Getting Up Steam In Godmanchester
As a child growing up in the West Country, summer invariably involved various rallies of vintage motorcycles riding pillion on my father's Douglas Dragonfly. These events also included cars, tractors etc, but of course, for sheer atmosphere, the road locomotives or "traction engines" stole the show with ploughing displays and arena turns. Here in Godmanchester we are privileged to find two such locomotives which are synonymous with the Middlemiss family. I spent a very pleasant evening in the company of John and Willem learning more about these wonderful machines.
Steam "arrived" in the town in 1968 when the Middlemiss family relocated from Bellingham, near Hexham and headed south. Whilst today the A1 traffic is not conducive to moving stately locomotives, back then it was feasible to travel with a showman's living wagon and fuel trailer. After five days they arrived here in GMC with The Busy Bee and thus the most recent chapter of steam began.
Whilst East Anglia was until recent years viewed as an agricultural region, traction engines are quite at home here. Builders in the region included Savages (Kings Lynn), Aveling Barford (Grantham), Burrell (Thetford), Davey Paxman (Colchester), Peter Brotherhood (Peterborough) and, of course, Fowell of St Ives who built 107 locomotives. The traction engines generally fall into the agricultural locos and road-rollers, with a maximum speed of 3-4 mph, and the showmans engines which could clip along at 10-12 mph. However, these speeds are not compatible with our average traffic on the dual carriageways of the 1990s, and consequently, movement to events is now often by low-loader rather than under steam.
The road loco fraternity differs from their railway counterparts in that most traction engines are family owned and this has led to the development of a marvellous camaraderie which can be observed at any gathering. There is an increasing interest in steam, but it is deeply entwined in the Middlemiss family tree; direct involvement can be traced back to the early days of steam in Darlington. Many of you will fondly remember John's late wife, Maria, who served the town over many years and was also renowned as a very precise steerer. A traction engine requires at least two people, a steerer plus a driver, the latter acting as the fireman skilfully building the fire and balancing steam pressure, whilst the steerer was responsible for manoeuvring heavy machinery on the streets. In today's traffic a lookout is also often required due to vehicles approaching rapidly from behind- perhaps the Red Flag Act should be reinstated
Owning a locomotive will necessitate a range of routine activities, after all, it takes 1.5 to 2 hours to steam up. The availability of good Welsh steam coal is less than in the past, and the poorer imported coals have a higher ash content and more sulphur, which affect the performance and ash build-up in the firebox. In addition to the annual autumn drain-down, maintenance and winter storage, there will inevitably be other more major tasks. Consider the costs when to replace the rubber on one rear wheel is £2000 and a new boiler £10-15000! Willem's early life soon involved hands-on effort when at the age of six he went into The Busy Bee's water tank to paint it - no one else was small enough! Indeed, it is fair to say that in one's early years coming into contact with traction engines is dangerous, John first saw The Busy Bee when the show came through his hometown. She was built in 1914, and John became the "third careful owner" in 1952 when a diesel vehicle resulted in the loco being made available for purchase. This was one of the very first traction engines bought for preservation.
Willem, his brother Ted and Willem's son Tom have grown up with traction engines, and Willem has owned Nero for 12 years. John has detailed the showmans engines Nero (named after a Lion) and Rajah (named after a tiger) in a book about the history of the Bostock & Wombwell Menagerie. Rajah has also survived and resides in Devon - perhaps one day they will be reunited.
John is currently writing about the centre steam engines which used to power the fairground rides such as "The Galloping Horses", and he is frequently called upon for information from all over the UK. Willem has striven to ensure authenticity on Nero in the livery and lettering. John will quickly point out that showmans engines were working vehicles, the number of lights which now adorn some locomotives would not have been there originally, after all the power was needed for the fair. Other locomotives are preserved in this area, Tony Warwick is currently restoring one here in Godmanchester, in Alconbury the Coulsons have two engines and Geoff Gilbert has one in Wood Walton.
So, there you are, a passion which thankfully preserves some of our important industrial / agricultural history and results in a great atmosphere wherever they are in steam. Hopefully either The Busy Bee or Nero will be in the Gala Parade, so ensure you're there to soak up the nostalgia
Willem is intending to have a Steam Up at The Exhibition on 10 October, so make a note to come along to the final outing prior to winter.
Many thanks to John and Willem for sharing their enthusiasm Stuart Bond