A decent mate, but an idle sod


Don would have stoked, and later, driven trains like this one in an excellent late steam-era Brownhills photo supplied by David Evans.

An interesting little video here for those who showed such interest in Dave Moore and Mike Birch’s ‘Postcards from the Past’ film – a little bit of almost lost Birmingham folk culture.

The song is ‘The Fireman’s Song’ and was written by Don Bilston, a folk musician who actually did the job, working from depots in Birmingham. It has been performed by several artists, most notably by the late grand old man of Birmingham folk music, Ian Campbell (he was the father of Ali Campbell, of UB40).

This version is by Pete Coe, and was released in 1997 on the album  ‘Long Company’ on the Backshift label catalog BASH45. Pete Coe is a noted and notable folk troubadour, whose recordings never get the attention they deserve, but is famous on the scene for being a remarkable artist with astounding stage presence.

I’ve set the song to a Pathe educational film about working as a train driver, released in 1947. The original can be seen here.

Don did become a driver in the end, but I’d love to know more about the man. His lyrics are brilliant, and speak eloquently of the lowly but hugely important job he did. If anyone knows more about the man, please do get in touch.

Sorry, the audio is a bit clippy, I think it’s the recording.

The Fireman’s Song
(D. Bilston)

Whenever you see a train go by,
Or hear an engine’s whistle cry,
Think of the man on the old footplate
Shovelling coal, the drivers mate.

cho: A loco fireman is me grade,
Boiling water is me trade,
The driver thinks he runs the show,
But if I’m not there the train won’t go.

Heaving coal for a hungry fire,
Sweating cobs to get steam higher,
Of the colliers harvest that I burn,
With toil and sweat, me wages earn

The driver sits there like a god,
A decent mate but an idle sod.
Though I’ll be shovelling on me knees
Still he’ll sit there at his ease.

The pick and shovel are tools of me trade
And two strong arms to swing the blade,
Hands with palms as hard as leather,
And nimble feet as light as a feather

One day a driver I will be,
Of the pick and shovel I’ll be free,
Until that day I’ll shift the coal,
Raising stream so the train can roll.

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4 Responses to A decent mate, but an idle sod

  1. michael sarsfield says:

    Nice to see photo of Brownhills Signal Box, My Uncle Bert Gilbert used to be a signal man there.

    • Julia Henderson says:

      I am Don Bilston’s niece, he now lives in Telford, Shropshire, and is still kicking around. We often talk about his success as a folk singer, and yes, he did become a driver, but the diesels did not appeal to him, so when the steam went, so did he. What else would you like to know about him?

      Julia Henderson

  2. Pingback: Streets ahead | BrownhillsBob's Brownhills Blog

  3. wolfedwards says:

    Hello Julia! Wolf Edwards here from the band The Hounds of Cuchulain in Canada. We just recorded your uncle’s song and I need to know when he wrote it! Please write to me at:


    Thank you!!!

    Oh and when he was born etc. If he’s still active as a song writer etc.

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