Fred Risk recalls the members of his family who worked on the railway

Resource Type: Audio | Posted on 13th March 2012 by Liam Physick

Fred Risk remembers how he would go round to visit his aunts. He next tells of how his cousin was a plate-layer, responsible for laying down the lines, his uncle and wheel-tapper, responsible for tapping wheels to make sure there were no cracks in them, his grandfather a shunter and then a signalman, and another uncle worked in the Birkenhead Goods Depot. Birkenhead Town Station was built by the Joint Committee of the Chester and Birkenhead Railway, which was operated jointly by the London and North Western Railway and the Great Western Railway, and opened on 1st January 1889, in order to serve Birkenhead, which was becoming a commercial centre. The line carried trains from Birkenhead Woodside, the terminus, to London Paddington, so not all stopped at Birkenhead Town. The Birkenhead Town Goods Depot predated the station, and had been built by the LNWR on the site of the former locomotive shed at the original Birkenhead terminus, Grange Lane, which had closed in 1844. In 1934, the Queensway road tunnel to Liverpool was opened opposite the station entrance: this led to the demolition of many houses to make room from the tunnel, cutting off access to Birkenhead Town, which was eventually closed on 7th May 1945. The Goods Depot closed on 29th May 1961, and Birkenhead Woodside shut on 5th November 1967 when the line it served was closed down under the Beeching Axe, deemed superfluous, despite the fact that the station remained busy, as the same route could be taken from Lime Street

Interviewee: Fred Risk

Interviewee Gender: Male

Date of Interview: 16th February 2012

Interview Transcript

Fred: My aunts all lived around that area as well, two of me aunts lived very close (indecipherable), I used to go and, I used to go and see them, but, yeah, there was, a lot of railway people lived around that area as well, guards and train drivers and, and me, me cousin was a (coughs), was a plate-layer, and my uncle was a wagon, wagon-tapper, wheel-tapper, he used to go round tapping the wheels to see if they were, to see if there were no cracks in them . . .

Jenny: (sounds intrigued) Oh, right!

Fred: . . . he used to have a long hammer, and he used to tap the wheel and, you know, it had to ring true, otherwise, I don’t think they do it now! (he and Jenny laugh)

Jenny: What would a plate-layer be?

Fred: What was the . . . ?

Jenny: What would the, your cousin, was it, plate . . . ?

Fred: He was a plate layer.

Jenny: What did they do?

Fred: So they lay the (coughs), the lines, you know, they, if . . .

Jenny: Oh!

Fred: . . . they had to renew the line, they had to take the old one up and put the new, new section in and, and they used to have to trim the ballast underneath the . . .

Jenny: OK.

Fred: . . . underneath the sleepers and that sort of thing, you know. They used to have a section of track to, to look after, and . . . he, he was, he was that til he retired, so, that was quite . . . yeah. My grandfather was, Barbara’s got his information, he, he was a shunter and then a signalman, you know, I, I, I, I can’t remember much of him, he was just another old gentleman as far as I was concerned, and, but, he, that was his life on the, the railways, a shunter then a signalman, he wound up as a signalman I think he was, I always knew him, knew that he was a signalman, it was only Barbara who found out that he, he, he, he’d also been a shunter as well, you know, but, that was that family, I don’t know . . . I don’t know any, any of the, oh, one of me uncles, he worked on the, on the other side of the, in, in the goods depot in Birkenhead . . .

Jenny: Oh, yeah

Fred: That was one of my mother’s brothers. I think that’s about all they had in the family as far as railway people were concerned! (laughs)

Tagged under: railway workers, liverpool lime street station, drivers, signalmen, beeching axe, sleepers, great western railway, guards, london and north western railway, shunters

Categorised under: Work & Industry

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By Jack Enright on 5th June 2015

Fred is mistaken in thinking that wheel-tappers were testing wheels for cracks; actually, they were testing for loose tyres.
A railway wheel is made in two parts. The centre is a casting, and the tyre is a ring of very tough steel. When the wheel is assembled, the tyre is heated on a ring of gas jets so that it expands enough to be pressed onto the centre. As it cools and shrinks, it grips the wheel centre tightly enough to stay put, as the inside diameter of the tyre is slightly smaller than the outside diameter of the centre.
It does occasionally happen that a tyre cracks, or works loose, and that’s the reason for the wheel tapping. If the tyre is loose on the wheel, when the tapper hits it with his hammer, instead of giving a clear ring, it will go ‘clunk’, instead, and the tapper will label the wagon or coach as ‘Not to be Moved’.


Jack Enright

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