"How tall are you?", he asked. "Five foot three", I replied. "Could you not grow a bit", he said. "Which bit", I almost retorted. "Start on Monday", he said.
On Monday 1st May 1961 I started work as a Cleaner of steam engines at Perth Locomotive Depot. I cleaned and polished Princesses, Duchesses, Jumbo's and Black Five's among other exotically named locomotives. I worked in a squad of like minded young men who all aspired someday to be Engine Drivers. The Depot was large; almost a thousand men worked there in all types of jobs. Drivers, Firemen, Cleaners, Fire-Droppers, Steam-Raisers, Fitters, Carpenters, Plumbers, Electricians, Blacksmiths, Crane-men, Clerks and Labourers to name but a few.
There were three squads of Cleaners with about seven young men in each squad. We worked three shifts - early, late and night shift. The first thing I learned was that the local pub was known as '63A' which coincidentally happened to be the BR number of the Perth Depot.
To clean the locomotives we used a mixture of oil and paraffin which was applied using shredded rags ('waste') then a fresh piece of waste was used to polish it to a shine. To reach the top half of the Tender, wooden trestles were supplied and we must have looked like the seven dwarfs (without Snow White) swarming over the engine, whistling while we worked.
A newly started young Cleaner was on a trestle on the other side of an engine and as he would not reply to our shouts we went round to find him lying unconscious with his teeth firmly clenched together and foaming at the mouth. Apparently he had been on the trestle, took an epileptic fit, fell off and knocked himself out. Someone had the presence of mind to place a pencil between his teeth to stop him from biting or swallowing his tongue. Of course he lost his job.
Jim Baker, an ex-fireman, was our 'Gaffer' and one day he told us that there was a blocked drain near one of the inspection pits. As I was the smallest in the squad he informed me that I had volunteered to clear the blockage. Armed with a torch and a long piece of hooked wire I descended a ladder into the man-sized drain which was cold, wet, smelly and dark. I proceeded to wade through ankle-deep water, shining my torch and terrified of the shadows all around me. I noticed a drain-pipe (of about one foot diameter) at head height which was only dripping water instead of cascading out. I yelled to the Gaffer "I think I've found the blockage". "Good", he said, "stick the wire in it and see if you can hook anything". I pushed the wire as far as it would go and gave it a twist. "I've caught something", I yelled. "Give it a tug" he shouted. I did - out popped a thick piece of waste. I opened my mouth to shout but it quickly turned into a scream as the effluent that had built up behind the blockage rushed to engulf me. I emerged from the drain smelling less than sweet, and, from a distance, I was ordered to go home.
My mum wasn't pleased!
Another time the squad were told to clean the Royal engine but when we arrived at the Loco we discovered large piles of ashes instead of cleaning waste. This was reported to the Gaffer who accused us of sabotage. He replaced the cleaning material and said that he would come with us to make sure nothing happened to it. On arrival at the engine we were greeted by the sight of burning waste which was threatening to overwhelm the Royal Locomotive. Oblivious to this was the Steam-Raiser, with shovel on his shoulder and a flaming, oil burning lamp called a 'cruisie' in his hand which he was nonchalantly swinging from side to side behind his back as he ambled along, thereby inventing a miniature flame thrower which set alight anything in its path.
One of the Steam-Raisers was a wimp. He was an unmarried hypochondriac who flinched when anyone spoke to him. On the night shift he would seek out the warmth and solitude of the Boiler room and settle down to sleep. One night, on his way to work, a Cleaner found a fashion dummy and a wig amongst a shop's refuse. We dressed it in rags, put on the wig and placed her next to the recumbent dreamer.
I can still hear his screams.
Jim was a young Fireman who was fastidious in his dress and eating habits. In other words he was neat and tidy in appearance and easily put off his food. One day a Cleaner found a dead Bat and he placed it between two slices of bread. At the meal break, as we were all tucking into our bread and cheese, he produced his bread, opened it and said, "Oh no, Bat again." Jim's food went into the bin.
Another time, Joe, a Fireman with a sick sense of humour rolled up a piece of bacon rind, stuck it up his nose and when Jim was just about to eat his cheese sandwich Joe shouted to him and tugged on the bacon rind. Jim's food went into the bin.
It was as a Cleaner that I learned how to play cards. At meal breaks there was always a game - Gin Rummy, Nap, Misere and Brag were some of the games we played. Most losers paid their debts when they received their wages. On a Thursday, queuing up to be paid there would be smiling faces and glum ones depending on who had won or lost that week.
Apart from being proficient at cards I also learned how to polish engines, shovel coal and coke into the Hostel boiler, dry and shovel sand for the sand boxes on engines (to assist in gripping the rails), unload and carry heavy ingots of white metal for the repair shop and generally any other duties that Cleaners were expected to perform until the following summer I was promoted to Fireman.