In the 1970s Fred had been asked if he would take his roller to a Rose Queen Festival in the town of Bollington, near Macclesfield. At the time I had a Burrell agricultural traction engine and kept it only a few miles from Bollington. Fred felt that it would be a good idea to use my engine instead of his roller as it would save him from having to steam over from Bolton (he didn't believe in low loaders in those daysl)
So it was arranged that he would drive his Land-Rover over first thing on the designated Saturday morning. We would steam up the Burrell and go to lead the Rose Queen and her entourage of floats in a procession through the narrow streets of the old mill town. On the day, it was one of those very still, heavy mornings without a breath of air, and the fire just wouldn't draw. Try as we did, we couldn't get a bright fire, just a lot of smoke gently curling up to the grey morning sky, and time was getting short for the trundle to Bollington. Fred reckoned it was the lousy local coal: "You don't know what good coal is down here in Cheshire," he commented, adding that he should have brought some proper stuff from Bolton in the Land-Rover.
We had a mug of tea and some bacon butties while we patiently waited for the slightest hint of steam pressure to lift the needle off the stop. After an eternal wait, with the clock painfully ticking away, we managed to get just enough pressure up to get under way. Fred felt that the rattling of the engine along the rough road (we were on strakes) would liven the fire up a bit; it could also generate a bit of suck with the exhaust up the chimney. I shall never know to this day what the real problem was - whether it was lousy coal, just a bad day or simply sod's law. I had cleaned the tubes and emptied the ashpan the night before. The coal had come from a good yard and I had used it on numerous occasions. After another half-hour of coaxing we managed to set off, but the engine ran out of puff about two miles from Bollington. We just could not get any life in the fire. After a demonstration of the specialised art of lobbing selected lumps of coal on to strategic spots of the fire by Fred, we eventually got about 80psi on the clock and off we trundled again under a pall of brown smoke. By this time we were seriously late, and this was in those medieval times before we had mobiles with which to let the organisers know.
On a little country road bordered by big houses and gardens, we realised we were running short of water. A kind, unsuspecting lady agreed that we could take some water from her ornamental pond. When we put the big hose in and turned on the steam suction there was a big slurping, sucking noise and the complete pond disappeared up the pipe, leaving a gaping black hole in the lawn with fish jumping about on the bottom. We reassured the poor lady by explaining that there was a rose on the end of the pipe so none of the fish had been sucked into the tender. She was more worried about what her husband would say when he returned home. He had only put the pond in the week before and it was his pride and joy, and there were some rare fish in there. Fred, in his inimitable way, said: "l think we'd better quickly get some water back in love or you'll behaving 'em for tea."
We got her hosepipe and started to fill the pond with assurances that we would call and see her husband on our way back. Just as were about to leave an auxiliary fire engine on its way to the Rose Queen Festival stopped to see what was going on as they had seen all the steam and smoke, and they agreed to let us have some water from the fire engine. To their consternation we emptied their tank. The chief fireman mumbled that they mustn't have filled the tank properly when they left the fire station and they would have to go back to the station and fill her up quickly, as a fire engine without water is a non-starter. And that was what it turned out to be, as they couldn't start their engine again when they tried to move off! We offered to tow them but they politely declined, explaining that it would not give much confidence to the public seeing a fire engine arriving being towed by an old traction engine. We gave our thanks and rattled off up the lane at a fast 5mph to get to the assembly point for the procession. We got there with about five minutes to spare and were shown by an anxious, very official, official sporting a big badge, where to position the engine, which was behind the town's brass band that was to lead the procession. We were to be followed by the float with the Rose Queen and her Rose Petals all in white, followed by a float with the retiring Rose Queen and all her Petals. They all looked demure and like something out of Snow White.
l was still trying to achieve the juggling act of a bright fire with little smoke, a full glass of water and a good head of steam, praying for a little time before the start. There are some steep hills in Bollington and l wanted as full a boiler as possible to save exposing the fusible plug. Fred was on the pavement chatting to everybody, of course! There was a balloon-seller next to the engine with a massive festoon of silver heart-shaped balloons floating about in a big cluster above him. All you could see were his little legs walking underneath. A white police car had drawn up alongside as a kind of outrider. Everything was obviously beginning to happen as suddenly a voice shouted an order from up front somewhere' the band came to attention and then started forward with a rousing march. I gave Fred a yell to get on the engine nudged the regulator blew the whistle and off we went with a big chuff. The Bollington Rose Queen Festival was on the move. The bobbing silver balloons kept pace on the pavement side and the police car kept us company on the other side. ln the effort to sign his last autograph and get through the crowd of onlookers to the engine Fred lost his cap. Whether someone whipped it off his head or he just lost it l will never know but it seemed to transform him: he was no longer Fred. We shouted to the official with the badge to see if he could go back and try to find it which he did disappearing into the crowd behind us. l have never known Fred to lose or be parted from his beloved cap not before nor ever after that event He even wore it in hospital. lt was a real milestone event in history. . Fred without his cap. He was devastated. All he could say was: What shall I do without my bloody cap?
The engine behaved reasonably well until we pulled on to the main street which, l recall, goes up a hill. l gave the regulator a nudge to give it a bit of extra chuff and there was a loud ‘whoomp' from up front. A blackjet of water like black soup jetted up the chimney and climbed to a height of about 20ft. "She's bloody primed !" yelled Fred. "She's bloody primed." Thank God there was no wind, but what goes up has to come down. ln disbelief we both gaped in awe as the ` main blob of it hovered high above us like a flimsy black pancake with ragged edges. Then it began to disintegrate into smaller blobs, and in slow motion the biggest dollop came straight down on top of the man with the cluster of silver balloons. They instantly turned black. The white police car went dull grey and all mottled , and, worst of all, the white Rose Queens with their little Rose Petals all got covered in black flecks. Fred looked as if he had his cap on again, except it was shiny black blobs with streaks dripping down his ears and forehead. lt was very embarrassing being in such an exposed position on top of a traction engine when this kind of thing happens. Mothers were screaming at us for getting their daughters dirty. The man with the black balloons was running round the engine whimpering that he would have to be compensated, and the police chief in the mottled police car just glared at us.
We were relegated to the back of the procession. Needless to say we were never invited again. Fred was relieved that few recognised him without his cap and, when anyone did have a go at him for all the mess, he just pointed towards me saying: "lt's his engine, cock".
Roger's Reminiscences - Fred and the Rose Queen
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray