Although James Lester went on to work as a driver on the Southern and finished as a traction manager on Eurostar he regards his duties as the fireman on locomotive No. 34051 Winston Churchill on the day of Churchill’s state funeral as the high point of his career.
‘The Winston Churchill job was always the icing on the cake,’ says James.
Churchill died on 24th January 1965 and his funeral was held on 30th January in St Paul’s Cathedral. Royal Navy ratings pulled the coffin from Westminster, where it lay in state, to the cathedral on a gun carriage.
Churchill had served as First Lord of the Admiralty. After the service the coffin was taken by river to Festival Pier and from there into Waterloo station.
‘I recall the arrival of the funeral cortege,’ says James Lester. ‘It was indeed a special moment, the sound of the shuffling feet of the coffin bearing guardsmen and then the closing van doors, station duties completed on time, 13.28. No whistles or fuss, just a green flag silently waved by the Royal Train Guard, Mr. W. H. Horwill.
Alf’s light touch on the locomotive’s whistle announced our departure as he then eased the ‘Battle of Britain’ class locomotive No. 34051 ‘Winston Churchill’ and its train, consisting of five Pullman cars, No. 208, Carina, Lydia, Perseus, and Isle of Thanet and a bogie van S2464, containing the coffin, away from the capital’s largest terminus Waterloo, bound for a small village station, Hanborough, in Oxfordshire.’
James Lester and driver, Alf Hurley, were based at Nine Elms Depot. The pair were chosen to drive the funeral locomotive after careful quizzing by traction inspectors and railway officials.
‘Three crews at Nine Elms were on standby to drive the train, the two other drivers were George Holloway and Jerry Sartin. We were sent down to the shed and told we would be doing the job. All drivers and myself made a route learning trip through Reading and out to Hanborough. A fireman learning the route was almost unheard of.’
Churchill is buried at Bladon in Oxfordshire near Woodstock and close by Blenheim Palace where he was born in 1874. ‘The loco itself was named just after the Second World War, which is why it is not called the ‘Sir’ Winston. He had not been knighted then.
I was in a top link with my driver, Alf Hurley. He was 40 years older than me and had started on the railways in 1917. We got on famously and he was a great friend and mentor. I was very fortunate.’
Alf Hurley had driven Churchill during the war. James was much younger. ‘All I’d ever wanted to do was be on the railways,’ he says. He has written a book. ‘I kept copious notes all through the days I worked so I had this aide memoire. I thought I’d do it for the sake of my children. I have three sons. The book has done quite well.’
Puzzled the public
‘That day I prepared the loco and set the fire just how I wanted it. We went at 60 mph to Reading, not too fast. But we had to run through Oxford at 20 mph. We had to slow right down and then re-accelerate. Afterwards we needed to get a move on and travelled at 70 mph.’
Newsreels of the train hurtling through rural Oxfordshire have long puzzled the public. However Alf Hurley and James Lester were determined that Churchill, on the last time he used the railways, would arrive at his destination on time.
‘Southern Region Engineman’ by James Lester is published by Noodle Books, ISBN 978-1-906-419-271 and is available at all good railway bookshops and on Amazon.