Windrush railway worker recalls 31 years on the railway

Percival Hanniford came from Jamaica to spend 31 years working for British Rail.

A former railway worker who came to Wales as part of the Windrush generation has been speaking of his 31 years working on the railway.

91-year-old Percival Hanniford from Cardiff, who was born in Jamaica, heard radio adverts calling for people to move to Britain for work. A young man who had recently started a family, he took the plunge and came to the UK when he lost his job in Kingston.

Two of his wife’s brothers had already moved to the UK, to Birmingham and Cardiff, and he decided to join them. He and his wife had to leave their four children in Jamaica until they earnt enough to move them over in stages.

Percival Hanniford.

“It was quite a shock as it was so cold when I arrived and I didn’t like it,” he recalled. “It wasn’t easy to find a job but my brother in law told me to buy the Echo newspaper for three pence and I saw the job of Guard, which I though must be a soldier!”

Percival was put through his paces learning routes, signals and railway regulations over an intensive two-week period before being sent out by British Rail to cities all over the UK. He was given a pack containing his railway appendix, red and green flags, a lamp and detonators in case of any blockages on the line.

“The snow when I started in 1962 was so bad that the River Taff froze slid and you could walk on it,” he remembered. “British Rail shut down and you couldn’t even see the line anymore and where engines stopped they were left for two days.

“I loved the steam trains because they were warm and you could get in with the driver and feel the heat from the fire, but diesels weren’t the same and only had a little heater. You’d go up to the cab and the driver would say ‘you’re not coming in here boyo!’.”

To celebrate Black History Month, Percival Hanniford discusses his railway career with Gareth Derry of the Transport for Wales safety operations team.

Despite it initially being hard to find a job, Percival never encountered any racism during his career on the railway, working with people from various different nations who had moved to Britain to cover the labour shortage caused by the second world war.

One memorable incident he recalls is when a pair of stowaways they discovered in the back of a train one morning. “We just heard this voice shouting ‘let me out, let me out’ and lots of banging,” he explained.

“It turned out it was two men who had jumped on the goods train at Bridgend and were hoping for a free ride to London, so they got quite a shock to find themselves in Cardiff!”

Percival Hanniford’s career spanned the move from steam to diesel, the widespread closures of the mines in south Wales and ended as privatisation was coming into effect in the 1990s. He moved from being a guard to shunter and then head shunter, working at Cardiff’s Newtown depot. He helped prepare trains to travel across Britain and Europe carrying goods including meats, livestock and coal.

During his time on the railway, Percival made lifelong friends, some of whom he still sees to this day. And some of the current Transport for Wales workforce, including director of operations Martyn Brennan and head of drivers Julian Thomas, still remember working with him in the 1980s and 90s.

“I had a really good career and British Rail was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “We always had to put safety first because you weren’t just responsible for yourself, you were responsible for all your colleagues and everyone else on the train.”

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