Railway men reunite

Some of the retired staff at the reunion with their years of service in brackets. Left to right: Steve McNally (39), Alan Layton (48), Bert Newton (46), John Redding (51), and Mick Smith (30).
Some of the retired staff at the reunion with their years of service in brackets. Left to right: Steve McNally (39), Alan Layton (48), Bert Newton (46), John Redding (51), and Mick Smith (30).
The Kings Theatre where a rally for members from the southern region of the Post Office Workers' Union was held

THIS WEEK IN 1971: ‘Meeting in Southsea backs postak strike’

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A week ago I had the privilege of being invited by Jim Lawlor to a railway drivers’ and others’ reunion at the Railway Rifle Club, Fratton.

There were many former drivers I knew personally and only a few who I did not.

About 50 attended with their wives and after doing some quick maths I estimated there were more than 2,000 years of railway service in the room.

Many had clocked up 50 years, having started as boys of 15 and worked through to 65. One man had completed 51 years’ service.

There were several who were more than 90 – men who had joined the railway under the old Southern Region of British Railways before the Second World War.

In fact, I worked out that if they had worked with men aged 60 or more in 1942 those men would have joined the London, Brighton South Coast Railway in 1895.

In turn that man may have worked with a 60-year-old driver who had joined the railway in, say, 1850. So, the drivers I spoke to were just a third generation from when the railways started.

They also worked through the war of course and this is where it gets fascinating.

Wilfred Wilds joined the railway at Salisbury and eventually came to Fratton depot in 1958.

One of his memories was the ambulance trains which he took from Southampton Docks to hospitals around the area especially the one at Netley.

The trains were full of wounded soldiers who had been fighting in France and one day in 1942 he was the fireman on the Meldon Quarry stone train heading up to Salisbury when a German fighter appeared overhead.

It dived on the train and began to machine gun it. The driver, seeing a tunnel ahead, opened the engine up and made it inside just in time where he stopped the train. He waited until he thought it might be safe and then set off again. Wilf was told the fighter was shot down over Salisbury.

On another occasion he was on an engine in the Eastleigh yard with his driver Sid Saunton when a Dornier bomber came over.

Wilf’s locomotive was among the coal stacks in the yard and he and the driver got down on the footplate floor. Bombs exploded in and around the yard.

Wilf said: ‘When the Dornier had passed we thought we were lucky but didn’t know how lucky. Four bombs had landed in the stacked coal and didn’t explode. The tail fins of the bombs were sticking out of the coal stacks.

‘Now, what would you call that – luck or fate?’

I don’t know Wilf, but I think I would rather have been a few miles away at the time.

After the war Wilf drove the prestigious luxury express passenger train the Devon Belle which ran from London Waterloo to Ilfracombe and Plymouth. This train used to change engines at Wilton from where Wilf took it on to the west country

He also worked the classic Merchant Navy locomotive Channel Packet.

This was the first of the class of locomotives which became the mainstay of fast passenger trains on the Southern Railway and later, British Railways.

Wilf later worked in London and Guildford before moving to Fratton in 1958. Steam finished in 1967 and Wilf was never one for driving EMUs (Electrical Multiple Units), or trams as he refers to them. He used to change over shifts with other drivers so he could drive diesels on loco-hauled trains.

Wilf retired in 1986 having worked for the Southern Railway, British Railways and Network Southeast.

Another driver who did his bit was Sid (Taffy) Fellows now aged 92 who arrived at Fratton from Wales in 1946. He can remember working places where trains no longer run, such as Gosport, the Meon Valley and the Hayling Island branch. He also used to shunt in the now defunct Petersfield goods yard. He retired 27 years ago.

Another I spoke to I wrote about in my column last year. He was Brian Sessions, the man who drove the last Hayling Billy on the Hayling Island branch in 1963.