Working with steam - a dirty and dangerous job

Maintenance of steam locomotives was highly labour-intensive, requiring an army of men separated into a multitude of grades. Top Shed at King’s Cross is described here, but other sheds would be very similar.

After several hours working, the intense heat in a boiler caused the solids and ash content of coal to fuse and form thick solids called ‘clinker’ on the fire bars, preventing oxygen from reaching the fire and thereby reducing steam pressure. Spent fuel in the form of ash settled in the smokebox under the chimney to quite a depth, which had to be emptied after every run – a very dirty job.

On arrival at the depot via Five Arch, drivers reported to the office near the turntable for instructions, before proceeding onto the turntable. After turning they continued to the coaling plant . This had two hoppers, allowing different grades of coal to be separated. Hard coal was generally used for main line locomotives as soft Welsh coal was too readily pulverised, especially in such mechanical plants.

Text Box: Sidings with the mechanical coaling plant and ashpits, looking east from the top of the water-softening plant towards Five Arch and York Way, 1956. (SSPL/NRM)

After being coaled, locomotives moved onto the ash pits alongside the coal hopper. Fire dropping was carried out by staff paid on a bonus system. The fire would be cleaned by withdrawal from the firebox with a long steel shovel and thrown onto the ground. With freight engine fireboxes typically of 28 sq. ft (2.6 m2), filled with fire 2ft (0.6m) high, this was a long, dangerous and dirty job. Wooden clogs were a standard issue.

Before it left the ash pit area an engine’s sandboxes were replenished with dry sand. Locomotives were then moved into either of the two Running Sheds or onto the Back Pits. Locomotives that needed to be ready for their next workings immediately were placed in the Back Pits, where they were prepared and watered in the open. The Back Pits had been built on the site of the old Midland Roundhouse and consisted of seven straight roads. Here locomotives would be given a general check by an Examining Fitter, who was usually equipped with a long wheel-tapping hammer.

Following any repairs arising from the examination, the locomotive was then ready for the engine crew to prepare it for its next working by making up the fire, trimming the coal, oiling around the engine and watering.

Although there remains a tremendous nostalgia for steam among those that worked with it, the final words should perhaps come from Peter Townend, Shedmaster in the 1950s, who in his Introduction to Top Shed (1989) places his own nostalgic regrets about steam locomotives in context:

‘.. after spending a number of years trying to overcome some of the problems associated with their operation, the end was inevitable. People generally were not prepared to accept the dirt, grime and smoke associated with steam traction and there were many unpleasant tasks which had to be carried out in primitive conditions at depots, which few men really wanted to do.’