GWR Steam Railmotor and Trailer Project

Harold Gubbins - Fireman on the Chalford Railmotor

Harold Gubbins
Railmotor No. 1 at Stonehouse. Fireman Gubbins is on the ground on the left, Driver George Lewis on the footplate, and Guard Reg Gardiner next to Harold

“When the railcars were first brought on in 1903, there were no platforms built at all at the new halts – they were just gravelled areas, and the railcars had retractable steps which were set down to let passengers off. The galvanised shed and coaling/watering facilities for the railcars were provided ready for the introduction of the service. Coal was supplied from Gloucester in 1cwt bags at the start, and kept in a bunker in the yard behind the station.  After a month or two, this arrangement was changed and a wagon of coal was sent direct from the colliery to Chalford shed and the cars coaled from there. There were two night men based at the shed to clean the cars. Nos. 1 and 2 were the very first railcars, often running with one trailer car. Tickets were issued by the conductors on the cars; issuing of tickets from the halt happened much later.”

“I was on duty on the very first day of the new service, booked to start as fireman with driver George Lewis at 12 noon – just one car arrived in service that first day, sent from Swindon. The cars were full up every trip; I’ve seen them so full, the conductor couldn’t get round to issue the tickets.  I had actually travelled on the very first railcar in service from Chalford at 8 a.m., as I had to be at Stroud to meet the foreman.  Many officials came from Paddington and Swindon to be present that first day.”

“The railcars running singly could reach speeds up to 70 mph. The first cars we had were crimson – they were altered to chocolate and cream later.  We used about 30 cwt of coal on the railcar service every day. We filled up with water at Stroud – we’d make a trip down the valley from Chalford to Stonehouse, then back up to Stroud and take water then, taking water at Stroud every trip up and down from then on. I did occasionally do two journeys before filling but ‘twas risky. The water tank was underneath the car and held a maximum of 338 gallons.”

“I earned three bob a day as fireman on the railcar, with 6d a day on top as running Chalford to Stonehouse was main line work. The service was extended through to Gloucester sometime during the First World War, some of the trains at least.  The cars were gas-lit and we had to replenish the gas ourselves by coupling up to the Cordon that was kept on the siding by the shed.  There was a gauge on the car and on the gas tank to enable you to feed the correct amount with a tube from tank to railcar.  In the winter we’d have to do this every day.”

“… the night the shed burned down, I remember Gloucester men brought up the railcar, done the fire and put him on shed.  After I come up from Stonehouse that night. I remember getting home, going to bed, then hearing a voice yelling “Harry, Harry!” to rouse the signalman, Harry Grimmett. I jumped out of bed and as I did I could see the reflection of the flames in my window. We had to get the gas tank, coal truck and a railcar away from the blaze, Harry Grimmett and I, with a banker summoned from Brimscombe.  When I got up there, I saw several chaps up there, nothing to do with the railway, and although I can’t say for certain, it’s my belief that those chaps got up in that car, took the tail-lamp off and caught the place afire, that’s my firm belief. Folk used to get in there at nights, and they needed a light which could easily get knocked over and start a fire. Course, otherwise, there was no one on the shed on Saturday nights.  Funny thing about it, t’were the carriage end that was burning out first, before the engine end.  By the time the fire brigade arrived from Brimscombe the fire was nearly over, the shed and car No. 48 a complete write-off.  The signalman had a gratuity for coming out, but I had nothing at all.”

“When the Superintendent came up from Stroud, I went to see him during a lunch-break and told him I didn’t like the way I was treated, after the signalman coming out, and he got a grant and I had nothing.  He said “Well, Gubbins, it’s like this – we didn’t know whether you caused the fire!” I said that if that’s it, I’m going to put this in the hands of the Union. He climbed down then and said “Oh, I didn’t say you done it” but I never received anything.”

“About three months after the railcar service started, the halts were provided with shelters and platforms.  With the cars so busy, it became easier to have crossing keepers at halts issuing tickets.  There were times when two railmotors would work coupled together in tandem, one engine at the front of the train, the other engine section at the back.  The fireman would be in the rear one on his own, while the driver would be at the front with a fireman with him.  The traffic was too heavy for the cars which is why the auto-engines were eventually added so the engine compartments could be used for passenger space … No 4803, later 1403, was my favourite of the class to work.”

Harold Gubbins was interviewed by Lionel Padin, Chalford 13th January 1967.

Some Background by Mike Fenton

Throughout Lionel Padin’s acquaintance with Harold Gubbins and an interview conducted in 1967, we have a valuable link with the very first days of the Chalford railmotor service. Gubbins was born on 25th January 1882 and entered GWR service as a cleaner on 11th October 1900. He became a shunting fireman there on 27th January 1902 and on 12th October 1903 moved to his home village of Chalford to become (along with Bert Saunders) the first firemen on the railmotor service. Gubbins usually worked with driver George Lewis and Guard Reg Gardiner, and Saunders with driver Bill Smith and guard George Partridge.

The railmotor drivers at this time earned 5/6d a day, the fireman 3/- a day with 6d on top for main line work. Gubbins’s basic wage increased to 3/6d a day on 1st September 1904, then, to gain experience, he moved away to Aberdare goods as a 3rd class firemen on 11th January 1906, transferring to Old Oak Common shed on 25th March 1907 at 3/9d a day. On 26th April 1909 he returned to the Stroud Valley being promoted to Brimscombe shed as a banker fireman on 4/3d a day, moving the short distance to Chalford shed as a 4/6d 2nd class fireman on 13th November 1909. Three years later he was graded 1st class fireman at Chalford (5/ a day), then was promoted to driver at Gloucester on 30th May 1913, still working the railmotor service. He was promoted to 3rd Group Engineman on 23rd June 1914 at 5/6d a day, and on 28th February 1915 he transferred back to Chalford shed, remaining there for the rest of his working life, although, of course, within a year of this move the shed itself was no more. An old coach was to serve as the only accommodation for the Chalford crews.

Harold Gubbins took an active part in First Aid work and in July 1925 was awarded an Ambulance Medallion, and in July 1926 received a commendation for his vigilance in noticing a broken rail and reporting it to a signalman. In November of the same year he received a gratuity from the GWR for a suggestion submitted, which may have mitigated his annoyance at not receiving any appreciation over his work at the scene of the railmotor shed fire. It appears that there was some suspicion on the part of officialdom, quite unjustified, that Gubbins himself might have been involved in causing the blaze, which is why he received no equivalent award to signalman Grimmett.

During the Second World War, Gubbins served with the Home Guard, from June 1940 to March 1942, then took voluntary retirement on 4th November 1944. On the last day of the Chalford railcar service on 31st October 1964 he attended the closure and a newspaper photograph shows him waving from a passenger compartment. He died in 1972.

This interview and supporting information is taken from an article 'A Chalford Miscellany' by Mike Fenton which originally appeared in the Christmas 1992 issue of the British Railway Journal (No. 44). It is reproduced here by kind permission of the Author and the Publisher, Wild Swan Publications Ltd.

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