A Lifelong Career

Whether its unseasonally snowing outside or feeling a bit more like spring, our volunteers are always committed to welcoming visitors into STEAM! Here, Peter Pragnell tells us about his lifelong career at Swindon Works and volunteering at the STEAM Museum.

It was 1950 when I started working at Swindon Works, aged 15. I was an office boy in the offices where Churchward House is now. The works closed on the first Saturday of July for ‘trip week’, and I started the first Monday after trip. When I arrived, I was there with six or seven other boys waiting for the personnel manager, who was called Mr Browdler. On my first day, he said ‘Who can ride a bike? Right, you stay here’. The other boys were put round the works and they would get tips by running errands for the workmen. In the office, you didn’t get tips because they were too tight, so I had the rough deal!

I was there for 6 months, but I often misbehaved! The staff in the workshop used to leave earlier in the day. One day I was asked to go and take some papers to the other side of the works for duplicating, in what we called the ‘body shop’. I said I wasn’t going over there because by that time they would have gone home, so I was reported to the head clerk! He said ‘You do as you’re told’. Even though I explained that it was a waste of time, he said I still had to do as I was told. Three weeks later I started my trade. I started my training as an apprentice in the works 6 months early. That meant I had a 10 bob a week rise, because I went on bonus.

I was a maintenance carpenter. The workshop was called a mason’s yard. It was a building maintenance depot that covered the whole of the maintenance works. I was repairing doors, repairing windows, and making boxes for materials to be sent to other stations. When they changed over to diesel, we made boxes for the different types of engines that could be sent out. Otherwise, we were maintaining the traversing tables, putting new decking on there, and such like. We did everything to do with building maintenance. You could get anything made in here. People used to say that about half of people in Swindon used to work in Swindon works.

One time, we had put this brand new door up in the wagon shop. It was almost finished, just a few more bolts to go on the hinges. The foreman came up to us after lunch and said ‘I thought you was putting a new door in on the wagon shop?’ We said there it is, ready to go. He said ‘Well it isn’t now!’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said a shunter had sent a wagon straight through it! So now we needed to go and get a brand new door. That was the kind of thing that happened in the workshop.

It was very strict in the works, especially time wise. In 1957, I moved into lodgings. I was 22 at the time. The same year, my father moved to London with his offices, but he died just after moving up there. So I went back to live with my mother and my eldest brother. We used to catch the 6:18 off of Reading Station – this was back in the steam days – and get to the works for 7:20am. I missed it by two minutes one day and got to work at 9 o’ clock. When I got in, it said ‘See the foreman before starting’ on the chit box. When I found him, he said ‘I’ll let you off this time, but if you do it again, I’ll send you home without pay!’ I would be up at 5 o’ clock in the morning to walk a quarter of a mile to catch a bus to the railway station and then catch the train.

On the side of the chargeman’s cupboard, in the boiler shop, there’s a sign that says ‘No cycling in the works’. You had to have a permit to cycle in the works, and the only people who had permits were the foreman. One day I had to go and see to a job half an hour from where I was working. The chargeman asked if had my bike, so I got on it and went down the conyard to find out what it was that needed doing. On my way back, I was stopped by security. By the time I got back, the chargeman said to the foreman that I had been reported for cycling in the works. I said the chargeman asked me to do it! He said ‘That’s no excuse, you know the rules. If you do it again I will suspend you. A day’s work without pay’. That’s how strict they were. On foot it would have taken me 2 hours, and I’d earn less than 10p for that! But the camaraderie in the works was second to none. The only other place you’d find the same camaraderie is in the armed forces.

I left in 1971, started again in 1979, and left again in 1986 when the works closed. I just missed out on my long service medal; I would have got it if I’d stayed on.

I started volunteering in 2002. They had volunteers who were ex-engine drivers and ex-guards, but they had no-one who used to work in the workshops. I wasn’t sure at first, but I had a friend there, Alan Philpott, who took me under his wing. He said I could talk about my job, that’s what the people wanted to hear about. I’ve been here ever since then. I also volunteer for ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which also started in 2002. I was 5 years old during the Second World War, so I tell the school children what it was like growing up through the war.

I really enjoy talking to the visitors to STEAM and telling them about my experiences.

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