Going loco

PICTURE the scene…a locomotive billowing smoke and steam, with a glowing firebox lighting up the night sky. This was part of the magic of the days when steam powered trains thundered across the countryside.

PICTURE the scene…a locomotive billowing smoke and steam, with a glowing firebox lighting up the night sky.

This was part of the magic of the days when steam powered trains thundered across the countryside. The site which was the Ipswich locomotive depot, which serviced rail equipment for main and branch lines in our region is today being cleared, and redeveloped for housing.

This site was also where many rail staff was based and carriage and wagon maintenance was carried out. One man who can watch the changes now taking place to this area, which is a huge part of the history of Ipswich, and the railway, is Ken Freestone of Luther Road, Ipswich.

Ken can look out of his front window and see what was the site of the original Ipswich Station built by the Victorians. The first train on the new line arrived in June 1846. This is why Station Street is on the Stoke side of the tunnel. The station moved to its present site in 1860.

Ken tells us of some harsh working conditions at “Ipswich Loco” when he started there. He said: “I started my career at Ipswich Loco' depot in October 1947 in the footplate grade. The line of promotion started with engine cleaner. It was a long time before reaching the grade of main line driver having been fireman and acting driver as I passed through the ranks.

“Ipswich Loco was an ideal place to start a career making your way from the early less demanding duties to main line express work. I was born in Ipswich in December 1931 and left school at 14 and worked in the printing trade. When the chance of a job on the railways came along I started on the bottom rung of the career ladder. I started as a rookie cleaner, two months before my sixteenth birthday, with the London and North Eastern Railway. There was a 24-hour rota of shifts. I was not allowed to work the night shifts until I was 16.

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“It was six am on Monday October 13, 1947 when I presented myself at the Croft Street entrance to start my first day as a railwayman. Just inside the gate was the timekeeper's hut where Charlie Brunning, an ex-loco man who had been injured during World War Two and unable to return to footplate work, was on duty. The back wall of his hut was festooned with brass discs each stamped “London and North Eastern Railways” with a number in the centre. I was given my disc only after he checked the large clock on his wall. He told me if I was ever late I would loose fifteen minutes pay. The brass discs were handed in at leaving off time and were also used when collecting your pay on a Friday. The change over from steam to diesel on main lines started in 1959, so for twelve years, apart from my national service with the RAF, I worked with steam engines. I look back on my years with steam as the most interesting of my career.

“When I was an engine cleaner we had to take on all sorts of duties and the shed foreman would give us all sorts of tasks. One of the tasks we were sometimes given was 'calling up' men who were on early morning duty. This would involve cycling to the men's homes and banging on their windows or doors to make sure they were awake and ready for work. We would try to be working on engine cleaning duties as far away from the foreman's office in the main shed as possible as he would usually delegate this chore to the nearest cleaner. The foremen then were Clem Hollingsworth, Sid Moyes, “Ninety” Burrows and Tammy Gooch.”

“In addition to the main line, the Ipswich depot was also responsible for several branch lines with around ninety locomotives based at the depot. There were all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the lowly little tank engine to the mighty B1's.

“Ipswich Loco was a then a very busy place, which never seemed to rest. The buildings and working conditions was Victorian with no sign of any modernisation at all. Everywhere was badly lit. At night it was a particularly dangerous place in the bad visibility. There was only one covered engine shed. It was open at both ends with room for six locomotives. All the other locomotive maintenance and cleaning work was carried on outside exposed to all the elements. There were accidents. There was a fine team of men on hand trained in first aid to deal with the injuries until medical help arrived.

“My first job on the day I started was to clean a “Claude Hamilton” passenger engine. Being new I was give the worst job of cleaning thick black treacly oil which had leaked from a pump. These deposits had to be scraped, soaked in paraffin and cleaned away. The wheels and frames were also an unpleasant task. After dark, apart from a few depot lights, the only hand held illumination we had was a small paraffin lamp. These gave off almost as much smoke as light! If we finished the job in good time we were allowed to go for a tea break. I have never drunk so many cups of tea in my life as I did in my cleaning days!

“In 1953 the engine sheds were demolished and a new steam loco depot built, this was not to last for long as at the end of the decade British Railways changed from steam to diesel and the buildings were altered to cater for the diesel locomotives. We were at last getting some more modern facilities, but the moral of the men at the depot was low. We were faced with big changes. The older drivers viewed the diesels with apprehension, the firemen more so as they could see their grade was becoming redundant.

“So as the 1950s came to a close I saw my boyhood dream of becoming a driver of a steam locomotive pounding through the countryside with its smoke and steam billowing shattered. The engines were to be replaced by a faceless diesel looking like an extra carriage on the front of the train. During the period of change over we would often make the journey one way by steam and the other by diesel. The first diesel hauled train I worked was on July 10 1959 with driver H. Holliday. The last steam engine I fired was Britannia 70007 Coeur-deLion on July 15 1961 with driver “Spud” Murphy on a passenger train from Norwich to Ipswich.

“The changeover had a big effect on the manning of the depot with some redundancies. Firemen were eventually made “second men” and the grade of engine cleaner was a thing of the past. A new entrant was classed as a driver's assistant.

“In 1968 the depot at Croft Street ceased to be a maintenance department and the loco men moved to Ipswich Station where minor repairs were carried out. Major repairs were dealt with at Colchester and more extensive work at Stratford. In more recent years the depot was used as a base for electrification maintenance trains and equipment.”


What memories of the days of steam locomotives do you have? Write to me at Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.

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