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Open Features: Sid With Brush And Bucket – Part One

...Anyone who knows about the old trolleybuses will know about the ‘de-wirements’, those times when, at a junction or going over a breaker, one of the trolleybus booms would detach itself from its power cable. Once free it would wave about like Toscanini. There was a certain sharp corner near Hammersmith Broadway which was a kind of miniature Cape Horn. I remember a small furniture store on that corner which used to get its window smashed by the wildly flailing boom of a number 630...

Sid picks up a "guzzler'' and goes into action as a trolleybus cleaner.

Jacqueline Finesilver brings us another wonderfully entertaining episode of her father's life story.

When I got back home after the war I spent my first days of freedom brightening up our dingy little flat. I laid the paint on with such gusto that our neighbours invited me in to do the same in their house. There was a difference, though. Their old wallpaper was coated with thick varnish. Brown varnished walls – why would that seem like a good idea to anyone?

Well, if I tell you that I spent hours attacking that varnish with hot soda and bits of broken glass and lumps of brick, soaking and scoring and scraping, then you'll guess why. Their walls were almost impossible to damage. But I persevered and then coated them with bright distemper. Before any one else in the street got ideas I quickly cleaned myself up and rushed out to get a proper job.

I took myself off to the Hammersmith Broadway Bus Depot because I fancied myself as a bus driver. Unfortunately, the Broadway seemed to be jammed with ex-Army drivers. I had no experience and no chance. Not a driver, then. So what about conductor? No, they didn't need any just now. Right. I got up to go. But perhaps ... (did I see the interviewer glance down at my hands?) .... trolleybus cleaner?

Well, no. Thanks all the same. Not what I’d had in mind. The wage was £4 19s 6d per week. Oh? (That was more than I’d get if I returned to my old job of box-making. So...) Alright, I'd be a cleaner. (For the time being. I’d be on the spot to drive a bus when the chance came.)

This was 1946. No bus-washing machines. Cleaning buses was very manual and very laborious. Soon I was wielding the tools of the job: one short brush, one long brush, a hose and a 'guzzler' (heavy duty vacuum pipe). Every night, in teams of four to a bus, we cleaners did our best to erase all evidence of usage by The Public. The Public were a filthy lot and we had no respect for them. We removed every bit of their litter - even a solitary bus ticket wedged in the ridged wooden floor was not overlooked. We tried our best to clean the brown stains of nicotine from their filthy cigarettes off the ceilings of the upper decks.

However, we couldn't blame The Public for mess on the outside of the buses. The worst kind was a particular staining which occurred during very wet weather. As you know, trolley buses were powered and guided by overhead cables to which they were connected by long 'arms' or 'booms.' Each boom ended in a cup (like a cupped hand) which slid along the cables - 'wiping the wires', this was called. Screwed to the inside of each cup were carbon sticks. In wet weather, drippings from the rain-soaked carbons would run down the booms and down the bodywork of the buses, leaving nasty mustard-yellow trails.

The filthiest job, though (and not mine, ever) was ‘scurfing.' The bus would be parked over a pit and one man would work away underneath, cleaning the underside. Thinking about it now, I suppose that there might be some attraction to standing in a hole, all by yourself, getting completely covered in muck, thinking your own thoughts uninterrupted by jokes and repartee. And you'd have plenty of elbow room in the canteen.

Anyone who knows about the old trolleybuses will know about the ‘de-wirements’, those times when, at a junction or going over a breaker, one of the trolleybus booms would detach itself from its power cable. Once free it would wave about like Toscanini. There was a certain sharp corner near Hammersmith Broadway which was a kind of miniature Cape Horn. I remember a small furniture store on that corner which used to get its window smashed by the wildly flailing boom of a number 630. (Did some drivers come over all Errol Flynn as they rounded that last bend before depot? Did mirages of steaming cups of tea affect their steering? No, I expect it was ... just one of life's mysteries.)

The management of their booms could be quite a problem for bus conductors. Whenever a boom flew free the conductor would attempt to recapture it and re-attach it to its cable. He had a long bamboo pole which he would try to wield with stealth and skill. Usually he crept up on the escaped boom from ground level but it was not unknown for him to lean out of an upper window in his efforts. I liked to picture such a one, pounding up the stairs, leaping onto the laps of startled back seat passengers who would have to support him while he poked out of the window with his pole.

A trolley bus was not complete without its pole and a narrow chute underneath the bus was provided for the stowage of this vital piece of equipment. But we cleaners would sometimes find it lying abandoned on a seat. The trouble was that, with use, the bamboo became splintery and refused to slide neatly into place. At the end of his shift a weary conductor might struggle for a while before hurling the thing inside (with a heartfelt blessing) and stalking off.

The time of trolley buses was coming to an end (or so it seemed then). Route by route, depot by depot the diesel buses were taking over the main roads of London. One night in September 1960 I saw the conversion of Hammersmith. As each trolleybus came in after its last run, its fate was decided: it might be driven off to continue service on an unconverted route or it might be sent to Colindale, a sort of Death Row. At Colindale it might just possibly be reprieved and sent to work in sunny Spain or it might be broken up.

The last trolley, a 628 from Clapham Junction, a vehicle which had driven nearly a million miles, did a final lap of Hammersmith Broadway before disappearing slowly into the night. After it had gone the Broadway began to look like a film set. Arc lamps lit up a scene of frenzied organised activity. A tower wagon moved in and a small army of men began cutting the overhead power lines and flinging them down. When the way was clear, a gang of diesel buses, all powerful, drove in from Shepherds Bush. Taking over. These were the forerunners. Before long, Route Masters would rule the town.

However, I didn't really mourn the passing of the trolleys too much. After doing my stint as a cleaner I had moved on to shunting – shifting the trolley buses about on battery power – and other depot duties. Now, I was off to do a drivers' course.

**

To read more of Jacqueline's engaging words please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=jacqueline+finesilver

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