Shortly after starting on the railway in 1969, when I was 18, I was made a freight train Guard, based at Tyne Yard. After six years as a guard, I did a 13-week intensive course at signalling school in Gateshead, and was sent to Washington South Junction in County Durham. After 18 months there, I was appointed to relief signalman at Consett. I loved that job, and held it until the Consett Iron Company closed in 1980.
Consett North Junction
When I moved to the Signalman’s job, it was a world apart. The role of a freight guard had not changed since the 19th century. When the guard started his shift, he was stepping in to a world of oil lamps and coal fires, with only a battery powered hand lamp for lighting.

To warm up the guard’s van at the rear of the train, he first had to gather coal from the yard and start the fire, while at the same time doing his duties to prepare the train for travel. There were no toilets or washing facilities, so the poor old guard ate his food with dirty hands at meal time.

Guard van interior

Meanwhile, the driver sat up front in a clean, modern diesel locomotive cab, where at the press of a button the cab heaters would start blowing, and a little cooker enabled the driver to make himself a can of hot tea. That was just how it was.

There was always the danger of derailment when travelling, and in the case of the Consett railway, not being able to stop when coming down a steep gradient such as Annfield plain. Despite these hidden dangers, we did not have radio communication with the driver.
We were on our own for much of the day and especially at night, where your only companion was the guard’s van fire and the flickering shadows cast by the flames around the walls.
Guards had to carry a supply of gunpowder detonators to be used in the event of a derailment, to warn other trains and stop them colliding with yours. Now, if the fire in the guard’s van was not starting, you put a detonator in the fire and shut the door to clear the chimney and get the fire going, at least in theory.
I tried this once: placed the detonator in the fire, shut the door and exited the van. Time passed with no bang, and after freezing outside for nearly half an hour, I finally felt brave enough to enter the guard’s compartment and carefully open the stove door. The detonator was intact, and there was no time left to start the fire: needless to say, I froze the rest of the day. In winter, frozen points and air pipes for the train’s brakes needed to be thawed out, usually with steam lances or the old way with an oil lamp, so you can imagine how cold it got.

Health and Safety were only words in the dictionary. On the Tyne Dock to Consett iron ore trains in winter, you could leave Tyne Dock in mild weather, but the temperature would drop dramatically by the time you got near Stanley, which affected the unloading operation when we arrived at the Consett ore gantry. I remember Consett Iron Company staff climbing in to the wagons to break up the frozen ore powder. They worked right beside a conveyor belt that ran straight to the furnace, so if those men had slipped they would have been toast.

B.S.C Consett, loaded ore train approaching tipper 1979

Railway men are in a class of their own, and the men at Consett were no different.
Where the Consett bypass is now, Carr House West signalbox once stood. The resident Signalmen there were Dougie Kay and Vic Bicknell, and you didn’t want to on the wrong side of either of them.

In the hot summer of 76, still a fairly new Signalman, I arrived for a late shift at the signal box to relieve Vic.
I grumbled about the heat of the day and being tired. Vic replied with some expletives and taunting: “Tired? Tired of what? What good is being tired? Would you moan about being tired if you were in the jungle up to yer neck in swamp water with people taking pot shots at you?”.
After giving me an earful of “constructive criticism”, he picked up his work bag, and went home with his black Labrador.

A while later, Mr Edward Gray, the Station Master, came to see how I was settling in. I mentioned Old Vic’s outburst, and Mr Gray replied that Old Vic was in Burma with the Chindits, a crack Long Range Penetration Regiment led by Major General Orde Wingate. They used to ambush Japanese patrols and were ‘as hard as nails’, he said.

I relieved Vic many times and got to know him quite well. He would tell me his war experiences sometimes, such as the time when his unit was on leave in Rangoon, and he would make a bit of extra cash by selling gold fillings.

I asked, naively, where the fillings came from?

Vic answered as calmly as anything, “After we ambushed their patrols, we tore their gold teeth and fillings out. After all, they were no good to them any more.”

On a less heroic note, but one that still shows how tough these men were, Vic and his comrades were at constant risk of dysentery and diarrhoea out in the jungle. If they got sick with the runs, they would fight naked from the waist down for, let’s just say, ‘convenience’.

After retiring, Vic often walked his black Labrador over the fells on Waskerley Moor. He is surely dead for years by now, but I remember him like I saw him just last week.

A signalman’s work revolved around ringing bells, each bell had a code for different trains, and you spent most of the day sitting comfortably. No more hunting for coal for the guard’s van fire, either, my signal boxes were warm and typically decent places to work.

Consett Fell signal box, 1979

At Consett, we had coal and iron ore trains; the coal and iron ore were turned into steel and the steel was moved by train from the marshalling yard at Consett North Junction, which was near Castleside. This superb quality steel went to the shipyards on the Tyne, and was in high demand around the entire world.

Further down the line, at Beamish signal box, there was a tunnel and when the heavy ore trains thundered past, the roar was incredible.
In autumn time, wet leaves would fall on the track, often causing the trains to slip, but as long as they went slowly, even at 3 mph, they normally made it to Consett in one piece.

The winter of 1979 was particularly severe. Shortly after five o’clock one night, while posted at Consett Fell signal box, a blizzard started.

I was due to finish at ten at night, but my relief was snow bound. I stayed on duty until two in the morning, and by that time all roads to Consett were totally blocked. So, I bedded down for the night, cosy and warm in the signal box. A snow plough from Low Fell rescued me, and I caught a lift home on it.

This all happened a long time ago, and now there is hardly a trace of anything to remind anyone of what was there: the people, old ways of working, and several major British companies have disappeared. The places have changed beyond recognition, either through development, or demolition and neglect.
But these memories are a good thing; they’ll never leave me.

Last train to Consett, 1984

 

I’ve published two books on railways and my experiences. When the lockdown ends, you can buy them at Head of Steam Museum in Darlington, Kirkby Stephen East Museum, and Guisborough book shop.

 

Cover Photo: Liveried class 24 D5103, 1969


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3 COMMENTS

  1. very entertaining brings back happy memories to me also I’m 69 years young work days were hard little money but I’d do it all again with the people and family I’ve lost on the way thanks for that

  2. I read this article without initially knowing who the author was.
    What a surprise Mr Shields – a great snippet of that era.

  3. A great read. Our paths must certainly have crossed at some point. I was a technical guy in the CE’s dept working out of Durham from 1971 to 1981. When I first went there I’d never experienced a line like that one. The track was rubbish, iron ore spillage end to end and a nightmare for the local PWay guys to maintain. Over that period we made significant improvements only for it to end with the closure of the works.

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