In the 1950s the sheer scale of steam operations at Crewe was enough to convince Bill Andrew to leave his home town of Burnley. He would go on to drive many fine locomotives the length and breadth of the country, with passengers like Her Majesty The Queen and Harry Potter…
“I joined the Rose Grove steam depot in Burnley when I was fifteen years old. Three years national service interrupted my early working life, and then in 1955 a colleague said he was going to take a look around the North Sheds at Crewe. I wasn’t married, so I had nothing to keep me in Lancashire. It was a massive place back then. Two enormous sheds with six lines through each, a roundhouse that could take at least ten locos, plus the outside area where the coaling was done. It stretched from Mill Street over to the Chester line, from the Waverley Court area down to where Wickes DIY store is now. The modern Signalling Centre was built where some of the North Sheds used to stand. When I arrived that day I was speechless. There were Duchesses, Scots and Jubilees everywhere. To me that was heaven. We only had shunters and freight trains at Rose Grove, so my mind was made up immediately. I went home and applied to transfer to Crewe, to be a fireman on some of these magnificent locomotives.”
Within six months the move was complete, and Bill joined the team known as ‘the extra link’. “I was part of a driver and fireman crew who would book in each day and wait to be allocated a job. Basically, we weren’t attached to a regular service. We covered when men were sick or on holidays, plus any additional services that were put on. My first job was covering the ballast train on the Chester Line, firing a steam loco from the South Sheds. Six months in I got my first exciting trip. I was living in the barracks down Gresty Road at the time, what’s now part of the YMCA building. The foreman called and told me there was a job heading to London, a double trip that meant stopping over and lodging. This was fantastic – a Scott class, and a long trip on a three-cylinder locomotive. I’d been used to 40-mile trips around Lancashire! The driver that day was a great man called Tacha Baker who’d made hundreds of journeys like this. I fired her up and kept going at a steady pace. After a couple of hours I looked up at Tacha, thinking that we must be nearly there. He just laughed and said we’d only just gone past Rugby. There was another 80 miles to go! With fourteen coaches and an overall load of 500-plus tonnes it was hard work, non-stop, hardly any time for a breather. You had to get it right, as the driver might need more coal if we hit an incline. So knowing the route was essential, and as a new fireman I relied upon the driver to give me that kind of information.”
There was a pecking order amongst crews and promotion happened as and when drivers retired. “The ‘links’ described the routes that services would take. Number three link would go to Glasgow; number four would cover Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham etc. I eventually worked my way up to the number two link, which headed north to Perth. That was the premier link that ran from the North Sheds. That was contract mileage, so it was great money, and I managed to buy my first house on Micklewright Avenue for £1200. Those Perth jobs were the cream, and the crews were the kings. My first driver on that route was called Bob Whalley, a short fella, who’d sit on his stool swinging his legs and smoking a pipe as we sped to Scotland with sixteen sleepers behind us. He took it in his stride, a real calming influence. We’d leave Crewe at 10.15pm and the first stop was Motherwell. There were trackside water troughs then, so we went straight through and filled the tanks while we were on the move using the dip scoop. So the hard work was done early in the shift, then it levelled out after that stop. We’d get to Perth around 6.15am, put the engine in the shed, grab a wash and shave, have breakfast and then get to bed in the barracks. I’d grab a full twelve hours sleep, but Bob would be up for lunchtime and enjoying a pint in the club!”
The hectic life of a fireman was fine, but every boy’s dream is to drive a steam engine. That happened for Bill in 1963. “In my spare time I started to complete the MIC class – that stood for the Mutual Improvement Class. It was voluntary and took a couple of years, learning the rules, how a locomotive worked and how to drive them. It was a tough course and ended with a three-day exam that tested you on all aspects of the job. I’d grabbed as much knowledge as I could during my time as a fireman, and some of the drivers would let you take the controls while they fired for you. That was unofficial of course, but it gave you hands-on experience. I passed out on steam, but at the same time they were starting to introduce electric locos at Crewe, from the early 1960s. So the next wave of drivers had a lot to learn. Suddenly you had to understand about fuses and circuit breakers. That period saw a lot of men pack it in. It was too much for them, so they went back and worked in the sheds. I carried on with steam for a few years, but then I had to operate the diesels and electrics. It became very confusing in the 1970s, as British Rail awarded contracts to a number of firms, like English Electric, BTH and GEC. They all produced different engines. The intention was to evolve the best, and that’s what eventually happened when the class 86 engines arrived. There were a lot of changes as we moved into the 1980s, and by then I’d become a traction inspector. I’d drive them, ride them and liaise with the technicians, feeding back any problems or issues that needed to be resolved.”
Following privatisation there were many changes of location and name, but Bill’s love of driving continued in the background with some of the preserved locomotives at the Crewe Heritage Centre – plus a few special projects. “I’ve never officially retired. The office work was fine, but I’ve always loved being on the footplate. When the Queen came here to open the site in 1987 I was in charge of the cavalcade of steam locomotives. One of them, 6201 Princess Elizabeth, which was named after her, is here now. More recently, I was lucky enough to drive the Hogwarts Express in the first four Harry Potter films. They were a great bunch and I made sure I got all of the autographs. During the filming, Robbie Coltrane asked if he could ride the footplate. He got on, did two shovels of coal and realised how hard it was. He was a lovely guy, and as we rolled into Kings Cross he smiled and told me that he was going to try and get down from the engine with dignity. He just about managed it. I’ll miss all that, because next February I’m 75 year old. I’m still fit, but I won’t be allowed to drive the main line any more. I can still ride the plates, but as I won’t have a personal track safety card that will mean I can’t get off – unless it’s safe in the station somewhere. It’s a shame, but when I was at school all I wanted to do was drive a steam train. I’ve done that and I’ve had the best of everything.”
Bill’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; the stories will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire.
A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy in paperback from September 2016. Subscribe to my newsletter HERE if you would like occasional email updates about publication dates for this and other Crewe/Cheshire book projects.