GWR Steam Railmotor and Trailer Project

Walther Cottam - Railmotor Fireman

recalled by Mike Lewis (GWS member No, 52)

Walter Cottam, one of the old Wolverhampton drivers, had the dubious privilege of being in the railmotor link firing to a driver who’d been reduced from main line work. This was apparently due to some deviation from ‘sound railway practice’ not serious enough to confine him to shed. I gathered from Walter’s remarks that this did not make for a happy driver/fireman relationship.

Walter described coaling a railmotor from a wheelbarrow and likened the storage capacity of the bunker to be about as much use as a shelf! This was on a par with the water capacity – or lack of same – where the tank had to be filled at each end of the route as well as at Wombourne in each direction.

Out on the road, contrary to all the Company exhortations about good firing practice, especially the one about only firing when the regulator was open to avoid unnecessary smoke, in the case of the railmotors it was absolutely fatal to steam production to open the firehole door whilst the regulator was open. Having seen official drawings of these boilers I can appreciate the reason for this. The deep circular firebox had a firehole positioned immediately below the tube plate. Opening the door would send cold secondary air straight across the tube plate and up the vertical tubes, hence every station stop brought frantic activity on the part of the fireman to recharge the firebox and recover lost ground in the steam and water stakes before they lurched off on the next stage of the trip. Long runs between stations must have been a nail-biting experience for the fireman!

Walter described an unusual failure he had one day. As they set off, vestibule leading, and crashed through pointwork, he heard a momentary hiss of steam somewhere up top of the boiler. Completely mystified he heard this several times as the bogie hit rough patches. All was eventually made clear when suddenly there was a great blast of steam that filled the cab roof. The whistle pillar had snapped clean off! This of course did absolutely nothing to enhance the steaming properties of the boiler. Quite the reverse in fact! However in these sort of situations, as on the auto engines, the fireman has the ultimate sanction i.e. pulling the pin out of the regulator linkage! Watching gleefully as his mate frantically thrashes the free end of the linkage around, all to no avail followed by a furious ringing of the bell system.

Some firemen apparently had pet theories as to the best means to handle the fires on these boilers. One old driver, Bert Attew, told me how a cockney fireman had claimed the secret was to build the fire up into a cone shape crowned with a lump of coal on the top – wobbling!

This story is part of a longer series of reminiscences by Mike Lewis

Probably the most historically-important project in railway preservation today
The Steam Railmotor Project
Great Western Society Limited
Didcot Railway Centre
Oxon OX11 7NJ
Registered Charity No. 272616