Dirty work!

09 Nov

I am descended, as is my wife (who does all the genealogical stuff in our household) from long lines of agricultural workers who seem periodically to have jumped into more modern occupations.

For a specific example, one of my great-grandparents started his working life as a “groom” to the carriage horses of the Earl of Stradbroke but saw the way the world was progressing and finished up as the Chauffeur of the first motor-car of the prominent Cobbold family in Ipswich.

Similarly, there are several other “lines” (if you’ll pardon the expression given what I’m about to say!) where humble agricultural families suddenly became, in the mid-19th century, “Railway Workers”.

Now I’m sure you’re all thinking “That’s over a hundred words and there is still no real sign of what this is about and where he’s going with it!”

Well, don’t rush me – I’m getting there!

This article is a “leftover” from the piece I did a while ago (5 years ago, actually, and you can find it here: ) concerning the great parties that used to be held at my house in Beaconsfield Road, Ipswich in the 1970s and particularly from the mention therein of my friendly neighbour, Brian. It wasn’t really appropriate in the earlier article and you may well decide after reading it that it isn’t appropriate anywhere else either!

Nevertheless it is something else that comes to mind when I think of those parties and if this site has any purpose at all it is to set down my memories as a “backup” against the day when some cosmic I.T. Department accidentally formats my personal internal hard disk (or “brain” as some would call it)!

Like it or not I’m going to tell you anyway, so there!

In the previous piece I mentioned Brian’s brewing and curry making skills but there was insufficient room to say much more about him. Plus it would have resulted in me getting seriously “off-topic” and I’m sure you’ve realised that I ramble off the subject quite enough already!

Brian was approximately 40 years of age when I knew him, as tall as me (6ft 4in) and possessed a magnificent black “handlebar” moustache which gave him a resemblance to the common caricature of a World War 2 RAF Wing Commander!

And, in common with a number of my ancestors, he worked on the Railway.

Not, it must be said, in the menial labouring capacity that I imagine the remoter of my railway forebears left agriculture for but as a Driver working out of Parkeston Quay, Harwich and Dovercourt at a time when ferries for the continent were not “containerised” as they are now but still on- and off-loaded freight by crane to and from trains “parked” alongside the waiting ship.

When his shift pattern allowed and his wife, Ruby, took the children to visit their Grandparents, Brian could often be found round at my house chatting about this and that over some of his own home-brewed beer with my lodger, Andy, myself and any of our friends who happened to be around.

And, when I mentioned him in the previous article I was reminded of one particular story he told us.

It concerns the working practices of the gangs of workmen involved in laying new or replacement railway track. It is no longer wholly relevant as most such activity is carried out on special trains that work on the same general principles used to lay transatlantic cables; that is the lengths of track to be laid are carried on special trains and are welded into one continuous length before being fed out onto the track bed and automatically fixed to the concrete (formerly wooden) cross pieces, or “sleepers”.

Such specialised and semi-automated trains are quite recent innovations and include special additional carriages for the workmen to eat, shelter and (for all I know) even sleep in but before such things existed much larger gangs laboured to lay the tracks by hand. Any railway rolling stock used consisted mainly of the flat-bed trucks carrying the lengths of new rail and not many facilities existed for the workforce (known as “Platelayers”) who were usually bussed to and from the working site.

For such things as the storage of food and drink for ingestion during the working day were Lunch Boxes and Thermos Flasks invented but provision was not made for removal of the inevitable waste products!

Men, and there would almost certainly never be Women doing such work, do not have too much of a problem divesting themselves of unwanted urine! I know from my own sea fishing activities that all you have to do is walk down to the water’s edge and simply increase the volume of the ocean by a tiny amount. Or, if fishing on the breakwater of Dover Harbour, simply stand at the rail (assuming the wind is off the land behind you) and take the appropriate action towards France.

Removal of other waste (Look! I’m trying to be as delicate as I can here, OK?) is a bit more of a problem – on my fishing trips I avoid it completely by planning ahead – but the railway workers, being simple, bluff, working men, adopted a very direct solution. They would simply squat down between the tracks and do the necessary on the nice, new, creosoted wooden sleepers!

Very nice for them I’m sure but not so great for their colleagues or the next shift who would have to walk out along the tracks from their transport while avoiding treading in these little piles of poo!

Brian told us that, as with most occupations that develop their own vocabularies over time, the railway workers devised a term for these unpleasant heaps and he told us what it was.

Thereafter if Andy or I spotted that one or the other was about to tread in dog poo (this was before the days of pooper-scoopers or fines for irresponsible dog owners) we would give warning with “Watch out for the…….” and use that expression.

So if you ever are in my presence while out walking and you hear me say “Look out for the Platelayer’s Weasel” just watch where you’re treading!


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Posted by on November 9, 2016 in Ipswich


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