When I was in my early teens, I sometimes kick about with friends who lived on a neigbouring estate. One of the attractions there was a railway line that ran along the bottom of several back gardens. Diesel engines on this line hauled hoppers, which we called trucks, full of coal from the nearby Bates’ colliery, now long since closed and demolished. With that blindness to danger that many teenagers suffer from, we used to ride on those hoppers for kicks.
The railway held a great attraction for us as kids (Stand By Me had nothing on us). The barrier of thick hawthorn bushes that ran along the bottom of the gardens had been breached in several places, where boltholes had been opened up, and through these we gained access to the railway. We laid all manner of items on the line, to see the effect of the wheels of a heavy train rolling over them, including pennies, a six inch nail and a dead rat. But the real thrills came via riding the hoppers.
Waiting for a Train
We sat by the side of the track, chatting and smoking while waiting for our ride to arrive. When I saw the yellow and black chevrons of the engine appear underneath a nearby road bridge, I would be almost pole-axed in a fit of excited butterflies.
We hid behind a grass mound until the engine went by and then, as the tail end of the train was passing, we ran onto the track behind the last hopper. These were so designed that cadging a lift was no more difficult than climbing a ladder; there were bars to grab onto and even a steel step to help us climb aboard.
The train rumbled along at a top speed of about 20 miles per hour, and so it was easy to catch up, but sometimes one of our number lacked the required pace. As this slowcoach puffed and panted along the track, we gave shouts of encouragement and stretched our arms out so he could grab a hand, like a re-enactment of the closing scene in Von Ryan’s Express. If he failed to make it then he was left behind, unless he had the cigarettes, in which case we all jumped off and abandoned the trip.
Once safely on board we used the lower bar as a step so we could look over the top of the hopper at the ones in front of us, remembering to duck when we went under a bridge. Someone usually stood on the buffers to keep guard by peeping out, watching for one of the drivers jumping off in an attempt to catch us. This was a common danger that could result in a severe arse-kicking, and on many occasions we alighted en masse on seeing a figure jump from the engine. We also kept a wary eye out for the colliery’s own policeman, whom we called the colliery cop, in his distinctive green mini van, and, of course, regular police patrols. We were schoolkids getting kicks, but some older fellows on the estate had a more lucrative reason for engaging with the hoppers.
The Phantom Truck Tipper Strikes
In order to secure beer money for the weekend, some less than scrupulous adults would run alongside a laden hopper, and somehow pull the lever that opened the hatches underneath, thus causing it to unburden its load along the track. On these occasions, word spread through the estate that someone had tipped a truck, and tons of coal was lying on the track just waiting to be collected. While those who had caused the spillage filled sacks they would later sell door-to-door, the rest of the estate, men, women and children, swarmed over the booty for a share. There was more than enough to go round.
Such spills really brought the local community together, as families from the estate laughed, chatted, and even sang, while helping themselves to buckshee coal. All kinds of receptacles were used to transport the filched fossil-fuel home, from, appropriately, coal scuttles, to buckets and shopping bags. And while my memory might be playing tricks on me when I say that a middle-aged woman held out her pinny while her teenage daughter scooped coal into it with her hands, they were certainly both there.
Sometimes the green mini van would make an appearance and everyone funnelled through a gap in the hawthorns to make their escape via the garden of a sympathiser. Back in the street, women would stand innocently chatting at their doorsteps as though they knew nothing about any spilled load, but their coal-smeared faces and grubby hands betrayed their participation. A few buckets and shovels may have been lost in these raids, but as soon as the coast was clear the ants returned to their anthill. Eventually, the pile would diminish until it was gone, and it was time for the parched-but-penniless on the estate to tip another truck.
Stealing Coal in Carpet Slippers
Many years after I’d leapt from a coal hopper for the final time, a friend from those days came into a bar where I was working, and we got chatting about old times. He told of one day, when there were several people gathering coal from the railway line, the appearance of a police car caused the freeloaders to scatter. One of their number, an overweight middle-aged woman, Mrs G, struggled to climb the bank to safety. My friend and another helped her up the hill by applying a shoulder each to a buttock, and shoving. As they toiled, my friend noticed that the woman was wearing carpet slippers. Imagine your gran going out to steal coal in carpet slippers!
Of course, when I look back at my coal hopper riding escapades now, I shudder at the thought of how much danger I was putting myself in. Larking about with moving machinery that weighed many tons and couldn’t be easily stopped was a stupid thing to do. But then, isn’t bravado a trait of our teenage years?