Tom Clay, who lived at Greenfield in Saddleworth, on the borders of Yorkshire and Lancashire, had a ramshackle old mill in Oldham in the 70s. We used to call it Tom’s magic wood mine, as he had ancient machinery rumbling away which must have dated from the Dark Ages, turning table legs. In fact, he must have had more table legs in that mill than there were tables for every family in Britain. The sawdust was so deep that you walked through trenches between each machine.
Tom intrigued Fred, possibly because there was a similarity in the whimsicalness of both their rambling workshops and... their wonderfully eccentric minds. Cousin Tom, as he was always called, employed an old wood-turner who must have been 80 or more. In fact, he looked as if he could have been 100. Tom used to call him Old Moore's Almanac because he had a mind like a local history book and was always recounting tales about Oldham in the old days. He remembered, as a lad, a steam wagon being driven into a pond just off the main road across Saddleworth Moor. This story stirred Fred up in fact he could not get this out of his head. The mere thought of a steam wagon lying at the bottom of a pond was irresistible, so early one Sunday morning we visited this pond with purposeful intent: The Great Steam Wagon Recovery Mission!
Fred turned up with his Land-Rover full of gear, including a massive motor-driven rotary water pump, ladders, planks, ropes, grappling irons, a chain, block and tackle -in fact, everything you could think of for this most important recovery job. Cousin Tom, a couple of his mates and a very fit blonde lady called Christine Gartside, who was a diver, joined us. Also in the party was Margaret Shipley, whose father had a caravan company in nearby Ashton Under Lyne. Margaret knew the exact location of the pond. I have a feeling it was on some land belonging to her brother-in-law, but I am not sure. Her father, Jack, was going to lend us his recovery truck if we found anything.
We assembled all the gear at the side of the pond and Fred started the pump with the intention of pumping most of the water out. He had the big pipe from the flow end of the pump dangling over a steep drop so the water could run off into the valley below. Christine had changed into a wet suit and was at the ready. The whole thing looked like something out of an Agatha Christie murder movie, with detectives intent on recovering a body from a pond. Although the mighty pump seemed to be removing hundreds of gallons of water, the pond level didn’t seem to go down noticeably. Undaunted, Fred slung in a large, three-pronged grappling hook on the end of a thick rope. He kept going round the edge and lunging it in, but to no avail. Then the excitement heightened when he suddenly shouted: ”I've bloody got something!" We all rushed round and helped him pull on the rope but it freed itself. This happened a few times. "There is something definitely down there,” he kept muttering, circling the pond and launching the hook into the depths from various strategic positions.
Cousin Tom had tried to reconstruct in his mind that dastardly scene from so many years ago when the steam wagon was deliberately dumped in the pond. He reckoned it would have been run in at a point which was the shortest distance from the road and which seemed to be the deepest part, so this was where the concentration was directed. There was definitely something heavy and solid down there as the hook kept connecting with it but it would not keep hold.
Christine bravely offered to go down in all her diving gear and have a look. This curvy, spirited lady waded in and then disappeared below the surface, leaving a trail of bubbles. I have a feeling, looking back today, that she should have had another diver in attendance, but health and safety hadn’t enlisted Big Brother to watch over us in those days. Anyway, Christine was not only an experienced diver. She was also a very determined and adventurous lady, and, of course, everybody volunteered without hesitation to jump in after her if anything went wrong.
We watched the bubbles with bated breath, tracking her position as she moved about under the water from one end of the pond to the other. Then with a big splash she surfaced and scrabbled out on to the bank, covered in black mud. We were all agog with anticipation. "Did you find anything, love?" Fred bawled from the other side of the pond.
"Ooh, it’s awful down there! I couldn't see a thing, it was pitch black and the bottom is just thick soft mud,” she spluttered, "but there is something sticking up out of the mud like a big cog wheel."
”That’s bloody it!" shouted Fred, running round and asking her to point to roughly where it was.
"Would you mind going down again, love, and getting the grappling hook fixed to it?" Fred asked. She said she would try and down she went again, this time armed with the big, three-pronged hook, the thick rope trailing behind her. We watched the bubbles for what seemed an eternity until she surfaced. "I don't think I can fix it,” she gasped. "The thing was so slimy. I couldn't see and the hook was too heavy for me.”
Without further ado Fred stripped off, revealing a pair of maroon, woollen swimming trunks which were certainly not the height of swimwear fashion, even in those far-off days. Standing there with his stark whiter-than-white body wearing just those trunks, boots and cap, he was a rare sight to behold - although why he kept his cap on I will never know. He even produced a Woolworth's-type snorkel mask and yellow pipe, obviously prepared earlier for such a sub-marine eventuality. He was determined to recover that engine at all costs and if all else failed, he was going in himself. Christine collapsed on the bank giggling at the sight of him. “How deep is it?" he asked, obviously a little dented by her mirth. "Oh, it’s very deep, Fred,” she said, "and it’s just thick mud on the bottom. You can't stand on it.”
It took a lot of persuasion by Christine to make him change his mind. As a diving instructor, she said his proposed escapade was dangerous, especially if he got stuck in the mud. I had a feeling that he couldn't really swim, but maybe I was wrong. Apart from looking for booty in canals and ponds, water and Fred didn’t seem to mix very well. He always maintained that water was only fit for making beer or putting in boilers. After a few more goes lobbing the grappling hook at the place where Christine had pointed, he finally managed to get a firm hold on something. Keeping it taught, we all grabbed the rope and tugged. Nothing budged but this time the grappling hook was fixed good and proper to whatever it was down there. Fred got the chain block and tied the rope round its hook, anchored the other end with a big iron stake he drove into the ground with a sledge hammer and then started to pull the chain through the block, putting a powerful strain on the thick rope. We watched with growing awe as the rope got more and more taut. It was like the raising of the Mary Rose as we focused on the black water, expecting at any moment to see the remnants of a phantom steam wagon break the surface.
The rope suddenly seemed to slacken. "I think it's freed itself from the suction of the mud,” Fred shouted with growing enthusiasm. "It’s coming! It’s coming!” he hollered as he continued to wind the chain. Then the rope slackened more and we thought he had lost his prize. The chain and block seemed too slow, so Fred impatiently grabbed hold of the rope itself and kept on heaving. "It’s still bloody attached," he yelled. I remember thinking that it couldn’t be a steam wagon if Fred could pull it on his own and I suspect the same thoughts were percolating through the minds of the others. We all got hold of the rope behind Fred and heaved. Whatever it was, it definitely seemed to be on the move. When it finally broke the surface it looked odd and unfamiliar - but it certainly was not a steam wagon.
At first, we could only make out the rough shape as it was covered in mud. It looked like a miner’s box tub on little iron wheels, with what looked like a gear wheel at one end. After a lot of examination, we concluded it was a road mender’s portable tar boiler, a complete anti-climax but nevertheless, interesting. Fred's enthusiasm didn't seem to be dampened by the emergence of this road mender’s relic. In fact, he was rather taken with it, especially as it had a little firebox, still complete with a nice little iron door. Cousin Tom agreed to try and find out when they first tar-surfaced the main road over Saddleworth Moor, which might help put a date on it. Fred reckoned, meanwhile, that finding the tar boiler helped to strengthen the steam wagon theory, as the tar boiler’s towing bar would have fitted the drop-pin coupling on a steam wagon. With his enthusiasm reviving by the minute, he went onto theorise that the steam wagon and the tar boiler could have been part of the same road-mending team’s gear. Steam wagons would have been used when they first surfaced the road and the tar boiler would have been pulled by one, he argued. It was probably still attached to the back of the wagon when it went in the pond and he was all for carrying on there and then with the dragging operation.
Our enthusiasm, however, was beginning to wane when things changed rapidly. An out-of-puff policeman came struggling up the path from the valley below followed by a dishevelled man who had the ominous look of an agitated farmer. "And what is going on here?” the officer demanded, in a typical policeman's tone of voice, and getting his pencil and notebook out. "Do you know that you have flooded this man’s hen-house and there is water flowing right across his yard?” Luckily, Cousin Tom knew the farmer as they both drank in the Clogger’s pub in Uppermill and I think Christine's husband was his bank manager, so all was finally forgiven. The farmer said the tar boiler was not a tar boiler as such -it was used for boiling up his pigswill. Some kids had thrown it in the pond a couple of years ago and he’d never heard of a steam wagon in the pond, although he’d lived up there for years. We all went home!
Roger's Reminiscences - Fred's great steam wagon recovery
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray