Frank McKenna

The railway workers 1840-1970. London: Faber & Faber, 1980. 280pp. + plates

Discovered in an excellent clean secondhand Cromer bookshop with a stock of books which makes the locall "library" look threadbare and cost far less than borrowing it from a county with a proper library. Frank was clearly disenchanted with working conditions on the railway. The section on working in the ashpit is reproduced below:

The engine shed had many moods, and even more faces. On wild windswept winter nights, with the atmosphere fouled with billows of filthy smoke, sulphur fumes and ash particles, the engine shed was hell on earth. On a still spring morning, with the smoke rising straight to the heavens and the sun bouncing from the walls, an engine shed could beam at the world, especially if it was freshly whitewashed on its promi- nent parts. Sunday mornings brought the guided parties, the railway enthusiasts, the model builders, even railway historians. Little interest was evinced in the work of the shed staff—the engines were the stars. When the tourists left, the real work began—getting ready for the Monday morning rush.
On busy days, with the sun ablaze outside, men worked a full shift, punctuating the gloom within with lamp and torch. An engine shed in full flow was no place for jay walking or rubber necking. Every fume-filled yard contained its own hazard—an open hydrant, a patch of oil, rushes of scalding steam. Heaps of brick, ash or clinker lay in silent wait for the careless step or the ungarded moment.
The engines were the focal point of the shed. They were given feminine gender from the earliest days, and their individual foibles were the stock-in trade of shedmen, foremen and drivers. When an engine arrived on shed from a day's work, it was freshly coaled, its tank filled and it was then sent to join the queue of engines on the pit. Here they stood like a line of elephants, awaiting the attentions of the shed engine-men. There now began the process known as engine disposal. Two men were needed to dispose of an engine-one worked in the cab and the other in the ashpit. On opening the firehole door, a blast of heat radiated round the cab, starting up an immediate and uncomfortable sweating. If the firebox was full there was no alternative to using a nine-foot-long clinker shovel, with which the top layer of hot coals was removed. In the confines of the cab, great strength and dexterity were needed to draw out the hot coals, stand up, manoeuvre the long shovel and tip the coals over the side of the cab into the skip drawn up alongside the engine.
The clinker shovel soon got very hot and was dangerous if mishandled. The cab filled with dust and fumes from which there was no escape. When the top layer of coal was cleared, a long, heavy steel bar with a sharp end was then used to smash into the heavy clinker, which stuck stubbornly to the firebars. These heavy lumps of clinker were removed with the clinker shovel, and a tool known as a slice was inserted between the clinker and the firebars, a very difficult and strenuous task. Once an area of five or six firebars had been bared it was the turn of the tongs. The tongs were actually long-handled nippers which were inserted into the firebox to grip each bar individually. To use the tongs, a man bent double and put his face right up to the firehole door in order to drop the nipping head of the tongs onto the selected firebar. The heat from the firebox started sweat streaming down a man's face, searing his eyes with salt. Once the nippers had gripped, the man stood up and, with a mighty heave and twist, dragged the heavy firebar from its socket and pulled it onto the floor of the cab. This man was now ready to start work on clearing the firebox, while for the man in the pit below the firebox a nightmare was about to begin. While the man in the cab was drawing the firebars, his mate descended into the pit and pushed a heavy steel skip into position beneath the bottom damper door. This skip ran on rails embedded in the pit bottom. Into the skip he directed a short water pipe, which, once turned on, helped to keep down the flying dust. These, however, rarely worked.
The pit, which was about four feet deep, was usually kept swept and tidy by the shed labourer, but in busy periods he was unable to gain access. The result was that the pit floor was usually ankle-deep in clinker and ash, often hot enough to burn the soles of a man's boots.
For pit duties the men used old sets of overalls, which they kept in their lockers. These overalls were never washed as neither laundry nor self-respecting housewife would attempt to clear from them the oil, grease and perspiration with which they were saturated. When the stench of them became totally unbearable they were burned in engine fireboxes. The outfit was completed by a pair of goggles, a handkerchief tied round the mouth and a pair of leather gloves.
With the skip in position, the raker-out then eased into position across the brake stretchers and inserted into the ashpan a springy ten- foot ashpan rake, with a broad round-toothed head. As he bent double and squeezed into position for raking out, tiny spots of boiling water and red-hot globules of engine oil fell on his cap, overalls, shoulders and arms. Only the grease on his clothes prevented the boiling oil and water penetrating to his skin. He then called for his mate in the cab to open the damper and start 'pushing through'.
Suddenly the damper door would wrench open, exposing the wide pitted floor of the ashpan. A cloud of hot sulphurous air and dust would envelop the raker-out. The firebars having been removed, he could see up into the firebox, which contained great heaps of clinker stacked along the sides.
The business end of the rake lanced into the ashpan and then all hell was let loose. Into the ash pan were pushed great chunks of heavy clinker, live coals, showers of sparks and clouds of choking white ash. As the evil mixture thudded into the ash pan from above, the raker-out dragged it forward frantically into the metal skip positioned below the ashpan. Foul perspiration streamed from the raker-out, across his back, between his legs, and water gushed from his eyes. There was no escape from the heat, the dust, the smoke or the sparks. The men worked like maniacs, the one above pushing, the one below pulling, the rakes snaking and reddening like creatures demented. This was an inferno even Dante could not describe.
Suddenly it was over. The firebox rake was withdrawn and pitched, angrily distorted, onto the adjacent heap of ash and clinker. The raker- out manoeuvred his red-hot implement across the stretcher bars and placed it in the pit-drain to cool. Shaking, sweating and gasping, he extricated himself from his doubled-up position and ran beneath the engine until he reached dust-free air. All along the ashpit the air was filled with almighty blasphemies from sweating, frustrated men as they slammed into the brutalizing work.
The fireman had not yet completed his duties. Another dangerous and filthy task awaited him—the clearing of the engine smoke-box. In order to do this job a man had to climb onto the narrow framing at the front of the engine and swing open the huge round door which guarded the boiler tube ends and the blast pipe. This huge cylindrical box contained fine black ash from the boiler tubes which was hot and restless from being continuously subjected to a stream of hot air from the steam- controlled blower. Balanced on a narrow ledge, blinded by flying black dust, facing a constant threat that the heavy door would slam him off his perch into the pit, the disposer shovelled out three or four or more barrowloads of the filthy black muck into another skip. That done, the engine was then trundled into the shed. All of this work was a race against time, for the steam pressure in the boiler fell rapidly once the fire was drawn.
The ashpit was no place for people with delicate feelings.

The Guardian 30 October 2013 published an excellent obituary

Frank McKenna began working as an engine cleaner at Kingmoor engine shed in 1946. By 1949 he was a fireman at Willesden shed, London. He was appointed engine driver at Kentish lown shed, London in 1963. He has been publishing articles on industrial and political subjects for twenty years and from 1956 to 1969 was a trade union lay officer with ASLEF. Awarded a TUC scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford in 1969, Frank McKenna went on to teacher training and was appointed lecturer at South East London College in 1973, in the Department of Communications and Liberal Studies.

After an active trade union career with Aslef in the 1950s and 60s, my father, Frank McKenna, secured a TUC scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, to study philosophy, politics and economics. He was mentored by the social historian Raphael Samuel and with Samuel's encouragement wrote A Glossary of Railwaymen's Talk (1970).

Frank, who has died aged 84, then qualified as a teacher and became a senior lecturer at South East London College in Lower Sydenham. During the 70s he carried out research for his major work, The Railway Workers 1840-1970 (1980), a social history of the industry.

Born in Felling, Gateshead, Frank was the oldest of ten children of Bella and Hugh McKenna. His father had been a miner at Hebburn Colliery, but was without work for many years. The family moved to Carlisle in the late 30s and Frank would often say that the second world war saved many from starvation. He left school at 14 and in 1946 started work as an engine cleaner with the railways, at Kingmoor shed near Carlisle. Increasingly, he was fired by a sense of injustice, which led him into socialism. In 1945, he had joined the Labour League of Youth and on a camping trip organised for young socialists in the New Forest in the late 40s resolved to move to London. In 1949, he secured a transfer to Willesden depot and joined the Young Communist League.

He became a member of Aslef, the footplatemen's union, and was increasingly active in the Communist party, where he stood out as a young and articulate working-class member. Frank was given an opportunity to write on railway industry matters and took courses with Aslef and the Workers' Educational Association. He participated in the anti-apartheid movement and CND. Between 1962 and 1964, he sat on the editorial board of Marxism Today, where he worked alongside the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm.

From 1959 until 1967, he was the Aslef representative for the Kentish Town depot (and, after its closure, for Cricklewood). He was elected president of Aslef district council in 1962, but his leftwing politics were not to the taste of the bulk of his colleagues. Frank finally left the Communist party in 1965, by which time he was exhausted by infighting. In 1967, he lost the Aslef internal elections and left the union hierarchy for good.

After retirement in 1991, Frank moved to Camberley, Surrey, where he was content to work on his allotment and support his family. His views mellowed over time and he was proud that his own children had been able to progress with education, employment and a fuller life than that of his parents.

He is survived by me and my sister Laura, from his marriage to Sylvia, which ended in divorce in 1994; by six grandchildren and a great-granddaughter; and by three sisters and two brothers.

Kevin's observations: McKenna cited Alfred Williams. Life in a railway factory. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2007 (although the original edition published in 1916) which paints a similar gloomy picture of working conditions. Having been reared on McKillop he is harsh on Pacifics especially the Stanier Princess Royal class, but No. 6202 "This engine was a scourge to firemen. It burned coal like matchwood, and towards the end of each week it was difficult, owing to boiler scaling and furred-up tubes, to keep anything like a full head of steam". (pp. 142-3). Bulleid: "On the Southern Railway, Bulleid's Q.I.'s [sic], the 'Spam cans' were monstrosities, and the 'Leader' class were fireman-roasting torture chambers. The Bulleid Pacifics operatinng between the years 1937 and 1955 were characterized as 'air-smoothed engines'. On these the fireman laid his hands on the shovel only once on a trip. Leaving Dover, he picked up the flashing blade, worked like a demon and put it down again running through London Bridge, after which the train coasted in. Murder it was."

On the other hand, Gresley and the LNER appear to escape censure as on pages 209-10 the corridor tenders applied to the non-stop Flying Scotsman are well received: presumably the idea of sitting in a reserveed compartment for half a day's work appealed. He even lists the footplatemen who worked the initial service. Ironically, one Bulleid Pacific did receive a mechanical stoker, as did a handful of 9F 2-10-0s. Riddles does not feature in the index, nor does electrification, nor diesel traction.