Former colleagues recall fireman known as ‘the colonel’

By Geoff Courtney

While much of the recent attention about the fatal fire on the footplate of Britannia No. 70051 Firth of Forth has understandably and rightly centred on the driver, Wallace Oakes, some thoughts of railwaymen from the time of the tragedy have also turned to the fireman, Gwilym Roberts.

Wallace died from terrible burns a week after a blowback on the footplate of the Pacific on June 5, 1965, when the Carlisle-bound express was travelling at 55mph through Winsford station north of Crewe.

Rush-hour traffic: Class 31 A1A-A1A diesel No. 31183 (formerly D5604) approaches Farringdon station with the 6.07pm Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City commuter train on Wednesday, August 18, 1976, when Gwilym Roberts was based at King’s Cross driving Class 31s on the route. Roberts was the fireman on the footplate of Pacific No. 70051 Firth of Forth in June 1965, when a catastrophic blowback engulfed him and his driver on the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe. No. 31183 is hauling non-corridor coaches, these services being the last use by BR of such stock on timetabled trains. In the background, resembling a church, is Smithfield Market, a Grade II-listed building that was opened in 1868 on a site that has been the location of a livestock market for more than 850 years. KEVIN LANE. Inset: Gwilym Roberts in 1987, a year after retiring from BR.

The 33-year-old former LMS man was hailed a hero after he averted a major accident by remaining at the controls and bringing the packed train to a stop, but such was the inferno on the footplate that he suffered 80% burns that were to end his life.

He was posthumously awarded the George Cross and a Carnegie Hero Trust medal, which became part of a private collection in the mid-1990s, and were bought by the National Railway Museum at auction last year for £60,000. Interest in the sale revealed that Wallace had laid in an unmarked grave at St Matthew’s Church, Haslington, near Crewe, since his burial nearly 53 years ago, and this was remedied on February 1 when, following a fundraising appeal by Heritage Railway, a memorial headstone was dedicated at his grave.

One of the retired railwaymen who subsequently researched fireman Gwilym’s background was Brian Perry, whose entire railway career of nearly 50 years was spent at King’s Cross, starting as a cleaner at ‘Top Shed’ (34A) in September 1957, Brian, now 76 and living in Peterborough, became a driver in 1973 covering a variety of main line and suburban passenger and freight work, retiring in 2006 only months before his half-century as a railwayman.

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