Arthur William Gilbert

Arthur first worked as a horse drawn delivery driver.

Railway voices at the NRM

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Arthur William Gilbert interviewed 16 October 2001

Ref no 2001-164

This is an edited version of a transcript to match the content on the audio extract.

NARRATOR: Arthur’s first job was at a local furniture factory but as he was a skinny lad, Arthur found the work hard.

ARTHUR: And I wasn’t at all happy there, and I … happened to bump into one of me old school mates one day and he was quite chuffed. He said, “I’m, I’m working on the railway,” he said, “I’ve got a job as a, as a van boy on the railway.” Now he was at St Pancras, I don’t know how he, he c … came to, to go t … that far, you know but anyway -- he told me all about it and it sounded quite good. So I took a, an unofficial day off from work, and I don’t know where I found money -- was ver … very, very tight in those days. I don’t know where I found the … the fare from, but I caught the train from my local station, which was Black Horse Road, and I went up to St Pancras.

NARRATOR: Arthur begins his railway career.

ARTHUR: “Go and see that man in there.” So I went in, opened the door and walked in, this chap was writing behind the desk and he looked up. I said, “Excuse me, Mister, I’m looking for a job.” Well he, same as the porter, he gave me a look up and down, you know, ‘n’ [laughing] “What’ve we got ‘ere,” sort of thing, you know. And he said, “How old are you?” And I said, “I’m 14.” So he looked at me again, pondered for a bit, and then he said, “Well …, all right,” he said, “Report ‘ere at eight o’clock on Monday morning.” He said, “What’s your name and address?” So I give him my name and address and he took one or two particulars down and then, that was it.

NARRATOR: Arthur’s first job was as a horse drawn delivery driver working from the huge stables under St Pancras station. Bert showed Arthur how to work with horses.

ARTHUR: “This is our horse, it’s, she’s called Dolly.” So … on the side of the, of the stable post there was a horse’s nosebag hanging, so he lifted it off and he said, “Fill that up with that stuff.” At the far end of the whatsername [ph] there was a big bin, and it was all h … horse food in it, you know, oats and what, whatever there is that, that horses eat, you know. So I had to go down and fill this, there was a scoop there, and I, I scooped it out and filled the, filled the nosebag up, and he opened the door of the -- the gate and the horse was ready harnessed and ready for . She came trotting out, couldn’t get out quick enough I don’t think [laughing], ‘n’ w… we led her around to what, where these carts were, reversed her up to one of the carts, lowered the shafts down and then Bert showed me how all the harness had to be connected up to the shafts, you know, and the, and the reins. And when I w … th ... that was done, I f …, I think, can’t be for sure o’ this, but I think there were chocks under the front wheels, seem to r … remember that. We had to take the chocks out and put ‘em in, in the cart. But anyway, that was it, we were ready for going then

NARRATOR: Most of the work was routine deliveries but there were occasional incidents to liven the day up.

ARTHUR: Unfortunately I was a bit of a skinny, small lad and the horse towered above me, you know, so I, I didn’t have a great deal to do with, with, with the horse at all. Except on one occasion when we was in City Road in London, and there was a, an office there that what th … you called a receiving office, where people used to take parcels in to be picked up, and we used to pick pa … we used to take parcels in for collection for people, you know. And my driver used to spend quite a bit of time in there, he used to have a cup o’ tea I think with the ___, his cart was standing outside. Now City Road was a busy road, and trams used to run up and down. Now unfortunately our horse, Dolly, suffered from worms [laughing], and at times they made her very irritable. And on this occasion she was jumpin’ about, and jumpin’ about, and all of a, all of a sudden she set off on her own. Well, I ran alongside and I grabbed a hold of the reins and tried to restrain her but I couldn’t, she kept goin’ and goin’. We finished up with the cart right across the double lines of tra … tram tracks [laughing], stuck there in the tra … the trams were, “Dang, dong, dong, dong,” on the, on the -- and I couldn’t move her. Anyway fortunately there was a, another railway ho … horse and cart on the other side of the road. And the driver came across and [laughing] he managed to manoeuvre the horse and cart back to the side of the road again. But that was in City Road. But … she was a bit troublesome in that respect, she had worms and, as I say, I don’t think they could do a great deal about it, you know.

NARRATOR: Arthur moved on to Walthamstow then Wanstead Park stations as a porter.

ARTHUR: ..generally they w … they were, they kept pretty clean, I mean, Wanstead Park station I once went up … was sweepin’ up there one morning, a woman passenger came and she congratulated me on the, the condition of the station, because it was kept very clean. We had two waiting rooms, one on, on ei … either up ‘n’ down platform of course, with coal fires in of course. And ‘course part of my job was to keep the fire in wintertime, keep the fires going. And -- but we had a, a porters’ room, which was designated for the, the, the platform staff, and we used to have our meals in there, you know. Q … quite -- as far as I can remember it were k … kept quite clean, you know. But … ‘course we had a stationmaster [laughing]. He was the stationmaster of two stations, Wanstead Park and Woodgrange Park. But he used to be, he used to come through daily, and I think he used to check in the booking office the, the r … accounts and the books and everything y … relating to the money side of the business, sort of thing. I think that was his main job, but … then, then he used to have a quick walk round the station to see that things were as they should be, sort of thing.

‘Course it was, it, it was all gas lighting. And we had occasionally you had to change the mantles on the gas lights, you know. There were gas lights on the, on the platforms.

NARRATOR: When war loomed on the horizon Arthur was called up.

ARTHUR: I had to go for a medical examination first, and then I had t’ go for an interview and they asked me different questions to get an idea of what I was suited. Well, at that time I’d got an old motorbike, really old XWD motorbike which I was very interested in. And I used to take this thing to pieces and put it together, and I used to take it onto a strip of land. Because it wasn’t taxed for using on the road but I used to take it onto this strip o’ land, and me and some of the other lads used to ride up and down on it. So I knew something about engines, and I think with mentioning this, they got the, the idea that I would be suitable for an engine, air … air, aircraft engine fitter. So they recommended me for that.

NARRATOR: Demobilisation for Arthur came in 1946 and he returned to the railway but things had changed for Arthur.

ARTHUR: Yeah, but during the war I’d met this beautiful young lady in Blackpool while I was on this course, and we got married. So o’ course I had a wife and we also had a, a daughter at that time. So things were quite different to when I, I went in. But …

INTERVIEWER: Was your wife a, a Blackpool person?

ARTHUR: Yeah. Now, my wife moved down to London with me, with the child. But I also had brothers and sisters who were living at home, and conditions were very cramped. We weren’t happy at all down there. So she moved back to Blackpool, with, to her parents’ home. And I was stuck in London, a long way away. So I applied for a job in Blackpool, if I could be moved to Blackpool.

NARRATOR: In the end Arthur got a transfer to Kirkham, close to Blackpool and he cycled the 10 miles each day to work as a shunter. His time at Kirkham was limited though and Arthur soon got promotion to Preston to work as a guard on freight trains. It was hard work with long unpredictable hours but he had an expanding family to feed.

ARTHUR: Well at that time, as I say, we had, had, had five, five children and to this day I don’t know how my wife kept them quiet because I was sleeping during the day, when they were back -- off school, you know, running about, and -- I always remember, it was about eight o’clock, round about eight o’clock-ish one morning, and I was in me [ph] uniform and w … my lad said to me, “Are you going to work Dad?” I said, “No, love, I just come in, I’m going to bed.” And same time the following week I was in me [ph] uniform there, and he said, “Are you going to bed Dad?” I said, “No, I’m going to work.” And that [laughing], somehow, describes the difference in, in the shifts, because we signed on at all hours of the day and night, you know.

NARRATOR: Further promotion to the comfort of a passenger guard and working with the public followed.

ARTHUR: Ye … d … I think there were more dedication to the job … I don’t know how to describe it but … passengers were our life and our living. But apart from that they were human beings, and they had to be treated as such. And, I mean if I went through a train and the passengers were standing because they couldn’t find seats, I used to go through the train and some people had luggage or coats and hats on seats you know, and I would say to them, “Excuse me but would you mind removing your stuff from the seats and allowing these passengers who are standing to sit down?” And things like that, I mean, on several occasions, when the train was really full, passengers were packed up tight, and standing all over the place, I would go through to the first class section of the train and if there were only one or two first class passengers in any particular coach, I would just ask them if they would be prepared to move to another suit [ph], and then I would declassify that coach. We had, actually we had labels that we could stick on the windows, it said, “This coach is for second class passengers.” And we could use these then we could allow the passengers to sit down in the first class co … coach rather than stand up. Things like that.

NARRATOR: But things didn’t always run smoothly on the railways, even in the 60s when this incident happened.

ARTHUR: Aha. I once worked a train down to London and t … t … the weather conditions were s … were really severe. And the … this snow, there was, snow was … very light snow, and it was hanging onto the power lines, you know, the electric power lines. And as the pantograph come along it was scooping this snow off, and eventually it, there was … and eventually i … there was s … that much bloody snow on, on the pantograph it … compressed it, compressed the string, and there was no contact so we lost all power and the train come to a stand and heating went off and everything. That were down near Bletchley. And … anyway it w … it’s long stories, we got, eventually we got moving and we got into Euston but everything was upside down I … in, at Euston at that time. The trains were all running late a -- all cancelled and God knows what. And I had to work this Glasgow train back, but the, the, the stock for it hadn’t arrived. Anyway they had some spare stock in the sidings at Willesden, and they got a, an engine and a, a guard and they fetched these coaches through from Willesden into Euston station. And course the passengers were millin’ about, there was bloody hundreds of ‘em, everything were upside down. So we got, … it was old, old time stock, th … you know the co … co … compartment stock. And I did a quick shuftery [ph] round, which was me job, checked … everything w … as it should be, and we set off. Well … I’d, I, I forget what it was but I, I’d, a woman, a woman come through, before I’d, I’d time to sort things out properly, a woman come through and she said, “Can you tell me where there’s a toilet I can use?” I said, “Well, there’s a, a toilet at the end of each coach.” She said, “Yeah,” she said, “I’ve been right up and down.” she said, “They’re all frozen over solid.” Bloody ‘ell. I went through and it was right, everything was frozen in these toilets. The heat from the, the engine hadn’t got through, and they wer … everything were bloody frozen over. Well, when I went through the fr … f … train, at the front end of the train there … was a hell of a big gang of men there. They were going to a rugby match, some were up north. And they’d bottles of bloody beer, and ’d cans of beer and they were all supping, and I thought t’ meself, “It’s gonna be trouble ‘ere: the … I … if they can’t use the toilet they’re gonna open the bloody door … and b … you know, t … s … something’s gonna happen.” So anyway, we were first stop Crewe with this train, so … I forget just where it was anyway, I, I thought I better f … foresee what can happen here. Anyway I went to the front guard’s van which was close to that .. end [ph] as it happened, and applied the brake and I stopped it, stopped the train. And I g … got on the engine and I said to the driver, “Will you draw up t’ signal? I want a word with the signalman.” So he said, “What’s the trouble?” and I s… , I told him like, so anyway I said, I got on to the signalman ‘n’, and I, I explained, I said, “Could you stop the train at Rugby for lavatory purposes?” He said, “You what?” [laughing]. I said, “For lavatory pur …” I said, “There isn’t a toilet on the train that’s … they’re all frozen over and p … people are going to be desperate, you know.” So, “Ah, all right,” he said. So I told the driver we were having a special stop at Rugby. Anyway I went through the train coach by coach, and I, I shouted and I, I told -- I said, “Ladies and gentleman, the train is making a special stop at Rugby. If anybody wants to use the toilet, use the station toilet while we’re -- and we’ll, w … we’ll give you the time to do it. So, we stopped at Rugby. Half the bloody train got out I think [laughing].

NARRATOR: From a life working with horses Arthur had a varied railway operating career, even working on British Rails Advanced Passenger train.

ARTHUR: Yeah I, I, I, I did train on the, the APT, the Advanced Passenger Train. I went with a gang of Preston men to Glasgow and we were accommodated in a hotel in Glasgow for a week, whilst we had this training session, for the APT. And I think I worked the actual passenger train from Preston to Euston on about four occasions, and … it was a very fast train, and it was very unusual, it took some getting used to with the sliding doors and that. But … apart from that I don’t think – course … you c … you could, could feel the t … the tilt in it, as, as you went round some of the bends, you know, you could feel it sort of going slightly sideways …

NARRATOR: Finally Arthur received recognition of his long service.

ARTHUR: I got a, a, a watch given me, actually after 38 years. But at th … the final, the 50 years I got a letter from the area manager and I was -- me and the wife were taken out to a, a lunch by the area manager for 50 years’ service. And I got that, you didn’t see that … up there, a plaque.

Background: Class 87