Engine Cleaning at Belgrave in the Seventies part 2

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

Not just coal was unloaded form the US Buslines car park above, but also various lumps and chunks of reject timber for lighting-up the engines. Most of it needed to be split before being stacked in a wheel-barrow and taken to one of three points – the shed (for the lucky under-cover loco), under the coal stage, and way down at the ‘ski-jump’, which sometimes felt like it was a mile away when the barrow was stacked high, and you had numerous greasy rails to cross.

The sign on the door said ‘Crew Room’ and while inside there was nothing special about the décor, the times spent in this room carried some of the most special moments of my apprenticeship. All of the drivers were long standing VR men and each of them was a wealth of experience and yarns. Once the tea was brewed and lunch out on the table, with a bit of coercion you could be taken back to the time when steam ruled the rails. These were ‘big wheel’ drivers, now relegated to diesel duty and the occasional day at Belgrave.

One of the most memorable characters was Lenny Stratton. He was short and wiry with a voice to match and had the distinction of calling everyone ‘Sam’. Even though we all would copy the way he said it, there was something unique in his voice that made the name ‘Sam’ sound real special. I can still see visions of Lenny riding the front tank of an NA with hammer in hand swearing profusely trying to get the Westinghouse brake pump to work. They were notorious in breaking down en route, and along with most running repairs of the day, it had to be fixed with a lot of bad language and a hammer or shifter.

There were other great characters on the footplate, each with their own distinct personality and often a nickname to match. Ian Barkla was very astute and proper, so he was called ‘The Padre’. Norn De Pommeroy drove every engine, even an NA, as if speed limits were non-existent so he was called ‘The Flying Nun’. There was Lyn Helsby with his outlandish sense of humour and accompanying laugh, Henry Tonnison, Jack Couch, Bill Steadman and even occasionally Reg Wallace who was then the assistant Commissioner’s driver to Les Haining.

Looking back now the few years gap between the VR firemen and myself at the time was only a handful of years, yet to me it was a lifetime. Ron Picking, Peter Martin, Ross Gorman, Ian Brittenell, John & brother Stuart Loddington, Bob Lawrence and Frank Hussey were young men just out of their teens but they were giants to me. Each had their own way of doing the job and as the years went by I learnt to enjoy the variation. I can always recall that you would have to shovel just that extra amount of coal forward on the days Ron Picking was firing!

The caption for this photo in my old album read, ‘Ron Picking, the best fireman’. As mentioned above, you would always need to shovel that extra few lumps of coal forward between trips when Ron was firing – he consistently used more coal than the other fireman, but it was always going to be a good day when he was on. Twenty years later I would regularly see Ron driving 8A and a quick chat, or even a ‘hello Gary’ from the passing cab would still make my day just as it used to.

Although the correct age to be allowed on the cleaning roster was 16, due to my experience I was able to go on the roster at the age of 14, but only after I had spent a few days proving my value to the very tough ‘head cleaners’ Johnny Stephens and Cliff Simmons. There was a seriousness about them that always put me on edge. Perhaps I thought that if I made a mistake I might lose my place on the roster. Such is the perception of a 14 year old!

I know readers of today would find it hard to believe I could be in fear of Mr Stephens, but I’ll close this memoir with a story set on one of my first days cleaning with Johnny, which also happened to be during peak Christmas running. When there were six trains in a day all three engines would be steamed and the ER turn around time was very short indeed. As soon as one train left you would be madly shovelling coal forward up in the stage to prepare for the next train to arrive.

I recall it was around lunchtime and I had already been in the coal stage for hours. A train arrived in, and there below me was another empty bunker to fill. At this time the bunkers had extra height and we would attempt to fill every square inch with coal. I got right to the last few shovels and missed, with about half a dozen large lumps of coal crashing against the cab roof and spraying to the ground, accompanied with that unique sound that only coal bouncing on an NA roof can make.

Immediately an angry voice yelled out from the cab. It was Johnny. “What are you doing? That stuff costs $24.30 a ton, what are you doing wasting it on the ground like that!” I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, me in the coal stage or the crowd gathered in the NBH taking photos. I quietly made my way down from the stage and promptly collected every single piece of coal lying under the stage and raked it up onto the cab floor before finding a job to do down near the ski-jump out of the way!

I’m forever grateful for the years I spent as a part of the Engine Cleaning team. When age, health and circumstances get the better of you memory can play a vital part in the quality of life, and I cannot see a photo or go anywhere near a beloved NA without seeing and hearing with fondness the men and experiences that shaped my teen years. Thanks to all of you…

The small kiosk in the centre of the Belgrave platform visible here was such an important part of Puffing Billy life. As a ten year old I would join one or two other volunteers to sell lollies and chips to passengers from big trays hung on a strap around our neck. We would ride in the guard’s van, then walk the length of the train at Menzies Creek and Emerald selling to hungry passengers.