Roger's Reminiscences - Fred's coal gas lamp

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Fred was forever the inventor, the innovator, the curious, the 'let's try itl’ This invariably ensured some very interesting situations. Sometimes, in retrospect, they were hilarious but they were not always so at the time. One evening after a long, hot, grimy day attending the needs of a Burrell traction engine - I think it was at the Haydock Park Traction Engine rally in the 70s - I was sitting in the living van, quite content, waiting for the kettle to boil when Fred popped his head through the door. I suspected the ever-tolerant Alison, Fred's first wife and the mother of his daughters Jane, Lorna and Caroline, and who was in their van parked next door, had given him leave to visit the beer tent, so he thought he would grab me on the way.

"Why are you sitting in the dark, cock?" he enquired. I seem to remember we were out of paraffin for the lamps or something; anyway I used to enjoy just sitting and contemplating in front of the stove. There was something very comforting in an old, wooden, living van with just the flickering of the fire. He rubbed his chin and contemplated for a moment. "Do you want me to light the place up for you? Alison mentioned you had no lights.”

Without waiting for an answer he went down the steps and dived under his van, returning with a big, old, iron kettle. ”I've been wanting to try this out,” he said, thrusting it under my nose. He went on to explain that he had been reading about the Scottish crofters back in, I think, the 18th century, when they used to put burning coals in iron kettles and light the gas coming out of the spout. "They used them as lamps," he announced enthusiastically. "It was one of the first known uses of coal gas. Let’s try it out, Rog,” he suggested in a gleeful kind of way, like an overgrown schoolboy about to try out a home-made rocket.
”I’ve modified it a bit and put a copper bung up the spout with a smaller hole in to give it a bit of a jet,” he said. He showed me the end of the kettle spout fashioned into a point. He had obviously been thinking about the design for a while and had bored small holes round the base to let the air in. He had made it in his workshop and brought it along with the intention of trying it out at the rally and this was obviously the tailor-made opportunity. We extracted some prime lumps of burning coal from the stove and popped them into the kettle. It crossed my mind that Alison, who would put up with most things from dear Fred, would not have let him try it out in their van, which was spotless. She knew better...

Fred had specially fashioned a piece of wood which he wedged between the handle and the kettle lid, keeping it jammed down tight. He then placed the kettle on top of the stove. His eyes gleamed with anticipation as we waited patiently for this medieval contraption to demonstrate its luminosity. After a while we could hear what sounded like a slight hissing. ”It's bloody working!” he shouted. ”Where're the matches, Rog?"

I had the box at the ready and handed it to him. He struck one and offered it to the kettle spout. There was a faint ’whoomp’ sound and a blue flame momentarily flashed around the area surrounding the kettle and up the van wall, leaving a long jet of yellow flame spurting out of the spout. "Bloody hell, it works,” he yelled as we both jumped back with singed eyebrows. For a moment I thought it was the end of my much-loved van! "Hmm" he mused, seemingly very pleased with the result of his illuminating experiment, picking up a copy of The World’s Fair, a newspaper publication which covered steam and traction engines in those days, to see if he could read it from the bright flame emitting from the spout.
”It’s not a bad light, is it, cock?” he proudly proclaimed with not the slightest thought of nearly setting fire to my van.

I was then aware of a further incident developing as Fred had become engrossed in an article about Frank Lythgoe's engines in The World’s Fair, holding the newspaper very close to the flame to read it. I think he was a little short-sighted as he had his nose close up to the print, not noticing what was going on the other side of the paper near the kettle. Every now and again the plume of yellow flame coming from the spout spat out an extra long spurt. A brown patch started to appear in the middle of the newspaper. It burst into flames just where Fred's nose was on the other side.

There was pandemonium as he jumped up, screwing the paper into a ball to extinguish the flames. By now, the kettle was intermittently spitting out flame across the interior of the van. ”We’re going to burn the van down at this rate,” I remonstrated. ”Let’s get it outside!” With a towel wrapped round his hand, Fred gingerly lifted the kettle off the stove, saying: "We must show this to the lads." We walked across the field past bemused onlookers to the beer tent where he paraded the medieval flame thrower in front of the stoical, grimy-faced steam-men who were not all that impressed. We then poured some beer in the kettle to douse the inferno as it seemed to be getting out of control and was creating more smoke than light.

It had already made a dog yelp, promoting an angry response from its aggressive lady-owner. I think it was Jim Stevenson with the roller Cinderella who said he was going back to his van to make a kettle light of his own. Mind you, it could have been George Cole. I kept my ear open through the night for the sounds of a fire engine!

At that particular event I was awarded a cup for the engine steaming the furthest to the rally and was also presented with a special award of a big scrubbing brush and a bar of soap for being the dirtiest engine driver. My girlfriend was disgusted but I think Alison was encouraged that someone was officially recognised as being even dirtier than Fred.

Roger's Reminiscences - Fred's coal gas lamp

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