Days of long distance lorry drivers

An Atkinson eight wheeler
An Atkinson eight wheeler
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There’s a phrase we hardly hear anymore, ‘long distance lorry driver’.

Next time you use the motorway glance at the registrations of the huge trucks, it’s nothing today to see convoys from all over Europe.

I have an old friend whose shiny new trucks haul stage and sound equipment for big bands and he took the Rolling Stones to Moscow, now that is a long distance trek. But back some 50 or 60 years ago Lancashire to London or to Glasgow was no walk in the park.

I wouldn’t mind betting the latest generation of drivers would rather drive a modern air conditioned, wired for stereo, sleeping cab truck to Poland than a 1950s wagon to Glasgow over the old A6.

Those days are long gone, but, for the best part of 100 years, Preston-built Atkinson commercial vehicles were, as their company described them, the ‘kings of the road’.

Back in the 1950s, when Atkinson ruled the highway, I was a kid in an Ormskirk junior school and my father was one of the night men who drove Preston’s finest ridged eight wheelers for Suttons, of St Helens. The drivers who worked the long distance regular trunk routes were trunkers, or night trunkers, as opposed to the trampers or roamers who took loads anywhere and did not have a regular route. This long before health and safety kicked in and a kid could get a ride with his dad in one of what were then among the biggest wagons on the road.

Atkinson's Vehicles, knights of the road

Atkinson's Vehicles, knights of the road

The roads in the north, and moreover heading north from Lancashire, were hard and unforgiving. It took a certain breed of men to get those early wagons up and over the Pennines and places like the infamous Shap Fell. Many drivers simply refused to attempt that road in the dead of night, but Alf Sutton’s men did in their reliable Atkinson lorries.

Edward Atkinson and his brother Henry founded Atkinson and Co. before the First World War. From their factories in Preston the brothers pioneered steam wagons and their company saw a major surge in production when it shifted to diesel engine vehicles in the 1930s.

Their specifications were excellent, the cabs, however, like all commercial vehicles of the time, offered none of the luxuries of modern trucks. Drivers needed overcoats in the winter as there was only a thin skin of metal on a wooden frame between them and the elements. The more modern fibre-glass cabs were not introduced until around 1958 when flat windscreens of the early models were replaced with a much larger wrap-around style. By modern standards the old Atkinsons would be considered appallingly slow. But then so were the speed restrictions until 1957, when it was raised to 30mph, the speed limit for goods vehicles was only 20mph. You can see now why the 200-mile run to London took all night. I do, however, recall there were so few night trunkers they had time to switch on their cab lights as they passed so as to recognise each other, an illustration of the genuine camaraderie between those early night drivers.

After the Second World War many men were leaving the army with heavy vehicle driving skills and even those with aspirations in other areas could often only find similar employment in Civvy Street. Before the war my father, Tom Johnson, had as a youth occasionally driven a farm wagon for Rothwells, a long-established Lancashire farming family.

An Atkinson eight wheeler

An Atkinson eight wheeler

On enlistment during the war a sergeant asked who could drive and then put him behind the wheel of a huge army wagon at Catterick Camp and told him to take it to Dorset.

And that’s how it all began. He had wanted to be a doctor and just before the war had passed his school exams and had the opportunity of a grammar school place, but in those days it cost money for books and other items, money the family simply didn’t have.

So when he came out of the Army in 1946 he found employment as a driver with the former Ribble Bus Company, working out of the Ormskirk depot, to Liverpool, Southport, Preston, and Wigan, as did his brothers Eddie and John. After a few years with Ribble buses he joined Suttons, a move which cost me as a youngster my £10 ‘life savings’, he needed the money so he could buy an old Morris 8 to get him from home to St Helens.

It was a great investment, especially when one evening he brought his shiny bright red and gold sign painted Suttons eight wheeled Atkinson wagon to the Tower Hill estate where we lived. Every kid in the road came out to see it, with me casually leaning against the still warm radiator, “my dad’s wagon”, I said proudly.

Atkinson Silver Knight wagon on Preston Docks

Atkinson Silver Knight wagon on Preston Docks

And so he became a night trunker, hauling loads of all kinds of materials from the industrial north down to London, or later in the 1950s up to Glasgow. Typical loads were glass, newsprint, paint, and timber, and Sutton’s men and their trusty Atkinsons had an enviable reputation for never missing an overnight delivery.

Before the war my grandfather had also been a steam wagon driver, with stories of taking loads from Liverpool docks to Newcastle and how it was a week-long round trip for two men.

In his later years he drove tippers and snow ploughs for Ormskirk District Council, helping to keeping the A59 Liverpool to Preston road open in often appalling conditions. In his wallet he carried an irreverent version of Psalm 23, which went something along these lines “The Bedford is my wagon, I shall not want, it maketh me lie down in damp places and anointeth my face with oil ...”

The Lancashire night trunkers would leave their depots in the early evening and not arrive in London or Glasgow until dawn, where-on the wagons were taken into the city or docks by drivers known as ‘shunters’.

Atkinsons rightly had a good reputation for engineering and reliability, other wagons not so, especially those run by less reputable haulage firms.

In the days when tramps were regularly seen along our roads, I remember asking my father about a jolly but ragged figure making his way along the A5 near Stony Stratford. “Oh that man, he would be one of so-and-so’s men”. This was a joking reference to a haulage firm whose wagons were reputed to be in such poor condition that you would often see them broken down at the side of the road, abandoned by their equally unkempt drivers.

Mechanically brakes were nothing like those on a modern truck, drivers had to not only know their road, but really know how to use the gearbox, especially on steep descents. There are plenty of stories of brake failures and engines disastrously shattering through over-revving.

Despite the relatively slow speed, accidents were frequent and driving for a living was considered quite a dangerous occupation. My

father’s own Atkinson was hit while stationary by another wagon, it was on an ice bound ungritted road and the collision all but destroyed the cab. He was lucky to escape largely uninjured.

As a kid I was never allowed to go with him on the Glasgow run, it was too dangerous. He was trapped on Shap Fell on several occasions when making the St Helens to Glasgow run in the depth of winter, and witnessed many incidents, some tragic, others which all but beggar belief. At one time he was snowed in for almost three days. Men stranded on the open road in such appalling conditions had to use a degree of ingenuity, they burned scraps of flysheets and ropes in buckets of diesel to keep warm and opening whatever loads contained food or drink.

Those early wagons had to crawl up the fell, which is almost 1,400ft to the summit. Of course you can’t mention Shap without saying a word about the Jungle Cafe which played a vital role in providing drivers a refuge and sustenance right through the war years and until the M6 was built. Shap is, by the way, the only place in the UK that has a memorial plaque to that generation of hard working men.

l Tony Johnson would like to hear from anyone who worked for Atkinson or Suttons in the 1950s, especially those who might have known his father, Tom Johnson, or his friend Roy Merells. He would also be interested to hear from former employees of Atkinson Lorries Ltd. who know of the any technical drawings of the vehicles.