I had been interested railways since I was frightened by an A4 Pacific as it stormed through the old Stevenage station from the North. I was a small child sitting in my pushchair on the Up platform. We were probably travelling to London to visit relatives. I also had an interest in engineering although, as a youngster, this simply came across as a desire to dismantle things and put them back together properly. Over the years friends and family have said that if I had a new car I would have to partially dismantle it and put it back together properly. Slim chance there as I wouldn’t buy a modern car. There is far too much to go wrong with them and they cost a fortune to fix!
Inspired by my Father
When I was 16, my father gave me his old Honda 50 moped because he had bought a new one. We didn’t have a car in our family. One day the engine in my moped failed. I had been helping a friend’s brother rebuild a BSA 350cc motorbike so I felt confident enough to strip the engine down on my moped, find out the problem and rebuild it. Fortunately I found it was only a burnt out exhaust valve. I remember my father returned home from work and saw parts of the moped engine on all over the garage floor. In my defence, they were arranged neatly! He was amazed and pleased when a few days later I had reassembled the engine and got it working again. He said I should have a career in engineering.
My brother, Paul, already worked for British Aircraft Corporation in Stevenage in an engineering role. However, I wanted to combine my interest in engineering with that of railways. Father thought I should join the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, part of the Army, but I’m afraid having to take an order from someone who I had no respect for because of their manner towards me or their competence to do a job would test my tolerance level.
I had just completed my final exams at school and the teachers were understandably trying to get me to do A levels. Although I could study Physics and Maths I felt there must be something more that would lead me into a career in engineering although I have to say that engineering study has large elements of Physics and Maths. My Father discovered that British Rail Engineering Ltd took on apprentices at their main Works. Only two were taken on at each Works namely Crewe, Doncaster, Derby Locomotive, Derby Litchurch Lane and Swindon. This seemed an excellent way forward as it would combine both of my primary interests. The entry qualifications were 5 ‘O’ levels which had to be Maths, English, a Science subject and two other weighty subjects. I had studied Physics and Economics so I decided I would apply once my results came out in August.
In the meantime I started a local temporary job. I worked at Harper Engines in Stevenage. I was employed as an operator of two milling machines. Castings that were used as part of the hinges for the tip-up cabs on lorries had to be machined across the top by one milling machine and placed in the second machine for the sides to be faced off. Prior to this, I had had a paper round which paid a princely sum of £1.37½p per week. The wage for the machine operators job was a lot more especially when I worked on Saturday mornings as well.
My exam results came out and on the same day I submitted applications to Doncaster and Swindon works. Doncaster rejected my application on the basis that I was too far out of their catchment area. I found this surprising as I lived on the East Coast Main Line. Swindon works wrote back apologising but they had already filled their two allocated places. They also pointed out that applications had been submitted earlier in the year and conditional offers had been made on the basis of exam results. However they forwarded my application to Crewe Works. A short time after, I received an invitation for an interview at the General Offices in Crewe along with a free ticket to travel there by train.
On Monday the 16th September 1974, I left our house just as Eve by Jim Capaldi was playing on the radio. Travelling into King’s Cross, I walked down the Euston Road to Euston station. I caught the 10:00am to Bangor and just over two hours later set foot on Crewe Station. I was in good time for my interview but I decided to go and find out where the General Offices (GO) were. I walked towards the town centre, crossing over the Chester line before I came to another railway bridge. The building adjoining this bridge were the GO for Crewe Works.
I discovered later that the original Chester line once went past the works offices but was diverted away to the current location when the works were expanded. The original route was used as an access point for locomotives to and from the works. The GO were built on a on a curve that mirrored that of the old line. For many years, newly built locomotives from the works were positioned on the line for formal photographs to be taken. Some even featured the GO as a backdrop. It is sad that this magnificent building and indeed the line are no more.
After a brief lunch, I reported to the GO just before the appointed time. Shortly after I was taken along the corridor and shown into an office where I was introduced to Dave Looker and Geoff Ollier. These two gentlemen were to interview me. It was explained that although the recruitment for engineering apprentices had been undertaken early in the year, offers had been conditional on successful applicants achieving the required exam results. Unfortunately one of the applicants had failed and this resulted in the vacancy that I was being interviewed for. I can’t remember how long the interview lasted but at the end I was asked if I would kindly step outside while they deliberated.
The wait seemed ages but then my adrenalin must have been running on overload. Eventually Geoff Ollier open the door and I was invited back in and asked sit down. Dave Looker said that they were delighted to be able to offer me the position and apologized for keeping me waiting. The delay was because they had been arranging lodging arrangements for me. The engineering apprentice training had already commenced so I would have to start the following Monday.
They asked if I needed any monetary assistance as an interest free loan to pay for my lodgings. Due to my temporary job at Harper Engines, I had amassed sufficient funds. I was told that during the first year of training, I would attend day release plus three night classes at Dane Bank College. This was initially to study for an ONC in engineering before going on to HNC and endorsements. I was given a staff pass that would that would give me free travel between Stevenage and Crewe. I was also given a free pass for my bicycle.
Crewe Works station
The observant of you will notice that the staff pass is made up between Stevenage and Crewe Works. It is not well known that Crewe works had its own station. It was located on a spur that went into the electric traction depot adjacent to the Chester line. There used to be a service to and from Stoke on Trent that was extended from Crewe station to the Works station. This service was purely for rail employees at the Works and presumably those at the electric traction depot, the Paper and Printing offices and the E200 Stores that were located in the same area. I used to use the service on occasions particularly during frosty or snowy weather when cycling was more hazardous.
On my arrival back at home I tried the old ploy of looking sad and dejected but my parents were having none of it. They both said ‘when do you start?’! Unable to contain my eagerness any longer I said ‘In a week’s time!’. My family and I were thrilled but at just sixteen and a half years of age, some would find it a daunting prospect to live and work during the week a long distance from home. I would have to travel out on a Saturday and return on a Friday evening. My enthusiasm for the position though would see me through. On the 23rd September 1974 I started work on British Railways. And so the adventure began…
Tom Pike says
Loved the story. Well done. How did it all go ? Another blog perhaps
Hi Tom, it went very well thanks. Yes I will do follow up blogs. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes
Hi Barry I remember you well , mr baiiss with you in the 40 cab ,I left after 4 yrs went on carriage shed then diesel depot for 20 yrs then redundo 2 yrs Waterman 5 yrs Drs went driving now done 10 yrs driving for Freightliner ,now part time (job share) ,into 5 inch steam moron bikes classic cars etc ,good to hear from you cheers
Hi Chris, it is so good to hear from you after all these years and learn about your career since those far off days in Crewe Works. I will email you separately and catch up more. Best wishes Barrie
I remember Chris bayliss big mates stopped at my house many times
Nick Robson says
Great stuff. Worth compiling into a book, maybe?
Thanks for your kind comments. I’ve only got time for the blog at the moment but I’ll certainly bear your idea in mind.
David Rice says
Very good Barrie and you end it:- “And so the adventure began…” are we going to get chapter two please?
I served my Engineering Apprenticeship at Geo W Kings in Stevenage so can empathise with you.
Thank you for the account of the start of your working life, looking forward to more.
Hi Dave, I will definitely be following it up. I’ve received feedback that people want to see more Blogs about my career.
I remember Geo W Kings and couldn’t believe it when I visited Stevenage some years ago and found the building had been demolished. It was such an icon.
Raymond Milton says
All of this made very interesting reading, some of its content reminded myself of what had might had been. I am sure that the first stages of your career as a railway person must have been quite arduous at times but it would appear that you came out on the right side and enjoy heritage of the present preserved lines we have.
Hi Raymond, it appears you didn’t have the opportunity of a railway career which seems as a result to stir up melancholy feelings for which I’m sorry on your behalf. I feel very privileged to have served on the railways for over 40 years and wouldn’t have pursued another career. True railway people are just wonderful and I have been very lucky to work with them.
Alastair Majury says
Thanks for sharing.
Looking forward to the follow up blogs.
Colin Boyled says
Great blog, look forward to the second instalment
Thank you Colin. It’s the works training school in next instalment.
Geoff Barnett says
Brilliant Barrie thank you for sharing the story , I was 10 years earlier as a kid in the training school and works I started 1962 … and later Mr Beeching had his wicked way with me ….
Hi Geoff, Do you remember Ernest Cope, Norman Powell and Bob Shilton in the Training School?
David D Sproson says
We had many Engineering Apprentices coming through the works, and it was good when they were prepared to get there hands dirty. I always wondered where they would end up. Then after i left the works and was working down Exeter at the Royal Devon Show, There was a Wessex Train stand opposite me. they were having trouble with there sliding doors , when a gentleman came across and asked if I had any tools. I said yes and gave him a case,which had my name on it. DAVID D SPROSON CREWE WORKS RETIRED. Straight away he said he worked with my farther in the Metalagist when he was doing his Engineering Apprenticeship. Also he was”nt surprised i had the tools for any emergency. He said Crewe works training, be prepared. Just like the scouts. lol
Hi Dave, that ”twas me at the Devon County show. I remember the incident well. I have to say I was one of those who was prepared to get my hands dirty. It was not only the best way of finding out how things worked but also it meant you felt part of the team. Was your father called Ernie and di you work on the diesel test?
David D Sproson says
Sorry Barry, I was”nt certain, in the back of mind i thought it might be you. Love the idea of your story,,I think it will be interesting reading for ex railway workers but also young people thinking of going into engineering. Shame we dont have a railway engineering works where we design and build our own Loco”s. Answer to your question, my father was Ernie Sproson and yes I worked on Diesel Test and loved every minute of my time on there. I am now retired and live in Spain. PS whats your view on HS2
Garry hughes says
I’ve always found the real stories of railway men in the 70s and 80s so interesting, many copies of Traction were bought just for them ( but also the old photos). Do you know if any books have been written, I can never find any. If not I think you should definitely write one one day… I’ll be a first purchaser.
Thank you for your kinds words. The Blog is in place of a book really then everyone can enjoy it without paying! I do get a little bit of cash from some of the links and adverts and I use this to fund the costs of running the blog so all support in that area is appreciated.
Hi Garry, thank you for your encouragement re the book. As I think I’ve said somewhere recently were I to write a book it would be called ‘To Swindon via Crewe’. I won’t explain further here the meaning behind this. Re books two that come immediately to mind are ‘Castles to Warships’ by Jack Gardner, ‘Diesels a Driver’s Reminiscences’ by L C Jacks and a book I’ve bought recently and not yet read is ‘Train Doctor’ by Roger Senior who was for many years a Technical Riding Inspector on the ECML. Hope you can track down some copies and enjoy.
David D Sproson says
Great story, but you must carry it on . Im sure you have had a very interesting career that we would like to hear about.
Hi David, thank you. I shall be continuing. Can’t miss out in the next instalment mentioning the late greats of Bob Shilton, Norman ‘knocker’ Powell and of course chrome dome himself Ernest Cope!!
Bernie Holland says
This is so fascinating – and it is wonderful how you have retained all the documents, i.d cards, travel passes etc and provided photos of them here. You mention the song “Eve” by Jim Capaldi, well I played with him once (I am a guitarist) as well as Steve Winwood – also I toured America 4 times in 1990s with Van Morrison – many of my musician friends are railway enthusiasts – there is something about railways which has universal appeal ! But, more importantly, it is your career here which is a great source of interest and I have so enjoyed reading about your experiences, the disappointments of Doncaster and Swindon, followed by the joy of being accepted at Crewe, which after all, was (during its golden years) the largest railway works in the country – and was a major hub for several routes in all directions. It is also great reading about many of these characters who must have seemed larger than life ! If you ever wrote a book about your career, then I for one, would certainly buy a copy – I love reading your stories – Thank you for all this !
Hi Bernie, thank you very much for your kind comments. It is very gratifying to learn that someone such as yourself enjoys my Blog posts. It does make the effort of writing them that much more worthwhile.
I’m very impressed to read about the amazing artists you have played with.
I’ve thought many times about writing a book. Even thought of a title ‘ To Swindon via Crewe’ for reasons that will become apparent as my Blog posts evolve. Very kind of you to say you would buy my book were I too write it.
Regarding musicians and railways I’ve read that Phil Collins and Rod Stewart are big railway fans.
Please do keep reading my Blogs and I hope you continue to enjoy them. I have met some wonderful railway people over my career and have many great stories to relate.
Best wishes to you Bernie and thank you again.
Alan Heselgrave says
Great set of stories, I have an old 1927 Gledhill Brook clocking in Clock that was a Railway clock, it came with clocking in cards marked British rail and names and trades of employees. Plus a drawing plan of a part for the clock warmed Wolverton 1944 any ideas of its history would be good
Rob May says
I have only just found your blog. By amazing coincidence I was also frightened by an A4 when I was on the DOWN platform at the old Stevenage station. I lived at Stevenage from 1956 to 1964, moving away when I was 11 and already grieving the loss of steam when Kings X shed had closed in June 1963. I had spent many hours by the lineside at Stevenage station – either on the footpath north of Bridge Road or round the back of the station sitting on the boundary fence near the coal yard gate. I confess I am still am addict but my fix these days is my own loco – Polish Tkh 0-6-0T “Karel” based at the Avon Valley Railway. And I have been building an OO gauge model of Stevenage old station to help my sanity during lockdown.
What a coincidence and indeed I also used to spend hours by the lineside with mates in the same locations as you mentioned.
Another coincidence is that I’m involved in a Heritage Railway too not far from the Avon Valley at Midsomer Norton. Let me know if you are planning to visit us at the S&D.
I would very much like to see any photos you have on your construction of model of the old Stevenage Station. Best wishes Barrie