The re-streamlined Duchess of Hamilton draws many admirers here at the museum. But few, if any, can boast as deep an understanding of Stanier’s masterpiece as the visitor I showed onto its footplate last week. The visitor in question had over 50 years of footplate experience, and his memories brought 6229 back to life.
Climbing onto the footplate was an emotional moment. Tired by the effort of climbing up, he stood staring at the mass of gauges, handles, leavers and wheels.
“Do you want to sit down?” I asked.
“No, no,” he assured me – he was just taking it all in. It felt strange after so many years to stand where he had stood as a young fireman (and later driver), and he needed a moment to gather his thoughts.
Thoughts gathered, he explained how the ‘mileage’ men hated the streamlined casing. How it rattled, banged and crashed like an ill fitting tin hat, as they raced at 90 miles an hour along the West Coast Main Line. Worse, you could not find leaks, as the boiler was hidden by that damn casing. Why have we put it back?
Not convinced by my explanation, he picks up the fireman’s shovel and laughs. “No man could wheel this for six hours.” The shovel is wrong, too heavy. “These engines were veracious monsters, with an endless need for coal. It was like feeding the fires of hell trying to keep them fed.”
He explained the drivers chose their fireman and then you worked as a team, even taking turns firing: it was the only way the beast could be fed. You carried an extra shovel – your hands were so wet with sweat, the shovel could fly out of your hands into the firebox. It was back-breaking, gut-wrenching work.
So why did he do it?
You got extra money, and there was some pride in working the top services. Only twelve Polmadie drivers, known as ‘mileage men’, were chosen – and you wanted to be one of them. Imagine: you’re just a working bloke, and you’re put in charge of something like this. And paid to do it.
We talked on for another 15 minutes. Then, clearly tired, he climbed down to rejoin his family. I closed up the footplate and returned to my desk, reflecting on the powerful insights first-hand experience throws on this wonderful collection.