Driving and firing, locomotives like Planet or Lion on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was not too dissimilar from a BR ‘Standard’ or even Flying Scotsman. In fact, ever since Richard Trevithick had invented the first self-propelled steam engine on rails in 1803 the basics haven’t changed.

A mid-Victorian photograph of an LNWR locomotive crew, giving a good impression of the clothing and working conditions of early loco crews. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

Firstly, the fireman is responsible for the safe management of the boiler: he has to make sure there is sufficient water in the boiler, and that there is always enough steam. Early locomotives were remarkable efficient, Planet only requiring 18lbs (about 8kg) of coke per mile; Lion uses about double the amount. Unlike Flying Scotsman which has something called an injector (invented by the Frenchman Henri Giffard in 1851) to put water back in the boiler, Planet and Lion had to rely on pumps which only worked when the engine was moving. This made it particularly important that the boiler was re-filled towards the end of the working day as there was no means of getting water back into the boiler when the engine had stopped working. As an aside, there is absolutely no primary evidence whatsoever that these early engines were run up to a buffer-stop, oil liberally poured over the rails and the engine set running in order to get the pumps to work. Whilst Lion still has two pumps, the 1992-built replica of Planet has both a pump and an injector. In order to ascertain how much water is in the boiler, a thick glass tube called a gauge class is fixed to the back of the firebox, straddling the water line. Valves at the top and bottom control admission of steam (top) and water (bottom) and there is also a drain so that the gauge might be ‘blown through’ to get rid of any blockages which could cause a dangerous false reading.

Cross-section of a typical 1840s locomotive. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

The boiler had to be kept full in order to keep the top of the firebox covered with water; early fireboxes were usually made from iron but from the mid-1830s onwards they were made from copper. Copper melts at about 1,000ºC, whilst the fire in the firebox can be as much as 1,500! The firebox must be surrounded with water – and free from any scale which acts as a good insulator – in order to stop it from overheating and melting. If it does overheat, the fusible plug (a bronze bush with a lead core screwed into the top of the firebox) melts: the lead running out, jetting hot water and steam into the firebox as an early warning system to tell the crew to put the pumps on (and take the fire out if safe to do so).

The foorplate and controls of Planet. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

In order to drive Planet, there are a pair of polished steel levers on the left hand side of the footplate. These drive the valves which admit or exhaust steam from the cylinders. Because these handles are directly connected to the valves, it means the engine can be driven ‘on the levers’ with the driver setting the valve timing by hand to get the locomotive moving. But this would be very tiring for a thirty-mile trip to Liverpool. So to get the locomotive to run on its own, the valves are worked via an eccentric on the driving axle. An eccentric works like a crank, turning rotary motion (round and round) into reciprocating motion (backwards and forwards). On Planet, the eccentrics were sandwiched between a pair of collars and are free to move laterally (side to side) between a pair of ‘driving dogs’ clamped to the crank axle. These ‘driving dogs’ are set 90º apart, providing fore- and back-gear. Each dog corresponds with a slot in the collar, into which it engages as appropriate. A pedal on the footplate shifts the eccentrics to the left or right so that the driver can select the direction of travel. Fastened to the eccentrics are ‘eccentric rods’. These pass to the front of the engine and work a rocking shaft. The eccentric rods end in a drop-hook called a ‘gab’ which can be locked or unlocked from the rocking shat. With the hooks unlocked, the valves can be worked by hand; with them locked in place, the valves are worked by the eccentrics. It all sounds very complicated, but it is in fact quite simple – when you know how!

Victorian Railway
A id-Victorian photograph of a Furness Railway Bury-type locomotive of the 1840s. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

If starting, and getting the engine moving was one problem, then stopping it was quite another. For a start, there were no brakes on the engine, merely a hand-brake on the tender (the parking brake) which could be used in emergencies. Guards, sitting on the roofs of the carriages each controlled a hand brake, and if the driver wanted the train brakes putting on, he blew his whistle three times in quick succession. If he wanted them off, three times in longer beats. In order to slow down and stop the engine, it has to be put into reverse.  This often conjures up images of Casey Jones, throwing his engine into reverse, the wheels spinning round backwards, sparks flying. But nothing could be further from reality – it’s really quite gentle. The driver closes the regulator, shutting off steam to the pistons and the locomotive slows down, still moving forward under its own momentum. At about 5mph he can release his foot pedal, shifting the eccentrics over, putting the engine into reverse. After a revolution of the wheel (so the ‘driving dog’ engages into its slot on the eccentric cheek) reverse is engaged and the regulator slowly opened, putting steam back into the cylinders, but in reverse. So instead of pushing the engine forward, the pressure of the steam in the cylinders – because the engine is still going forward – cushions the piston, acting as a brake, bringing the engine slowly to a halt, and, with practice and skill, can be used to keep the engine stationary. Even though the replica Planet is fitted with a modern air-brake system, many drivers prefer to stop her 1830s style.

Victorian Railway
Planet with a mixed train (first- and second-class) standing in front of the 1830 Railway Warehouse at Liverpool Road Station, now part of the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. (Photo: Matthew Jackson, Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

Enginemen of the 1830s were a hardy lot: neither Planet nor Lion have cabs, and only an ornamental railing to stop you falling over the side. On a bright summer’s day, chuffing along at about 20mph can be very pleasant indeed, but in the cold, wet, or wind it can be a harrowing experience.  Nor were the crews allowed to sit down to take a breather (at least officially); they were to stand up at all times and keep a sharp look-out. A billy can of hot tea could be kept warm by standing it close to the firebox and food kept in one of the lockers on the tender. Relief of another kind was a different matter entirely: there were no toilets at any of the stations so many enginemen must have, in emergencies relieved themselves onto their coal or over the side – in fact the Leeds & Selby Railway passed an order preventing enginemen ‘making water over the side of their engines’. They couldn’t even sit down and have a sandwich at the station: the Lancashire & Yorkshire prohibited loco crews from using any public bench or seat or refreshment room – presumably because they didn’t want dirty footprints all over.

Drawing from practical experience of operating the replica Planet locomotive, Working on the Victorian Railway explores how drivers and firemen of the 1830s and 1840s were trained – or not! – their pay, working conditions and responsibilities and shows how there is very little difference between the first mainline express steam locomotive, Planet of 1830 and the most recent, Tornado (2008).

Anthony Dawson's new book Working on the Victorian Railway is available for purchase now.