Elephants come to town

Recollections of John Humphries

Transcribed from a recorded interview made by Allan Guy (2000)

[AG] "To recapture some of those glorious days of steam I tracked down former Dursley Donkey driver, John Humphries, in the garden of his home in Wotton-under-Edge."

[JH] "I hadn't long been passed for driving, 1954, and I was only about 22, and Bertram Mills Circus had a travelling circus, travelling all over Britain. Well, we went down light engine with the donkey, took the coaches off the main line and brought it up to Dursley. Well the noise of the animals, there was lions, tigers, full grown elephants, was absolutely unbelievable. We had a job to make it to Dursley, but when we got to Lister's foundry which is a big S-bend, all the elephants were being thrown over one side and it looked as if it was going to come off the road and the coach behind that was going the other way. We thought 'Blimey, we're never going to make it.' So, we did finally make it and we put them into a lay-by, a dead-end where they could open up the coaches but they dare not open them because they were full of terrified animals. The roaring of the lions and tigers and elephants was something that Dursley people had never heard before and they must have wondered what on earth was going on. However, eventually, when it quietened down they opened the elephants' doors and nothing happened. The circus people formed a big circle in the station car park and then all of a sudden the elephants took fright and charged out. Now who's going to stop a load of frightened elephants? They charged all up Long Street and people going down Long Street must have thought 'What the hell was that went by me then? I can't believe it.' It was a load of elephants. Where they ended up I don't know, but there used to be a policeman up at Dursley then, directing the traffic. Well, I'm sure if he was there he had to run for his life. I don't know where they stopped eventually but I daresay it was about halfway to Gloucester."

[AG] "When did you start driving the Dursley Donkey then, John?"

[JH] "1952."

[AG] "And how long were you at it?"

[JH] "Well I was driving more or less nearly all the time after that and when Beeching axed the line about '60 or '61, I'm not certain of the date, I got sent to Gloucester. I was driving on the main line then from Bristol Temple Meads to Derby and also everywhere."

[AG] "Now the Dursley Donkey was a 0-6-0 tank engine wasn't it?"

[JH] "Well, it was very famous really because it was the last type of engine, No.1 freight, left on passenger work in the whole of Britain and I bought a book the other day, a railway book, and it shows you two of the engines, the actual Dursley Donkey engines, are still running in the Forest of Dean, Dean Forest Railway. That's 4126, I think it was, and 4127. And there was 48 as well."

[AG] "What was your routine as driver of the Dursley Donkey? Did you get there at sort of 6 O'clock in the morning?"

[JH] "Actually there was a man, a lighter-up, but he got the sack and us drivers used to go on and light the fire at 1 O'clock in the morning. The first train wasn't till about 6 O'clock. Then we'd be relieved about 11 O'clock and then a Gloucester man would take over for a short time and then the afternoon man would come on, 2 O'clock, a Dursley man would come on and it was alternate shifts like that."

[AG] "How did you actually light up the engine?"

[JH] "Well, it was exactly the same as lighting a fire in your grate. You had little wood burning things, a collection of sticks and sawdust and paraffin all mixed up with it. You put a couple of these in, you cover the grate of the fire with coal, make a little hole, put one of these, two of these in, and some wood on top and that would light the engine fire."

[AG] "These were firelighters, sophisticated firelighters?"

[JH] "Yes."

[AG] "And how much coal would it burn in the course of a day going up and down?"

[JH] "Oh, that's really a hell of a lot. I daresay, with a 20 ton wagon, that would last us about two days. I mean, the amount of traffic that was coming up to Dursley, which was unbelievable. Every siding between Gloucester and Bristol, at the stations, was full up with traffic waiting to come up to Dursley. It was said jokingly to be the only link with the outside world. Everything came up by rail, there were no lorries then. In fact when I came up they still had the stables and they'd just done away with the horses for going round all the farms and the factories. But they did have these three wheel lorry things."

[AG] "Scammels or something weren't they?"

[JH] "I think they called them horses actually."

[AG] "Yes, sort of articulated lorry type things, little articulated lorries with three wheels, a wheel on the back..."

[JH] "...and a trailer behind."

[AG] "In between hauling passenger coaches up and down the line what did you have to do from the freight point of view?"

[JH] "You didn't have any time. When I came up here in 1949, the amount of traffic coming up.... the station yard was choc-a-block the whole of the time. There just wasn't room to get any more in there, and it was quite a big yard. See, the railways supplied Lister's factory, they had their own private sidings. Churnworks for timber... another, we called it no-man's land, that was for pig iron, sand and other things. Then they had the new shed, which was a whole trainload of goods being loaded up all day for going all over Britain."

[AG] "I see, so you brought in the raw materials to Lister's, and presumably Mawdsley's as well up to a point."

[JH] "Oh, yes and there was Champion's carpet factory there, all the shops. Everything was supplied by that little train."

[AG] "And then you were taking out the finished diesel engines and the harrows and separators and auto-trucks?"

[JH] "When I first came up there, we were taking away whole trainloads of electric light... you know in the war... searchlights. Lister's were still making them and shipping them out abroad. Every day a trainload of them left."