Farm Collector

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

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

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

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

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.

  • Published on Jul 1, 1971
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