In 1979, the 150th anniversary of the Rainhill trial was to be held at Rainhill station near Liverpool. It was to be a re-enactment of the competition between three locomotives, Stephenson's Rocket, Timothy Hackworth's San Pareil, and a lightweight outsider called Novelty for the privilege of hauling the first passenger railway train in the world, the Manchester to Liverpool Railway.
Fred was interested in the history surrounding this event, so when a friend, Alan Hutchins, who owned an elegant old Bentley limousine, said he had tickets for the VIP stand and was intending to not only go but do it in grand style by taking a hamper with lunch and champagne and said that we were welcome to accompany him, we both said why not? The three of us wore flat caps and waistcoats with fob chains to look the part -in fact we looked like three Fred Dibnahs. Sitting in the polished leather seats behind the walnut dashboard of the Bentley lovingly driven by Alan, we were wafted along the country lanes in great style until we neared the event, where there was a long slow queue of traffic. The classic Bentley started to boil, and while waiting for it to cool off, Alan said: "Do you fancy a glass of champagne?" The big hamper was unstrapped from the back. It was all neatly set out with glasses and knives and forks, and a most sumptuous lunch. Alan was the landlord of a posh pub in Cheshire, the Admiral Rodney, in Prestbury, so he did everything very well when it came to the culinary side of things. Before long we were sitting on the grass verge among the dandelions having scoffed a complete hamper full of food, and, I seem to remember, maybe two or three of bottles of champagne! So we were all feeling rather mellowed. In fact we felt more like lying down for a snooze rather than busting a gut to get to the trial.
When we finally got to the show and onto the VIP stand it was nearly over, as the grand parade of locomotives had begun and there were a few disgruntled people having to stand up to let us pass along the row. It was just getting to the climax of the whole thing and the replica of Rocket was approaching to the rousing music of the Guards band opposite in their red tunics and bearskins playing Hail, the Conquering Hero, or something like that, when Fred threw up all over the dignitary sitting in front of him. It was a most awful and embarrassing moment. The dignitary’s wife, a big lady with a huge hat, started bashing Fred with her programme shrieking that we were drunken hooligans who had completely spoilt her husband’s day. I seem to remember he was the mayor of somewhere. After profuse apologies from a very ashamed and subdued Fred, who kept on ducking to miss her forays and repeating, "I didn’t mean it, luv”, we decided to beat a hasty retreat and go and find the area where the locomotives were parked. He couldn't get over the fact that he had been sick and said that it had never happened to him before in his life. It had just come over him like that and it must have been the gassiness of the champagne which he wasn't used to, especially over the top of that game pie! Our spirits revived somewhat when we met the great, great-granddaughter of Timothy Hackworth, George Stephenson’s competitor, the builder of the locomotive San Pareil.
Fred was just beginning to be known on television at the time and she recognised him and came over. She was a lovely lady and regaled us with stories of how her great, great-grandfather - I’m not sure how many greats it actually was - Timothy Hackworth had entrusted some of the casting work for San Pareil to Stephenson’s engineers. She said the casting for the cylinders had mysteriously failed during the original trial which left a bit of a question mark.
Her knowledge about the building of San Pareil was remarkable and understandably she was a staunch believer that it was the better engine of the two. She even inferred that Stephenson might have pinched the idea of the tubed boiler from Hackworth, who had previously thought about it and had mentioned it to one of the Stephenson’s engineers. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the engineering facilities to produce such a boiler for his locomotive in time for the trial. She was a remarkable lady and Fred was enchanted with her first-hand stories of one of his great Victorian engineering heroes, especially as she was a real flesh-and-blood testament to him.
Brian Redhead, the late BBC broadcaster of Radio 4, who had joined us, was also intrigued with her stories. He originated from the north-east and had always been a dedicated upholder of its traditions and industrial history. He asked Fred if he was feeling better now after his little mishap, as he had heard about it in the press office. Fred was mortified to think he had been recognised throwing up over the mayor. Someone said he hoped it wasn't the mayor of Bolton. This worried him nearly all the way home, until we stopped at a pub for a Guinness to settle his stomach and his nerves. It was a good day out!
Roger's Reminiscences - Trials and tribulations of a civic dignitary
Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray