Planet Locomotive - A Fireman’s Life for me by Anthony Dawson
The life and day-to-day tasks of a locomotive fireman has not changed since Richard Trevithick invented his self-propelled kettle in 1803. As a Railway Volunteer at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester – on part of the site of the Liverpool Road terminus of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, opened in 1830 – I have the privilege to work with the replica Planet locomotive. The replica was built by the Friends of the Museum between 1986 and 1992. The original Planet, built by Robert Stephenson & Co. in Newcastle was delivered only thirteen months after Stephenson and Booth’s prize-winning Rainhill Trials entry, Rocket. Planet incorporates all the features of a ‘mature’ steam locomotive, features which would not really change for the next 140 years: a multi-tubular boiler (adopted by Henry Booth from a French design by Marc Séguin) with a smokebox at one end containing the blast pipe (invention of Mr Trevithick) with a separate firebox within the boiler shell at the opposite end. Over forty Planet locomotives – or the 0-4-0 Samson derivatives – were built by Stephenson & Co for use at home and abroad: the first locomotives to run in Germany and Austria were Planets. The titular member of the class was the first locomotive to run between Liverpool and Manchester in an hour and also hauled the first load of American cotton into ‘Cottonopolis.’
In order to prepare Planet, driver and fireman will probably have been up since 06.00 and get to the Museum in order to sign in at 08.00. They don’t leave until around 17.00. Before the fire is lit, the most important task is to ensure the boiler is full. The gauge glasses are de-isolated by moving the top and bottom levers to a vertical position and the water level should rise in the glass. If it doesn’t there’s a blockage. The drain is briefly opened to wash out any detritus. Satisfied that the boiler is full, with ¾ of a glass showing, any leaks have to be checked. The fireman has to check if wash-out plugs and mud-hole doors are leaking; then inspects the interior of the firebox to make sure that the tubes (which run the length of the boiler and carry the hot gasses) are not leaking, and nor are the stays which support the inner firebox or any of the seams. The firebars should be clean and free from clinker. Satisfied that it is safe to light up, welsh steam coal (the original Planets burned coke in the 1830s) is scattered across the grate. Next broken pieces of dry timber are built up on top of this bed, and finally a bucket of oily rags is doused with diesel; a handful of rags is placed on the shovel and set alight - matches or a cigarette lighter (or tinder box and flint in the 1830s) are essential tools of the trade for a fireman. Young visitors to the Museum are often confused about coal and also because to them, a fireman is someone who puts a fire out rather than being a travelling pyromaniac with a shovel who starts the fire.
Planet can now be shunted over the inspection pit, so that the driver (the only person trusted to do so) can inspect the motion underneath and lubricate it. Whilst this is going on, the fireman sporadically checks his fire, and when the wood is starting to burn through, rounds of coal can be put on. Whilst steam is being raised – full pressure usually takes two and a half hours – the engine is cleaned. When sufficient pressure is raised, the fireman can test the injector –a vital piece of equipment, which injects water back into the boiler to replace that which as been boiled into steam. It was invented in 1852 by a Frenchman, Hénri Giffard, for his steam-powered Zeppelin. Before the invention of the injector, water could only be pumped into the boiler when the engine was moving using an axle-driven force pump. Satisfied that everything is OK, one by one the train crew take it in shifts to wash and brush up and put on their ‘whites.’ We are frequently asked by the public ‘Would they have worn white then?’ or ‘I bet that’s hard to keep clean.’ The answer is ‘yes’, the enginemen of the 1830s did wear white, or at least unbleached, un-dyed cloth. Why? Because it was cheap and easily boil-washed.
Before Planet can pull her first service train, a test run is made to ensure that the locomotive and train are in full working order. Throughout the day the fireman has one essential job: the safe management of the boiler. He has to regularly check that there is sufficient water in the boiler, so that the tubes and the top of the firebox (called the crown) are to kept covered with water. If the crown is uncovered, then the firebox might start to collapse. A special lead plug called a ‘fusible plug’ will melt (lead has a lower melting point than the steel firebox) and this lets steam and water into the firebox, alerting the crew to the dangerously low water level. Putting coal on the fire is done ‘little and often’ to keep the steam pressure just below ‘blowing off point’ so that the safety valves do not lift. ‘Blowing off’ can waste two to three gallons of water a minute, yet back in the 1830s a fireman was thought not to be doing his job properly if the engine wasn’t blowing off all the time! The fireman has to check the colour of the smoke from the chimney to make sure there is enough air for the coal to burn properly. No smoke suggests there is too much air; black not enough; light grey just enough. Planet has no cab or any protection whatsoever from the elements: on a nice summer’s day it can be very pleasant indeed, but when it’s cold, or wet, it can be a truly horrible, miserable experience.
At the end of the day, the fire is allowed to gradually burn down, but not too much as there needs to be sufficient boiler pressure to go forward to disposal and to operate the injectors to refill the boiler until the injector knocks off. In the 1830s there had to be enough pressure to shunt the engine up down, working the axle-driven water pump to get water into the boiler. At disposal, the fireman and trainee rake out the fire: one in the cab, using the fire irons to riddle the fire through the firebars into the ash-pan, whilst the other rakes out the ash pan on the ballast. Engines in the 1830 had no ash pan, which was often the cause of line-side fires. A hose pipe is used to dampen down the hot ashes and to reduce the dust. With the fire out and boiler full, Planet can be shunted back into the shed ready for her next turn of duty. It’s probably around 16.30. Now its time to complete the running log, note any faults, get washed, do any washing up, sign out and head to the pub.
Anthony Dawson's book The Liverpool & Manchester Railway is available for purchase now.