Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Firing the Flying Scotsman and Other Great Locomotives: Life on the Footplate in the Last Years of Steam

Firing the Flying Scotsman and Other Great Locomotives: Life on the Footplate in the Last Years of Steam

by Ken Issitt

See All Formats & Editions

An ex-railwayman’s recollections of working the footplate on fast express steam trains in the late 1940s and through the ’50s

Fast train fireman Ken Issitt worked on the footplate from the late 1940s to 1960, experiencing firing some of the greatest locomotives from the Flying Scotsman to Coltimore and Blink Bonney. The work was hard and


An ex-railwayman’s recollections of working the footplate on fast express steam trains in the late 1940s and through the ’50s

Fast train fireman Ken Issitt worked on the footplate from the late 1940s to 1960, experiencing firing some of the greatest locomotives from the Flying Scotsman to Coltimore and Blink Bonney. The work was hard and conditions were tough but little did he know at the time that he was experiencing the last years of steam. He would never have imagined the romantic associations the period evokes today. Through a number of short accounts the past comes vividly to life, via stories about train crashes, peasoup fogs, and fires going out. From the beginning of a shift, donning overalls and making up a packing, and from shunting in the marshalling yard to flying along with an express train at 80mph. Ken Issitt describes what life on the footplate was like across the last years of steam, his tales beautifully brought to life by Chris Bates’s charming pen and ink drawings as well as photographs.

Product Details

The History Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Firing the Flying Scotsman and Other Great Locomotives

Life on the Footplate in the Last Years of Steam

By Ken Issitt, Chris Bates

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Ken Issitt
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9047-2



'You tell a good tale, don't you?' someone said to me recently. This brought me up with a start. I was telling a lady a story about my railway years that was perfectly true, with all sincerity. She clearly did not believe me. It made me recall a previous incident in which I had related the story Put the Kettle On and Shout up the Stairs! (chapter 7) to some young people I had met in a pub one evening. I was disconcerted to realise that they clearly did not believe me either.

All the tales in this book are true. The only documentary evidence I have in my possession is a witness report relevant to the story that I have entitled Jigsaws (chapter 5). The reader will appreciate that there will be evidence elsewhere, perhaps in the annals of railway history. But I have concentrated on the stories themselves; about incidents that happened to me. I am sure, however, that many railwaymen could relate dramatic events that happened to them: life on the footplate was full of drama.

The locomotive crew took risks with their own safety every day; the danger was part of the job, perhaps even the appeal of it. The men were expected to use common sense every moment of the day. Each story contains elements of these risks. It does not seem possible to make a direct comparison between life on the footplate in the 1950s and that experienced by train crews today. The use of different sources of power – oil and electricity – and the development of digital technology have completely transformed the footplate. The present-day driver does not have a fireman who performs the duties explained in this book. He/she has a different set of responsibilities as the train is driven along the same tracks that were laid many years ago. There is legislation that both supports and controls the daily duties of the crew.

I was fortunate to work as a fireman on some notable steam locomotives in the final years of steam. As the steam era slid into history the work of the fireman as it was ceased. In 1965 steam was replaced by diesel and electricity as forms of traction by British Rail. The driver/fireman relationship on a steam locomotive, a relationship that had existed for years, was no longer there.

This is not a book about observing the workings of the footplate crew; it is a book about a fireman doing his job. A mere observer would see the discomforts of the train crew – the heat, the dust, the knocks – but he would also know that he, as an observer, did not actually experience them. I did.

The stories also offer an historical perspective on the job of being a fireman. In recording them I hope to go some way towards giving an account of the life and work of a footplate crew in the final years of steam. Perhaps, too, I am able to bring that to life through my stories.

I worked on the footplate from 1947 to 1960 and of course I am only writing about what happened to me. Some railwaymen gave their entire working life to service on the footplate and my contribution was small in comparison. I am sure that many footplate incidents have gone unrecorded. I hope that in relating these stories I will help fill what I consider to be a gap in the history of footplate work.

I have tried to illustrate the life we led from day to day, from the fairly routine to the downright hazardous. It was always one of movement; if we found ourselves stationary we were waiting to go somewhere. It was a moving job. You had to make the engine shift and fulfil its task. You needed to know your engine so that when it was asked to perform you made sure that everything had been done for maximum efficiency. Engines had their own personality and their own life, sometimes happy and sometimes mardy.

We all had our favourite engines. Galtee More (an A3 Pacific) was my favourite. She was easy to get to steam and full working pressure and I could even take liberties with her. We could start away with less than a good body of lit coal in the firebox. Galtee More was a free-steaming engine and responded very quickly. But you dare not take liberties with some engines where you needed a really good start with everything on your side. The boiler needed to be fairly full and have a good head of steam. All engines, however, had to be prepared ready for the journey with the fire bright, so that when the regulator was opened by the driver a full head of steam was in the steam chest, and the water in the boiler was at the right level. The fireman and the guard would then watch the train safely out of the station precincts. They then returned to their prime duties – the fireman to that of firing the engine correctly and maintaining the water level in the boiler and the guard to the train itself and the welfare of the passengers.

My sixteen shifts (a.m./p.m.) – one week a.m. and one week p.m. for sixteen weeks – meant it was extremely difficult to socialise. It was hard to plan anything either for my family or myself. I could not, for instance, take a course at night school, join a football team or attend anything that involved regular commitment. Every shift started at a different time: 12.01a.m. was regarded as a day shift, and 10p.m. a night shift. These timings were related to the times of the trains throughout the night and day.

I considered that the best shift in the 'fast train link', of which I was a member, was: book on duty at 7.40a.m., work the Master Cutler to London, leaving at 9.19a.m. and arriving at 11.24a.m.; then bring the 12.15p.m. dinnertime fast back to Leicester from Marylebone, arriving in Leicester at 2.40p.m. When I had done that I could be watching Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men on the television with my family at home in the late afternoon.

I always had a canvas bag which I put on my back as I rode to work on my bike. Inside I had sandwiches, sometimes an apple, a mashing of tea, milk in a Camp coffee bottle and a screw of sugar. This all fitted, with the enamel tea can, neatly into the bag.

The Great Central and the Great Northern Railway engine sheds at Leicester were situated in two locations. One, serving the Great Central line, was at the southern end of the city and was close to the canal that flows through Leicester, connecting with the River Soar. The other served the Great Northern line and was approximately 2 miles away. They were constructed of brick and completed in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Great Central shed, the major and the larger of the two, had four bays housing about thirty engines, depending on their size. Four bays, with a gap between each, meant that the shed area would be about the size of a football pitch. The smaller shed had only two bays. When I approached the sheds on my way to work I was always struck by the shape of the roof, as the shed architecture included a series of scalene triangles across the whole length of the shed. To the right of the engine bays there was a shed master's office. Alongside that was a walkway that gave access to the enginemen's lobby and the running foreman's office, the loco crews' mess room, the stores department, the blacksmith's shop and the boiler cleaning section, the machine shop with several lathes and drilling machines, the fitters' shop, and finally the fitters' mess room. General maintenance was done 'in house'. These sections ran the whole length of the engine shed.

'Booking on' happened in the stores department. I would tell the storesman, whose name was Mac, that I was there. After booking me on duty Mac issued me with the appropriate kit for the engine allocated to us. That meant a shovel, a coal hammer, a bucket, a gauge lamp, detonators, a hand brush and some hand cloths. It was here that I was told which engine we were to work that day and where that engine was standing. This would usually be on the shed front of one of four bays, ready for our departure to the station. After booking on, my driver would read the essential notices in the enginemen's lobby about speed restrictions, single line working, fitters' reports, line repairs and anything pertaining to the track for our journey that day. Then he would sign the Road Book, which meant that he took responsibility for the safety of the locomotive and the train that he was about to drive to and from its destination.

I was now 'booked on'. Eventually it would be my turn as a new driver to examine the notices. When a fireman was approaching the time for him to pass his exams to be a driver he would be notified by the company. As well as studying his rule book and making himself conversant with all the aspects of engine working and the rules and regulations required of him, he would also need to know how to drive the engine correctly in the different situations he might encounter. For instance, driving a shunting engine means working closely with a 'shunter' when assembling a goods train. He would have to know that driving a loose-coupled train required a completely different technique to driving a passenger train with a continuous brake, what these differences were and how to deal with them including the knowledge of what to do in case of a breakdown or signal failure. No driver was obliged to hand over the controls to a budding driver but most drivers would give their fireman a chance at the controls if only for a short distance. In reality, of course, over the years a fireman would get the opportunity to switch positions with the different drivers with whom he was rostered. Some became great friends. I was most fortunate with my last driver. He let me drive all the local passenger trains and he drove all the fast passenger trains. I was very grateful to him for allowing me to gain this valuable experience. He was confident I wouldn't let him down and I made sure I didn't.



The route to London from Leicester is known as the 'up line' and the return route is known as the 'down line'. I have chosen to describe a crew's experience of a typical shift on an A3 Pacific from Leicester to London in the 1950s, 'on the up' and back 'on the down', to illustrate a day's work. The driver books on duty in the stores department and so does the fireman. The storesman tells them which engine they are to work that day and where the engine is berthed. The driver goes to the engineman's lobby and signs the Road Book. He is signing that he is competent to take charge and is perfectly familiar with that route, the signals, junctions and stations during the day or night. The driver familiarises himself with the appendices and notices that are relevant to the route that he knows he will be working. The fireman also has access to these notices. They would include speed restrictions, diversions, track repairs and fitters' reports about the engine the crew is about to work. The fireman goes to the stores and draws the shovel, coal hammer, bucket, gauge lamp, detonators, hand brush and hand cloths. He then takes the kit to the engine.

The driver himself goes to the stores and he draws two types of oil. One is to lubricate the big end crankshafts, the side rods, the valve gear and the oil keeps. An oil keep in this instance is a container for oil with pipes attached through which the oil is drip-fed to the slow-moving parts of the ancillary equipment around the framing above the driving wheels. The other type of oil is heavy engine oil (black oil) for the mechanical lubricators that feed the valves and pistons that get extremely hot as the engine is being worked. It is the driver's prime job to oil the engine.

The driver then gradually works around the engine oiling the various moving parts. The fireman assists the driver with these oiling duties by filling the lubricators on the framing above the driving wheels. Whilst he is on the framing he makes sure that the sandboxes are full and the smokebox is empty of ash and secure ready for the journey. This is known as 'preparing for the journey'. On an A3 Pacific the fireman usually has an extra job. The driver will position the engine so that the fireman will be able to reach the middle big end journal. This is underneath the engine and can only be reached from the inspection pit that is about 3ft deep. The fireman has to stoop as he moves along the inspection pit. After he has reached the middle crankshaft with the oilcan in his hand he can stand almost upright and unscrew the tapered cork from the top of the big end journal. He can fill up the journal, which is part of the crankshaft, with oil and then replace the cork. Occasionally the motion of the big end when the engine is racing along causes a cork to fly out. A driver will have one or two spare corks in his pocket in case this happens. All moving parts of an engine are coated with oil so it is difficult for the fireman to keep it off his overalls when he is doing this job. I was always aware that if another engine came up behind us and touched our buffers as I was squashed underneath the motions, I would be crushed.

An hour is allowed for this work. Sometimes, however, the engine is already prepared for the train crew by the shed staff. It is all oiled up, coaled up, the footplate cleaned and the tender filled with coal and water. Only a short time, twenty minutes, is allowed for the driver to look at the notices and for the fireman to make sure that everything he needs is on the footplate.

The driver checks that both the vacuum brake and the steam brake are working properly; the fireman checks that the appropriate tools for cleaning the fire are on the tender – that is, the long fire shovel (for removing clinker and hot ash from the firebox), the straight dart (for breaking up the clinker) and the bent dart (for spreading the fire around the firebox). It is also his job to climb on to the tender and fill up the tank with water from the water column alongside the engine. The engine will be set against the columns ready for this. Whilst on the tender he will make sure that the coal is properly stacked and there is no likelihood of pieces of coal falling from the tender on to the track. The fireman, satisfied that all his equipment is there, makes sure that the two detachable headlamps, which are always fitted to the engine, have trimmed wicks and keeps that are full of paraffin. The gauge lamp also has to be trimmed. This is to illuminate the water level in the sight glass on the footplate. The headlamps are positioned in the following way: one is placed on the framing above the buffers on the front of the engine and one is similarly placed on the back of the tender. The latter has to be a red light; the one on the front is white, so that the front and the back of the engine are illuminated at night. When the train is attached to the engine the rear light will be removed and placed on the front of the engine. This headlamp arrangement, of a white light on each front buffer, means that this is a fast train. The shade in the lamp will be altered to give a white light.

The last thing the crew does before leaving the loco sheds for the station is to clean up the footplate. This will be their place of work for the next few hours. The cockpit of a plane and the bridge on a ship are two examples of places where people spend their days in the service of others. The footplate is no exception. The crew do not know what is before them as they climb on board. When the crew first gets on to the engine, it is grimy and smoky. That is because when steam is being raised in the engine by the 'steam riser', who will have been on the footplate first to do this job, fumes and smoke fill the footplate until the time when sufficient steam is raised to operate the blower jet. This is usually about 50 psi on the steam pressure gauge. When the crew takes over, the blower jet is operational. It produces an induced draught on the contents of the firebox and therefore keeps the flames and smoke in the firebox itself. The driver and the fireman clean their respective sides of the footplate, including the front and side windows to give clear visibility in places where coal dust collects – particularly on the driver's side where there are nooks and crannies. Between them they make the footplate habitable by spraying hot water over it from the degger pipe to lay down all the dust, not forgetting the seats. This pipe is fitted on the low pressure side of the boiler and allows hot water to pass through it. It is controlled by a little hand valve on the fireman's side of the engine.

There are two lockers on a footplate and they are situated on the tender. One is for the oilcans and detonators and the other for food and clothing.

A regular express train driver will almost certainly be in his late fifties. He will have an experienced fireman with him who will need no prompting. This man will know when to start firing the engine, when to stop firing, when to check for signals – in fact, he will be conversant with all the many duties he is expected to do. The driver can then settle down to driving the engine correctly, taking note of all his arrival times for each station along the route. He will also attend to the efficient running of the engine, aiming to get the passengers to their destination on time.

The fireman will make up the fire in the firebox. He fills the back corners and the area under the fire hole door first, using a good ton of coal that will then gradually burn through and be all ready for when he needs to spread the hot coals all over the firebox itself with the bent dart. This is when full steam pressure is required for the engine to pull the coaches and take the weight of the train. The ideal requirements for the train to pull away is to have 225 psi of boiler pressure and a boiler that is nearly full. If the boiler is too full, water could get into the valves and pistons; 225 psi gives the engine maximum power.


Excerpted from Firing the Flying Scotsman and Other Great Locomotives by Ken Issitt, Chris Bates. Copyright © 2012 Ken Issitt. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ken Issitt started working for the LNER in 1947 at the age of just 16, employed as an engine cleaner. Twelve years later when he left to work as an engineer he was firing fast trains, including the Flying Scotsman. Now retired, he and his friend (and illustrator) Chris Bates regularly give talks about their experiences on the footplate under the guise of "Chris and Ken the Railwaymen." He has compiled his memories after an invitation from York Railway Museum.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews