Jack Spittle

The Lorry Driver's Life

Webmasters’ note:  This account of the lorry driver’s life is taken from “Jack’s Veteran Vehicles:  Transports of Delight” by Frank Spittle.  This book is an account of  Jack Spittle by his brother, Frank.  It tells not only of his life but also of the many detailed, accurate and highly regarded models Jack has made of a very wide range of transport vehicles.  The book contains all that and numerous quality colour photographs of the models.  The photos are by Antony Spittle. (Note that the reproductions on this web site cannot do justice to the quality of the originals). 

We are very grateful to Frank Spittle for his readily agreeing to our publishing these extracts here.  Jack is a Wolverhampton man and it is his experiences which informed this account which is Frank’s tribute not only to his brother but also to all the people who created and ran the road transport industry, not only in peace time, but also in war. 

Jack Spittle.

Jack is always helpful, affable, ever available to share his knowledge with his so many admirers, amongst them elderly grandfathers pointing out to their offspring the type of wagon that they had driven in their youthful working days. Describing how they would have to wrestle with the steering of a fully loaded brute of a lorry in confined or crowded areas – and there was no power steering in those days. Recalling the savage amusement of changing a wheel at the side of the road on a dark and wet night, hoping that your back lights would be bright enough to slow down approaching traffic as they passed just inches away from the lifting jack handle, spraying muddy water all over you as you flattened yourself against the side of the wagon. The freezing cold hemp ropes and wet tarpaulin sheets that gathered moisture and water, unlike the plastic ones of today that throw it off.  These essential ropes would gather road dirt that could, and did, cause blisters and infection on the hands. 

How well they would remember these awful heavy sheets that would work loose during a run, flapping wildly at the most awkward and inconvenient time or place, occasioning curses from car drivers in comfortable warm seats, or a prosecution for an unsafe load.

It all dispels the myth of the 'joys of motoring'. This was a dirty, hard and at times dangerous business, with the soft shoulders of even trunk roads ready to shove you and your load into a hedge or field.  Those were the days when the lorry driver was truly a 'knight of the road'. They had to help each other as well as coming to the aid of others, in accidents or breakdowns. It was a foolish driver who did not carry a good tow rope in those days.

Model of an Albion HDA 3.  The vehicle belonged to Millers of Wolverhampton who were millers and seed merchants near Low Level GWR station.

The old lorries were painted in fleet livery colours by real coach painters with the brush and the skill of the coach horse era, that would take days to do, and a week for the paint to harden.  It was unlike to-day, when plastic letters and flashes can be applied in minutes, with each firm employing, throughout its range of vehicles a standard decoration scheme and distinctive lettering, competing for business with a lorry that has smartness, speed, cleanliness and – primary colours.

It is an accepted fact that the role of the lorry driver was not very high on the social scale of manual workers, prior to and just after the second world war. Classed as 'unskilled', same of them were thought as unworthy or undeserving of such a luxury as a cab heater, with the occasional request for one turned down with the remark, "You will be asking for a radio in the cab next". Car radios and heaters were once great luxuries in motor cars of the better off.

The vast majority of heavy goods vehicles at that time were noisy, draughty and uncomfortable, albeit well built by constant development of British technology. Manufacturers of goods vehicles kept a keen eye on each other's products, as the specialised needs of transport by road changed. Cost, reputation and reliability came before driver comfort, cost per ton mile ruled.

Model of a Guy Otter, registration number GAW 946. 

The better educated worker chose a factory or shop to earn his living. It was not unusual to hear a parent scold a boy who was neglecting his schoolwork with "You will end up as a lorry driver if you are not careful".  It was a hard arduous life for many of the pre-war lorry drivers and those of the 1950s and 60s, rough and inadequately maintained roads with overloads and poor vehicle suspension, taking their toll on the bodies of men and vehicle, shortening the lives of both with the continuous hour after hour of jarring and bumpy driving, sitting on seats that were not designed for comfort or relaxation, without adjustment forward or back in most cases, causing more than a little discomfort for both the taller or shorter driver during the driving hours in one position. The straight back rest, thinly padded, gave little protection or ease. The cabs were in the main draughty and cramped, with a massive noisy engine taking up most of the room, if it was a 'flat fronter'.

Perhaps it would be fair to say that the civilian British wartime drivers have not had their share of the national appreciation recorded by this country following the conflict. Only they and their driver's mates, know of the long and dangerous journeys on unlit and potholed roads of the nationwide blackout, moving the much needed goods of the war effort, from and into the factories;  carrying the food and raw materials from the Luftwaffe targeted docks of London, Liverpool and Bristol.  This sometimes meant waiting for hours that sometimes ran into days, in long lines of lorries, occasionally without proper food or drink except for the cold sandwich wrapped in newspaper, while waiting for a boat to be unloaded. It was easy to lose your place should you leave your wagon unattended just for a short while, the chap behind would soon drive round in front should a gap appear in the line.  Dockyard and factory loaders were noted for a swift exit when the whistle blew, so sometimes it would see another night or day of waiting for unloading or loading attention.

'It dropped off the back of a lorry' is a term that found it's way into our vocabulary from those days, suggesting that drivers were dishonest. May be some were, but docks and loading bays have always been the source of 'fiddles’ of some sort or other, with drivers in the main getting the blame and suffering prosecution and fines for the actions of others.

One of the dockyard fiddles of the wartime rationing was the 'Tate and Lyle donation'.  Counting bags of sugar onto the lorry did not mean the proper weight was in the 1 cwt sack; a thin chamfered copper tube inserted between the weave of sacking would see sugar pouring out into a bucket that went from sack bottom to sack bottom, taking quite an amount from each apparently safe and sewn up sack. The spare wheel, tools and heavy lifting jack would be left off the lorry, or added, to suit the occasion on the weigh bridge.

Another humorous transport story that has survived from that time, is the war of words between two weigh bridge attendants. One from Wolverhampton, the other from Witton in Birmingham. A Foden low loader tractor unit, loaded with an 040 steam locomotive, had to be weighed across Wolverhampton's weigh bridge before delivery to an ammunition factory in Birmingham. When it arrived at its destination it was weighed again to corroborate payment for the transportation.

It was found however that the locomotive was over a ton lighter on the Birmingham scales than when it set out. This of course necessitated checks on both weigh bridges to find the fault, if any, as there was no way that the lorry would have used over a ton of fuel for a twenty mile journey. Both 'bridges' were found to be correct, with the respective attendants strongly blaming each other for the mistake on the ticket. Some years later the mystery was solved by an admission by the driver to his mates that he had called at his home on the way to Birmingham, for his dinner. It was there that over a ton of coal from the locomotive's tender, 'accidentally' fell into his front garden, and was warmly received by his missus.

Another misdemeanour was the fuel fiddle, when the owner of a roadside garage filling station would collude with a driver who would sign the fuel docket for more fuel that went into the tank. The driver got a share of the excess profit that went to the garage operator, who would then bill the transport company or factory transport department. Not everyone was involved in these scams but they did go on.

A model of a Guy Invincible Tipper in the livery of Tarmac of Wolverhampton. The model includes the tipping action.

Transport cafes or roadside 'stops' had a lot to be desired by today's standards, when it came to cleanliness and quality of service, food and toilets. However, these road houses that lined the A roads and trunk roads were an essential part of the driver’s life, when a long distance journey would sometimes see him away from home for several days or a week. Drivers had to telephone to book in ahead of a trip, to guarantee a bed in the overnight cubicle accommodation.

B category roads had a scattering of 'stops' similar in nature to the transport cafe but it would be pot luck to find them open - very unlike the comfort stations of today's Motorway Service Stations, with the guarantee that, whatever the time of day or night, they will be open, clean and inspected.

Poor accommodation in built up areas, with not the best of pay, would see many drivers opt to drive back home after a twelve hour day's work, rather than face what could be an uncomfortable stay in some of these grubby places, that would sometimes see as many as eight drivers to a room, with late arrivals and early departures of drivers making a good rest nigh impossible. Toilet and washing facilities in these cramped and in the main very poor areas of towns and cities at that time, can only be described by the unfortunates that had to use them.

The film 'They Drive By Night' ignored the real story of the road. There were some decent facilities, which the regular trunk drivers soon found and gave their custom to. Lorries would be parked around these like bees round a honey pot.  Surely the description of that meal of the day, 'a full English Breakfast' originated in the Transport Cafe. This meal of bacon, egg, sausage, beans & fried bread and chips, could be had throughout the day and longer if the cafe was an allnighter. Some drivers will recall that they could not afford the full monty, settling for a bacon butty with the occasional excuse that they were running late.

It was not unusual to see the 'NO DRIVERS' sign in the most basic of accommodation bed and breakfast house windows. Perhaps it was the petrol or diesel fuel smell on drivers’ overalls and clothing that might offend the delicate noses of other guests. Looking back, it does remind one of the days when some members of the public did not want transport men parked in their area but could certainly not do without the goods he carried. Parking up for the night would see a search for an open space or bomb‑site.  Regulations on parking were not so strict then but caused a problem at times for the man who, after making the vehicle secure, had then got to walk some way to his 'digs'.

Many a driver would suffer 'Cab Hotel', sleeping in the cramped cold driver’s cab for a couple of hours kip under the engine cover, with his head on his 'tachee case', before continuing on his way.  This saved a few bob extra for the family on the overnight accommodation subsidy, though a dodgy receipt and parking ticket was needed for the claim on return to base. This of course was illegal when filling in the hours of work log book that came later, recording journey and rest time, as he should have been resting away from his vehicle. These log books were often referred to as the 'daily liar', as they could be open to some conjecture when being examined. During the war it didn't matter if a driver drove all day or all night, or both, as he was then, conveniently, patriotic. The tachograph, fixed to the vehicle, has replaced the log book today.

There were a few drivers on the regular runs up and down the country who would be lucky or fly enough to find a 'home from home' and 'feet under the table' overnight accommodation arrangement. Discretion at all times prevailed in these circumstances. Landladies could be generous with their favoured driver’s requirements, such as a key to the door.

Roping and sheeting an eight wheeler with the old heavy tarpaulins in cold wet and windy weather is an experience that is not easily forgotten, as strained backs and arthritic joints will testify.  With the advent of nylon straps with metal buckles for tying down a load, the old Liverpool knot or dolly used with the old load ropes gradually became a thing of the past, but that knot was a thing that every lorry driver had to know of, to be worth his salt. Used in conjunction with the row of hooks on each side of the lorry body, they were essential for load safety and security. These hooks were very well secured, taking the full bodyweight of the driver as he swung on the rope during pulldown.

A special place to keep the sheets was usually provided for on top of the cab. Failing this, they were folded up and secured behind the cratch. The ropes were kept in the passenger seat area of the driver’s cab, with tools, chains, lifting jack, wheel chocks and other paraphernalia.

A driving hazard that is now drifting out of memory was the thick industrial and domestic fog of pre smokeless zone days. Evil smelling yellow and black smoke, belching from chimney stacks, that would suddenly descend as ‘smog’, back to where it originated in the industrial towns and cities, then spreading out into the countryside. Only the veterans of the open road will remember, with gratitude, the members of the public who would sometimes volunteer to walk in front of lorries in difficulty, with a lighted newspaper or torch.  And there was freezing fog with frost, that would turn road surfaces into black ice in the winter, with wagons backed up for miles on hills and gradients: 'Oh! gritters, where art though?.  Many a treasured driving jacket found itself under the back wheels to help the wagon get some forward movement.

Still in memory is the appreciation of wagon drivers to the actions of the housewives who would come out of a warm house to throw the cinder‑ash from under their coal‑fires onto the hard packed snow on the roads outside the front door, to allow lorry tyres to get some sort of grip. Then of course there was the single windscreen wiper on the driver’s side that would struggle to move heavy rain or snow, about a foot in length, non variable speed, with it's 'click click click' having an hypnotic effect on a sleepy and tired driver. Soon after the much improved double wipers were introduced, making life a little safer and more interesting for the mate or passenger.

On a lighter note, drivers would sometimes find that the sole of their right hand boot was worn so thin by the constant contact with the accelerator that, if they stood on a coin, they could tell whether it was heads or tails.

There were advantages for the lorry driver. On the plus side, once they were away from the two people who ruled their lives, their wife and the gaffer, they were captain of their own ship of the road, enjoying that feeling of freedom and fresh air that the factory worker, at his bench or lathe, was denied.  He would see places that other workers would have to wait for their annual holidays to see. Changes of the seasons, fresh faces and a camaraderie of the road, all made the job just that little more acceptable. He could work longer hours to make his money up, though perhaps against the law, advocated and accepted by some transport firms in the interests of profit.

Many a boy would suddenly become far to poorly to go to school on learning that there was a vacant space in the cab of a lorry heading to Birkenhead and across the ferry to Liverpool, or perhaps under the new Mersey Tunnel. Making a miraculous recovery next morning for school work, he had experienced a learning episode in his life more valuable to him than as to where Chile, Argentine Bolivia or Brazil were situated on the South American continent, in the school lesson of the day.

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