Posted by: wrha | April 18, 2020

Working on the Waverley Route – Bill Blake

It was 1946 and I was 16 years old when my uncle sent word to my mother that there was a job going on the railway. I went to see the inspector at Hawick and he arranged for me to go to Edinburgh for a medical exam, which I passed, and started work the next day as a surfaceman on the Stobs Camp to Whitrope length.

I had to cycle 9 miles every day, in rain, hail or shine from Hawick to Stobs Camp and back. If it was raining we’d go to the hut, but if we were soaked and the rain had stopped when we arrived, we had to get straight on with the work.


Bill Blake, back row, second right – Photo courtesy Bill Blake / WRHA Archive

My first job was riddling the ballast to remove the muck and ash. It was my job to hold the riddle and catch the ballast shovelled at me from a few feet away. I’d shake the muck out over the bank and throw the clean ballast back, level it and tail off the edge. It was a hard job and my back ached. I don’t know how I managed to cycle back to Hawick! The blisters on my hands were like sixpences when I got home. I put gloves on the next day but my hands soon got hardened up.

You had to turn your hand to nearly everything; knocking keys in, realigning, repairing, mowing, fencing, ballasting, drainage. It was just hard labour, nothing else. Every man had a length to look after and I spent a lot of time mowing and raking the embankments before hoeing and clipping the edges to keep them neat.

A lot of pride went into the work and the appearance of the line. Tailing the edge of the ballast was one of the nicest jobs you could see when it was all finished. One man would lay a shovel from the rail and mark a rut in the path at the side and lay a line of single stones along it to mark the edge of the tail. Then two men would work the ballast to you and with your shovel you’d pack it up to the sleepers creating a perfect slope.

Once a year we had to walk along all the fence backs and pick up coal. When an engine was climbing up the bank and the firemen came to a hard lump he couldn’t be bothered to hammer, he’d throw it down the embankment. It was our job to go and bring it back up again. Mind you, ninety per cent went to the huts and our houses! We did give some back though.

Instead of walking to a job we would sometimes cheat. If a goods train was coming up the bank we would gesture to the driver, “Whitrope?”. “Nay problem”, he’d reply and we would jump into the guard’s van. I remember one day we were going up through the tunnel and I could feel the long train picking up speed. By the time we reached the signalbox at Whitrope we were over the summit and were travelling at over 20mph. We were waving like mad at the signalman who realised what had happened and stopped the train 2 miles down the line at Riccarton. Just by luck there was a pilot coming up and we got a lift back to Whitrope, but we would have been in trouble if we’d got caught!

Sometimes I would be given the job of walking the track in our gang’s section from Stobs Camp to Whitrope Tunnel and back checking for cracked fishplates, knocking in loose keys and looking for anything out of the ordinary.

One day I had just passed Shankend when I noticed a long dip stretching the length of three of the sixty foot rail panels. I couldn’t work out what had caused this so I went back to find my Uncle Rob the signalman at Shankend box who agreed to come up and take a look. When he saw the dip in the line he realised the embankment was sinking and went back to call the Inspector at Hawick who came up immediately on a pilot engine.

When he arrived he declared it an emergency and sent for the Newcastleton and Hawick permanent way “flying squads”, about 80 men in total. Just by coincidence, there had been relaying taking place nearby and there were some spare rails left over. Eight of these rails were taken and chained together on the ends of the sleepers to strengthen the track temporarily.

After a few weeks, the order came through to sort out the embankment on a Sunday. Cranes were brought in from both Carlisle and Edinburgh and the track was taken up from both sides and the gangs started digging. They dug and dug, deeper and deeper to a depth of about ninety feet and never did find the cause of the problem so the boss gave orders to fill it back in again with some extra rubble brought down from Edinburgh which must have done some good because it didn’t ever sink again.

Every distant signal on the line had a fog hut and when needed I would be called out for fog signalling. I would cycle from home up to the signalbox at Stobs Camp, collect a red flag, a green flag and some detonators then make my way to the distant signal, just north of Stobs station. I’d make a fire in the brazier and sit in the fog hut watching to see if the weight at the bottom of the signal post changed position.

If the signal was at clear you’d just let the train pass but if it turned to danger we had to lay detonators on the track which would crack when the engine passed over them letting the driver know the distant was against him so that he could slow down for the next signal.

We would sometimes work in Whitrope tunnel ballasting and line gauging. We worked by lamplight and one of the tricks some lads would play was to throw a piece of ballast at the lamp to knock it over and put out the flame, then in the darkness they’d wipe the soot from the tunnel walls across people’s faces. When they came out they’d be black with soot but it was all done in good fun.

If a train came while we were working there was always a mad scramble for the recesses in the walls, or sentry boxes as we used to call them, but you would actually be alright if you stood flat against the tunnel wall.

One day we were working in the tunnel with an inspector called Jim Wilson. When it was time for a break, Jim would blow his whistle and everyone would make their way out of the tunnel to the permanent way hut near the summit hut where they kept their bags. Jim always liked to make sure he got a seat and this day he and I were the last to arrive at the hut so he said to me, “Boy, go and cut me a big sod”. So I went and cut a sod and brought it back and Jim said, “Now go and put it on top of the chimney”.

Well it wasn’t long before the men came scuttling out coughing and spluttering on the smoke fumes. Jim said, “You can take it off now”, then went into the empty hut and sat down in his favourite seat!

Another bad trick we used to play involved faulty detonators with broken straps which could no longer be fixed to the rail. These duds were kept in the huts and sometimes somebody on their way out would throw one on to the fire blowing it clean out, making everyone jump!


This article originally appeared in the WRHA members’ journal “The Waverley” issues 5 & 6, Spring & Autumn 2004 and has been reproduced here as part of our historical articles series during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Interview transcription for WRHA by Andy Stoddon.

Bill Blake sadly passed away in 2015. Throughout the time we knew him at WRHA he always kept in touch and often visited Whitrope to see how we were getting on, having become a member of the association. He was always made welcome and became our honorary permanent way man, often giving advice as we laid track and ballasted.

Copyright WRHA 2004 & 2020. Not to be reproduced without express permission.