What It Was Like To Be A Traction Engine Driver In England

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Some Recollections by Charles E. Hooker (With an introduction by Robert G. Pratt 'Portway House ' Cutcombe, MINE HEAD, Somerset, England)


Charles Hooker rightly makes a point when he says it has been possible to preserve many steam traction engines but not their drivers and as his experience of working with them goes back to before 1900, I think what he has to say should be read with respect for it is difficult to grasp now what conditions were like then.

I was born in 1884 at about the time the Traction Engine was proving its usefulness and becoming a normal sight on the roads but were still far from popular. Many roads were not fit to carry their weight and of course the horse owners hated the engines because their horses were scared of them.

In 1896 when I started working regularly with the engines and for many years after that, we had difficulty in getting the horses by and spills were quite frequent. Can you imagine what the roads were like, even the main roads such as that from London to Dover? It was a sea of mud in winter and inches deep with dust in summer. I started running a motor-bike in the summer of 1904 and I had my first car about 1907 and after our travels, whether on main roads or by-roads, my wife and I would look like millers, white with dust. No other car could follow closely because of this dust cloud.

I was apprenticed from 1900 to 1904 to the firm of Fredk. Clark & Son, Elwick Iron Works, Ashford, Kent, who were general engineers. We apprentices learned the trade right through; pattern making, visits to the local foundry, fitting from the rough and lathe work. We worked the same hours as the other workmen, 6-am to 5-pm, a 54-hour week and sometimes overtime. I remember one day I was boring a plough-engine cylinder, I was then 17. If the lathe stopped then a ridge would be left in the bore, so I carried on and it was 11.0-pm before I finished.

We did a lot of plough engine repairs but my only experience on the road at that time was when the head fitter and I were sent to fetch an engine home to the yard. The engine had stood there a long time and by its weight had formed a depression. On raising steam it was found that this engine, a very old Fowler, had not sufficient power to pull itself out, so the fitter wired the safety-valves down, so getting another 10-lbs pressure and she then came out first try.

A good driver on road haulage had to be an expert with some years of experience as a mate. Further he had to have a natural gift for it or, as my father used to say, born to it. A good driver could not be made by training alone. Now I claim that my father was such a man; he was an excellent driver with few his equal. My brothers and myself gained experience from him from a very early age. You had to know how to maintain steam with the boiler working at full capacity, to keep a regular speed under all circumstances if at all possible, to maneuver the engine and trucks in restricted areas such as stone quarries. You had to know the roads and lanes in the district in which you worked and the best road to take to reach a given destination, not always the nearest as there might be bad hills to avoid, water requirements to be met, speed restrictions to be observed and then there were also some towns and villages where smoke must not be shown. It was essential to be a sound judge as to whether the ground on which you needed to go, for unloading for instance, would support the weight of your engine and its load and even more important, enable you to get off again afterwards. It also helped if the driver could recognize if an approaching horse was restive and remember we had many such horses to pass. In the days before engines were fitted with injectors, it was difficult to control the steam if stopped for a horse. The feed pump being driven by the engine, would also be stopped, so often I have thrown a dry bag over the safety-valves and sat on them to stop them blowing till the man had got the horse by.

Now the driver was in charge of the gang and so was required to get a satisfactory day's work out of them and still keep them happy. It was quite usual to leave the yard on a summer's morning at 4.30-am to go over the hills to load flints for the Marsh roads, the usual load for an 8 hp. engine was three trucks, with 7-ton on each truck. There would be a man to each truck and he was responsible for loading and oiling that truck. Each man would take a turn at steering from one water-stop to the next, usually about 4 miles. On haulage it was usually a 10-hour day, or if delayed on the road, it could be much longer, so it was up to the driver to make a good average speed.

Apart from the skill required to start an engine under a heavy load, possibly 35 to 40-ton and without snatching and in fast wheel, the driver also had to be stoker and had to know how to get the best results from various types of fuel. Smokeless coal, necessary for running through towns where smoke would not be allowed, required a big fire and was not really favoured. A coal called Nixon's Navigation we liked best but unfortunately this used to build a deposit over the tubes, and this restricted the draught, forming a grey ash similar to a swallow's nest and we called this 'birds nesting. ' It required the poker to knock it off. Using the best coal, the maxim was; 'little and often' to keep the required steam pressure. A good driver would usually have steam just showing at the safety-valve and this we called 'showing the feather. '

Now to describe the type of work done. Your load might consist of rock for the roads so it was necessary to know the roadman's signs. These could be notches cut in a wood stake or even in the ground with a spade, usually in roman figures.

Now often we had to leave one truck load at each depot so we would leave a truck and one man to unload it, carrying on to do the same at the second depot; and again to the third. The driver after attending to his engine, helped this last man to unload. It often happened that the rock was needed in a narrow lane, so with no room to turn the engine, the truck would be pulled off the road by means of a long chain, then proceeding backwards with the engine the truck would be turned and coupled to the front and so with the second and third truck, the engine continuing to be run backwards, perhaps half-a-mile or so, to the road junction. Under these conditions, it usually paid the driver to have the engine on his own, steering himself by turning his back to the engine, i.e. facing the way he was going, not difficult for an experienced man.

Having turned the engine, a start with the homeward journey would be made and with less steam required, therefore less stoking and having got rid of the load, no need to change gear for hills. Pleasant enough in good weather but if it was raining hard, as it might do all day, what then? No plastic macs, the only known waterproof was the oilskin and few workmen could afford them. So you are soon wet through, standing in the tender close to the steam pipe to the injector or water-lifter, with your wet trouser-leg nearly boiling before you realize it and possibly too late to prevent a scalded leg. What used to get me down was the slimy, scumy mixture of rain with oil thrown from the motion which worked under the sleeves of your jacket. Should you be thinking that to have an awning or canopy on an engine would have been any advantage, I can say from experience they were a very mixed blessing for an engine so fitted was nearly always draughty. True it would keep off a downpour of rain but any wind would drive the rain under it. Also the noise of the gears and motion under such a canopy was dreadful. On the brightest day the darker it seemed besides which it was difficult to see the water-level in the gauge. When firing up you get choked with the fumes and when clinkering, the heat was terrible and remember, it was not for just an hour but hour after hour, day after day. You may ask why did we work under these conditions but remember the standard of living was so low, it was work or starve. In case of illness there was only parish relief, if you could get it and that only about 2/6, the alternative being the workhouse.

If we ran into fog it was just too bad, especially after dark, the driver and steersman being unable to see the road and it was then the usual practice to tie a long pole to the perch under the smoke-box, this pole a man would grip to keep a safe distance from the engine and signal by means of a storm lantern, the way to go. The traction engine driver had also to know the law and the by-laws relating to locomotives on the road, such as that the whistle must not be sounded near the public highway, engine and trucks must not be stationary on a bridge or pinnock, the engine must consume its own smoke, the driver must stop his engine immediately on being signalled to do so by any man in charge of a horse, to keep to a speed limit of 2 mph in towns and 4 mph in open country. Only three trucks, a van and a water-barrel were allowed to be drawn by the engine at any one time. Even in those days there were licenses. If passing through a County, it might be possible to get a days permit, otherwise we paid 10 for each County. I remember one of our engines carried licenses for three: Kent, East and West Sussex.

So now, picture yourself if you can, in charge of the road loco. with three loaded trucks on a normal day's run of 16 miles out before unloading. Most of the time the regulator would be full open, the exhaust barking. You constantly attend to the fire to keep full steam pressure, watching the water-level in the glass and putting on the injector when necessary, at the same time watching all the while for approaching or overtaking traffic, always prepared to stop but keeping a good average speed by jiggling the lever for no other way gives such delicate control. This goes on for hour after hour, except for the occasional stop for water, dropping the pipe into the stream and while the tank is filling you take a handful of cotton waste, the oil feeder and a spanner, then climb onto the footboard or step, clean and oil the motion and give the big-end cotter a clout with the spanner and you are ready to start again. (What did you say? Why use the spanner to hit the cotter?) Because the spanner is already in your hand. It might surprise you to know how many years the spanner and cotter would stand this treatment. Now to restart the load in fast wheel and perhaps slightly uphill, you take up back lash in gear, bring the crank to the right centre then thrust the regulator fully open and when normal speed is reached, bring the reversing lever back a notch or two and now perhaps you understand why no seat is provided for the driver as he is far too busy to use one.

Our kit of tools usually consisted of a hammer, chisel, a few spanners of sizes that were mostly required, an adjustable wrench, bits of round file that with a suitable spanner could be used as a makeshift pipe wrench, a few bolts of various sizes, nails and wire, the oil feeder, a quantity of cotton waste, and of course, the large bottle jack. When in trouble the only man likely to be of help would be the local blacksmith, experienced only in shoeing horses and repairing plough-shares. There was a friendly atmosphere about the engine-men who were always ready to help each other. If your set got off the road and became bogged down, the drivers would bring their engines along to pull yours back onto the road even if it meant coming a distance to do so, possibly belonging to another firm, often without charge. It was this friendly attitude that made it all possible.