There’s something that is both wholly impressive and utterly petrifying about seeing an 82-year-old boilersmith scramble up into the cab of a steam locomotive. Gordon Reed, one of the longest-serving volunteers at the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York, is a railwayman of a different vintage.
Reed began his career in 1948 as a 16-year-old apprentice at the locomotive works in Darlington while steam was still king. The train mentioned before was the LNER Class A4 4468 Mallard, which currently sits at the centre of NRM’s Great Hall. Gordon was climbing on board to show off the best photo opportunity. He dived feet first into the firebox, drawing the attention of a perplexed security guard.
Everyone at NRM knows Gordon. He’s been working on the railway in some capacity for almost 70 years.
In 2014, he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement honour at the annual RailStaff Awards celebration in Coventry. His vast experience as a boilersmith has contributed heavily to the restoration of the Rocket, Mallard, Duchess of Hamilton and City of Truro – the first British steam locomotive to top 100 mph – among others.
It’s a culture
‘I’ve had a fair amount of big-headed publicity,’ said Gordon, sitting in the museum’s cafe, complete with flat cap.
Gordon began his career as a boilersmith in the same year the big four were nationalised and became British Rail. It was just three years since the Second World War ended and the country was still recovering.
‘It’s a culture, I had to learn it,’ said Gordon. ‘I’d gone to a grammar school at Newcastle so I wasn’t streetwise, but there was a boilersmith who looked after me called Billy Golightly and I’ve always remembered him.
‘He kept an eye on me because like a lot of young of men some of them were streetwise before they got in the works. But within six months, don’t worry, I knew as much as they did.’
Met on the turntable
Between 1954 and 1956, Gordon served on a military railway, living a ’Sergeant Bilko existence’ as he put it.
‘Then I came back and in a moment of madness, I went down to an engine shed in Bishop Auckland – a nice little town. That’s where the Bishop of Durham lives – he’s lived there for hundreds and hundreds of years – and that’s where I met my sweetheart. We met on the turntable.’
Gordon’s sweetheart, Joyce, worked in the office. Her dad was a driver and she also had two brothers on the railway – one was a fireman and the other was a shunter.
‘One day, the shed master said to the chief clerk, ‘send Joyce out to find the boilersmith, Gordon Reed’ and the chief clerk said ‘I’ll go and get him’ and he said ‘no she’s got to learn.’
Apron strings people
Gordon and Joyce married and moved to Darlington. The end of steam meant the end of Bishop Auckland as a railway town and the end of Gordon’s career as a boilersmith. As a result, Gordon moved into track welding, attending night classes to complete his training, and went onto the LNER.
‘It was a relatively easy transition,’ said Gordon. Reflecting on his time in Leeds, Gordon added, ‘It wasn’t a railway for Namby Pamby, apron strings people, the LNER. You had to be prepared to move about and leave your mam and your dad.
‘…I was really busy on the permanent way. I worked virtually every weekend. My wife has a diary and she’ll open it and she’ll see I’ve gone six, seven, eight weeks, Saturday nights, Sunday night, working nights on the track.’
Gordon eventually rose through the ranks to become the chief welding inspector for BR’s Eastern Region and then the welding engineer for East Coast Intercity. He eventually retired in 1994 but returned to BR a year later as a consultant. The rail gene appears to have been passed down, as Gordon’s son works for Northern Rail as a deputy chief controller.
In the 1980s, with a desire to return to steam engines, Gordon began volunteering at the museum. For Gordon, the workshop at York is home; it’s a connection to a long-gone era for the railway. A time when climbing into the cab of a steam engine didn’t result in a light grilling from security guards and panicked looks from PR people.