Northern Weekly Salvo 301

The Northern Weekly Salvo

Incorporating  Slaithwaite Review of Books, Weekly Notices, Sectional Appendices, Tunnel Gazers’ Gazette etc. Descendant of Teddy Ashton’s Northern Weekly and Th’Bowtun Loominary

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No. 301 February 16th 2022     

Salveson’s half-nakedly political digest of railways, tripe and secessionist nonsense from Up North. Sometimes weekly, usually not; definitely Northern.

General gossips

Welcome to the first Salvo of 2022 (tekken thi long enough). Well, I thought I’d have a bit of a rest after reaching the 300th issue. It gave me time to think about the future shape and size of The Salvo and the conclusion I reached was pretty much ‘leave it as it is’. So, unless anyone has any wonderful ideas, that’s pretty much what I’ll do. Part of me is outraged by my conservatism, maybe it’s just getting old.

There’s all sorts of things goin’ on that deserve some comment. War in Ukraine? Can’t see it somehow and I think Biden and Johnson would be well advised to shut up. They’re making a bad situation worse;  sending the geographically challenged Liz Truss doesn’t help.

Nice to se ‘Royal Scot’ in action recently. Here it leaves Manchester Victoria bound for Sheffield and York

Will Johnson depart? Probably not, at least until after the May elections. If the Tories do really badly,  then  maybe. And as for Cressida Dick – for the best comment I’ve seen so far, look up Libby Purves in The Times, February 14th (‘Cressida Dick deserved better than this exit’). Always more to these things than meets the eye and her assessment sounds right. She ends with the comment “if she had been allowed to get on with her reforms for a couple of years it would have been to our benefit. Instead of which an ineffective mayor dismays and demoralises the Met to make himself look strong.”

This issue has my thoughts on ‘Levelling-up’ as well as ‘railways and literature’, women dialect writers and Lord Leverhulme. I even stray into deepest Yorkshire. So you can’t say I’m not being inclusive. Well, I suppose you can.

Do we want to be ‘levelled-up’?

Michael Gove’s weighty ‘Levelling-up’ white paper has been met with predictable scorn. It’s certainly long, and actually reads well – but lacks substance and real commitments to invest, repeating promises of ‘jam tomorrow’ that have already been made, such as The Integrated Rail Plan, covered in the last Salvo.

Jennifer Williams, in The Manchester Evening News, offers a good review of the document. She makes the point: “A new phrase is seeking to

If Manchester ‘levelled-up’ any more it would tipple over

define the political lexicon of the 2020s. ‘Levelling up’ is now everywhere and nowhere. It is everywhere, in that it is mentioned at every opportunity by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, repeated back by headlines, academics and think-tanks; it is nowhere, in that nobody yet knows what it means in practice.”

She continues: “Narrowing the regional divide is firmly on the agenda, post-electoral landslide. For years, many in this neck of the woods have been making arguments that are now becoming mainstream, as the political imperative turns towards holding seats not previously lavished with attention. So far, Number 10 has certainly been strong on transport and the need to improve infrastructure. Yet…..the issues underlying this debate are far more complex and structural than that, having been exacerbated by a decade of unequal austerity. It will require imagination, compassion, determination and getting out of Westminster to rebalance the inequality between north and south, as well as rich and poor.”

The White Paper runs to a total length of 332 pages, including the Executive Summary. If you measured the usefulness of Government

Stereotypical Northern views no. 332…Sowerby Bridge

reports by volume, it would certainly be up there as a winner. Yet various commentators have pointed out the lack of real commitment, some comparing the huge investment poured into eastern Germany post-unification. It’s full of good intentions; there’s much useful evidence on regional disparities. It presents ten ‘missions’, or promises to get things done. But how much is wishful thinking? It tells us that ‘levelling-up’ means:

  • boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging
  • spreading opportunities and improving public services, especially in those places where they are weakest
  • restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost, and
  • empowering local leaders and communities, especially in those places lacking local agency

The white paper highlights the Italian renaissance where city states “combined innovation in finance with technological breakthroughs, the cultivation of learning, ground-breaking artistic endeavour, a beautiful built environment and strong civic leadership,” which is all very nice.

But coming back down to hard reality, what does it mean for places like

Bolton station on a dull day

Bolton – a classic so-called ‘Left Behind’ town, with ‘red wall’ constituencies that turned blue, in which even many of its residents seem to glory in its accolade as one of the country’s ‘crap towns’, if social media is much to go by.

The town, and many others like it, has been the victim of three disasters. The first was the Thatcher years which saw the collapse of its core industries, cotton and engineering compounded by imposition of stringent cuts in local government spending and privatisation of services. Secondly, the town had a lacklustre Labour administration that was overwhelmed by the challenges it faced with little strategic vision and an assumption among senior councillors that their seats were safe. The third disaster was the election of a Tory Government in 2010 committed to further austerity. The cumulative effect on a once-prosperous town was catastrophic, with the loss of well-paid (and unionised) jobs, a town centre full of empty shops and ‘pound stores’, and the usual panoply of anti-social behaviour, drug-related crime and the rest. The creation of out-of-town shopping centres was yet another nail in the town’s coffin.

So what should ‘levelling-up’ mean to towns like Bolton? To be honest, I hate the term. It suggests that we all aspire to be like Slough, Basingstoke or Crawley: car-dominated, alienated suburbs. Actually, many people in Bolton want to be more like their image of how it used

Lancashire patriotism? Yes please

to be, with a flourishing town centre, locally-based jobs and a council that had real power to do things. They resented being coerced into ‘Greater Manchester’ and remain proud to be ‘Lancastrian’. In turn, the smaller satellite towns such as Farnworth and Horwich don’t like being lumped into a monolithic local authority, foisted on them in 1974 without so much as a by your leave.

So the third objective (above) of ‘restoring a sense of community, pride and belonging’ isn’t something that Westminster can impose. In fact, it’s already there (in a sulk) but needs the powers and resources to do things which the fourth objective promises, of ‘empowering local leaders and communities’.

Somehow, I can’t see that happening under the present administration, and as yet there’s not much sign of it being done under one led by Keir Starmer, though Lisa Nandy seems to be getting into her new role as Gove’s oppo. Let’s see.

(this is based on my latest piece for my regular column ‘Points and Crossings’ in Chartist magazine see

Messroom poets and brake van philosophers

I recently gave a talk for Horwich Heritage on ‘railway workers’ culture’. It covered a lot of ground and gave me the nudge to re-visit a paper I wrote back in 2004 called ‘Messroom poets and brake-van philosophers’, about railway art and literature in Britain. It was partly inspired by my time as a guard at Blackburn in the 1970s. I have very fond memories of the people I worked with, some of whom had a degree of cultural awareness I’ve not come across since, in academia,

Walter Hampson – driver at Normanton, dialect writer and editor in his spare time

government, or railway management. This isn’t hero worship. The messroom didn’t resound to debates on Kantian metaphysics, nor the leading role of the proletariat in the socialist revolution (though I do recall a heated discussion on the merits of Beethoven versus Mozart!). But quite a few of the men were very well-read, some were skilled musicians, and lots had a real interest in the wider cultural world around them. Hardly any had a ‘formal’ education, and I can remember Sid Townsend (ex-Rose Grove, ‘Long Sid’) fulminating against the narrowness of modern university education, typified by a management trainee doing a stint as train crew supervisor. ‘He knows all abeawt ancient Greek history, but bugger all abeawt owt else’. Damned forever. Jack Bradley, ex-Lower Darwen driver, noted for his flat cap which was possibly older than himself, was a crossword expert. I don’t mean the Mirror ‘quick crossword’ but the Times, Telegraph and Guardian species.

The full version is here:

Lord Leverhulme: saint or sinner?

William Hesketh Lever – later to become Baron Leverhulme of Bolton-le-Moors – is one of the most important figures in Lancashire’s history. There is no doubt that he was a great benefactor to Bolton and a pioneer of good quality ‘social housing’, the six-hour working day, pensions and a strong believer in women’s equality. But there was a dark side to him, most obviously in his company’s activities in the Belgian Congo, but also his attempt to eradicate the way of life of the crofting people on Lewis and Harris. His defenders would say this was done with the best of intentions, but we all know where those can lead us!

In recent years students at Bolton School have researched the story of Lever, who was a major benefactor of the School, in the light of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.  Lever wasn’t a slaver, but he was complicit in forced labour. Let’s have a look at his record.

He was born at 16 Wood Street, Bolton, in 1851. The fine Georgian building remains and has been home to Bolton Socialist Club since 1905, ironic in view of Lever’s life-long Liberal beliefs. He inherited the parental Nonconformity and was a member of Bolton Congregational Church. He went into the family grocery business and quickly excelled as a businessman and marketeer, expanding the family business to Wigan and elsewhere. He developed the ‘Sunlight’ brand of soap which became a household name. Its fame spread from Bolton to the whole of the British Empire. It made him enormously rich. He developed his own ‘garden city’ on the banks of the Mersey, which he called ‘Port Sunlight’. It was a model community with good quality housing and social and educational facilities for his workers and their families.

There was a price to pay if you were one of Lever’s employees. The secretary of the Bolton Engineers’ Union wrote to him saying “no man of an independent turn of mind can breathe for long the atmosphere of Port Sunlight…the profit-sharing system not only enslaves and degrade the workers, it tends to make them servile and sycophant, it lowers them to the level of machines tending machines.”

There is no doubt that Lever expected complete subservience from his workforce, though he did accept trades unions in his factories. One union negotiator described him as a ‘martinet’ while other colleagues quickly realised that there was only one right way of doing things – his way.

This inability to compromise was to cost him dearly, with his ill-conceived plans to transform the Hebridean islands of Harris and Lewis into modern industrial communities, dragging the crofting people out of poverty and providing them with good housing and sanitation. He purchased the two islands in 1918 and set about his ambitious plans with gusto. The only problem was that the crofters were quite happy with their traditional way of life, and just wanted to own their own small plots of land – to which they resorted to guerrilla tactics to achieve. Within five years his plans were in tatters and the huge investment was wasted. The irony was that if Lever had listened to what the islanders were asking, his own ambitions could probably have been reconciled with theirs.

Lever’s role in the Belgian Congo and Solomon Islands was even more problematic, where the same tendency to exert total control – even if it was for your own good, as he would have seen it – caused him to become embroiled in the use of forced labour to coerce African workers to produce the palm oil essential for his soap manufacturing process. The coercion involved violence and imprisonment of workers and their families, leading to questions being asked in the Belgian Parliament, which had initially welcomed Lever’s investment.

At home, Lever – Baron Leverhulme of Bolton-le-Moors from 1917 – never lost his links with Bolton. He was elected mayor of the town in 1918 and a few years earlier produced a remarkable vision for ‘Bolton as it is and as it might be’, crafted by the landscape architect Thomas Mawson. Most of his ideas never saw the light of day, but what did was his lasting legacy to the people of Bolton: the Rivington Estate and Lever Park. He saved historic Hall i’th’Wood from decay and probable destruction and gifted it to the people of Bolton. He died in 1925 and in his will provided for the establishment of the Leverhulme Trust, which continues to support a vast range of research and educational projects.

William Lever: saint or sinner? Let history judge.

(based on a feature published recently in The Bolton News ‘Looking Back pages)

Margaret, Hannah, Sarah and Ethel

I recently gave a talk to the Rochdale-based Edwin Waugh Dialect Society, on ‘Women Dialect Writers of Lancashire’. It was good to revisit some of the work I did for my PhD back in the 1980s. Since then, the work of Ethel Carnie (not really a dialect writer as such) has become more well-known with some of her work re-published. There are others whose work really needs to be brought back to light. Perhaps foremost is Margaret Rebecca Lahee, who features on the Lancashire Dialect Writers’ Memorial in Rochdale. She was born in Ireland and settled in Rochdale in 1831.

Life in the mill wasn’t all fun and games…a cartoon by Sam Fitton

She befriended Susannah Rothwell Wild and they became lifelong companions. Lahee clearly had an acute ear for local dialect and her first attempt proved highly popular – Neddy Fitton’s Visit to Th’Earl o’Derby was published in 1851. She was involved in local radical politics and wrote a remarkable biography of local Chartist leader Tom Livsey, which features Tom’s speeches using Rochdale dialect. Her most outstanding achievement was her novel Sybil West, written in the late 1880s and published in serial form. It came out as a book in 1893 and is about women workers in Rochdale’s weaving sheds. It richly deserves a re-print. Other important women writes of the 20th century include Hannah Mitchell, whose dialect sketches were published in Labour’s Northern Voice, published by the ILP. They put across simple political messages in an accessible dialect. Allen Clarke supported the women’s suffrage cause and did much to encourage women writing for his Northern Weekly. Sarah Robinson worked as a weaver in Padiham and wrote for the local Burnley newspapers as well as Northern Weekly. Most of her poetry was in standard English and feature everyday life in the weaving sheds of East Lancashire. Mention should also be made of Mary Thomason who was active in the co-operative movement in Leigh; many of her poems were first published in The Leigh Co-operative Record. A collection of her poems – Warp and Weft – was published posthumously in 1938.

Beautiful Barnsley

Just in case you think this Salvo is too heavily weighted towards the shire of the red rose, here’s a bit fro’ Yorkshire. Barnsley to be precise, a place I have cause to visit quite a bit at the moment. Compared to many ex-industrial Northern towns, it’s looking pretty good. The town centre has had a lot of work done to it, with much of the 1970s grot swept away. There’s some recently-installed public art which celebrates the people of Barnsley, including NHS workers. I really like what’s been done with the Market Kitchen – a large open eating space with lots of food outlets – ranging from your traditional hearty Barnsley fare to Thai, Greek, Indian and more. Up the hill, past the splendid town hall (now home to Experiencing Barnsley local history museum) is The Cooper Gallery which has lots of good material and a nice cafe (where I once met Dickie Bird, who is celebrated in a nearby statue, even though he’s still alive).

There’s lots of interesting places within easy reach (bus or train) from Barnsley, including Elsecar Heritage Centre. The steam railway doesn’t seem to be operating, hopefully a temporary lull, but there’s plenty other things to interest the visitor. The Heritage Centre website says that following the surrender of the lease by the trustees of Elsecar Heritage Railway in August 2020,  combined with the Pandemic, the future of the railway is under review and a consultation process will start very shortly. Let’s hope the railway will return, it’s an important part of what the heritage centre offers.

Elsecar itself is a fascinating community with historic workers’ cottages – including ‘Reform Row’ of 1837. A few miles away is Darfield, notable as home of Barnsley Bard Ian McMillan but also location of the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre. It’s an excellent local museum with friendly and welcoming volunteers, and a tearoom serving excellent home-made cakes. Maurice himself was a fascinating

Inside the Maurice Dobson Museum

character. Ian McMillan in Real Barnsley describes him as a gay cross-dressing ex-marine, or maybe Scots Guardsman. Somebody you wouldn’t want to cross, dress or otherwise. The building that’s now the museum is where he lived with his chap, Fred, for many years. Check opening times – currently it’s Wednesday and Saturdays, with bacon butties on the first Saturday of each month.

Short Salvoes
  • The latest edition of the BBC Music magazine has an interesting piece by Julia Winterson on railways and music (‘Trains of Thought’). It includes Honegger’s ‘Pacific 231’, as you’d expect – with a rare photo of him cabbing an A3. Herbert Howells ‘A Spotless Rose’ was apaprently rail-inspired. Plenty more too, she doesn’t always get it quite right (Buttermere never had a station) but a good piece. Her book ‘Railways and Music’ is published by University of Huddersfield Press.
  • You wait ages (a year!) for an AGM then two come along at once. Bolton Station Community Partnership and SE Lancs CRP held their annual gatherings on February 15th. All very positively post-Covid. It was agreed at the CRP to include The Atherton Line (all the way to Kirkby!) under its wing.
  • Great to listen to a real, live concert! Bolton Choral Union (est. 1887) was in good form for Saturday’s concert of songs from West End shows. Packed crowd in the St Andrews/George’s URC church
  • Sad to see that The Boggart Bridge at Towneley Hall is currently CLOSED owing to a partuial collapse. There are no reports of boggart injuries.
Lancashire Loominary publications : Winter Sale for readers
  • ALLEN CLARKE: Lancashire’s Romantic Radical £9.99 (normally £18.99)
  • Moorlands, Memories and Reflections £12.50 (£21.00)
  • The Works (novel set in Horwich Loco Works) £6 (£12.99)
  • With Walt Whitman in Bolton £6 (9.99)

See for full details of the books (ignore the prices shown and use the above – add total of £4 per order for post and packing in UK)

North-West Book Fairs

Gargrave Village Hall, West Street, Gargrave BD23 3RD on Saturday 5th March, 10am – 4pm.  Around 18 dealers, excellent home-made refreshments and free parking.

The PBFA will be at Derwent & Calder Rooms, Pavilions of Harrogate, Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate, HG2 8NZ on Friday 11th (11am – 5pm) and Saturday 12th (10am – 4pm) March.  Around 40 dealers, with light refreshments in the café.

Saturday 19th Marc: Barton Village Hall PR3 5AA (on the A6 north of Preston), 10am – 4pm.  Around 15 dealers, café serving excellent home-made food and a large free car park.

This year Easter Saturday falls on 16th April, which means we will be at the Civic Hall, Calder Avenue, Longridge PR3 3HJ on that date.  Around 15 dealers, free parking and an excellent café.

Clapham Book Fair will be on Sunday 24th April in the Village Hall, Clapham LA2 8DZ, 10am – 4pm.  Around eight dealers, free parking and café serving home-made food.

On Saturday 30th April we will be at the People’s Hall, Howgill Lane, Sedbergh LA10 5DQ, 10am – 4pm.  Around 10 stalls, with a café serving home-made refreshments.  There is a small free car park at the hall, but it may be necessary to park in the pay and display in Joss Lane and walk up.  As well as the Fair there are a number of bookshops so why not make a day of it in England’s Book Town?

On Bank Holiday Monday 2nd May we will be in the Victoria Hall, Settle BD24 9DZ.  Around 12 dealers and excellent home-made food.  Parking is in the nearby car park.

On Sunday 22nd May there will be a book fair at Gorton Monastery, Gorton Lane, Manchester M12 5WF, 11am – 4pm

Brian Taylor

I’m very sorry to report the news that Brian Taylor passed away, peacefully, a couple of weeks ago. He was an active member of Bolton Station Partnership and had extensive interests. I first knew Brian when he was clerk to Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority back in the 1980s. He was always full of cheer with a ready wit. Condolences to Pat. There will be a tribute evening to Brian on Wednesday March 16th at Bolton Station Community Room (Platform 5). Nigel Valentine will show a selection of his superb steam photos, which Brian would have loved.  All welcome.



Railway Workers’ Culture


Railway workers’ culture in Britain

Paul Salveson

This is a paper is inspired by the men I used to work with at Blackburn when I was a goods guard. My three years there were crucial to my own career, which has been strange and varied, and generally fun. It’s a is a salute to my educators, coupled with a question: does ‘railway culture’ still exist, nearly thirty years on from privatisation  and in an era of mass culture and dominance of TV and the internet?

Life at a Railway Depot in the 70s

Most of the men I used to work with as a guard were drivers who’d been raised as steam men at Lower Darwen and Rose Grove depots, in East Lancashire. The depots closed with the end of steam in 1968 and footplate staff were transferred to a new depot – or ‘signing-on point’ – at Blackburn station. I arrived, fresh out of guard’s training school, early in 1975.

I’m deeply grateful to many of the people I worked with, some of whom had a degree of cultural awareness I’ve not come across since, in academia, government, or railway management. This isn’t hero worship. The messroom didn’t resound to debates on Kantian metaphysics, nor the leading role of the proletariat in the socialist revolution (though I do recall a heated discussion on the merits of Beethoven versus Mozart!). But quite a few of the men were very well-read, some were skilled musicians, and lots had a real interest in the wider cultural world around them. Hardly any had a ‘formal’ education, and I can remember Sid Townsend (ex-Rose Grove, ‘Long Sid’) fulminating against the narrowness of modern university education, typified by a management trainee doing a stint as train crew supervisor. ‘He knows all abeawt ancient Greek history, but bugger all abeawt owt else’. Damned forever. Jack Bradley, ex-Lower Darwen driver, noted for his flat cap which was possibly older than himself, was a crossword expert. I don’t mean the Mirror ‘quick crossword’ but the Times, Telegraph and Guardian species. Raymond Watton, ex-Lower Darwen driver, introduced me to the joys of classical music, after having any interest in the subject knocked out of me at school. Raymond had a small amateur orchestra supported by the local Workers Educational Association and wrote occasionally for ‘The Gramophone’. John de Luca, ex-Rose Grove, was a member of a well-regarded local choir and was known to burst into song in the cab. Leo Kay, ex-Rose Grove, was an avid reader whose greatest passion was the work of D.H. Lawrence. ‘Don’t read him before you’re turned 40, you’ll not understand him’.

Several drivers and guards were good photographers, and we formed a ‘Blackburn S.O.P. Camera Club’ which met in the ambulance room. This was also the venue for the ‘MIC’ – Mutual Improvement Class, a unique example of self-education which had existed on the railways for over a century. Now it’s virtually died out, but in the 1970s it was still a strong and active movement. The focus was on technical aspects of railway operations and locomotive management, and the championships were strongly contested.

Many of the drivers and guards were experts on local history and could point out particular places of interest – especially on the Blackburn – Settle – Carlisle route. People like Ernie Lamb, Blackburn guard, had an amazing store of tales about the ‘S&C’ which I greatly regret never scribbling down. The oral tradition on the railway was still very strong. Some of the ‘old hand’ drivers and guards had careers stretching back to the late 1930s and they could remember the stories told them by their seniors. Lots of the men were part of railway families stretching back several generations. They were typical railwaymen: totally dedicated to the railways, and strong ‘union men’ at the same time. They saw themselves as the real protectors of the railway, with little time for most of the managers.

Blackburn depot wasn’t untypical, I’m sure. I worked with men from Carlisle, Crewe, Healey Mills (a rough lot it must be said), and shared messroom tables at Crewe and Carlisle with drivers and guards from much further afield. You would never be short of an interesting conversation, be it on railways, politics, gardening or the world in general. Equally, if you were into card-games you’d have lots of ‘schools’ to choose from.

Industrial culture

Is there a distinct ‘railway’ culture? Compare it with some traditional industries and it’s less obvious. The pits produced some good novelists and of course choral singers were legion in South Wales. The textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire had countless brass and silver bands, usually sponsored by the mill-owners. They also produced an immense flowering of dialect literature, mostly poetry. The railway companies did sponsor bands, and there were regular reports in the staff newspapers. I’d love to spend a few months researching all of them. Definitions of culture are notoriously difficult, and in this paper I use a tight definition which is really about ‘artistic creativity’ rather than ‘culture’ in the general sociological sense of ‘everyday life’. The remarkable tradition of station gardening should perhaps form the subject of another paper, or even book.

Proletcult: railway culture in Europe and the USA

Much railway workers’ culture in other parts of the world was highly political. The US Industrial Workers of the World produced dozens of songs about railroad life. Post-war Hungary, and the other ‘people’s democracies’ saw the growth of railway workers’ culture, supported by the new communist governments as shining examples of proletarian culture. And actually, it was. Hungarian State Railways (MAV) still sponsors a world-class symphony orchestra, which originally was entirely composed of working railwaymen and women. There are several local wind orchestras on the MAV network. In France, the CGT union and its Communist Party sister formed a world within a world. Union and Party created a culture of solidarity and class consciousness which was remarkably strong, and was forged in the heat of the war-time resistance. The CGT-owned ‘bourses de travail’ were the centres for a wide range of cultural activities, including song, drama and orchestral work.

Railway unions and culture

So what about here in Britain? The Labour Party has never been that much interested in ‘culture’. It was left to the tiny Communist Party to encourage, as much as it could, ‘worker writers’ in the 1930s. In the 1970s independent bodies like Commonword in Manchester supported some railway workers, like Joe Smythe, a Newton Heath guard.

Despite Labour Party indifference, the railway unions have a pretty good record of supporting their members’ cultural development. ASLE&F on occasions sponsored publications of members’ poetry and prose. ASLE&F was, and still is, an example of ‘craft unionism’ in which pride in the job as a watchword, and culture was not to be sneered at. F.W. Skerrett’s ‘Rhymes of the Rail’ was published by Goodall and Suddick – printers of ASLE&F’s ‘Locomotive Journal’ for decades. Skerrett was a fireman, then driver, at Patricroft shed, Manchester, in the 1920s. The book had a foreword by the union general secretary, John Bromley, who referred to the ‘American Brotherhood’s’ poet, Patrick Fennell (‘Shandy Maguire’). Bromley also mentioned that Skerrett read some of his work to the union’s AGMs in 1918 and 1919. Skerrett’s poems epitomise the craft consciousness of the footplate, and ‘Ode to the Driver’ is very much an assault on the ‘lesser grades’ of guard, signalman, and controller!

‘so kind and obliging to all other grades

That they take it for granted it’s part of your trade’

And then proceeds to have a go at each of them in turn! Some of his work is an echo, and tribute, to Burns – really the figure which towers over working class literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

One of his best poems is ‘The Fireman’s Growl’ which was revived by footplateman-singer Don Bilston in the 1970s.

‘It’s not all beer and skittles, this blooming job of mine,

And it’s not a bed of roses, isn’t firing on the line.

You don’t get too much money, you get lots of slack instead,

And they teach you how to work at night and earn your daily bread.’

Somewhere in my archives I’ve an early copy of ASLE&F’s ‘Locomotive Journal’, for about 1889, which gives details of the fascinating cultural world of the footplate. One of the Manchester branches was organising a ‘soiree’ which included female singers giving excerpts from ‘Lucia de Lammermoor’! ‘Smoking concerts’ were popular, invariably accompanied by suitably elevating songs.

ASLE&F was not the only union to take an interest in cultural matters. In one of the most remarkable literary events in working class literature, the Newton Heath branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, round about 1899, actually passed a resolution condemning the unsuitable ending of a novel by local writer Allen Clarke! The novel had been serialised in Clarke’s ‘Northern Weekly’ which was widely read by educated working men and women in Lancashire. The A.S.R.S. was the fore-runner of the NUR, and today’s RMT, and was instrumental in publishing ‘Songs of the Line’ by Walter Hampson, in 1905. Several of the poems had been published in the union paper, Railway Review. His poem ‘The ASRS Brotherhood’ is a sharp contrast to Skerrett’s sectionalism:

‘Of grade distinction it knows none –

No section, class or clan;

ALL railwaymen may come within

Its all-embracing span’

Branches of the Railway Clerks Association – now the TSSA – organised regular dances and concerts for their members. The London Divisional Councils held an annual concert for many years. The Glasgow branches formed a male voice choir in 1923, which became a mixed choir in 1925. Concerts helped to raise money for union-sponsored Labour Party candidates.

There is of course one cultural form which is at the very heart of trades unionism – the banner. The railway unions are no exception, and each of the ‘big three’ have superb examples of banner art, some of which are of great historical value as well as  artistic merit.

Bloody communists

Many of the outstanding railwaymen-writers were members of the Communist Party. Some were influenced by ‘worker-writers’ from the Soviet bloc though by the 1960s the rigid forms of ‘socialist relaism’ gave way to what was, in fact, a more ‘realistic’ approach to railway life. A truly outstanding writer was Bob Bonnar, an NUR locoman from Fife whom I had the pleasure of knowing back in the 1970s. He was elected to the NUR National Executive when I was avtive in the union, but I didn’t realise he was a talented novelist until many years later. His novel Stewartie was published in 1964 by the CP’s publishing house, Lawrence and Wishart. It is strongly influenced by the wonderful Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose Scots Quair is one of the truly great Scots novels. Bonnar’s novel is based on life at Thornton loco shed in the 1950s and features political conflicts within the union, particularly between right-wing careerist Labour people and – no surprise – the principled CP railwaymen typified by the hero, ‘Stewartie’.

Another talented communist railwayman/writer was George Chandler, a railway clerk and member of the Railway Clerks’ Association (later the TSSA). He started his railway career in Manchester in 1919, on the LNER, but moved down to London where he was based at Marylebone. He wrote fictional pieces about railway life in the RCA’s Railway Service Journal and also The Daily Worker, sometimes using the pseudonym of ‘A.P. Roley’ (geddit?). A fascinating writer whose short stories deserve re-publishing.

The oral tradition

A few songs have survived into the modern folk repertory. ‘Paddy Works on the Railway’ is a well-known Dubliners’ number, but was probably written mid-nineteenth century, if not earlier. ‘Moses of the Mail’, recorded by Ewan McColl, was probably written in the 1880s and was popular in the Manchester area of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. McColl also sings a lovely Scottish song about a mother soothing her young child and bidding her not to wake up dad, who’s working nights. And no, I can’t remember the title (but it’s maybe ‘Cannily, Cannily’). Some cultural activities survived in the folk memory. I can remember an old Bolton driver telling me about Saturday nights at Brindle Heath Sidings in the 30s, when one of the shunters entertained his colleagues with clog dancing demonstrations, often with instrumental accompaniment.

Cultural life in the railway towns

Some companies sponsored brass bands, and staff were given paid time off for rehearsals and performances. It’s arguable how much all this was subtle attempt by the employers to ‘incorporate’ their workers and keep them off the drink, and how much was a genuine effort to promote their employees’ cultural endeavours. Probably elements of both. In the bigger railway towns of Darlington, Crewe, Swindon, Derby and York  there was  a plethora of bands, small orchestras, amateur dramatic societies and the like. Darlington, heart of the North Eastern empire, for many years had a ‘Railwaymen’s Carnival’. The origins of this lie in 1886 when a goods guard died following an accident on the line. He could have survived if staff had been in attendance at the woefully under-funded hospital. The local trades unions banded together to organise a campaign to raise funds for the hospital and 5000 people attended a demonstration in support of the idea. The ASRS nominated one of their members to serve on the Hospital Committee, a position it held for many years. Hundreds of fund-raising events ere organised, but the carnival itself began in 1924, at the instigation of LNER staff. The company was strongly supportive and the LNER’s senior management was represented on the carnival committee, alongside Labour councillors and trade union officers. The first carnival showed the range of talent in Darlington’s railway community:

LNER Silver Band; LNER Military Band; Tableaux by North Road Erecting Shop, Coppershop and Pattern Shop

Each department of the railway, in the workshops, locomotive, station and permanent way, entered the carnival  – which became known as ‘The Railwaymen’s Effort’. Remarkably, the carnival went ahead in 1926, only weeks after the General Strike which had seen police baton-charges against striking railway workers at Bank Top station. The parade comprised over 1000 participants including the North Road Works Erecting Shop’s ‘Toy Drum Major Band’, hundreds of cyclists and numerous jazz bands.

The Darlington carnivals indicated the political and social dominance – hegemony – which railway labour began to exert by the 1930s, representing a marked departure from the stifling and oppressive atmosphere of some company towns in the nineteenth century (Webb’s Crewe being notorious but not exceptional). The town’s political and economic life, well into the 1960s, was dominated by the railway, and the ruling Labour councillors were overwhelmingly railway trades unionists. The same kind of hegemony was evident in other towns, where railway workers and their families formed a dominant force in local society. At Horwich, the railway ran through every aspect of life. The ‘RMI’, or Railway Mechanics Institute, was the focus of the town’s social, cultural and recreational activities. ‘The Works’ employed someone from most households in the town. The same could be said for small towns like Melton Constable, Inverurie and Carnforth which owed their growth, if not existence, to the railway. Each railway town would have a full gamut of artistic societies, orchestras, and bands.

The Cambrian’s ‘Ceiriog’, and the Sou-Western’s Inspector Aitken

Individual railwaymen, not particularly tied to trade union or political loyalties, produced interesting and important work. John Ceiriog Hughes, one of the most important figures in Welsh literature in the nineteenth century, was manager of the Van Railway in Mid Wales, after a spell as station master at Llanidloes on the Cambrian. The line could never be described as busy, and ‘Ceiriog’ undoubtedly had the time to write some of his poetry while at work. He is famous as author of ‘Men of Harlech’ and ‘Myfanwy Vychan’ amongst many other popular songs of the late nineteenth century. An interesting footnote to the history of locomotive sheds concerns the marriage of Ceiriog’s daughter in 1883. The wedding reception and dance took place in the locomotive shed at Van, decorated with ‘Chinese lanterns, flags, bunting and flowers’!

‘Ceiriog’s’ work could not be described as light or humorous. Few working men poets were given to levity. However, ‘Inspector Aitken’, of the Glasgow and South Western Railway, had a genuine sense of humour, reflected in some of his poems published in ‘Songs from the South West’ published in Glasgow in 1913. ‘Shifting the Pints’ describes the unexpected visit of a straight-laced inspector, who arrives to find the shunting yard deserted. The poem works on the Glaswegian similarity between ‘points’ and ‘pints’. The inspector notices the nearby pub, and enters, enquiring of four shunters, sat with their drinks ‘Is this where the shunting of wagons is done?’ – to which one of the gang replies:

‘with a face all agrin and a twinkling eye,

Comes  a laugh and a smile and a ready reply

From Bob the ball turner, whom nothing disjoints,

“If we’re not shunting wagons we’re shifting the pints’.

And of course there’s Branwell Bronte, drinking himself to oblivion whilst purporting to be station master at Luddendenfoot.

Modern Times

In the 1970s there were a number of railway workers writing poetry and prose. Perhaps the most important was Joe Smythe, a guard at Newton Heath and subsequently Manchester Victoria depot. Joe was part of the Commoword group of worker-writers in Manchester, and had work published in Voices, published by the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers. A collection of his poems was published as ‘The People’s Road’ in 1981, almost co-inciding with the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Joe was able to take three month’s leave funded by the NUR to write a series of poems – not an easy job, as he explained in ‘Third Shunt’ – a poem about writer’s block! ‘New Song for an Old Dead’ celebrates the scores of navvies who died building the Woodhead line:

‘We knew the bitterness of death

from bitterness in life

Angels in a digging hell

Past hope of paradise’

Joe’s poetry was sharp, unromantic and powerful.

One of the railway’s most unusual virtuosos was, or is, Adrian Schofield. Champion Northumbrian pipe player, and former signalman. Adrian learnt to play the pipes whilst working nights at Bullfield West box, Bolton. He went on to become one of the country’s best, no doubt infuriating native Northumbrians with his Bolton accent and punk haircut.

Don Bilston, former Saltley fireman, wrote some brilliant songs about railway life towards the end of steam, as did Dave Goulder. Bilston revived Skerett’s ‘Fireman’s Growl’. Goulder wrote some moving songs about the end of steam and its human impact, as well as the jolly ‘I’d Like to be a Lengthman’. There’s a great collection of poetry by Scottish railway workers, published in the 1970s, called ‘Steam Lines’. It was put together by a retired Polmadie driver, William McLagan. He pays tribute to ‘the philosophers and dreamers, and comic singers – every footplate and bothy had a fair share of them’. There’s lots of entertaining stuff, some that’s maybe best described as doggerel. But I like some of it, doggerel or not, like this by Jock Barret:

I’ve finished oiling jumbos,

And I’ve done with driving pugs

I’m leaving all that nonsense to a thousand other mugs.

I canny get oot quick enough

As sure as I’m alive

I’m tying off and going home

For now I’m sixty five’ 

The period immediately before the end of steam encouraged several railway workers to take their cameras to work: Jim Carter, of Skerrett’s old shed, Patricroft, stands head and shoulders above most. His photographs of steam on the Diggle route, and shed scenes, are works of art. The locomotive is very much placed in its wider context. People, landscape, buildings figure, rather than standard three-quarter front views of engines.

Post-privatisation railway culture

Railway workers’ culture existed well before nationalization in 1948, and it would be ridiculous to say that ‘privatisation’ has somehow killed it. It’s out there, in lots of different expressions – music, literature, painting, drama. As long as there’s a railway, there will be railway culture but it will be very different from that of the past, if it is to have any meaning or relevance. Railway people retain a strong loyalty to their industry, and to the ‘railway community’. The same difficulties, of unsocial hours and the physical isolation of railway workers, remains – but these are not, and never have been, insuperable obstacles. In larger railway centres there will be bands, drama groups, choirs and other ‘collective’ cultural activities. Individual railway workers will continue to write, paint and perform.

While we should be supporting a ‘modern’ railway culture, it would be wrong to consign the cultural traditions of the past to obscurity. One of the great strengths of the railway industry is the ‘collective memory’. This has taken a very hard knock over the last ten years, and perhaps a lot of people are beginning to realise that not everything in ‘the old railway’ was irrelevant and out of date. This collective memory was above all the passing on of the unwritten aspects of the job, ways of getting the job done which could never be enshrined in the Rule Book or in a Group Standard. It was about a pride in doing the job well which goes back to the beginning of the railways. But that collective memory also included wider ‘cultural’ elements in perhaps the broader sense. Some of the young drivers at Huddersfield who work the Penistone Line proudly wear ‘Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’ badges alongside their ASLE&F insignia. They don’t need anyone to tell them where they’re from, and which part of the railway tradition they belong to – even though some of them never even worked for BR, let alone its predecessors. That sort of gives me hope. They’re keen, committed to the job and doing it well, and recognise that they’re part of a tradition stretching back generations. Any railway manager who doesn’t see that as a good thing should go and work for Marks and Spencers.

If railway culture isn’t dead, perhaps it’s too well hidden. As an industry we could do more to promote it – surely it’s in a railway company’s interest to support and show off the creative talent it employs? Why can’t the unions do more to support the cultural activities of their members, as they have done so well in the past? But there’s a limit to how much you can force artistic development – much state or commercially-sponsored culture can be bloody awful. In Britain there isn’t a tradition of supporting industry-based cultural activity – perhaps we should think about changing that. The railways would be a good place to start.


William (Inspector) Aitken ‘Songs from the South-West’ 1913

Philip Bagwell ‘The Railwaymen’ 1963

Derek Cornforth ‘The Railwaymen’s Effort’ n.d., c 1990

Lewis Cozens ‘The Van and Kerry Railways’ 1953

Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers ‘Voices’

John Gorman ‘Banner Bright’ 1973

Walter Hampson ‘Songs of the Line’ 1905

Joseph Jacquet ‘Les Cheminots dans l’Histoire Social de France’ 1967

Norman McKillop ‘The Lighted Flame’ 1950

William Mclagan (ed.) ‘Steam Lines’ n.d. c 1982

F.W. Skerrett, ‘Rhymes of the Rail’ 1920

Joe Smythe ‘The People’s Road’ 1981

Malcolm Wallace ‘Single or Return? History of the TSSA’ 1996