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Roy Wild, Van Boy At The Goodsyard

November 30, 2020
by the gentle author

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This precedes the Greater London Assembly public hearing on Thursday 3rd December when Mayor Sadiq Khan will decide upon the monster development proposal for Bishopsgate Goodsyard which threatens to blight the East End for generations to come.

Below you can read Roy Wild’s account of working at the site in the fifties when it was still a rail depot.

Roy looking sharp in the fifties – “I class myself as an Hoxtonite”

The great goodsyard 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 goodsyard 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 Goodsyard 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 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 Goodsyard

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 goodsyard was known as ‘the field’

Looking west, the abandoned goodsyard after the fire of 1964

Looking east, the abandoned goodsyard after the fire

The kitchens of the canteen at the goodsyard

The space of the former canteen where Roy was arrested  by the British Transport Police

Abandoned hydraulic lift for lifting vehicles at Bishopsgate goodsyard

The remains of the records at the Bishopsgate goodsyard

When Roy saw this photograph of the demolished goodsyard, 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

You may also like to read about

A Brief History of the Bishopsgate Goodsyard

8 Responses leave one →
  1. November 30, 2020

    What a fine and dramatic Story!

    Love & Peace

  2. Greg T permalink
    November 30, 2020

    Recent photos obviously taken at the Walthamstow Pump House ….

  3. Alex Knisely permalink
    November 30, 2020

    What a face on young Roy ! The proverbial “map of Ireland”. Handsome lad.

  4. Ian Silverton permalink
    November 30, 2020

    Good story that, past history of that goods yard,lots of money earned from Bishops Gate Goods yard from many a Bethnal Green chaps shall we call them? One such built a FT quoted Transport Compamy from just those beginnings it was turn up in a working overalls back up,look like you where busy with all your docs of paper,and load up,it went on for years,common knowledge in all Bethnal Green pubs at the time, as a young boy it was very interesting to listen to, never once thinking it was all wrong,, only as you get older you relive all these stories, many a grand houses bought a paid for in Chingford Woodford Loughton from such deeds early fifties sixties, how do you think there was so many Mercedes Benz cars parked up in that area. Stay safe UK, are the citizens going back to work yet? ps your country needs you to!

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 30, 2020

    What a great story and brilliant to see photos of the Goodsyard when it was in full use, and to see some of the empty spaces just crying out for imaginative re development.

    Let’s hope that the People’s Hearing tonight will help persuade Sadiq to reject the monstrous current planning application for the Goodsyard which is so totally wrong for the East End.

    I was shocked to see an article by one of the architects saying that the development would be a ‘tonic’ for London when in reality it would be anything but… Years of disruption, loss of light, huge ugly buildings of unnecessary new offices, an unwanted hotel, lack of genuinely affordable housing, loss of local businesses, and destruction of the unique character of the area – I think your description of it as a ‘blight’ is much more accurate!

  6. Alison Wilding permalink
    November 30, 2020

    What a wonderful slice of local history
    Hopes for an urban forest to be planted there

  7. Stephen Barry permalink
    November 30, 2020

    Another great story of yesteryear. I used to pass Bishopsgate goods depot 0n the 647 trolleybus on my way to school each day in the 1950s and was fascinated by the swarm of tiny Scarabs rushing around in all directions like ants. Best wishes to Roy.

  8. Colin permalink
    June 6, 2022

    My uncle, George Austin worked at Bishopsgate goods yard as a driver. First with horses then the Scammel trucks. He was ‘on the railway’ for 45 years. I have his gold watch given to him on his retirement.

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