An Electrician’s Life on the Railways (1942-1993)

Location : Great Yarmouth

Ron Larner recalls his forays before finishing his apprenticeship, and finding work on the railways as an electrician. Ron details the work he did, the changes to the trains, how the nature of working relationships changed from one location to another and over time.

Leaving school

I left school at fourteen in 1942, and my first job was in the paint shop at Harry Neave’s at Catfield where they made equipment for the forces. It was a woodworking firm where they made Carley floats and Bailey bridges, all woodwork. The main workshops were very noisy and you couldn’t hear anyone speak with all the sawing, knocking and banging that went on. In the paint shop people were singing and that sort of thing, a lot of frivolity. They seemed to enjoy themselves but the money wasn’t very good, about a pound a week. I was living with my parents and was happy to have a job. I painted the woodwork but the paint fumes affected my chest and I had to get permission from the government to leave because it was a ‘war effort firm’, a reserved occupation. I didn’t know the paint could be dangerous until I had something wrong with me.

There were no Health and Safety regulations in force then. In fact, one or two of the boys who worked in the carpentry shop cutting wood lost their fingers. I was there one day getting something for the paint shop when a man had just cut his middle finger off. They used band-saws with no protection on them. If there was a union I didn’t know about it.  They didn’t tell us things like that.

From painting the woodwork to cutting nets to electrical work

I left Harry Neave’s when I was sixteen and went to work at a net chamber with George Newson, near the quay at the south end of Yarmouth. We used to get the old fishing nets and the beatsters would mend them, what we called ‘beating’ the nets. My job was to put the nets up on a rig and, using a knife, cut the norsels that were holding the net on to the main rope. They would cut the nets up into small pieces, they called them ‘garden lints’, and they were used as netting on allotments and gardens, protecting crops.

After a year with George Newson my father got me an apprenticeship at Bowers and Barr at Yarmouth, when I was about seventeen. It was an electrical apprenticeship which included fitting electric cables, lights and sockets and the like, into new housing. The prefabs were built at Gorleston and we worked on putting harnesses in them. As the apprentice I had to go into the ceiling with the cables and push them through the holes in the roof for the electricians to use down below.  It wasn’t a dangerous job unless you fell through the ceiling. You had to keep to the joists to make sure you didn’t and it was pretty dark up there so you were working by torchlight all the time as there were no other kinds of lamps. We learnt a lot and I had to go to evening classes to learn electrical theory and mathematics, and Ohm’s Law, that sort of thing. I didn’t really enjoy working at Bowers and Barr as it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. In 1946, when I was eighteen, I was called up to do National Service and I went into the army.

National Service

I did two years’ National Service, starting off at the Nelson Barracks in Norwich as what they called a ‘potential tradesman’, and then to Colchester for a year where I was in the Army Fire Service while waiting for a trade course. I learned the rudiments of fire fighting with hook ladders and all types of hose pipes. We went on training exercises with hoses and mechanical pumps, learning how to draw water from different sources. We had to power on the pump so that it went through the hosepipe, and we did a hook ladder drill and all ladder drill. I then went to Honeybourne, a prisoner of war camp in Worcestershire, on detachment with the Fire Service. There were six of us, two firemen, me and another fellow, a sergeant and a second lieutenant who was on attachment at the prisoner of war camp. This was the first time I’d lived out of East Anglia. As a potential tradesman I was barred from going abroad because I was still waiting for an army trade course which I eventually got at Farnborough in Wiltshire.

Working on the railways

I was about twenty when I came back to Yarmouth to finish my apprenticeship at Bowers and Barr. After a year I left to work with another electrician till he ran out of work. He said ‘I would like to stand you off until I get some more work in’ so I went to the dole and was told there was a job on the railways.

I was twenty-one when I started on the railways. My first job was as an electrician at South Town Station, working on lighting equipment on the coaching stock. It was another dangerous job as we had to mix up the acid to put in the batteries. You took the cells out and put in another glass container that was used on the coaches at that time, for the 24 hour lighting equipment. Of course the glass containers would get broken and had to be replaced. We were using pure acid and had to break it down with distilled water to refill the glass containers, and put the cells in. We were making our own cells to put back in the cell boxes to keep the lights going.

We also looked after the restaurant cars which worked on 114 volts so they had more batteries than the other coaches, and more cells attached. The cells are only two and a half volts and, of course, when they all go together you’ve got quite a bit of voltage.  Working on them was pretty precarious because as soon as you touched them you got a shock from them. I don’t remember any of us being injured but you would get a shock now and again but that was only 110 volts and no one bothered about it. There were no Health and Safety regulations at the time. You just took a chance on it. If you got injured that was your problem.

When I started the railways had just been nationalised. We had what they called a ‘push and pull’ train in those days. The engine was on the front and they had two coaches, and it used to run to Lowestoft, pulling it up there and pushing it back. Equipment in the end compartment meant you could keep in touch with the driver. If you wanted him to stop at any station you just pressed the button, he got a buzzer and he stopped at the station. There was a guard in one end and a driver in the other end, and the guard would tell him when to stop and when to start again. Of course, we also had to look after the telecommunications equipment from the brake to the loco.

I looked after South Town Beach, Vauxhall and sometimes I had to go to Lowestoft because we had a train that came from York going to Norwich.  Half went to Gorleston and half came to Yarmouth so we maintained the coaches at Lowestoft.  We were mobile all the time and if we went to another station at a meal time we got a one and six ‘meal allowance’.

It wasn’t a well paid job. When I went on the railway I got three pounds a week. Some of my mates who left Bowers and Barr to work with a firm on the front were getting about five pound a week. One of them contacted me, ‘You don’t want to work there for this money. Come with us’. I said ‘No, I am quite happy where I am’.  I was quite happy in my job and my wife didn’t mind as we were living next door to where I worked. I was glad I didn’t move because that firm closed down and moved away not long after. In the end I was better off than they were.

There were advantages working for the railway. I got a free travel card which allowed me to take about five journeys a year. Two of them were what they called ‘foreign passes’ which took you to other parts of the country, and the rest were local journeys. We also got privileged tickets which gave cheap fares for you and your family. I was happy on the railway and I was ‘in charge’. There was no-one else except me in Yarmouth. My foreman was in Norwich. Occasionally they came to see how things were getting on but as long as I kept the trains running everyone was happy. I did have the battery attendant who used to top up the batteries with distilled water. I looked after the electrical equipment on the trains, anything that needed doing – the lights and buzzers and anything else. We had to maintain what we called ‘dynamos’ in those days, they call them ‘generators’ now, to charge the batteries up. They had carbon brushes to pick up the electricity from the generator to charge the batteries and we had to change them. Sometimes the generator used to conk out so we would have to renew it.

Beeching cuts and floods

It was all pretty good, until we had the floods in 1952 which ruined everything on the railway. The salt water got into all our generating equipment and some cells on each coach had to be renewed. They weren’t all the same type and all needed different attention. We managed but it was a big job. I suppose we spent about four hours on each coach and then, of course, they had to be charged up again to get them fit for travel. As steam engines began to be phased out they brought in diesel railcars and we had to learn about maintaining them as it was a different type of equipment. They still had the coal engines pulling big trains, mainliners, for a while and the railcars did the local services. In about 1957, at the time of the famous Beeching cuts, there were three stations in Yarmouth, South Town, Vauxhall and Beach. Beach, which was part of Beach Station, was closed – the line ran straight through Yarmouth and on to Lowestoft, and the other line went out into the country, through Potter Heigham to other areas.

I worked at South Town sidings for a long while, looking after the new locos that had high voltage equipment. We had to pre-heat them. We had a special cable we had to fix to them to keep the lights going. They all worked on high voltage which was a different type of equipment and more dangerous but there was no voltage on while we were working on them, just when they were tested. We were very happy to do the maintenance work as it gave us a chance to stay in Yarmouth. It was dangerous work and they had generators which worked a thousand volt equipment. At Norwich they had the big mainline locos to produce the power but we had to use cables that were laid up there and connect them up so we could test them in Yarmouth. We didn’t have any accidents which was a good thing. When we finished the governor from Norwich came down to thank us for keeping the place going. As far as we were concerned there was a job to do and we did it.

From Yarmouth to Norwich

We were at Vauxhall Sidings until 1983 when they were closed down. The trains were transferred to Norwich and I moved to Crown Point in Norwich to work on the railcars in the diesel sheds. I was a charge hand and had seven men under me, carpenters, or ‘coach repairers’ they used to call them, plumbers, fitters and, of course, electricians. We all got on well and they were all pretty good and knew their jobs. By then my money went up to seven pounds a week and then it went up incrementally. Eventually I negotiated for bonus payments which was another twenty-six shillings a week, which was handy. I was a union representative and I had to go to meetings and get things for this particular area.

I was still living in Yarmouth and when we first went to Norwich they said ‘You’ve got to be here at six o’clock’. I said ‘Well, no way can we get here at six o’clock in the morning because there’s no trains running’. I went to the union about it and they said ‘Well, considering you were sent there because your job closed down, you didn’t volunteer for the job, you’re entitled to travel according to how your trains run and there’s no way they can force you to get there at six o’clock because you’ve got no means of getting there’.  As our train didn’t leave Yarmouth till ten past seven it was agreed that we could start our eight hours shift at eight o’clock. We eventually got travelling time from Yarmouth to Norwich which meant we worked less hours than the Norwich staff. If we hadn’t negotiated that with the union I don’t know what would have happened. We didn’t do too bad out of that and, of course, the boys at Norwich didn’t like it because we were working less hours than them.  There was a bit of bad blood at the start but in the end they had to accept it. I said to them ‘If you’d left your depot to come over here, you’d have done the same thing’.

I went to Norwich soon after the railways were nationalised and they brought in the bonus payment scheme and the pension scheme. Like many others I joined the pension scheme and I am glad I did because I’m benefiting from it now. You paid so much of your wages into the pension scheme depending on how much you earned, and that’s one of the best things that ever happened. Until they brought in the bonus scheme there was nothing. No payment at all when you retired.  When I moved to Crown Point I retained my charge hand’s grade and allowance but not the responsibilities. That was something I negotiated with the union as well. That was another thing the others weren’t very happy with because I got more money than they did, only a few pounds, but enough for them to complain.

I worked practically every Sunday because trains run daily and have to be maintained so Sunday becomes part of your working week. We didn’t get any extra time off but we did have Saturday afternoons off. We worked on a three shift basis, half six to two, two till ten and then a night shift. It was laborious, you were there all the time with not much time off at all. We got double pay working on Christmas Day and Good Friday, and had a day off in lieu. Other holidays we were paid time and a half. We took our holidays later on in the year when there wasn’t so much work about. When I started we got a week’s holiday a year and then it went up to a fortnight. You got Bank Holidays but you didn’t always take them because you were needed to work. We used to take our Bank Holiday another day which was a bit awkward for the family because the children wanted you at home on Bank Holidays.

Dangerous work

Working in Crown Point was very noisy. We had to work in pits to get underneath the locos when they were brought into the depot. Sometimes we had to go on top and go through the train but you had to be careful of the overhead power lines.  You also had to be careful what you were carrying because if you were carrying a ladder or something like that and it hit the overhead power lines that’s your hard luck.  A lot of our jobs were on top because many of the mainline locos had the pantograph for the overhead lines and had to be worked on outside.

Electric locomotives had just been brought in at Crown Point when we went there in 1983 so we were working on high voltage equipment we’d never worked on before so we went on courses at one of the depots in Doncaster.  We trained for these overhead things, mainline stuff and you had to be careful with dangerous equipment, some of which included poison material. We did have the occasional accident. One day in the 1990s we were in the workshop, heard a bang and one of the boys said ‘What was that?  That was an explosion’. We all ran out, round the siding and a supervisor stood there with a man laid on the floor with his clothes all burnt. The supervisor said ‘He didn’t realise what he was doing, this fellow. He climbed up that ladder to have a look on the roof and forgot about the overhead’. As soon as he got up there, puuu! It knocked him off and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.  All his clothes were ripped and his skin – ugh! – a horrible sight. He was a supervisor on the postal side, was really slim, but when he lay there he was bloated, unrecognisable. It killed him and the supervisor was in shock having seen the man climb up but hadn’t realised what he was doing.

Looking back

These days main lines are on electric with the overheads and all the local trains are diesel.

I retired from the railway in 1993 and looking back, from the time I started there until I left, it had changed a lot, for the worse, in my opinion. We used to work together, electricians, brake fitters and carpenters. If a brake fitter wanted help I’d go and give him a hand, or if the carpenter wanted a hand, I’d give him a hand. We used to help each other, no matter what you were doing. We were working on our own and sometimes you can’t do things on your own, you want someone to help you lift something and that’s what we did. When we got to Norwich they stopped all that. They said, ‘Right, you’re an electrician, you do electrical work. You’re a fitter, you do fitting work. You’re a carpenter, you do carpentry work’. If I’d given a carpenter a hand and something happened to me I couldn’t claim anything. They segregated everyone and you all had to do your own work. It wasn’t done for more efficiency, that’s for sure.  I think things were less efficient when they stopped it.  We still used to do it surreptitiously but if the supervisor saw you, you were in trouble.

Some of the supervisors were alright but some were a bit strict. When you’ve been used to helping each other it’s difficult to get out of the habit and, in my opinion, it put people against each other. There was a more friendly atmosphere in Yarmouth and I enjoyed my work there immensely but not so much at Crown Point. We were all boys together and by helping each other we learnt as much about their jobs as they did about ours. I think that’s how it should be at work. I don’t think the unions were involved in the changes. They had to abide by them I suppose. At Norwich all electricians had to go on a fitting course and fitters had to go on an electrical course so we both had some knowledge of fitting and electrical work but you only learnt the rudiments and you still weren’t allowed to help a fitter. If a fitting job came in my category I could do it but it it was a big job a fitter had to do it. That got so complicated, you didn’t know whether you were doing right or wrong, in the end. By the time I retired I was glad to get out of it. There were so many restrictions coming in you had to be careful not to put a foot wrong.

Ron

 

 

 

Maintaining and topping up lead acid batteries

for lighting and low voltage equipment on locomotive

 

 

 

 

Ron (b. 1928) talking to WISEArchive on 23 May 2014 in Great Yarmouth.

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