Many thanks for all the kind comments about this story – here it is in its entirety
We return to the earliest days of the railways…………
Manchester, England, November 1830
William Bleasedale was sure that the aroma of a frying rasher of bacon was the finest smell of all. An event so rare in his household that it guaranteed a special day was in the offing. And today was most certainly a special day.
As he made his way down the rickety stairs, the sound of children playing, fighting, or just being children filled the small cottage which was home to William, his wife Anne and their offspring, Cedric, Charles, James, Caroline, Lottie, Henrietta, Elizabeth, William and Florence.
For William, a man with a bent towards melancholy, it felt that the children occupied every nook and cranny of the house. He constantly fretted over providing enough for them and for Anne a sturdy, stoical woman who combined the duties of motherhood with working on the looms at Joseph Sander’s mighty linen mill in Newton Heath.
James took his Father by complete surprise as he clambered out of the cupboard where he slept. A boy clambering out of a cupboard was not in itself unusual, young Cedric slept in the coal scuttle, but it took William several seconds to recognise the boy as his son and thus part of their chaotic but effervescent home life.
Anne, dreaming of universal suffrage, tended the rashers and eggs sizzling in the pan. William watched her with silent ease, pleased that the lustre of their relationship still shone as witnessed by the plethora of children but also in the quiet moments they shared when his humourous anecdotes and mimicry would cause his earnest wife of fourteen years to giggle and slap his arm in mock outrage.
“Morning!” William said.
“Morning Father!” the five children present chimed. The three eldest Elizabeth, William and Henrietta had already left for work hauling coal from the Pit whilst the youngest, three month old Florence, slept peacefully in her cot, a welcome relief from the croop that had caused Anne seemingly endless nights of interrupted sleep.
William sat in his chair by the hearth and examined his boots, left specifically there each morning. The soles were worn but the uppers remained in good condition and Charles had given them a fine polish. The promise of a fresh penny did wonders for the boy’s concentration.
“Well done Charles! I can see my face in them!” William tossed the promised penny to his son who stared at the coin as if it were treasure plundered by Drake himself from the Spaniards. The other children gazed upon the fortune in their brother’s hand.
William pulled the boots on and double knotted each lace. As usual the left shoe felt tight around the little toe, but that was a private discomfort and not for anyone else to know or care about. The boots squeaked as he stood and walked to the table.
Anne dished the rashers and eggs onto the plate. William cut himself a slice of bread and savoured the wonderful meal set before him.
“I most certainly shall Mother!” He ate with relish, giving silent celebration for the pig. A pig which had shared the couple’s bedroom all summer. He felt a pang of regret as Mr. Jellicoe, the butcher slaughtered the swine (whom had been christened Thomas by the children) for sixpence three weeks previously. But it meant that there would be meat to feed the family through the long winter that had now settled upon them.
With the exception of Charles who remained enraptured by his coin, the tots stared at their Father in the hope that he may cut a slither of bacon or egg for them to taste. Experience had taught them that this kind hearted man would usually provide one or two with a titbit. But not today. This special day.
Having wiped the grease off the plate with his bread, William lit a pipe. A piece of bacon rind was stuck between his two back lower molars, the only molars still in his mouth. He flicked at the rind with his tongue, trying to dislodge it.
The tobacco smoke plumed and furled in the low ceilinged room like a genie leaving its clay potted lamp. The children sniffed the air and enjoyed the giddying aroma of the Virginia Leaf.
“Shall we fetch it down now Father?” Anne asked.
“Indeed Mother.” Anne scuttled upstairs. Lottie followed her. There was clumping and bumping on the ceiling and the sound of a door hinge in need of lubrication creaking open. Before long Anne’s heavy footsteps were heard on the rickety staircase. She returned carrying a large box, nearly the same size as her. She set the box on the table, opened it and revealed a magnificent stove pipe hat, fully two feet in height.
The children were agog to see such millinery splendour in their small home and gasped as their father still sat at the table, placed it regally upon his head.
“My, my Father, aren’t we the handsome one!”
“Thank you Mother. Not bad for an old ‘un! Did you find the pea for my whistle?”
“I’ve allowed each of the little ‘uns to lick it for their breakfast, should keep the pangs at bay for a while. Don’t forget your flags.”
“I won’t.” He smiled at her. She returned the smile and began to fuss around the kitchen, lifting pots, wiping crumbs, cleaning children’s faces with spit and a cloth. She felt nervous for him. Her man.
“Both the green and red one?”
“Yes. May I say Mother, you have excelled yourself with this canister.”
The leather canister containing the flags was Anne’s idea. It was her late Father’s who claimed he had plundered it from a dead Bonapartist at Waterloo fifteen years previous (a claim that barely stood up to scrutiny given her father was in prison for eating a stolen potato peeling at the time).
How fitting that the Old Iron Duke himself, Wellington was going to grace the day. The man who had saved England from tyranny, frogs legs and the evils of metrication. Anne found the flags fitted perfectly into the canister after she had cut an inch off the flagpoles. William had not noticed. Normally he did.
He was pleased as punch. A man who carries his tools to work is definitely man of substance. Especially on a day such as today.
William checked his pocket watch. It was time to leave. He slung the canister over his shoulder and placed the pea free whistle in his waistcoat pocket. Anne wiped invisible dust from his jacket lapels and looked with pride upon her husband as he leant forward to peck her on the cheek. The stove hat fell forward covering William’s eyes, a problem soon remedied by adding paper lining to the hat to fasten it more securely to his head. Wisely, the hat was not put on until he had left the lee of the house.
Accompanied by Lottie and squeaking boot, he began the short walk to work pondering the size of his late father-in-law’s noggin but nevertheless proud of his hat and canister. Neighbours called out wishing him good luck, some with an undercurrent of jealousy that “Tippy Toes Bleasedale” as he was nicknamed, had landed such a coveted position on the Liverpool Manchester Railway.
Children followed down the street in a gaggle of ragged excitement and even Mr. Jellicoe, apron dripping from the slaughter of beasts, came to the doorway of his butcher’s shop to pass on his best wishes.
William smiled and flicked his tongue over the trapped bacon.
“This is as far as you go now Lottie, off home to mother.”
“When can I come to work with you Father?”
“Fret not child, only two years to your eighth birthday and then I’ll get you a job at the Pit.”
On the Station platform a plume of steam arose from the ominous engine, liveried in bright yellow, that bore the name “Rocket” on a bold brass plate. Stephenson and Locke were fussing around the machine, staring at dials, tapping gauges, polishing brass work. Anything to pass the time. Stephenson looked above to the heavens scanning for rain clouds.
Edmonds the taciturn engine driver, selected for the task because he was taciturn, sat idly on the locomotive’s footplate, oblivious to their discussions, smoking a pipe.
Locke looked up at William as he arrived.
“Fine ‘at William.”
“Aye Sir, was wife’s father’s afore he died. Bin savin’ it for special occasion.”
“And this is a special occasion!” Replied Locke enthusiastically before returning to distract himself with agreeably pointless tasks around the machine.
William retired to the Storeroom, knocking his hat askew as on the lintel. His co-worker Arnold Quilley was brewing tea, something Quilley, another veteran of Waterloo, was apt to be found doing. Brewing tea and talking sedition in the guise of Irish Republicanism were the two favourite pastimes of Arnold Quilley, native of Roscommon on the island of Ireland.
William opened the canister to retrieve the two flags. He practiced waving them in hopefully a stolid and dependable manner. Confident that the waving was up to scratch, he drank the tea. The pair each smoked a pipe.
“Big day,” Quilley said.
“I could take Wellington with one shot with me musket. One shot to free Ireland from the English yoke.”
“Are you going to?”
“Go on then.”
The heads of people, adorned in caps, bonnets or stove pipe’s, bobbed past the room’s opaque window. The pair heard gasps of astonishment from outside. Even dogs yelped when they first set eyes upon the locomotive beast.
People were accustomed to steam engines and mechanical leviathans producing the wealth that was being spewed out of the factories and mines but to see such a magnificent machine with wheels; a machine that would transport them to Liverpool in less than an hour! Well, the collective mind of the people boggled.
William thanked his luck that Locke had been in the Foundry that day as he waved a flag to inform the smelters to release the pig iron into the ingots. A grand opportunity now lay before him.
The zealot preacher Ezekiel Pardew appeared, berating the ungodly nature of the mechanical beast before them, “The Lord’s fury will by vented upon all railers!” he proclaimed and continued a speck flumed invective against contraptions, motioning machines, traction engines and a broader assault on the scientific notions of mankind before finally desisting and gawping at the activity in front of him.
At something he or no other man has set eyes upon before.
The Rocket spewed steam, cussed and strained to move. The noises were new. Never heard before. Noises created by man. In the forge, in the engine rooms, in the imagination and the art of the possible. Man had conquered nature. Bent it to his will and this is how his triumph sounded.
The mechanised world was imminent.
The Iron Duke, Wellington, arrived with a haughty demeanour one would naturally associate with the greatest living Englishman. He inspected the Rocket, prodded wheels and tubes with his riding crop and asked questions of its construction, nature and performance to the nervous pairing of Locke and Stephenson.
After satisfying his curiosity and perhaps allaying some of his nerves, The Duke and his retinue retired down the platform to their specially prepared carriage. The crowds of people cheered such a grand presence, Napoleon’s conqueror no less, in their shabby town of Manchester, although one or two expressed regret that the Prime Minister was not wearing his medals. For his part Wellington graciously raised his riding crop to his hat to accept the adoration.
Locke signaled to William. Now was the time.
“All Clear. All Clear! Those journeying to Liverpool should all board now!” he shouted. He and Arnold, the would be assassin, pushed the crowds away from the train and carriages to allow Wellington to make safe passage.
Once the Duke was safely aboard, William unfurled his flag and waved it energetically in the manner he had hoped. Stephenson standing on the footplate with the suddenly energetic Edmonds, gave him the thumbs up. The Rocket’s whistle produced a shrill blast, causing the crowds to draw breath. Once more steamed spewed from all the machine’s orifices as she began to slowly peel away from the platform.
William realized that he had waved them off with his Red Flag, when he had intended to use Green. In the excitement he had got mixed up. A small point to most, but to a man as fastidious as William something for him to brood upon at home that night.
Locke had noticed to. He shook his head at William. There would be a reckoning.
Slowly the carriages passed by. Wellington and William caught each other’s eye. There was a look of palpable fear on the great man’s face, not even the threat of defeat at Waterloo had caused such a base fear in him as the fear of being hauled hauled by this ghastly traction contraption, conceived, designed and built by Northerners.
On iron rails!
William had intended to doff his stove pipe to the Duke, but time, circumstances and the paper lining now made that impossible.
The train was now free of the platform, puffs of steam arose from the Rocket as it chattered and cursed in its mechanical tongue and busied itself with its journey to Liverpool.
The silence of the crowd soon gave way to cheers and roars. Even Ezekiel Pardew, who endlessly preached of the ungodliness to be found in joy let alone happiness cheered to the rafters as the world changed irrevocably in that moment. The moment a train passed from view.
William walked back to the Storeroom, his boots squeaking in accompaniment. This time he remembered to remove his hat before entering.
He was pleased. He had set the first ever passenger train on its way and his flag waving had proved a vital feature of the proceedings. Even if the flag was the wrong colour and the Duke of Wellington looked decidedly off with the whole venture.
Quilley was once again brewing tea.
“Could have bagged him with a single shot. I could have set Ireland free. Tea?”
“Aye,” replied William. He sat, brushed a piece of stray cotton from his hat and flicked the piece of bacon still stuck between his teeth.
It had been a special day.
I hope you enjoyed the story. Here is a song called…..Waving Flags – by British Sea Power – who are brilliant!
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