It is not primarily a book about railway accidents, still less is it about American Railroads. It describes in some detail the progress of a boy engine cleaner through various grades to become a top link driver. In early and mid-Victorian times, a smart and energetic young man could achieve this distinction in his early 30s. By the end of the century, such promotion was only achieved by much older men. These then are the days of no continuous brakes on trains, of a brake van to every four coaches, unrestricted working hours, and firemen having to crawl along the running plate while running at speed, to oil the valve gear, and drop a ball of tallow down the blast pipe to lubricate the cylinders. If part of the valve gear dropped off, enginemen were expected to execute running repairs, by tying up the broken parts with rope, wedging the piston over the valve ports, and then to proceed to the next station on one cylinder.
There are accidents featured, but each is a little morality tale, of how slipshod workmanship, laziness, ignorance and failure to observe the rules to the letter had fatal consequences.
Reynolds started work as a boy cleaner aged 11 or 12 on the London & North Western Railway, and continued his education by spending hard earned pennies on building up his own small library, once walking several miles to buy a cheap copy of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. He worked diligently, putting in hours of private study of locomotives, their repair and maintenance, progressing through the ranks to become a top link driver on the “Irish Mail”. At some point he transferred to the London Brighton & South Coast Railway and became consulting engineer to the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants – it is not clear which event came first, but he came to the notice of William Stroudley, the Brighton Loco. Supt., and was made a Locomotive Inspector, with wide ranging duties concerning engines and men. Stroudley had a reputation as a stern but fair disciplinarian. It is possible that Reynolds came to his notice while representing a driver at a disciplinary hearing. Reynolds had a high opinion of Stroudley, dedicating this book to him “As a tribute of respect and esteem”.
Although Reynold’s prose style is a trifle florid – somewhere between Samuel Smiles and Charles Dickens, he is a fluent writer, explaining technical matters well. It is somehow typical of Reynolds that towards the end of the work, he suggests that if you feel the urge to offer a gratuity to a loco driver, if arriving on time in bad weather, or making up lost time after a delay, then a donation to the Railway Servants Orphanage at Derby would be an appreciated and appropriate gesture. There are several books by or about 20thc loco drivers. This is one of the few which vividly illustrates foot- plate life during the period when railways were “growing up”.