The Engine Shed in Operation

This Engine Shed was what’s known as a ‘running shed’,  or a ‘sub-shed, which means it was responsible for the day to day maintenance, cleaning and refuelling of the locomotives that operated on the Northampton to Bedford line. For more major repairs these locomotives would have been sent to a larger repair shop, with specialist equipment for dismantling locomotives and lifting heavy equipment. When railway companies built sheds like this they did so with practicality and efficiency in mind. Each job within a shed had a set time limit to be achieved. In order to gain bonuses employees were expected to cut these times by at least a third, but were pressured to cut the time in half. If this was not achieved then workers were only paid a daily ‘basic’ wage. This policy was scrapped in the 1920’s because it caused much ill feeling amongst workers. To understand this site it is important to what jobs the crew had to do, and in what order, to get a train back on the line. The boiler should be full, tender filled with coal and sandbox filled before the Enginemen came on duty to take the train out.


A steam train, could burn up to 2.3 tons of coal a day. This produced a lot of ash. Upon its arrival into the yard the first job the crew must undertake is the emptying of this ash from the fire grate and the smoke box. In front of the shed was an ash pit, a trench located between the two rails, normally around 300ft long, 3ft 3.ins deep, lined with firebricks. It was the job of a labourer called a Fire Dropper to shovel and rake out all the ash from the grate into the pits. He was also responsible for removing any fuel still burning in the firebox with a shovel and throwing it by the side of the track to cool, hence the name ‘Fire Dropper’.

A Fire dropper in action

It was the job of the Ash Filler or Ash Pit Labourer to empty the ash from the pits and load it into wagons so that it could be taken away. There was also a Cinder Sifter who would use a hand sieve to sort the ashes looking for good and useful coal and half-burned cinders which could be reused.

Labourers emptying an ash pit at an engine shed (c.1920s)

Like many by-products of Victorian industry, the ash itself was reusable and therefore had a commercial value. It was particularly useful to brick makers, who mixed it with clay to make new bricks.

Watercolour by E.H Dixon, Kings Cross, London The Great Dust Heap, Wellcome Collection (1837)


Midland Railway Class 2, 4-4-0 steam locomotive number 502. Specially painted for
Midland Railway, Class 3, 4-4-0 locomotive number 857, shows the tender loaded with 5 tonnes of coal (National Railway Museum)

At the same time as the engine was at the ash pit, the tender, a cart attached to the engine to hold its fuel, would be refilled with coal for the locomotives next run. Coaling was a heavily labour intensive process, particularly during the 1800’s. One labourer was expected to shift approximately 15 tons of coal per day. Shed yards usually held around 3 days’ worth of coal in order to make provision for shortages in coal production. This was usually stored on site in 20 ton wagons. A labourer called a Coal Stacker would be responsible for piling up stock of coal on the coaling stage by building up a stack with walls of large coal. They would also mark the coal with whitewash to prevent theft. A labourer called a Coaler or Coal Filler was then responsible shovelling the proper packing of coal and for ensuring that tender contains required amount of coal for journey. It was important to ensure this was done correctly otherwise coal could fall from the tender when the train was in motion. This would not only be costly to the company, but potentially dangerous if it fell off as the train passed through a station. There was also a labourer called a Coal Picker, who collected coal which had fallen on to permanent way from wagons at places where coal is handled.

A coal stage typical of the sort that would have been near the Engine Shed


Illustration of a train being gang cleaned (1929)

Once the locomotive was refilled with coal, it would be stabled inside the shed. The next task was to clean the engine and check it for faults. After the fire had been dropped, and the last of the steam in the boiler released, the train would have to be allowed to cool down before it was cleaned. A boiler usually had to be allowed four to six hours to cool down. Any less time and the addition of cold water to hot metal could cause damage to the engine. Passenger trains tended to be cleaned by individual cleaners, whereas goods trains, which were in the shed for more limited periods and less regularly, were gang-cleaned – usually around four cleaners in a gang. Each cleaner would have a particular role: rough cleaning (scraping dirt from brake gears, springs, frames and so on), wiping, polishing. The Manual of Locomotive Running Shed Management, written by William Patterson & Henry Webster, 1925 lays out the following timescales for locomotive cleaning.


It is therefore not likely that an engine could be cooled, washed out, examined and ready for use again in less than 10-12hrs.

Cleaning the Firebox

A cleaner climbing into the firebox


Many of the jobs involved in cleaning a locomotive were specialised and were undertaken by a particular individual. One of the hardest jobs was the cleaning of the firebox, the area of the train in which the coal was burnt. The cleaning was usually done by a Junior Engine Cleaner under the supervision of the Steam Raiser, the man responsible for lighting the engine ensuring it is producing steam before it leaves the shed.  Cleaning the firebox was one of the most dangerous and uncomfortable jobs in the shed, because it involved physically climbing inside the firebox, which was often still warm from the fire. This meant that the cleaner could only be in the box for short periods for their own safety.

A cleaner inside a firebox, taken from an LMS promotional film (1929)

Once inside they had to ensure that the firebox tube-plate, crown sheet and brick arch were all scraped and swept clean of the deposits accumulated during the burning of solid fuel. The tools used for this role include a tube-end scraper, small rake, steel wire brush, shovel and bucket. The brick arch of the box would also be swept clean and any defective or broken bricks replaced. The brick arch directs heat, flames, and smoke back over the fire towards the rear of the firebox. Visible smoke contains unburned combustible carbon particles and combustible gasses. The purpose of this redirection is to cause more complete combustion of these particles and gasses which make the locomotive more efficient and causes less visible smoke to be emitted from the stack. Without the arch, flames and visible smoke would be sucked straight into the firetubes without having been fully burned, causing visible smoke to be emitted at the stack.

Diagram of a locomotive firebox and boiler from the Handbook for Steam Locomotive Enginemen page 38. British Transport Commission. (1957)

Tube Sweeping

A cutaway of a locomotive boiler, showing the fire tubes (National Railway Museum)

The Locomotives which came into the Engine Shed had what is known as a Fire Tube Boiler. In this type of boiler, hot gases pass from a fire through many tubes running through a sealed container of water. The heat of the gases is transferred through the walls of the tubes by thermal conduction, heating the water and ultimately creating steam. Ash from the fire could accumulate and block these tubes, which would damage the tubes and lead to a total failure of the engine. Therefore regular cleaning was essential.

A locomotive after a boiler explosion, exposing the boiler tubes

Tube sweeping, the cleaning of the tubes which feed smoke from the firebox, through the boiler and into the smoke box, was usually completed after the firebox is cleaned. This made it easier to feed tube mops through the firebox end of the tubes. Tube mops were made of untwisted hempen rope, cut into short pieces and passed through a loop formed at the end of the tube rod. These rods were 1 ¾ inch diameter steel rods designed to be pushed through the boiler tubes. This job was completed by labourers called Tube Sweepers under the supervision of the Running Foreman. They also would also inspect the tubes for damage.  Later sheds utilised steam cleaners which blast a jet of steam through a nozzle on the end of a rubber tube connected to a steam engine.

Boiler Washing

Boiler washing, another job undertaken in the shed, was dependent upon the quality of the water fed into the boiler. Dirty water or hard water, water with a high level of mineral deposits, would cause deposits to build up inside the boiler, like Lime scale in your kettle at home. These deposits could clog pipes and reduce the efficiency of the boiler. So a source of clean, ideally low mineral, soft water was paramount for an engine shed. Main line locomotives, which ran more regularly tended to have their boilers cleaned twice a week, branch line engines once a week. These cleans had to be properly scheduled in for when the locomotive was not required.

Washing Out.jpg
A locomotive having its boiler washed out, Derby Works 1911 (National Railway Museum)
St Johns 1939
The hydrant at St Johns Station

Once a boiler had cooled down, the usual method of cleaning was with cold water and cleaning rods, done by as labourer called the Boiler Washer-out or Boiler Cleaner. Boilers had plugs, which helped keep the water in place when the boiler was full, just like your bath. These wash-out plugs were removed and a hose connected to a hydrant, which pumped water through the boiler and sluiced it out. It was then inspected by the Boiler Foreman. The plugs were then replaced and the boiler refilled with cold water. The hydrants required for boiler washing and refilling were usually in the form of a low pillar with a draw off tap (left). They came with a hose of leather or rubber, usually with about 30ft of length and screw coupling.



Spit and Polish

LMS locomotive undergoing cleaning (1939)

The Engine also had to be cleaned externally so that it could be properly inspected for safety and so that it had a smart appearance. The common practice was to wipe the Engine down with cotton waste or cloths. Boiler plates were cleaned before they cool down. The use of oil and tallow on varnished paint work was prohibited, warm water and soap was used instead. Dry cloths were then used for the final wiping. Polished areas were cleaned with powdered ash, bathbricks and emery cloth. Hand rails were lightly greased to prevent rust. The work was usually done by Shed Boys, young labourers, who entered the service around 12 years old. These Shed Boys would work their way through the grades to Passed Cleaners to Firemen to Drivers. The idea being that they would develop the specialised knowledge of the inner working of the trains as the completed their tasks. Cleaners were rewarded for their vigilance if they reported defects on the engines such as broken springs, missing collars and pins, fractures in frames and so on. Each cleaner was issued with a ‘Danger Board’, a chalk board marked with the time and the task they were doing. They had to display this board at the proper place when working on a locomotive so that people knew where they were and what they were doing. Each cleaner was supplied with scrapers, a lamp, waste or cleaning cloths, bathbrick (a form of scouring pad), emery cloth and petroleum or cleaning oil. Supplies of cleaning material are issued by stores and carefully monitored to avoid wastage.

Raising Steam

Diagram showing the correct airflow in a firebox (LNWR Manual of Locomotive Firing (1918)

Once the locomotive was fully cleaned and inspected the fire would have to be prepared by a worker called a Steam Raiser, so that it was ready to run again. The Steam Raiser was responsible for seeing that fire is lit under the boiler and for ensuring the boiler is filled with water before the engine leaves the shed. He would make sure that a proper head of steam has been raised by the time driver takes the train out. In order to ensure it was ready to go on schedule and to avoid wasting coal and water, the Foreman would have fixed times for the lighting up process to begin. The steam pressure inside an engine needs to reach 100lb per square inch by the time the Engine Crew signed on and took charge of the engine. The usual method for lighting an engine is that the Steam Raiser would line the grate along the firebox side with coal, leaving the centre of the box bare. After insuring that there is sufficient water in the boiler, the Steam Raiser would place several shovel loads of live coals, obtained from the sand furnace, into the centre of the grate. The damper is opened and the firebox door closed, allowing the lit coal to ignite the coal around it. It usually took approximately 2.5 to 3hrs for the boiler to reach the correct pressure.

Steam Raiser adding hot coals to the firebox to fire up the engine.

cleaning the shed

After the last train of the day was serviced all equipment such as tools and hoses were methodically put away after use and the Engine Shed itself had to be cleaned. Including the inspection pits which had to be swilled out on a regular basis. The inspection pits were generally lime-washed to promote cleanliness and improve conditions for workers. The Factory and Workshop Act 1901 stated that all engine sheds inspection pits should be lime-washed every 14 months.  Shed cleaning was usually done by labourers who were too old, or physically unfit to continue with footplate work.

Safety First

Finally, before the Engine Driver and Fireman would take the train out they would conduct their own set of safety checks to ensure that it was safe to take the train out. The Fireman would inspect the under carriage of the train from the inspection pit, whilst the driver would ensure that the wheels had been properly greased and would check for defects. To do this he would use a method called Wheel tapping. He would strike the wheels with a small hammer and listen to the sound they would make. Cracked wheels like cracked bells don’t ring properly. Once these checks were carried out then it was time to take the train out.

A Driver greasing the wheels (c1920s)
wheel tapping
Wheel tapping listening for defects (c1930s)