Engine Cleaning at Belgrave in the Seventies part 1

This is part one of an article I wrote for ‘Narrow Gauge’, the quarterly magazine of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society.

Putting the last few shovels full of coal in an NA’s bunker in the cold. Between trains you would shovel the coal forward so that at least one bunker full was reachable.

Being born with steam in the blood was not that uncommon in the late fifties, however growing up in Upwey gave my obsession with trains a distinct advantage. It could be said that my timing (or my parents) was out – 1958 being the year the narrow gauge line from Upper Gully closed, but once I hit the age of five the Society had re-opened to Menzies Creek and I could hear the whistles of every train leaving Belgrave, then of course, only on the weekends.

Another advantage I had was a father with some connections. He had been president of the Australian Model Railway Association and knew Phil A’Vard well enough to call him once I reached the age of eleven. I had been a society member for years, and had already spent many weekends selling lollies alongside the train at Menzies Creek and Emerald platforms, but I wanted more.

Phil had offered to take me up and join a volunteer track gang and my initiation was a day replacing sleepers near the landslide. I was only eleven years old so my role for the day was to ram a Tommy bar under the sleepers and then sit on it to lever the sleepers upward while the senior members of the team hammered in the dog-spikes. It was a good day and I certainly felt important, especially standing beside the line as the Emerald bound trains eased passed on the down and up journeys – but I wanted more.

My obsession with trains was now focussed particularly on steam locomotives, and I was desperate to get closer to them, but that was not an easy prospect in those days.

The year was 1970 and the Victorian Railways were running 6A, 7A and the newly arrived 14A with regular crews from Dynon. I was way off being the age to realise my dream and join the railways as a fireman, but I had heard that society volunteers did a job called ‘Engine Cleaning’ at the Belgrave loco. This time it wasn’t my father’s connections, but his frustration that brought me to Belgrave on a cold Saturday morning at 9am. We walked onto the deserted platform and spotted two characters up in the coal stage making a lot of noise moving coal forward on the thick steel plate floor.

I’ll never forget this moment that changed my life. The shovelling stopped and the young men looked down on us. ‘Any chance you could find a job for a young lad?’ My father yelled out. The cleaner cut of the two replied ‘Might be able to – is he a society member?’ ‘Yeah, has been for years…’

Looking back I think my dad was doing a very good job masking his desperation to unload me for the day, but I wasn’t masking my joy. I was beaming from ear to ear as Gary Barker climbed down from the stage and crossed the yard to introduce him self. It was arranged that I would be picked up at 6pm, and with that my father was off back home to spend the day mowing the lawns undisturbed, and I commenced my apprenticeship in the art of engine cleaning.

7A returning from a trip to Emerald on a hot summer’s Sunday. The cab roof of weather-beaten 6A (note the rust on the smokebox) made a great vantage point. The beginnings of earthworks for the new engine shed complex are visible behind the train.

I was introduced to Gary’s mate Brian Sneddon and for the next few years I would ‘unofficially’ join them on the days they were rostered at Belgrave. I’m forever grateful to Gary for his willingness to take me on, and being just twelve years old and still in primary school I felt honoured to have two mentors who were university students. They were smart and funny and were always helpful as I began finding my place in a world of tough experienced railwaymen.

The day would begin at the funnel with the Brasso and end stacking split red gum in the cab ready for the next light-up. In between would be raking the yard, dumping wheel-barrow loads of ash over the embankment behind the ski-jump, cleaning the shed floor and pits, splitting truck loads of wood that had been tipped down the bank beside the coal stage and shovelling a ton of coal forward in the old wooden stage in readiness for engine servicing between trains.   

How important did I feel when on my first day I was allowed to fill the engines with water, in full view of passengers finding their seats on the train. A few months later I was able to handle a No 7 shovel well enough to fill the bunker however it took almost a year before I was taught to clean the smokebox.

The highlight of the day was being able to stand in the cab and under the guiding eye of the fireman perhaps turn the injector on or adjust the blower.

This was hallowed ground for a young believer – but strangely enough there was an even more holy place 20 metres away midway down the platform.

Around 1973 this picnic table spent a good number of months just outside the shed. I’m guessing it ended up as its original intention – lighting up wood, but it was a comfortable place for a chat at the end of the day when one of the crew or cleaners hosed out the ash-pan. The failing light in this photo is due to it being the end of the day and the loco has been parked ready for the pan to be cleaned. The loco would be eased back over the pit and wood stacked in the cab for the next light-up. It would be quite dark and cold when you locked the shed and navigated your way back to the crew room over the couplings between two NBH cars. By now the carriage doors were locked and it was too long to take the OH&S safe route way round the length of the train and along the platform to the crew room.