake was off and that all was clear on his side, I touched the whistle, tugged the regulator upwards a few inches, and we eased off tender first to stop at the signal, which would let us come alongside the signal box.
I whistled again, the board (signal) dropped to off - i.e. to clear - and we trundled on down to the box. I stopped the loco with its cab right beside the first window we came to. It slid open - and there was Paul Hendy, grinning at us. True to form he threw the duster (carried by all signalmen to protect the shiny lever handles) at me, and solemnly advised George that this was his best opportunity to chuck me off the engine.
After more such rudery - I think it probably went both ways - we confirmed what Paul already knew from me, that we were for the 8.21; he pulled off the starter signal and we went on our way. As we puffed gently off alongside the canal wall- the Grand Union Canal runs right beside Old Oak Common, some 20 feet or so higher than the railway - Paul was announcing our working by tannoy to Old Oak Common East Box about a third of a mile ahead.
As was almost invariable practice for light engines and empty stock for Paddington, we were signalled straight ahead, onto the up Engine and Carriage line. Moving at around 30 mph we took the bank up towards the overbridge, still there to this day, which crosses all four main lines to get to the Departure Side of Paddington Station. This line always contained a procession of light engines and empty stock trains, working up to Padd under permissive block regulations, which meant that trains may follow each other as closely as was safe, their drivers prepared to stop short of any obstruction. There were automatic and semi-automatic three aspect (red, yellow or green) light signals, which were approach-controlled. If one may enter the occupied section ahead, a smaller green light would light up below the red signal just as one got to it. If such a signal did not clear - which never happened to me - one could pass it with caution, but must report the failure at the next signal box.
By that time of the evening there was not all that much traffic, so pretty soon we were abreast of Subway Junction Signal Box, where the Hammersmith and City Line Underground trains from Shepherds Bush come to the surface, to run through Royal Oak station and into their platform on the up (Arrivals) side at Paddington. We were right across on the other (down) side of the line, with the Down Main line just to our left; soon we came to the point where our line divided, and we took the right hand route onto No 1 Engine and Carriage line, which served platforms 1 to 4. The No 2 line was needed if one was aiming for a higher numbered platform - it gave access to as far across as Platform 6 if I remember rightly. Just after this point the permissive block section ended, and I had to stop at a red signal as a down passenger train departed and rattled down the main line beside us- it might well have been the 7.55 pm South Wales express, invariably Castle-hauled at that date and for about a year longer. Then our signal cleared, indicating Platform 4, and we rumbled through the crossings, and dropped down into the station and on to our train - which was not all that long, with its leading van some way past the footbridge.
After this stretch of time - over 45 years as I write - I am fairly sure that this was my first-ever drive into Paddington itself. It certainly was an early one; every time was a big thrill, but this was special. I look back with much gratitude that George stood calmly by, as indeed did many other drivers on other occasions, and let his amateur driver run up to the train until the buffers compressed. There was no stopping ten feet off the stock, as on many preserved lines today, and it would have looked pretty bad - in Paddington especially - if we had bounced off and had needed to squeeze up the buffers in a separate movement. It was the norm to arrive on one's train and stop in the right place- and mercifully I did!
As the shunter coupled us up, the Guard came up to confirm the train's details- I did not record them, but typically that train would have ten or so bogie parcels vans and a brake, with a train weight of about 320 tons - not very challenging for a Hall on Brunel's flat line to Reading. If the guard was surprised to find a crew of three, with the one in the driver's seat looking unusually young - I was just 19 and wearing spectacles (which I did in those days and for years afterwards, before contact lenses)- he did not say so. I suppose that to him, and to many other people over those years, the idea that I was completely unauthorised to be on the footplate was unlikely to occur!
We now bad about 15 minutes to wait, which we spent in a cheerful chat. Mike had pretty well finished building up his fire on the way up from Old Oak, pressure was just a little below the mark, and the water was quite high in the glass. A pleasant feature of being with George and Mike was the very relaxed atmosphere; George usually having some silly story to tell - he was inclined to the shaggy dog variety. I remember one anecdote of his, which he may well have told us that evening. I will never now know if it was true - sadly he died suddenly in middle age about fifteen years later, after collapsing at the controls of a down train between Paddington and Reading.
He told us that he bad taken his young son Howard to the West End a few days earlier, and was waiting for the lad outside the public toilets in Leicester Square, when a young lady approached him. Hullo Darling she said, are you waiting for a little girl? Well no, actually, George replied, in his attractive Welsh accent, I'm waiting for a little boy. You bastard, came the tart (in all senses) response, it's your sort who are ruining our trade!
Mike and I were still chuckling about this as porters all along the train drew the last barrows clear and slammed the doors. Soon whistles started blowing on the platform, so I wound the loco into full forward gear and opened the large ejector - the brake gauge needles going up to 25 inches of vacuum. George came to the cab side and looked back - Platform 4 was on the driver's (right-hand) side - and we both saw that everyone was clear of the train. A glance forward showed that the banner repealer signal was off (they are still there, now electronic rather than mechanical), confirming that the platform starting signal, around the curve was clear. Beside it was a small box and as we watched it the letters 'RA' were illuminated in a purple bluish light, giving us the Right Away; these indicators are no longer fitted. Confident that we could go, I gave a short blast on the whistle - and we were off.
Mike once said lightheartedly that I was a bit heavy on water, meaning that my driving style was rather enthusiastic, using more steam and water than strictly necessary. To this day I don't know if he really meant it, but I do admit that it was fun to start off with a good tug on the regulator to make a brisk start. With much of its weight on the driving wheels a GWR 4-6-0 was always a sure-footed starter; with this load and a dry rail we were smartly away, with crisp barks of exhaust up me chimney. Soon I was winding back the cut-off, initially from 75 to about 60 per cent as we took the curve out into the open, and soon enough to nearer 30 - 35 per cent. Much less would be unsuitable with this load and with our booked speed in mind, no more than around 55 mph, and so we set off on the Down Relief line with the regulator rather less than half open.
The plan was that I would drive as far as Southall, then the limit of colour light signalling, and George would take her the rest of the way. We soon heard the first reassuring ring from the ATC bell, confirming that the distant signal we were coming to was clear, and soon settled into a steady rhythm - in no time we were passing Kensal Green Gas Works, then we were going under two big girder bridges. The first was the engine and carriage lines overbridge we had taken earlier, then - at right angles to the main line - came Mitre Bridge, which takes the Midland Region line from Willesden Junction over to its end-on junction with the West London Line at North Pole Junction and on down to Kensington (Olympia). Then we were passing the wide open spaces of Old Oak Common, past OOC East Box, with goods lines on each side, and the carriage sidings and loco shed further away to the right, soon followed by OOC West Junction, with the main line to Birmingham curving away to the right.
On we went, past the embankment up to the North London line, often seen with a foreign freight train climbing it, on through Acton Main Line station, then came Acton Goods Yard to the tight; soon we were clattering through Ealing Broadway, with its Underground trains, followed by the curve through West Ealing Station's platforms, and the triangular junction beyond it for the line north to Greenford. By now we are on four aspect colour lights, so can relax a little, with the guarantee that any stop signal is going to be preceded by at least two caution signals, a double yellow followed by a single one. Also we now get confirmation from the ATC at every signal, not just the distants - a ring for every green, or a minimum of three successive sirens for a double yellow, a single-yellow and for the following red.
Next we ran through a deserted Hanwell & Elthorne Station and over Brunel's famous viaduct at Hanwell; soon enough we reached Southall, with its busy steam shed on the left. George came over and I handed over the controls to him, in time for him to slow us down for our first signal check. This working was booked to stop at Hayes & Harlington Station for more parcels to be loaded, so we were now slowed right down, before the signal cleared to let us take the right hand route, across the Up Relief line and into the dead-end of the station's Up Bay platform.
We stayed at Hayes & Harlington for quite a time, chatting away and only half aware of the regular passage of trains up and down the main lines; it was getting pretty dark before we were eventually allowed to set back out of the platform, the guard calling us back with his handlamp from his van.
There was (and is) something special about the footplate at night, with the only light coming from the fire, apart from the small oil lamp which illuminates the gauge glass through its plain glass side, with red and green shades also provided for the fireman to exchange signals with the guard when required. That night such signals from the engine were unnecessary with a vacuum-fitted train, so Mike and I could watch while George propelled our train gently backwards. Soon enough we were past the signal letting us back onto the Down Relief line, and George was able to stop and go back into forward gear.
Soon the signal cleared, and we were off - within minutes rattling along at around 55 to 60 mph, which was about right for our timing. Past Slough we were getting into much more open country, with fewer street and other lights around; quite soon we reached the next modernised stretch.
It was then that I first experienced a strange feature of running under four aspect colour light signals on a clear dark night out in the country. Often enough you can see at least two sets of signals far ahead. It can be quite difficult to judge the distance to them - also, there is a risk of reading through the first one, and working on the aspect shown by the signal ahead of it, until you are getting uncomfortably close to your own one. This is not a good idea when yours is showing red, and the one further away is clear, say showing a single yellow, which initially seemed to be yours, but is in fact for the train in the section ahead of you!
Anyhow, we made steady progress towards Reading, Mike firing in a relaxed way from time to time, the locomotive making very little noise under easy steam, and the ATC bell ringing away every couple of minutes. I offered to put a few rounds on, and fired for quite a few miles, but Mike hardly needed the respite, unlike the unfortunate fireman of another parcels train which we soon passed as it was gasping along the Down Main. It was not making much of a speed, and as we drew alongside the engine we saw and heard its blower hard on in a desperate attempt to make steam. Its crew was clearly having a rough trip ; with a sympathetic wave we went on, with our own 6989 entirely on top of her pretty undemanding job.
Soon enough we were approaching our destination, and for the first time encountered adverse signals, bringing us virtually to a halt at Reading East Junction, before the road cleared and we were able to run gently through Reading General Station. Our last task with this train was to back it gently into the down bay platform of the station, where another gang of parcels porters dealt with it. Our trip was over, and we were relieved at approaching 11 pm, almost certainly by Reading men, who took the loco over - probably wondering who on earth I was.
I don't know what happened to 6989 that night, but she almost certainly went off light engine to Reading Shed. Certainly there were occasions on the same turn in the following months when we ourselves took our loco off down to the shed, on a triangular site at a lower level between the West of England and Didcot main lines.
So ended my only recorded experience on 6989, a good example of one of the most versatile classes of locomotive available on the WR in the latter days of steam, able to cope with all manner of trains, from express passenger to fast and semi-fast parcels, and of course freight trains as well. After relief, and possibly after a pint in the station canteen, we went off to complete the second half of the night's duty - stumbling along in the dark alongside the running lines until we got to Reading West Junction, where we relieved the up Westbury Parcels, which was the 12.02 am departure to London.
That night we took over 4-6-0 6993 Arthog Hall, and went non-stop on the Up Relief, achieving 70 mph or so, to Old Oak Common West, where we were unhooked from the train, and I then drove the light engine to shed, along the Up Goods Line via OOC East. In my admittedly slight experience of this working this was unusual; I assume that the train was taken on into Paddington that night by a pilot engine. On the five subsequent occasions when I rode on this turn over the next few months we always went straight up to Paddington, normally into Platform 9 or 10. There we would be on the engine for some considerable time, George yarning away, usually sitting on the bucket with Mike and I on the tip-up seats, until the train had been unloaded, whereupon we took the loco back light engine to Old Oak shed, getting there at around 4.30 am.
That night I thanked George and Mike and bade them farewell as they took the loco onto the Passenger Straight, after I had hopped off at the signal box and joined Dick, who had relieved Paul at 10 pm, to wait until the buses started running and I could go home.
Just nine days later we were all together again on the same trip".
Text © Quainton Railway Society / Photographs © Quainton Railway Society or referenced photographer
Page Updated: 02 December 2017