Women on Wheels


WE were discussing the failure of the General Strike of 1926, and had come to the usual and woolly conclusion that it was beaten by the ability of the public to run the essential services for themselves.

‘No!’ said Bill. ‘I was of the public, and I recognize my incompetence. So would you, if you had ever seen a big 4-6-2 Great Western locomotive stopped three yards from the east-bound tunnel in Earl’s Court station.’

I did see it. There must have been thousands of Londoners who saw it. In a station meant for District trains skittering like mice from one hole to another was this great green monster which had never moved without space and due ceremony, immobilized, sweating steam, and obviously terrified. The tunnel into which it would have been driven, had the six-foot driving wheels made half a revolution more, was of less height than the boiler.

‘Anarchy!’ Bill went on. ‘The skilled workers couldn’t stand it any more than a trained nurse can bear to see an ignorant mother pick the baby up wrong way round. They had to interfere or bust. It wasn’t our ability that beat them; it was their horror at our inability.’

Somebody said that paradox had no place in serious argument, and that the waiter was waiting. Bill pointed out that he had already ordered a pink gin, and that since he was a papist — as it pleased him to call it — paradox was permitted to him. Had he been a Methodist, he said, we should have been slightly shocked at any sign of wit. Which proved the respect of the English for established rights. Which led to the necessity for caps with gold braid on them. Which brought us to the Great Western locomotive in Earl’s Court station.

‘I was the guard of that train,’ said Bill. ‘I had no feeling one way or the other about the ethics of the confounded strike, but I hate specialists; I fear and resent them, whether they are bankers or biologists or skilled tradesmen. So naturally I was on the side of the nonspecialists — the public, that is. I volunteered to be a porter, but when I ran into Jimmy Fell on Paddington station he appointed me his guard.

‘Jimmy was a constructional engineer on leave from the wilds of Africa. He had been working with black labor a year or two longer than was good for him, and felt imperial; in fact, he once left me behind in the Exeter station buffet, and I only caught my own train because they ran him into the engine sheds by mistake.

’He had driven all kinds of locomotives in his time, so the Great Western gave him a main-line express and the County of London to pull it. He treated her as a pet car, and when he wasn’t on the footplate he was wandering about inside her guts like Jonah, with an oil can. I call it an express, but all the signals were permanently at danger, and we used to feel our way down to Devon from block to block, stopping to argue with other amateur railwaymen whenever we found ourselves on a line where we had no right to be.

‘After ten days or so of this, the Company chose us to take an excursion to Pangbourne. Yes, they actually wasted time on an excursion. It was a gesture, you see. Old Flugenheim always gave the salesladies of Nelson, Gordon and Company an outing in the same week of June; and Flugenheim, being both Nelson and Gordon and something in the City as well, was determined upon Business as Usual. The nation was paralyzed, but he wouldn’t disappoint his “girlies,” as he called them.

‘Well, the Great Western were moved by this touching faith in their organization, so they agreed to the excursion. Britain, you see, with her Back to the Wall. They cleared the line to Pangbourne, and at 9.30 A.M. we pulled out of Paddington with Jimmy Fell at the levers and five coachloads of chattering females between myself and him. Flugenheim and his managers naturally went by car; their lives were of value.

‘We reached Pangbourne about midday— our average of twenty-five miles an hour was excellent considering that Jimmy had climbed down twice to see which way the points were set, and had been hit by half a brick that was meant for the fireman. We never had the slightest trouble with the strikers, — we were free entertainment for dull days, — but the fireman thought he was entitled to call them names which would earn him half a brick at any time. He was a sort of Fascist, or whatever they labeled themselves in those days, and all out to smash the reds. In private life he sold silk stockings from door to door, and he was hungry for any job that needed more muscle but just as little brain. He used to splash himself with oil and coal dust to look like a real fireman. He didn’t. You’d have taken him for a traveling prize fighter who had been sleeping in a garage pit.

‘The girlies trailed off to a tent by the river to hear Flugenheim’s annual speech and eat some lunch. We could see the flags on the top of the marquee and hear the band playing a welcome. It was a blazing June day with thunder in the air, and when we had run the train into a siding the station was as peaceful as a country halt on a Sunday.

‘We ourselves lunched at the local pub, and the bar had a few jokes at our expense — five coaches of women among three men and so forth. We didn’t think them very funny jokes. There was something unnatural about those 250 females, mature but giggling. We had a sense of uneasiness, as if there had been a wagonload of gelignite just behind the engine. Perfectly safe, of course — safe as a cartload of plasticine. A man used to explosives would think nothing of going to sleep with a stick of it in his pocket, though it could blow him into just as many pieces as a wagonload. But there’s room for confidence. Whereas quantity — well, one is appalled by sheer quantity.


‘At three o’clock we went to work again. It was no job for amateurs to get the train from the down to the up line with the engine at the right end; but Jimmy was a positive chap with a commanding manner, ready to take responsibility when lesser men were doubtful. An invaluable quality in Africa, I expect. He ran the Irish boat train into a siding, blocked a down freight and borrowed its locomotive, and, by using most of the main line between Pangbourne and Reading, had hitched the County of London to the front of the train soon after four. The girlies were lined up and doing a little community singing on the platform. They were sunburned, tousled, perspiring, and shrill.

‘While they climbed into the coaches, Flugenheim paced up the platform and made a little speech to Jimmy on his patriotism and what-not, shaking his hand with decent condescension. He mistook the fireman for the real thing and congratulated him on not being led away by subversive and anti-Christian agitators. He made his money, I believe, in the Far West where a strike’s a strike; he couldn’t be expected to know that English labor leaders are generally fervid chapelgoers.

‘When this delicate ceremony was over and the doors were shut and Flugenheim and his managers lined up to wave good-bye till next year, the County of London whistled and drew out of the platform in smart main-line style. I just had time to wave the green flag and blow my own little whistle, but I doubt if anybody was taken in.

‘Before we were fairly out of the station, Jimmy stopped with such a jerk that an empty oil drum charged down the guard’s van towards London by itself. I looked out of the window. A down train was creeping at us on the up line. We had forgotten one set of points after all our shunting, and the new arrival was proceeding with caution in search of authority.

‘While Jimmy and his vis-á-vis straightened matters out, the girlies skipped back on to Pangbourne platform and began to dance. There was a lot of horseplay and shrieking, for they had the place to themselves. Flugenheim and his henchmen had left, and I was the only male in the station. I kept discreetly to my van. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that young women by the mere fact of being in a group can reach a state of excitement that would take six whiskeys on an empty stomach for the ordinary man.

‘The intrusive train passed on its correct line, and Jimmy and the fireman returned to the locomotive. I shepherded the girlies back into their compartments and walked down the train shutting doors and turning handles. We were forbidden to start till all door handles were in the horizontal position. A strict rule. Even Jimmy observed it.

‘When I was halfway down the last coach I heard giggles. I turned round. The passengers had opened the doors again.

‘“Now then, young ladies!” I said.

‘I thought my voice had just the right hearty note of tolerant authority — an amused policeman. They thought so, too. They thought I was perfect. One of the girls hollered: “Ooh! Ain’t ‘e a duck!”

‘I trotted back up the train with the proper brisk officiousness, and shut the doors. They fell in with my absurd wishes. There was no question of a struggle with door handles or direct disobedience; but just as soon as I was a dozen compartments up, the doors began to open behind me — one at a time, as neatly as a line of poppers bursting open from the bottom when you’ve nearly done them up to the top.

‘I stood by the locomotive wondering what A did next. Hitherto my job had been easy. I had to manhandle the contents of the van, keep the waybills, brake whenever I got an SOS from the locomotive, and sometimes inspect tickets. With the ordinary mixed bag of passengers, points of discipline didn’t arise. I had been accustomed to think myself as good a guard as the next; but now I was conscious of being a plain chap in flannel trousers and a sports coat.

‘Jimmy said I had no character. He put his cap on the side of his head and walked down the platform. He was lean, brown, and clean-shaven, a maiden’s dream, born and fashioned for a uniform. But the overalls of an engine driver were not, I think, the right uniform; he looked too much like a matinee idol in a stirring drama of life on the rolling rail.

‘“Ladies,” he appealed, mounting a luggage barrow, “you’ve been given a nice day, and we have to go back to London. Now be sensible, and don’t behave like babies!”

‘“A-oh, bybies!” protested a voice, half yearning, half insulted.

‘Somebody else started a first-class imitation of a baby crying, and they all joined in. You never heard such a row. Then they chose to regard Jimmy as the baby (for he was eminently motherable) and the more excitable spirits leaned out of the windows and made gestures of maternity at him. Jimmy turned white and strolled — yes, strolled — back to the locomotive. I think they must teach ‘em a special walk for the casual entering of cannibal villages. He started the train. They were all safely inside, and shut the doors themselves as soon as we gathered speed.

‘At Reading the staff of the junction had forgotten our existence, and we were held up. But Jimmy didn’t stop. He thundered slowly ahead at walking pace, and when there was doubt he reversed; he kept the County of London plunging back and forth as if he had been a dutiful gigolo guiding his grandmother through a crowded ballroom. The girlies stuck their heads out and yelled encouragement to us, but they didn’t dare to step out on the platform.

‘Once clear of Reading, we ran along with professional smoothness; there was no indiscipline except on the part of one young woman who tried to work her way along the footboard to the guard’s van. I spotted her in time, and I didn’t try any “dear young lady” appeals on her. I opened fire with a lump of coal and told her that if she didn’t get back into the train I should aim to hit next time. That worked. But my civil authority had gone. We obey a bus conductor or a guard or any honest fellow with some braid on his cap just as unthinkingly as sheep a dog. The moment his authority is tested it ceases to exist; it passes to the armed forces of the Crown — or to a lump of coal. The real trouble was that I hadn’t even got a braided cap.


‘At Maidenhead we stopped. There was nothing else for it; some damned fool was marshaling a milk train and had tied up the line. The girlies started cheering everything and everybody. They got down on the platform. There were no passengers about, only the usual skeleton staff of amateurs.

‘By this time they had a ringleader. The excitement was still spontaneous, much too spontaneous, but its direction had been taken over by one Rhoda — a magnificent creature, loudly dressed, with the luxurious figure of a roly-poly angel sitting on a cloud, but the face, I tell you, of an ageless mule. Lord, how she must have despised men! Unaccountably cold and conceited she must have thought us.

‘Led by Rhoda, the girlies cleaned up the station. They formed into bands, and played ring-ring-a-roses around every man on the platform until the whole lot had sheepishly taken refuge in the ticket office. They didn’t run, you understand. They just drifted away on business, and found their business, as it might be accidentally, behind a door that could be locked. You know the feeling of being slowdy followed through a field by a large herd of lowing cows. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You don’t run away. But you do climb the nearest fence rather than the farthest.

‘Jimmy and the fireman took refuge in noise and fog, making the County of London spout steam from its nether parts. I can’t tell you the mechanics of the process, but he caused it to throb and rejoice in its strength, pawing the lines and crying “Ha, ha” like the war horse in Job. The girlies kept at a respectful distance.

‘As for me, I climbed down to the track and watched through the intervals between the coaches. Whenever I caught a female eye, I started tapping at the wheels with a hammer. They left me alone. I suppose they felt that I knew what I was doing, and that it was necessary to their journey.

‘Now up to this point it had all been clean fun. Men do, after all, arouse a certain pity in the female breast; they knew they had the upper hand and would have been quite content to treat us with good-humored scorn if an official of their own sex hadn’t interfered. She was the ticket-office clerk.

‘I imagine she had been calling her male colleagues, who kept drifting into the office on improbable excuses, a bunch of incompetent cowards. At any rate she was a woman of character, and she was having no nonsense on her station. She marched out to deal with the mob, and began to round them up with all the efficiency of a Y. W. C. A. secretary. At that I began to tap my wheels more industriously than ever. When I thought it safe to look up again, Rhoda had crowned her with a fire bucket, and she was quietly crying in a puddle of water. The girlies paid no further attention to her. They were busy smashing the slot machines and eating chocolate.

‘This was going too far. I shouted “All aboard,” waved my flag, and blew a blast on the whistle. The line wasn’t clear, but Jimmy caught on. He took the brakes off, and the County of London shattered the artificial fog with one colossal whoosh of steam. In fact, we put up a most convincing show of a train just about to leave.

‘They were just piling into the compartments when Rhoda spoiled the picture. “You stay there, mister!” she caroled. “ We’ll get in when we’re bloody well ready!”

‘That called our bluff, of course. We couldn’t start without them — or rather it hadn’t yet occurred to us that we could.

‘ It was then that the fireman lost his temper. His contempt for Jimmy and myself had been slowly rising. After all he had sold silk stockings through the suburbs, whereas Jimmy had only had to overawe a lot of savages. He got down from the footplate and walked along the platform, wiping his hands on a black yard of oily cotton waste. A horrid weapon against best frocks in a rough-and-tumble. It gave him authority. “Get on in, you silly fools!” he roared.

‘It wasn’t courage; it was sheer lack of imagination. But his cave-man stuff damn near worked. His silk stockings had taught him a few of the more elementary facts about women. They were so startled that they began to get into the train. “Come on, ma!” he ordered Rhoda, who was rather hesitantly standing her ground.

‘She was only about nineteen, and that “ma” infuriated her. It struck her right on the sorest spot in her soul. She snatched his oily rag and wiped his face with it.

‘That was the detonator in the gelignite. They exploded. All the worry about fathers and brothers on strike, all the year spent behind counters controlling their natural instincts to be rude to people who were rude to them, all was released in one blast of females over that fireman. Before we could get up to the rescue they had dragged him into a compartment. They were yelling with rage. I suppose the only people who hear that sound are the officials of a woman’s prison. There was no doubt that the fireman was for it, if we couldn’t pull him out.

‘It was no good calling for police; there weren’t any. We dived under the train and opened the door of the compartment that gave on to the tracks. The fireman’s legs were sticking out from a tangled mass of femininity, and still waving feebly. We took a leg each and heaved, and he came out, leaving his coat and shirt behind. On our rush to the engine his trousers dropped off him — not round his ankles, I mean, but vanished, disintegrated.

‘Jimmy opened up his steam screen to throw off the pursuit, and we started. This time there was no bluff to call. They knew we were running for our lives and didn’t care how many of them we left behind. They all got in, so far as I could see.

‘I wiped the worst of the blood and muck off the fireman and dressed him in Jimmy’s overalls. He had lost a good deal of skin and part of his scalp, but all the rest of him was present and correct. He gibbered a bit, as was not unnatural, and kept grabbing at my knees.

‘Jimmy had the County of London pounding along at a steady forty. It was risky, but we were on the main line and we could see a mile ahead. We had it to ourselves. Those damned fellows at Maidenhead had held us up a good ten minutes longer than was necessary. All went well till we were just outside Ealing. There the County of London took a horrible lurch to starboard and nearly flung us off the footplate. By the time Jimmy had jammed on the brakes we were careering through a goods yard surrounded by acres and acres of trucks.

‘“I’m not stopping till we get to police,” said Jimmy, setting his lips.

‘I agreed with him. Anything was better than loosing our five coaches of lunatics into a London unprotected.


‘We cut down to ten miles an hour, and at that speed we could hear the turmoil in the coach next to the engine. Somewhere they were singing songs, but most of them were sobbing and yelling. Whenever a door opened, I flung a lump of coal at it.

‘The line was clear. Lord knows for what mysterious traffic the points had been set! Once we were in a cutting between houses where the rails were rusty with disuse, and once running alongside a maze of District lines, all of them electrified. The County of London was bouncing like a dinghy in a tide rip. She squealed, rocking, round those switch-back curves. I could see that Jimmy was in agony, for he loved that locomotive and the driving of it; but we looked at each other and at the fireman, and we kept going.

‘We must have been dodging through the London suburbs for nearly a quarter of an hour when we staggered round the worst of all the curves and down an improbable gradient and saw a deserted station ahead of us.

“‘Royal Oak?” asked Jimmy, as if he had just sighted the coast of America in the wrong place.

“‘Must be!” I said.

‘Of course it was absurd. When you’re running into Paddington on a fast express, Ealing and Royal Oak go by in two flashes. But we hadn’t the faintest notion where we were, and it never occurred to us that we had left the Great Western system altogether for outer space. We thought we had merely taken a very roundabout route to Royal Oak, and we blessed it; for Paddington and whole posses of police could only be two minutes away.

‘Jimmy opened her out a little, and it was then that we saw a huge notice of EARL’S COURT, and the mouth of the east-bound tunnel. As I say, we stopped a matter of three yards from it. We made one collective jump for the stairs, dragging the fireman between us, and got away before the terrors behind us realized what had happened.

‘I heard that when the strike was over they took the County of London apart, and lifted her out with a crane and a breakdown gang. The professional railwaymen said it was impossible to drive a 4-6-2 locomotive round those curves. I dare say it is; I swear the leading bogie jumped the track once, and then bounced back again. But what really horrified them was anarchy. I don’t think it was coincidence that the strike ended two days later.’