WAR-TIME ON THE WAGON

Our country was at war with Germany and every man and woman had to do their bit. If you weren’t called up for the forces, you had to do essential work – which often meant doing a man’s job.

I was sent to work on our railway as a goods porter. We were on shifts: early morning from 7.30 until 2.30, then 2.30 until 10.30, and also a night duty which began at midnight on Sunday and at 10.30 every other night. Going off to work in the blackout when the family was going to bed was terrible – but it had to be done.

One particularly cold winter forced me to put on two of everything and must have looked even plumper than I was. Thick socks, boots and a heavy coat with a woollen hat did nothing for my appearance but, in the small and very dark hours, who was there to see?

Each two women worked with one man who was called the checker. We each pushed a long-handled barrow with a little platform at the bottom. The checker would unload a wagon and tell us to take it to another wagon. For instance, if he said “Blackpool”, I knew exactly down which platform it was. But one night, being rather tired and almost
asleep on my feet, I went the wrong way and how the checker shouted after me. “You silly ******!’’

I was scared to death of the man, but I can understand as I look back, as he was on piece work and was paid according to the weight of stuff he moved. If we came to a beer wagon (as the beer barrels were easy to roll away), it was money quickly earned for him. We had a regular wage.

But, if it was a wagon with iron bars, that was different, however, each wagon had to be dealt with as each team of men and women came to it. When one checker tried to skip a wagon with iron bars, we all stopped work – at the insistence of the foreman – until he went back to the iron bars which he’d tried to dodge. At last, order was restored and the work went on.

At meal times, we went to a little hut across the lines in the black-out. This was a perilous task and one night as we made our way with the aid of a dimmed torch we heard groaning coming from under a wagon! We bent to look, but could see no-one. We looked again… then from behind us came ‘Johnny the Joker’ as he was nicknamed, he loved to play tricks on people and, for the most part, they were
harmless, but this time he had gone too far!

The girl who worked with me, Rosie, was very fragile to look at.

She was fair, slightly built and seemed as sweet as honey but, if she was crossed, Rosie was a little she-cat. Her temper was fierce when she saw Johnny laughing his silly head off at the way he had fooled us. I can hear her now as she gave him a tongue-lashing.

“One day, my lad, you might really be hurt and it will serve you right if no one comes to help you,” Rosie paused for breath and then added: “If it wasn’t for the fact that you’re a married man with a family, I’d report you.”

Johnny slunk off, ashamed of himself, no doubt. In the black-out, in war-time, it had been rather silly to hide under a wagon.

Inside the canteen hut was a blazing fire and seated around a long table were men and girls eating sandwiches or playing cards. I often took a home-made meat and potato pie to warm in the large oven, flow delicious it tasted with the luscious gravy and crispy crust.

After eating, the men would urge us to join in a game of cards called ‘brag’, but we had more sense than to waste our hard-earned money. Actually, it was against the law to gamble, but one chap was paid to keep a look-out for the Railway Police.

One night as we ate, ‘Johnny the Joker’ told one rather backward man that there was a ghost on the line.

It was the man’s turn to help unload the Mail train, and get a few papers as a reward, but he was too scared to move, so Johnny had to go himself . Served him right.

We had times when, on day shifts we had fun, being young. One day Rosie asked me: “Which chap do you fancy?” Well, to tell the truth, I didn’t much like any of them as I thought they were too old for me but, so as not to be thought unsociable, I said: “Oh, I like Charles.” To my surprise, she turned on me, “You can’t have Charles, he’s mine.”

Another day we found a piano in a van unlocked, so one girl gave a little tune and we all had a quick dance.

Then for some reason which I can’t recall now, I was transferred to work in an iron foundry. What a different job that was – but at least I didn’t have to do night work!

Marjorie Fleur Oldfield