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South Devon Railway's West Country engineman extraordinaire

Dave Knowling - West Country engineman extraordinaire enters his 63rd consecutive year working on railway steam engine

When born and bred Devonian Dave Knowling celebrated his 78th birthday on Monday 22 May this year, he went to work as usual from his home at Holne on Dartmoor to drive a steam train on the South Devon Railway.

But he had also entered his 63rd consecutive year of working on steam railway locomotives. As a result, he may well have even set a world record for steam railway service! He also drove the South Devon Railway’s most recently overhauled loco, No 5526 on his biorthday.

After passing the medicals in Newton Abbot and Swindon, Dave first started working for British Railways Western Region at Plymouth’s Laira depot in June 1954, and his length of continuous service working on steam locos is now believed to be a record for an individual railway engineman in Britain, if not the world!

During his 63-year footplate career, he worked on thousands of now scrapped steam locomotives over many long-closed railway routes across the West Country and around London.

In addition to being based at Plymouth’s Laira depot (twice), Dave worked at a number of engine sheds around the old Great Western and Southern Railway systems, including Slough, Old Oak Common (twice) and Plymouth Friary (twice).

With steam power almost at an end by the mid 1960’s, he was finally made redundant for the last time from British Railways in 1967, and so he went to work for ECLP briefly in Plymouth where he assisted with some stationary boilers they used.

But, not to be beaten, he joined the embryonic Dart Valley Railway Association in 1967 as a volunteer which was hoping to help a group of businessmen re-open the former 10-mile GWR branch line to Ashburton from Totnes.

And his voluntary work paid off as he joined the Dart Valley Railway Company full-time in June 1968 as their first employee. And he has worked on the scenic line ever since, notching up 50 years’ service where he now serves as a driver every Monday in the season after retiring from full time duties.

Dave was involved in crewing the Dart Valley Railway’s re-opening trains at Easter 1969, including the official re-opening train carried out later on by Sir Richard Beeching in May whose infamous ‘axe’ fell on many West Country branch lines. In a twist of irony, Dave shook hands with Dr Beeching – the man who had made him redundant!

With a ready smile and self-effacing humour, Dave is one of the most popular drivers on the South Devon Railway at Buckfastleigh and considered to be an excellent all round engineman.

And in another interesting twist, he is just a year younger than the newly overhauled locomotive he drove on his birthday, and for the last few weeks since, in former GWR ‘Prairie’ 2-6-2 No 5526 which first entered service in May 1928, see  M/F

Working on the footplate then was very hard, dirty and tiring work which required great dedication from him, such as riding his bike home to Tavistock 14 miles after his shifts in Plymouth.

As soon as he was 16, Dave progressed from being a cleaner to the position of passed cleaner, or fireman, and had his first solo firing turn in 1955 on a 94xx pannier tank engine.

In 1956, he was tempted by life nearer the capital and transferred to Slough as a full-time fireman, which included working from Old Oak Common shed in London to prepare some of the biggest and best GWR locos on the system.

Later, in 1959, Dave transferred back to the West Country to Plymouth Friary shed on the Southern Region which led to an embarrassing moment for him as a Western Region trained fireman. 

It occurred on an Adams 02 tank on a local school service up the Tamar Valley to Tavistock. He asked how he should fire the strange loco and was told: “Just fill it up”.

But this led him to disaster as the engine’s fire choked up and stuck for steam between Bere Alston and Bere Ferrers. The long delay then delayed a Waterloo train which was held up in Bere Ferrers station, and the authorities even sent a gangers’ trolley down the line from Bere Alston to search for the missing train!

Dave comments: “We were supposed to be the school train from Bere Alston to Tavistock - and the waiting children at Bere Alston let out a loud cheer when we finally got there because they had missed their first two lessons!”

A red-faced Dave returned to Friary where the shed master told him that he would now know how to fire a Southern engine from then on!

He once broke both of his arms in a shunting accident at Friary shed in 1961 when thrown to the floor of an engine which certainly slowed him down for a while, but he enjoyed the time off.

When Friary shed closed in 1963, Dave was made redundant and went back to Old Oak Common before transferring back to Laira depot where the new diesels were being introduced, and he finally left BR in 1967.

But railways were in his blood and when he married local girl Sue in 1970, they even had their wedding reception on a Dart Valley train with “The Wedding Belle” as a headboard which is still in the SDR’s museum. This led to widespread national publicity in newspapers, magazines and TV for both him and his new wife, and the railway! 

Having been on the footplate of South Devon Railway trains for 50 years, passing his ‘Diamond Jubilee’ in 2014, and now in his 63rd year on steam, Dave is still happy in his work:

“Some of the highlights and memorable moments on the railway and steam are over the whole period of my footplate career. Joining the railway as a cleaner was a good start in 1954, and being passed as a Driver to BR mainline standard in 1970 by Inspector Bill Andress was another great day. Working a test train over the newly acquired Torbay line with six coaches in 1972 with loco No. 4555 was a great feeling, and people still talk about our 1970 wedding train too!                 



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