Memories: Derfel Lester, a Locomotive Fireman

After leaving school in December 1951 at the age of 15, I started working for British Railways in January 1952 as an engine cleaner at Llanelli Locomotive Shed. The Locomotive Shed was a large unit with two internal turn tables which could handle and house the largest Locomotive in operation with British Railways. Attached to the Loco shed was a large engineering shed where minor and major repairs were carried out on all classes of steam engines.


Subsequently, at the age of 16, I applied for a transfer to Oxford as a fireman. I was transferred to Oxford in February 1953 and was given two weeks of local familiarisation of the Oxford railway system. Accommodation was provided in a British Railway’s run hostel for firemen. After the two weeks familiarisation, I was working on both local branch passenger trains around Oxford and main line goods trains. Subsequently within three months I was a locomotive fireman on passenger trains to and from London.


Whilst the job of locomotive fireman may appear straight-forward it is far from being so. The preparation of the engine for service at the beginning of the shift could take between 45 to 75 minutes. Throughout the working shift which could vary between 8 and 12 hours, it was essential that the distribution of coal throughout the firebox ensured the maintenance of pressure in the boiler. Attention also needed to be given to the maintenance of a good level of water in the boiler via a steam/water injector. The section above the firebox of all steam locomotives have, as a safety measure, two holes drilled into the boiler which were filled with lead plugs. If the water level fell too low these lead plugs would melt and release steam and water into the fire box, putting out the fire thus disabling, damaging, if not righting-off, the locomotive. The fireman was also responsible for keeping an eye on the water level in the water tanks or tender. At the end of a shift there was the task of bringing forward for subsequent use by your relief the unused fuel. All these tasks were extremely physically demanding on the body and there was little respite during a working shift. A common bond amongst all footplate crew who manned passenger trains was the pride in arriving at stations on time and keeping to the timetable.


In 1955 at the age of 18, I was “called-up for National Service” and joined the Royal Air Force. At the age of 14 I had joined the Air Training Corps and at the age of 15 attended the weekend glider flying school at Pembrey Air Force Base. After six weekends my instructor sent me solo; on landing I was informed by the senior instructor that I was now a qualified glider pilot. In the RAF after the six weeks of initial training - square bashing - I was posted to RAF Head Quarters Coastal Command. Following an interview with the Air Chief Marshal, Coastal Command, Sir John Boothman, and on condition on achieving the necessary security clearance, I was told that I would be seconded to his staff. Two weeks later the security officer asked me for my 1250 ID card, I was then issued with a new 1250 ID which confirmed that I had a “Cosmic Top Secret clearance” - at that time the highest security clearance. Sir John encouraged me to take promotion examinations. By the end of the year I had moved up four ranks attaining the rank of Senior Aircraftman. When Air Chief Marshal Sir John Boothman retired I was posted to Pembroke Dock, the Sunderland Flying Boat base where I was allocated to Sunderland flying control. This position allowed me to fly on occasional patrols with a Sunderland crew. The aircraft was fitted with a small galley as the patrols were of extended duration. On one occasion we were returning from Gibraltar when we were diverted to provide an escort for the Royal Yacht on its journey across the Bay of Biscay. We were joined by two other Sunderland’s.


Photograph submitted by Derfel Lester. He reminisces; three Sunderland Flying Boats escorting the Royal Yacht through the Bay of Biscay.


After demobilisation in January 1957, I returned to work for British Railways as a Fireman at the Llanelli Depot. There were levels of seniority within the ranks of Drivers and Fireman; to begin with you were assigned to shunting duties, then short freight services. You then moved up the ladder to mainline goods trains and express long distance and passenger services. The retirement of a Loco Driver created a vacancy which was filled from the existing seniority list of Loco Drivers. For the new vacancy the senior Loco Fireman having passed the driving test would be promoted to the role of junior Loco Driver. As a consequence the remaining Firemen would then move up the seniority list of Loco Firemen. Recruitment either from another Depot or by the promotion of an Engine Cleaner would fill the vacancy within the ranks of Loco Firemen. A case of “Buggins turn” but one tempered by experience and competence.


Before the development of major marshalling facilities at Margam, Llanelli was a significant freight marshalling centre for west and central Wales. There were nine marshalling yards of various sizes in the Llanelli area :-


  1. a major “hump” marshalling yard operating 24 hours per day, just east of Trostre Road Bridge near Maes y Morfa Primary school and north of the main line opposite the site of Thom Field Engineering Llanelli. This yard format was eventually replaced by a standard yard;

  2. the “Branch”and the “Downside” marshalling yards were west of Llandeilo junction alongside and south the Swansea to Llanelli main line. The “Upside” marshalling yard was north of the main line opposite the other two yards. All three yards operated 24 hours per day;

  3. the marshalling yard attached to the Goods Shed operated 24 hours per day;

  4. two small marshalling areas existed on the “downside” opposite and close to the Goods Shed. The one adjacent to Maes y Morfa Primary school was known as the Spion Kop yard and only operated 8 hours per day. The other closer to Llanelli Railway Station was not manned, stored passenger coaches and a mail van which were sorted as and when required. These were used for the early morning branch mail and passenger train which left from the station bay siding alongside the main upside passenger platform. This train delivered mail along the route via Pontarddulais, Llandeilo to Llandovery, and picked up passengers on the return journey;

  5. the “Old Castle” marshalling yard north-west of North Dock operated 16 hours per day servicing the tinplate and steel works at Sandy;

  6. the “Sandy” marshalling yard only handled coal wagons. In operation 16 hours per day it serviced the Mynydd Mawr Railway to the coal mines at Cynheidre, Tumble and the Cross Hands area. The track to Cynheidre and beyond was a single track uphill climb with several severe curves. In the 1960’s the most severe of the curves were straitened to allow the larger English Electric main line diesels to be used as far as Cynheidre. Additional enhancements included the incorporation on a level stretch above the Swiss Valley lower reservoir, of a passing place; a signal box at Cynheidre and another at the passing point called Magpie Grove. These improvements allowed the single line staff system to be put into operation. Prior to this only the smaller 0-6-0 engines could be used on this line. On the downward journey brakes were applied to the leading wagons on leaving Cynheidre and more were added at Magpie Grove;

  7. the “Machynys” marshalling yard operated 24 hours per day servicing the tinplate and steel works in the southern part of Llanelli. In addition to the marshalling yards identified above there were connections to :-

  • the yards and sidings around the Copperworks and Great Western Docks. These were managed and operated by the Copperworks itself;

  • the Dafen Tinplate Works and Brick-yard north-east of the town-centre by a single track;

  • the North Dock sidings which serviced coal exports and the old Electricity Generating Station north of the Dock.

The 24 hour operation at some of the marshalling yards and main line trains resulted in varying working shift patterns for the footplate crew and could lead to a disrupted family/social life. The engine driver and fireman were teamed together as a crew. During the night shift at and around the Goods Shed marshalling yard, it was essential for the fireman to maintain steam pressure at all times and yet to avoid the safety valve from lifting resulting in significant noise disturbance to the residents living adjacent to the yard. The engine crew shift could start at all hours of the day, sometimes at 0200 hours in the morning and often lasted up to 12 hours. These usually involved the movement of freight trains to and from Cardiff, along the Heart of Wales line to Llandovery, and the movement of coal trains to Swansea Docks returning with empty wagons.


Marshalling and shunting operations were a continuous 24 hours a day, 7 day a week process as freight trains arrived from Cardiff / Swansea, central Wales or from around the country. Incoming freight wagons would be removed, sorted and moved either for unloading at the Goods Shed or in the case of some bulk deliveries elsewhere or to be moved for re-direction at other marshalling yards. The Goods Shed had its own marshalling yard which was manned by two Shunters, a Foreman and the shunting engine crew of driver and fireman. We were kept continuously on the move, removing empty and freshly loaded freight wagon from the Shed and replacing them with those to be unloaded or re-loaded. The freshly loaded freight wagons were sorted by priority and destination prior to transfer to one of the other yards for formation into trains and subsequent dispatch around the country.


The physical marshalling process required close liaison with office-based staff this was essential to ensure that the paperwork and the coding on the freight wagons resulted in the correct ordering and allocation of space for the unloading of incoming freight services and the loading and sequencing of outgoing services. The working hours of the Goods Shed staff were from early morning through to 1700 hours. Again organisation and paperwork were key; box vans were generally unloaded and the freight sorted by destination / customer within 30 minutes. Loading was equally efficient. Deliveries to customers were made by a fleet of Scammell trucks and other vehicles; other customers arranged their own pick-ups. As Loco crew we rarely know what was being delivered or dispatched. Occasionally there would be a notice to “take care” as furniture for Pugh Bros Ltd of Llanelli or fruit and vegetables for Stanley Pierce were part of the delivery.


The Goods Shed ceased operation in October 1966. When steam engines were replaced by diesel engines the Llanelli Loco shed was closed. The diesel engines, train crews and staff along with remaining administrative functions and operations were transferred to the Goods Shed and yard and continued for some years before everything was transferred to Landore depot in Swansea. The introduction of Diesel engine, a fatal accident involving a diesel train and the disruptive shift patterns resulted in my terminating my employment with British Railways in 1969. Subsequently I was employed as Boiler man at Bryntirion Hospital and then at the British Steel Trostre Tin Plate works.


I have several childhood memories relating to the war. One was watching the sky over Swansea glowing red as the German Luftwaffe bombed the town, trying for the docks and the Llandarcy Oil Refinery. Another was in December 1944, my parents, sister and myself were returning home from Swansea by bus, where we had attended a Pantomime at the Swansea Empire Theatre. The bus was held up at the Loughor Bridge for a considerable period. A German mine had been brought in on the tide and was stationary between the railway bridge and the road bridge and was a potential danger to the bridges. The outgoing tide eventually removed the immediate danger. The mine was subsequently destroyed by the military authorities in the estuary.


In the protracted and extremely cold winter of 1962/63 the river at the Loughor Bridge was frozen solid and posed a danger to the wooden structure. Engineering staff were regularly lowered on ropes to examine and when necessary place small explosive charges in the ice to break it up thus minimising damage to the bridge structure. As engine crew it was necessary to proceed with extreme caution at low speed across the bridge, frequently having had to delay the crossing to allow the necessary work to be undertaken.


Recorded - February / March 2021

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