Shunters Pole and Brake Stick
The main tool of shunters working with hook-and-chain couplings was a shunting pole, which allowed the shunter to reach between wagons to fasten and unfasten couplings without having physically to go between the vehicles.
The occupation of shunter is particularly dangerous because not only is there the risk of being run over, but on some railway systems, particularly ones that use hook-and-chain coupling systems, the shunters have to get between the wagons/carriages in order to complete the coupling and uncoupling even with the poles. This was particularly so in the past. The Midland Railway company, for example, kept an ambulance wagon permanently stationed at Toton Yard to give treatment to injured shunters.
In addition to this the early wagons only had the hand braking levers on one side. The shunter had to watch for the wagon coming and hop to the side with the brake so it could be applied before the wagon was uncoupled. Jumping about in front of moving wagons was quite a dangerous pastime!
Tools of the trade
As with any industry, the railways have developed special tools to deal with particular problems encountered either on the permanent way or on the operations side. Many can be now found in antique shops or even in car boot sales where their original use is unknown. A shunters pole was once found described as a 'weed puller!'
Rare 1960's film of Tinsley Marshalling Yard. At this time it was the world's most modern rail marshalling yard.
Framed copy on canvas of original painting owned by BHESS of Barrow Hill shunters "Walt Mutt Thompson" and Albert Whittaker (Brakestick)
by David Charlesworth (artist of Chesterfield).
Commissioned by National Railway Museum for their "Unsung Heros" series.
The film shows the use of these tools very clearly and indeed the dangers faced daily by the men using the brakestick.
In hump shunting yards before the introduction of somewhat safer means of slowing the free-rolling trucks, the brake stick was used to apply a greater leverage force to the braking lever. Not quite sure this would be allowed with today's safety rules!
A loaded wagon could weigh in excess of 20 tons. Major movements around a shunting yard were normally done by using a steam or diesel locomotive if available. In some early shunting yards, horses were used to pull trucks over short distances. There were problems in this, horses did not particularly like walking on sleepers and stepping over lines carried slipping dangers. There is no record of horses being used within the goods yard at Barrow Hill although some researchers think this was quite likely, pointing to the evidence of the stables originally located on the left hand side of the main entrance to the site.
Photographs from the collection of the National Railway Museum
Small truck movements could be done using a pinch bar, a somewhat more robust version of a crowbar, inserted between a wheel and the track as the pictures show..
It was quite easy to start a truck rolling with one of these and, once going, a single man could continue the movement without a lot of effort by simply pushing. Stopping the truck was effected by the brake lever.
The same method is used today at Barrow Hill and one can be seen hanging ready for use on the Roundhouse wall next to the yard doors.
It may be called a Box Car Mover and the Brake Van a Caboose but the tool is the same!