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Oral History

We are lucky to have had the chance to talk to a number of people who worked in and around Barrow Hill.  The transcripts and/or audio recordings of our conversations are below.


Born at Hasland and came to Brimington when he was 6.


"We were always interested in steam – it was in the family. When we were younger, we used to walk down to the engine sheds here and watch the engines. Of course, it was in my blood. I’ve always been railway minded you know, and still am.

I stayed at school until I left. I couldn’t start on the railways straight away. They didn’t start til you were 15 and a half you see. So, I went to Plowrights – that was at Brampton – they were making, funnily enough, little landing craft for D-day. It was all top secret. I’m talking about 1943-44 time.


A lad I met said, ‘Me dad’s a driver and I’m going to keep pestering them’, so we made a thing of going down (to Barrow Hill RH) once a month. We came down and after about 5 times he said ‘You two are going to keep pestering me until I set you on!’. I says ‘Yes, sir’ and he says, ‘Right, I can set you on but you’re going to be with the boiler smiths and you’ll be on days regular – 8 til 5. You won’t be a cleaner because I can’t say you’ll be on day shift work’.

We worked with the boiler smiths, and what we did, we cleaned the fireboxes out, cleaned the brick arch or dropped it if they wanted a new one, cleaned all the fire bars and replaced them, raked the ash pit out and that. That went on and then the war sort of ended and they were panicking for staff – everybody had got to get things going again and we weren’t supposed to go firing until you were 17 and mainline until you were 17 and a half and I think everybody turned a blind eye and they sent us on the local shunting link for a couple of weeks and if the driver said we were pretty handy, you got mainline.


After a while, when I got near enough old enough, we had what you called ‘links’ and I was in link 11. What it consisted of was 12 week’s work, which repeated itself and then after 6 months you got another driver and carried on. This link 11 I was in, was called the relief link because you had 6 specific jobs and 6 wages turned up at a certain time and you got whatever there was. So, you might have been shunting, you might have been mainline, anything. I enjoyed that because you didn’t know what engine you were going to get.


When I got to 18, I had to go in the army and that was the end of that. When I came out of course, it had become British Rail and things were all altering and I just carried on firing and so forth. Then when I went and had a major eye test, me eye was giving me trouble and of course you weren’t allowed to wear glasses on a steam engine and I was relegated to shed duties. Now, to spend the rest of me life in the shed just wasn’t on, so I left the railway and went into industry."


What were your favourite experiences of working at Barrow Hill?


"Well of course, going mainline was fantastic, but I think the one thing I did enjoy, in this link we had, we had what they call a 4:40 (unknown word) that meant you came here at 4:40 in the morning and got a Class 8 ready – you fill the lamps, fill the sandboxes and made sure the…well the first think you did of course was you check the water and the fire and then the driver oiled it up, you went up the yard and turned it the right way of course, and then you got the water and coal. What we used to do, we used to go to the old yard, which was the shunting sidings – Chesterfield side – and you propelled your engine, 38 wagons and a brake (carriage) 39, you actually propelled your engine – that’s going backwards, that’s the only time you were allowed to do that. When you got to Tapton Chesterfield, skull and cross bones, you were facing the right way to go up to Dronfield and then when you got the road, you went, you know you really went. Then you went through Bradway Tunnel. As you dropped down through Bradway Tunnel to Dore and Totley – this is goods – you didn’t go into the station because you’d got to go to the Peak District and you know the passenger trains had to go to Sheffield and then come back the other way but there was what they call a ‘goods curve’ – still there – a sharp curve and you used to go round it at about 2 miles an hour because it was that curvy because you were going left towards the peak, you could see your own brake van coming towards you! Then once you got the road, the guard gave you a green flag, or a green light at night, then off you went. You’d got to get your fire ready because you’d got 3 and three quarter miles of Dore and Totley tunnel and then when you got through the tunnel, you dropped down into Grindleford and you went level as far as Hathersage and then you kept going and then you got about as far as Hope station and then you had to get the engine ready again because you were going up past Edale and what’s called Norman’s Bank which was very steep. In fact, you were actually going round Mam Tor. Then, when you got to Barber Booth, you went into Cowburn Tunnel and Cowburn Tunnel was a straight tunnel about just over a mile long, but it was dead straight and uphill. When you get through the other side, you’d done, you were down into (unknown word) sidings and you took your train off, turned the engine on the turntable and brought the empties back.


But I always remember, the first time I went with me driver on the 4:40 the first train was Monday morning. So, you were going through the Cowburn Tunnel about 6 o’clockish, 7 o’clock and it was a nice sunny day and as we got into the tunnel, you know we got about 100 yards, he came over to me and he told me in the best way he could with the crescendo of noise, he said, ‘Can you see a little, tiny white spot at the end?’, I said ‘Yes’, he said, ‘Well keep your eye on that’. When we got out the other side, he said, ‘We’re the only 2 that’ll see that this week because there’s been no train running all weekend and the tunnel’s clear. Now we’ve gone through, our smoke and everybody else’s smoke and some people are on the railway all their life and never see that. That always stuck in me mind. Of course, the thing is, you see, you’re going up the Peak and back, you know in all seasons and getting paid! I mean, you know, what’s better than that? I mean, you know, they say sliced bread but that’s better than any sliced bread! I think that was probably my best experience.


With only 38 wagons and a brake (carriage), you know a Class 8, you know Class 8s they were the bee’s knees, everything was right for the fireman, everything was right. I was about 5’10’’ or 11’’ then and everything was right for me and they steam like a kettle and pull well and they’re comfortable – you could do a dance on the footplate – you know, they were perfect. Comfortable, wooden floor, tip up seats which would be tipped out the way, everything was handy to reach. When you shovel the coal, you could do it without moving your feet, the fire hole door was level with the plate on the tender. Of course, you’d got your side window, you’d got your little window, the windshield window. I still say the best 2 engines ever invented were the Class 8 and the Black 5."


Did you clean at one point?


"When I first started, Colin and I we weren’t old enough to go onto shift work as cleaner they set us on early. They put us with the boiler smiths – they’re the chaps that take the boilers and fireboxes and what we did – when an engine came in for a boiler wash, of course the engine was cooled. You go in the firebox and you get all the clinker out – what we used to do was pull 4 bars out, put everything into the ash pan, clean all the bars, replace any that were needed, clean the brick arch and any clinker off the roof, make sure everything was clean and then when that was done of course, you went underneath, you raked the ash pan out from inside before you put the bars back and then you shovelled it out and took it outside. Of course, you’ve got women working there then and what they used to do, they used to open the smoke box door and they used to put rods through and clean all the tubes. It was quite a heavy, dirty job. Well, all the jobs were dirty – you just accepted them, I mean I did it as a volunteer at Butterley (midland railway).


Course you’d got to get all the bars – different engines had different sized bars. On a 4f and a 3f you had 2 rows of bars which were identical. On the Class 8s and Black 5s you had 2 longs and a short. But the long ones were slightly smaller than the 4s because if you put a Class 8 bar in a 4f or 3f it would fall through. There were little things you had to know…"


As a very young man working here, what were the conditions like? Did you find it hard?


"No, no, I used to bike it from Brimington. Of course, going back you’d push the bike going up the hill, after the day you were tired. Some of the jobs we got when we were cleaners was they’d get a stock of coal in for the winter. So, the wagons would come down on the other side of the coal stage, and you’d empty and stack them. Then in the spring, any surplus coal you’d have to put back in the wagon because it deteriorates. So, it used to be 2 lads to a wagon emptying and filling. It was hard work but the thing was, you were here for 8 hours like, if you could fill the wagon in 5 and you filled it properly, you’d hand your check in and you could go home! Now, that was hard work for a 16 year old lad but we did it. I suppose today it’d be called cruelty to children! I think personally that’s what they ought to be doing (laughs). You know, you worked hard – everybody did – you know, you worked hard, you went home and you were tired. You got a pair of overalls, you got 2 pair of braces and you went and asked a driver if he had a grease top cap – I’ve still got mine, in fact I’ve got 3. You’d got your grease top cap and of course, you were proud. I always remember, I don’t think the war had quite ended and they used to say they had a cane in the hat to make them (unknown word) so we got wire and we made the hats rear up at the front and the foreman collared us and he said, ‘We’re having no gestapo hats here, get them out!’ (laughs) that was one of the funny things that I do remember.

It wasn’t just cleaning an engine, you know if they were a bit short staffed on the coal stage they’d send a couple of lads up there to fill the wagons, which wasn’t a pleasant job or on the ash pit but you did it and enjoyed it because you were going to be an engine driver eventually. Of course, you’d test one another, the lads would test one another with rules and regulations, you know ‘How do you start…what’s the hand signal?’. You’d challenge one another like you do when you’re young people are learning a driving test and you learnt one another and that’s the way it went. Of course, with your valve gear, you’d go for a skive in the mess room and there were some of the drivers, ‘Come on you young ragamuffins!’, you know, you’d explain all this and it was something I was always interested in. I suppose a lot of it was just a job but not to me."



Roy Kitchener

Brenda Ward’s father worked at the Staveley Works (possibly starting in the pits) and her parents had lived in Whittington before she was born. After realising they would have a growing family, her parents made the decision that they would need a bigger house than the ‘digs’ they lived in. Brenda’s mother visited the Staveley Works housing office and requested to be moved into one of the blocks and was given the response that ‘you’ll have to be next door to your mother in law!’.


They moved into number 22 Top Row, where Brenda was later born and spent her childhood with her parents and four brothers.


"I was very fortunate to be the only girl as I had a bedroom all to myself! My brothers slept in the attic room which had 2 beds for 4 boys. It was a big room with plenty of space. Our house had a little kitchenette but no bathroom. Top Row had one house with a family with nine children! There was room for big families in the blocks.


We were very fortunate though because next door to the house we had a washhouse. There were three of these per block (as each block had three residences in). Ours was right at the side. I won’t forget the copper in the washroom. It was used once a week for the big wash by our mother. After wash day, the fire was kept on and we had a nice hot bath in the water. It was luxury and it was just once a week. A proper wash.


We also had a lovely, long garden. Mum loved hanging the bedding and washing out there.


We were only a hop, skip and a jump from school. We would go to school in the mornings. My mum always used to make sure I attended and later on my brothers would make sure I got there. I’d come home for dinner in the middle of the day and then go back because we were so close.


After school we’d come home for some tea and then play on the street until bedtime. Sometimes mums came and joined us. Skipping, hop scotch and ‘snobs’. We’d also play on the top field for hours. We didn’t need to take picnics because we lived so close.


At the weekend we would walk all the way to Whittington to visit our grandparents.


I use to love to go and sit in the church (the Church of England near the school) while my mum took communion. Every year there was a procession from the church and we were always the first to see it, being on Top Row.

Every day was a routine really. Dads didn’t have that much to do with children. They’d come home after a long day, have a break and something to eat and then often go to the pub. We’d sometimes walk to the pub with a big jug for our grandparents to fill with beer and take home. (The pub was The Barrow Hill Hotel at the bottom of the village).

We hardly ever went to Chesterfield. We never went out of the village. It was a luxury to do that. We had everything we needed in the village – shops up the side of Campbell drive including a butcher’s a clothes shop which sold lots of other things, a chip shop. On Saturdays the shopkeepers would come to the door and try and sell us things.

There was a coal man at the top of the village – he would deliver and tip the coal straight into the cellar.


I remember the St John’s Ambulance at Staveley Works. Sometimes we would go and see if there was anything we could do.


As we got older we’d walk down and see these young men ‘messing about’ on the railway. You never did anything though. That’s just how it was.


At the end of the war, they pulled up all the wooden railings through the village and made fires with them to celebrate.


I left school at 15 and went straight into working in the Staveley Works Canteen, where I stayed for a couple of years but I knew I didn’t want to do it forever. It was a huge canteen opposite where the canal hub is now. I was then taken on at Old Whittington Hall hospital (this was a psychiatric hospital)."

Brenda Kitchener nee Ward – born 1932

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