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27th June 1928 – 6th Dec 2015

An appreciation compiled from notes by various members of the ‘Bewdley Gang’

We were very sorry to hear that former 2857 volunteer and Birkenhead Mollington Street driver Dennis Williams passed away on 6th December 2015, with a funeral on the 23rd. We have fond memories of Dennis’ years with us and his wry humour. Our earliest recollections of him are before 2857 left Barry. At that time Dennis was a regular driver on the SVR and he was clearly a ‘measured’ and professional engineman – anything but a thrash merchant. In the early SVR days it was mainly ex-LMS locos, but it was the GWR where his loyalties lay. He was a tremendous admirer of GJ Churchward and to say that Dennis was a GWR fanatic would be an understatement, to the extent that Dennis was known as ‘Mad Dennis’ by his colleagues at Birkenhead! Woe betide anyone foolish enough to put their head above the parapet to advance claims for any rival railway’s locomotives!

Once we were underway with the restoration of 2857 he frequently joined in the weekend work. We can still picture him coming up Bewdley station drive on his 650 Norton ‘Dominator’, all the way from Birkenhead and wrapped up to battle the cold, and as soon as he arrived would roll-up a cigarette consisting of strong black ‘shag’. He excelled at scraping and painting and was rather dismissive of our engineering attempts to rectify wear and corrosion. He took the unshakable view that a Churchward loco could keep going for ever, and frequently commented that “All it needs is a bit of black paint, Mister!” Nevertheless he wanted a good quality finish that we could be proud of and even took the injectors home to file, emery and polish up, with very bright glitzy results.

He was a chatterbox, never short of recollections of his footplate years. Probably his best known tale was being pilotman to a ‘Midland’ crew from Mold Junction shed, 6B, who were assigned a Saltney to Bordesley freight on no less than a 28XX. The Midland driver kept moaning and criticising this “austerity 8F” and by the time they were climbing Gresford bank he was most perturbed at the poor progress…so Dennis offered – “Shall I show you how we handle a 28, Mister?” The Midland man sidestepped, Dennis moved the pole reverser to 45% and just cracked ‘second valve’ on the regulator. Sure enough she dug in and speed started to rise. Before the summit the Midland driver, somewhat awestruck, turned to Dennis and said “Blimey, this is an 8½F!” Consequently, in honour of this story, 2857 left Barry with the power classification 8½F on both sides of the cab!

He once gave Steve Whittaker and his son, Daniel, a trip round his home depot at Birkenhead and it was typical of him that he fired up a Class 47 Brush diesel and gave them a cab ride all round the shed yard. Born on 27th June 1928, Dennis was a ‘Fireman’s Driver’. He had a passion to get the best out of any locomotive and he would use less coal and water than most. His ears would be always cocked towards the chimney and he would say “An engine will tell you that all is well or not.” He always stood out on the footplate with a very professional and confident stance and with sparkle in his eye. Dennis retired in Feb.1986 after 43 years’ service. A retired signalman who worked probably all the Wirral boxes knew Dennis quite well and he told once of when he was in Birkenhead North supervisor`s office the door burst open. In walked Dennis, in tears, said "It`s my last day!" turned round and went out – somebody who loved the job. He retired before his time, not for health reasons but because the closure of Birkenhead shed made up his mind for him. The railway Dennis came into included a respect for ‘on the job knowledge’, a pride in enginemen’s skills and the MIC classes – now gone as not relevant to the modern way of acquiring knowledge or skills. Dennis was very much ‘old skool’ and would in all probability never get a job on today's railway, yet the old railway demanded the skills that Dennis had, and his abilities and character was what made him and the age of steam so endearing to us. It is that which we try to emulate at the Valley.

His final years were marred by failing health but he was loyally and lovingly cared for by his son, Phil, who saw to it that he visited the SVR for runs behind 2857. Our loco clearly meant a lot to him and he was still sufficiently alert to pass pithy comment on the quality of the driving! His passing marks yet another severing of those invisible links with the age of real steam. We shall miss him, not least for his many footplate tales given in his guttural Merseyside accent, together with his infectious conspiratorial laughter.


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