86-year-old Ted Abear joined the GWR as an engine cleaner in 1946, and loved every single day of his lifelong career in the railways. SARAH SINGLETON hears his story

The Great Western Railway is truly in the blood of Ted Abear, who was born on the Railway Estate in Acton, in 1931.

When Ted left school at the tender age of 14, he was already longing to join his father, working for the GWR.

“I always wanted to work on the railways. I came from a railway family. In those days, like mining, it was an industry where you were born into it. Sons followed their fathers,” Ted recalled. “It was like one big family.”

While his long career with GWR eventually took him from the footplate of mighty steam engines into the warmth and relative ease of an office, the time Ted spent as a fireman he recalls as the highlight of his working life.

“There was real camaraderie,” he said. “The control work was good, 16 years on the footplate was the best – I had all good drivers and mates.”

Ted, who will be 87 this month, lives in Grange Park, Swindon, and is a regular volunteer at Steam, the railway museum at the old GWR works. He has already published one book of his memoirs: Through the Links: Southall to Old Oak Common and is now working on a second volume, exploring his time working in working in the control section, which he has given a working title - From Shovel to Pen.

Unfortunately for the 14-year-old Ted, he had to wait a year since GWR would not take him on till he was 15, so he spent the time running errands and deliveries for Platt’s, a grocers’. The family had moved to Greenford in Middlesex at the end of the war.

At last, a week after his 15th birthday, Ted finally got the job he desired: on January 28 1946 he started work in Southall as an engine cleaner.

“We worked under a chargeman cleaner – usually a man who had been taken off the footplate, perhaps if his eyesight wasn’t good anymore, and had been given this sort of job. We were all young lads. The work was hard and dirty – we cleaned the bodywork of the engines.

“We also used to rub and shine the brass, and climbed all over the engines. You had to be pretty fit to do it.”

A year and a half later, on August 19 1947, Ted was made a fireman and spent years learning the skills needed to operate a steam locomotive. First off, he worked in shunting, in the marshalling yard, where he learnt how to control the fire and water in order to create the necessary volumes of steam. It was a skill the men took enormous pride in. Ted remembered his father saying:

“You will learn an art son, and this is an art.”

As well as practical skills, he learnt the rules and regulations of the GWR, went to classes where model engines were used to help them learn how the engines worked, with their valves and pistons. Different engines had different heating times, depending on the size.

“They could take an hour or more to set up,” Ted said. He went on to link work, moving freight, and then passenger work. In 1955, he left Southall and started work at Old Oak Common.

“Drivers don’t have time to worry about what the fireman is doing. You have to learn your job well,” he said. “We were mates, and it was a good job to be on, though we worked all hours of the day and night. It was a very labour-intensive industry.”

As well as drivers and firemen, and the chargemen cleaners and their teams, the railways employed tube blowers and fire droppers to maintain the engines, and coalmen to shovel coal out of waggons and into tubs.

Ted himself, working as a fireman, might have to shovel ten tons of coal over the course of a day, taking it from the tender and feeding it into the engine.

“You had to make sure you had sufficient coal in the tender for the job you were doing,” he said. It is no surprise that after a long, physically arduous day, Ted would join the driver for pints of beer and thick ham sandwiches.

“We’d have four pints of Mitchell and Butler’s each,” Ted said. He had started as a boy earning 30 shillings a week, and as a fireman, made £7 a week – enough to keep himself and wife Ethel in a flat on Ealing Common.

Ted was even working on the trains the day his daughter was born.

“I was coming back into Paddington and the foreman was waiting for me to tell me what had happened,” he said.

But change was coming, and by the 1950s he could see diesel trains would change the industry for ever. Many of the old jobs associated with running steam engines would disappear forever. In 1965, Old Oak Common lost its steam trains and by 1968, British Rail had said goodbye to steam forever.

Life changed for Ted too. In 1960, a colour test indicated he had some deficiency, which ruled out becoming a driver. “My footplate career had come to a halt,” he said. “But I was asked if I had considered the clerical grade?”

He decided to give this a shot and took a three-hour exam at Paddington. He ended up working in the control office at Paddington, and then Reading, before moving to Swindon in 1984. But he reckons his footplate days stood him in good stead, because as a controller he understood the work of the men on the trains.

Following retirement in 1987, Ted became a volunteer at Steam, where he shares his memories and knowledge with visitors. He has two children and two grown-up grandsons, and still has a passion for all things steam. Ted has many photos of his time working for the GWR, and is hoping his new book will make it into print.