The Ballad Of Porky Upton

I am typing up Eric Blackburn’s hand written notes of his life. Eric lives in East Yorkshire with his wife, Shirley. Eric’s nicely into his 90s. He started work at the age of 13 as a farmers boy during WW2 in ravaged Hull. Pursuing a love affair with steam trains he managed to change job and start on the railways as a porter and eventually progressing to the footplate as a fireman and sometime driver. On this ‘journey’ he endured all that Hitler could rain on him in blitz bombing raids (and collecting the spent ordnance!), rationing, the loss of both of his parents, completing National Service before emigrating to East Africa to work on the railways in Kenya and Tanganiyka (Tanzania). His story is very much a joy for anyone interested in the detail of steam trains but some of the stories about American soldiers posted in Hull, his first day on the footplate experiencing a suicide on the rails, derailments and the odd wonderful insight into the everyday life on the railways is a delight. Here is an extract, enjoy.

“For many years after the war a popular Saturday evening entertainment was a dance held at Withernsea, for which a special train was provided, and to which many of East Hull’s young flocked. So as to not fall foul of strict Sunday entertainment laws, the dance ended at 11.55am. By which time many of the young men, fuelled by alcohol, had gained a reputation for some rowdy, but usually good natured, behaviour, often wishing to climb aboard and drive the engine. And whilst the train was in motion, for a bit of fun, frequently pulling the communication cord, bringing the train to a halt. A trick especially prevalent when arriving on the outskirts of Hull. This gave them the opportunity for a short cut home and extended the running time considerably.


One of the perks of the job was free entry to the dance, and whilst I have never learned the pleasure of dancing, I had no intention of missing an evening’s free entertainment. Also tell me, what else is there to do on a Saturday evening in post war Withernsea? To that end, by wearing a clean white shirt, clean blues, and a pair of polished leather shoes, I made myself presentable.

I had a trouble free run to Withernsea with an London Midland Scotland style 4MT and on arrival ran around the train and in preparation for our eventual departure, ran down to Withernsea’s solitary and rather distant water column and filled the tender tank. Whist this engaged I noticed the fireman’s injector water valve leaking half a pipe of water. Jiggling the valve handle failed to cure the defect, and this was to have serious consequences later that night. Returning and coupling to the train I settled the engine down for its long wait by screwing the hand brake hard on. Fixing the reverser in mid gear and opening the cylinder drain taps. At the same time I instructed my fireman, one Porky Upton (so called for his rotund figure) to let the front of the fire to die out, but build a substantial back end, ready to push down and spread before our departure. With our duties fulfilled, the dampers closed and the jet shut off, we left to sample the delights of the nearby dance venue.

Now Porky, unprepared for the dance floor, had come in his stout working boots. And before long was making his mark on the dainty feet of whoever dared to dance with him. Inevitably the supply of girls dried up, and Porky came and sat beside me, complaining of his boots and the damage they were inflicting. I cannot now remember now who’s idea it was, his or mine, but in next to no time he had expropriated my shoes, and though they were several sizes too large, was, not without some difficulty, but with gay abandon, happily steering them around the dance floor.

And so, lost in a world of music and jollification, the evening wore on until by 11pm my thoughts turned to preparing the engine for our return trip. With these thoughts came a memory of the leaking water valve and its drain on the tender tank. In particular I dwelt on the probable long delays inflicted by mischievous passengers on the way home. “Come on Porky”, I called. He was in possession of my own shoes remember, and without them I was helpless. Porky in the meantime, getting on famously with a bit of hot stuff, who in turn seemed to fancy a bit of rough, chose to ignore me, until in the end I had to turn nasty. By which time it was approaching train time. Swapping footwear we dashed to the engine to find it slumbering away with only a half a glass of water, and less than a 100 on the clock. A quick check showed a significant loss from the tender tank, and with the probability of a long delay looming, and a lack of water points between Withernsea and Hull, I decided to ‘lowse off’ and arrange a run down to the water column for a top up. In the meantime Porky, having pushed the back end down and spread it around the grate was, by taking advantage of a tender of good quality hard steam coal, busy shaping up a sound and serviceable fire.

Back on the train I found the Station Master in full uniform, as if to emphasise authority, demanding to know what the delay was about? I had a ready answer in the two delinquents wishing to climb aboard and drive the train. At the same time pointing out neither he nor I knew when we might finally arrive back in Hull, and in those circumstances, every drop was precious. In any case I had decided to leave before the Station Master made further enquiries. It was a bold, and on the face of it a mad insane decision which would put all the passengers at risk. For because a low steam pressure, when I blew the train brakes off, I could only raise three inches of vacuum against a working minimum of eighteen. Leaving me with little or no braking power. To work a train with less than 18 was against the rules, and might seem just about as foolhardy an action as was possible to undertake, and if discovered would surely cost me my job, if not a charge of serious criminal negligence. But as a young man made of stern stuff, I weighed things up with a cold calculating and confident eye. And without further preamble I left.

The return trip had only two booked stops. The first Marfleet, a small urban station on the eastern extremity of the city and then Southcoates Station serving the busy Holderness area. Except on the most congested lines, the most humble of freight trains could expect a clear run through, and I anticipated no less from the signalmen. Giving Porky and myself ample time to raise steam and water levels, and restore full braking power before our first booked stop. And if, as expected, we experienced out of course stops, these would give Porky more breathing space.
Praying the brakes had improved during our stay, I opened the regulator. My luck held, and with a clean bright fire to raise steam quickly, I left Withernsea behind. Before long the fun and games commenced with some joker pulling the communication cord. This occurred several more times between Withernsea and Marfleet. To the accompaniment of raucous laughter and discordant singing, and though this was Sunday, they were definitely not hymns. I made a perilous journey in the dark each time, to identify which tell tale disk was turned, followed by an equally perilous climb to return it to its running position.

Between Marfleet and Southcoates Stations the railway skirted the eastern edge of the city. It was along this stretch that most of the communication cord applications occurred, when the east Hull worthies applied the brakes. Giving them a golden opportunity of a short cut home across the tracks. After a night of high drama, the curtain fell at Southcoates Station. Here a long delay took place, and whilst peering down the dimly lit platform for the ‘Right Away’. I became aware of a young lady, although I use that term with some reservations, being escorted along the platform draped in railway overcoat. It transpired later she had been discovered in a state of undress. Many of her outer garments being thrown willy-nilly out of the carriage window as the train progressed. Whether this was the result of that iconic game strip poker, heavy petting, or a hot flush, remains a mystery. She seemed to take it in good part, so all’s well that ends well.”

2 thoughts on “The Ballad Of Porky Upton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.