On the Footplate of the Flying Scotsman
David Court, a former fireman and driver, shares his memories of the much-loved locomotive
On 25th February 2016, after a £4.2m restoration and 10 years of waiting, crowds jostled on the platform at King’s Cross Station in London to glimpse Flying Scotsman 60103. Resplendent in its BR green livery it became encircled by a media circus before departing amid a plume of steam with a clamour of hissing valves and pumping pistons on its inaugural run to York.
Designed by the renowned steam locomotive engineer Sir Nigel Gresley and built at the Doncaster Works in 1923, the Flying Scotsman became the flagship locomotive of the new London & North Eastern Railway (LNER). Heralded as a symbol of modernity, whilst hauling the train carrying the same name it embodied the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties and was viewed as a “hotel on wheels” with such luxuries as a ladies’ retiring room, a hairdressing saloon, as well as offering fine dining in an opulent Louis XVI restaurant car, where passengers relaxed and sipped their “Flying Scotsman” cocktail.
Its track record speaks for itself, being the first locomotive to haul a non-stop service between London and Edinburgh, the first to achieve an authenticated 100 mph run, the first to circumnavigate the globe, as well as holding the world non-stop steam record of 422 miles 7.59 chains on its tour of Australia.
The love affair of many, it became the financial ruination of several of its suitors. In 1962 BR announced its intention to scrap the locomotive, until Alan Pegler stepped in to rescue it. Despite a high-profile tour of the USA supported by the British Government, the economic costs of running and maintaining the engine were such that in 1972 Alan Pegler faced bankruptcy and had to abandon the engine in the United States.
Worse could have followed had it not been for the efforts of Sir William Mcalpine who shipped the locomotive across the Atlantic in 1973 and maintained this costly mistress for 23 years. By 1995 it was all in pieces at Southall Railway Centre and owned by a consortium including Sir William. Again it faced another uncertain future owing to the cost of restoration and refurbishment, until salvation came again in 1996 when Dr. Tony Marchington bought the locomotive and, at a cost of £1m, restored it to running condition.
The locomotive was then used regularly for the Venice-Simplon Orient Express and Northern Belle as well as undertaking other excursions. This steamy affair, however,
would again end in bankruptcy. For a while, and after a period of share ownership, it seemed the locomotive was destined to be lost once again to the nation. Had it not been for the efforts of the National Railway Museum which purchased the engine on behalf of the nation for £2.3m in 2004 (aided by a £1.8m grant from the National Heritage Fund and the generosity of the public’s response to the museum’s appeal) this iconic locomotive could have been shipped abroad to form part of a static and lifeless exhibition.
Some of the travelling passengers on the inaugural run had paid up to £450 for a ticket, others were there because they had played a part in the continuing history or restoration of the locomotive. They came from all walks of life, bound by the love of steam coursing in their blood. Amongst them was David Court, a Yorkshireman who has driven steam and diesel trains all his life. Aged 69 he is very modest about his achievements as a driver and fireman on Flying Scotsman. He started work with BR at the age of 15 as an engine cleaner. “My father was a driver in Doncaster,” he recalls, “so I just loved steam from a very early age.”
Gradually, David worked his way up to fireman and then to driver. In the early days he was just a rostered driver for the locomotive and didn’t think too much about it as it was all in a day’s work. Shifts could vary in the week starting at 1am one day, followed by 5am, 3am and 6am on the next days. You could be on afternoons which started at 10am or on nights which began at 6pm; it was a 24-hour operation which “spun the alarm clock dizzy”.
The steam-raiser or fire-lighter would have lit the fire six to eight hours before driver David Court and the fireman arrived at the shed. The crew booked on an hour before and prepared the locomotive for its journey. The fireman collected his tools, shovel, lamp, firearm and all that was needed, before they set out.
The fireman’s main job was to ensure a steady supply of steam at the appropriate pressure to provide power to the engine. This was much more difficult than it sounds with the engine’s steam requirements varying considerably with load and gradient. The driver’s job was very skilled and complex, but essentially involved controlling the speed and direction of the locomotive using the regulator (similar to a throttle), reversing gear (to control the piston strokes) and the brake to bring it to a gradual stop.
“Basically the driver and fireman worked as a team with the understanding becoming so good it often didn’t need words,” David says. For him it’s never been about the kudos of driving this iconic engine, but the satisfaction he derives from getting the best performance out of any loco’. “It’s a sense of achievement if you can get through your day without any bother and this is what gives me a sense of pride.”
On the occasion he’s been given bad steaming locomotives in the past, it’s all about the challenge of offsetting these difficulties. In a typical run from London to York the Flying Scotsman would use a minimum of five tons of coal and 8,000 gallons of water. In its heyday the express would drop a scoop at 60 mph at certain points to replenish the tender.
In winter it was freezing on the left-hand side of the cab where the driver stood or sat, and roasting on his right where “2,000 to 3,000 degrees came at you from a whitehot fire”. For the fireman it would be the other way round. David explains how inside the cab you smelt sulphur from the burning coal and everything inside was hot to the touch. In the early days he was only given a white rag and, unlike today, didn’t have any gloves. He declined his grease hat. “Most of the time you have the smell of oil and a white-hot heat coming at you from the fire hole,” he says. “There’s an invisible mist of oil floating about with a lot of dust. That’s why you’ve got black faces.”
Inside the cab the locomotive oscillates from side to side, more so than the carriages, and although the east coast run is fairly smooth this doesn’t prevent the movement suddenly increasing over points and crossings. Vigilance is an essential virtue on the footplate, ensuring the coal is burning correctly, that steam pressure is maintained around 220 to 250lbs and that there’s sufficient water in the boiler at all times.
There’s a bond between man and a 4-6-2 Pacific steam locomotive as David listens to the sound of the “chimney top” to gauge the locomotive’s performance.
“When it starts off you get three heavy beats, from the three cylinders. These gradually become three muffled then hurried beats as you build-up speed as you take account of the terrain all the time,” he says.
His fondest memory was when he was selected from 7,000 firemen to be part of the 1969 British Trade Mission from Boston to Houston and spent nearly two months covering 17 states in a 3,000-mile journey. Flying Scotsman was fitted with a cow catcher and an American-style whistle and a highintensity headlamp. The trip didn’t just include the Flying Scotsman locomotive, it also comprised: nine-coach train (including two Pullman cars); the locomotive crew provided by British Railways (although paid for by Alan Pegler); an observation car that was converted into a pub; trade stands for Britain’s largest exporting companies, including BP and Pretty Polly tights; a pipe major (who had played at Churchill’s funeral); and a host of mini-skirted sales girls.
Even after Alan Pegler’s misadventure, David Court was to become one of those rare breed of men who continued to drive the Flying Scotsman for various owners up to 2004. He certainly feels proud to be a small part of its history.
Above: The Flying Scotsman heading south on the east coast mainline from Berwick-upon-tweed, 18th May 2016.
JIM GIBSON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO Opposite page: Noel Hartley of the National Railway Museum firing up the Flying Scotsman in December 2015. Two pictures of the locomotive on 14th January 1963 at King’s Cross before its last journey under BR ownership. Below: Watched by his daughter Teri, Mike O’connor applies the iconic number.
NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM/SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
Scotsman in steam, December 2015. NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM/SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
Right: David Court, former driver of the Flying Scotsman.