The rail worker who had fire in his belly
In the early 1900s when steam trains were the principal mode of travel, many young boys aspired to become engine drivers but few would have relished the job of fireman on the footplate.
This was back-breaking work shovelling coal into the firebox to maintain the correct steam levels in the boiler.
Roy Ball, the speaker for the September meeting of Clutton History Group, gave an excellent presentation which really brought home the realities of his life spent as a fireman on the GWR.
The talk was illustrated with excellent pictures of the variety of locomotives that Mr Ball worked on and remarkably he could remember most of their numbers.
Mr Ball was brought up in Chippenham, where his father was a signalman working the 97 lever Chippenham East signal box, so in a sense the GWR was in his blood and it was almost inevitable that he would follow his father into becoming a GWR employee.
He started life on the railway as an engine cleaner which entailed cleaning and servicing the locomotives ready for their next journey. He became a registered engine fireman in 1949 and thereby started his career on the footplate.
Mr Ball explained how the vast variety of locomotives in service on the GWR all had their own quirks of firing and the skill was knowing the best ways to lay the coals in the firebox to make the most efficient way of raising steam.
The best engine drivers were able to make the most of the steam generated, thereby making the most economical use of the coal.
This was illustrated on one occasion when returning to Temple Meads station late one evening Mr Ball and his driver were asked to make an extra journey to help some parents with children who, due to rail problems, had missed their last train.
Although low on coal and unable to replenish, they set off on a round trip to local stations and were down to the bare sweepings of coal from the tender but the fire finally expired and the train came to a halt at Lawrence Hill and had to be towed into Bath Road sheds by a diesel shunter.
Both driver and fireman were surprised they had even got that far.
Most of Mr Ball's footplate career was spent on local workings, both freight and passenger traffic, working out of Bristol Bath Road and St Philip's Marsh sheds with small tank and tender engines but there were occasions when he was called upon to work on the bigger locomotives such as the King's, Castles, Counties and Halls that were used mainly on express passenger duties.
It was on a Castle class locomotive that Mr Ball once travelled at just over 100mph, an experience that had him hanging on for dear life.
Mr Ball was quite familiar with the route of the Bristol to Radstock line, which ran through Clutton, and worked many of the coal trains from the Radstock collieries through to Bristol.
Although classed as a fireman Mr Ball was able to drive many of the engines depending on the driver giving permission. Many of them did, quite often sharing the duties.
One unusual locomotive that Mr Ball drove was the experimental gas turbine that the GWR tried in the 1950s. This was being operated at the time by a crew from London but Mr Ball was given the opportunity to drive the train from Bristol Temple Meads for a short distance, which he clearly enjoyed.
The GWR gas turbine loco was built in Switzerland but it proved to be very unreliable so was withdrawn from service.
Mr Ball's talk included many of his humorous anecdotes, including a time when the coal train he was firing was held up near Bromley colliery.
As it was near lunchtime Mr Ball and his driver prepared a fry up, in typical enginemen style, on a shovel in the firebox. Suddenly they were asked to move and the driver opened the injector totally forgetting his lunch was on the shovel resulting in the eggs and bacon being sucked into the engine and out of the chimney.
On another occasion an allotment holder near Cheddar, who frequently had a few lumps of coal dropped off for a heater in his shed, had a surprise when Mr Ball sent a large lump of coal bouncing down the embankment which unfortunately demolished the shed.
Surprisingly, although the work was hard and dirty, it seems that most drivers and firemen of that era would much prefer the challenge of working the old steam engines rather than the modern diesels. Undoubtedly a dedicated group of men.
The group's next meeting in the village hall takes place on Tuesday, October 8, at 8pm when Kirsten Elliott will be giving a digital presentation on the history of the Kennett and Avon Canal.
Visitors are welcome to the meeting with entrance charged at £3, which includes refreshments at the end of the evening. For more information call 01761 471533.