Roy Wild, Van Boy & Driver
Roy looking sharp in the fifties - “I class myself as an Hoxtonite”
The great goods yard in Bishopsgate is an empty place these days, home to a pop-up shopping mall of sea containers and temporary football pitches, but Roy Wild knew it in its heyday as a busy rail depot teeming with life and he still keeps a model of the Scammell Scarab that he once drove there as a talisman of those lost times.
A vast nineteenth century construction of brick and stone, the old goods yard housed railway lines on multiple levels and was a major staging point for freight, with deliveries of fresh agricultural produce coming in from East Anglia to be sold in the London wholesale markets and sent out again across the country. Today only the fragmentary Braithwaite arches of 1839 and the exterior wall of the former Bishopsgate Station remain as the hint of the wonders that once were there.
Roy knew it not as the Bishopsgate goods yard but in the familiar parlance of railway workers as ‘B Gate,’ and B Gate remains a fabled place for him. By their very nature, railways are places of transition and, for Roy Wild, B Gate won a permanent place in his affections as the location of formative experiences which became his rite of passage into adulthood.
“At first, after I left school at fifteen, I went to work for City Electrical in Hoxton and I was put as mate with a fitter named Sid Greenhill. One of the jobs they took on was helping to build the Crawley new town. We had to get the bus to London Bridge, take the train to East Croydon and change to another near Gatwick Airport – which didn’t really exist yet. It was a schlep at seven o’clock in the morning all through the winter, but I stuck it for eighteen months.
My dad, Andy, was a capstan operator for the London & North Eastern Railway at the Spitalfields Empty Yard in Pedley St off Vallance Rd, so I said to him, ‘Can’t you get a job for me where you work?’ He said, ‘There’s nothing going at the moment but I can get you a place at B Gate.’
In 1953, at sixteen and a half, I started as van boy for Dick Wiley in the cartage department at B Gate. The old drivers had worked with horses, they were known as ‘pair-horse carmen’ or ‘single-horse carmen’ and, in the late forties when the horses were done away with and the depot became mechanised, the men were all called in and given three-wheeled Scammell Scarabs and licences, no driving tests in those days. There was a fleet of two hundred of them at B Gate and although strictly, as van boys, we weren’t allowed to drive, we flew around the depot in them.
Our round was Stoke Newington and we’d be given a ticket which was the number of your container and a delivery note of anything up to twenty-five destinations. Then we’d have lunch at a small goods yard at Manor Rd, Stoke Newington, and in the afternoon we’d do collections, picking up parcels and taking them back to B Gate, from where they’d be delivered by rail around the country.
I decided I wanted to work with George Holman, a driver who was known as ‘Cisco’ on account of his swarthy features which made him look Mexican. He was an East Ender like me, rough and ready, and always larking about. His round was Rotherhithe which meant driving through the tunnel and he was a bit of a lunatic behind the wheel. Each morning after the round, he would drop me off at my mum’s in Northport St for lunch and pick me up again at 2pm. One day, we had to go back through ‘the pipe’ as they called the tunnel in Mile End and he said to me, ‘You take it through the tunnel, you know how it works.’ I was only seventeen but I drove that great big truck through the tunnel without any harm whatsoever.
Next I went to work with Bill Scola, a driver from Bethnal Green – the deep East End. He used to do Billingsgate, Spitalfields, Borough, Covent Garden, Brentford and Nine Elms Markets. Bill was a rascal and I was nineteen by then. We were doing a bit of skullduggery and I was told that the British Transport Police were watching me, so I said to Bill, ‘Things are getting too hot,” and I left it alone completely.
Then, one day we were having breakfast with at least a dozen others at the table, including Sid Green who was in charge of Bishopsgate football team, in the new canteen at B Gate when the British Transport Police came in, pinned my arms against my side and lifted me out of the chair. I was taken across to Commercial St Police Station and charged with larceny. They told me I had been seen lifting goods into the van that weren’t on the parcels sheet, with the intention of taking and selling them. I said I didn’t know what they were talking about. What were they were alleging was a complete fabrication and I had witnesses. What they were accusing me of was impossible because I had just clocked in – my clocking in number was 1917 – and there was a least a dozen witnesses on my side, but nevertheless I was convicted. I look back on it with great regret even now.
I was taken to Newington Butts Quarter Sessions which was the nearest Crown Court and I received six months sentence, even though I had first class character witnesses. I was taken straight to Wormwood Scrubs but kept apart from the inmates as a Young Prisoner. I couldn’t believe it, this was a for a first offence. I was sent to East Church open prison on the Isle of Sheppey and given a third remission off my sentence for good behaviour. It was like a Butlins Holiday Camp and I came home after four months. After that I did a couple of odd jobs, but I was full of regret – because I loved the railway so much and I made so many friends there, and particularly because I had disappointed my dad. That was the end of me and the LNER.
Then I met this guy, Billy Davis, he and Patsy (Patrick) Murphy held up Luton Post Office, but the postmaster grabbed hold of the gun and they shot and killed him, and they both got twenty-five years. He told me he worked for the railway and I asked, ‘Which depot?’ He said, ‘London, Midlands & Scottish Railway in Camden, why don’t you apply?’ So I did, I went along to Camden Town and was interviewed and told them I’d never worked on the railway before. When I started there as a driver, they gave me a brand new Bantam Carrier with a trailer and my round was Spitalfields Market, and I was paid by tonnage. The more weight you pulled onto the weighbridge at the Camden Town LMS depot, the more you got earned.
I did it for some time and I always had plenty of fruit to take home to my mum. I got together with the Goods Agent’s secretary, he was the top man in the depot and I was on good terms with him too. I got very friendly, taking her out for more than a year, until one day she told me her boss wanted to see me in his office. He said to me, ‘I’ve got bad news – you never declared you were dismissed by LNER. Our security have run a check and they found it out. It’s gone above my head and I have to let you go. It’s all out of my hands.’ He told me he was sorry to see me go because of the amount of tonnage I brought in which was more than other driver.
I was only there eighteen months. It was the finest time of my life because of the camaraderie with all the other drivers. It was a lovely, lovely job and I made friends that I still have to this day.”
Roy Wild with a model of his beloved Scammell Scarab
Roy with a Scammell Scarab in British Rail livery
Colin O’Brien’s photograph of a Scammell Scarab tipped over on the Clerkenwell Rd, 1953
Roy gets into the cabin of a Scamell Scarab of the kind he used to drive at Bishopsgate goods yard
Roy’s father Andy worked as a Capstan Operator at Spitalfields Empty Yard at Pedley St off Vallance Rd
Roy Wild & lifelong pal Derrick Porter, the poet – “I came from Hoxton but he came from Old St”
Bishopsgate Station c. 1900
In its heyday the area of tracks at the goods yard was known as ‘the field’
Looking west, the abandoned goods yard after the fire of 1964
Looking east, the abandoned goods yard after the fire
The kitchens of the canteen at the goods yard
The space of the former canteen where Roy was arrested by the British Transport Police
Abandoned hydraulic lift for lifting vehicles at Bishopsgate goods yard
The remains of the records at the Bishopsgate goods yard
When Roy saw this photograph of the demolished goods yard, he said, “I wish I could have gone and taken one of those bricks as a souvenir.”
The arch beneath the white tarpaulin was where Roy once drove in and out as a van boy
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