Dead Man’s Handle

W ell after midnight and under a starry sky one night in 1935 I was sitting on the rear carrier of Dad’s bicycle with my arms around his waist and we bumped over the undulations at the edges of Stanmore golf course. We were on the way home after an adventure.

I had just driven a London Underground train.

He had decided that this was the only possible way to satisfy my constant questions about what he actually did when he went to work. He was a Driver on the London Underground railway, the Northern Line, running from Edgware in Middlesex southwards to Morden in Surrey. A date was arranged. My mother and I were to wait until a couple of hours before the end of night duty and then get a bus to Edgware and then a Northern Line underground train. We were to get out again when we reached a station – which one, I’ve forgotten but it was just a little further along the line. We were to get out and cross to the Northbound platform and watch for the train he was driving come  out of the tunnel to the platform. As he slowed to a stop he would wave to us through his front widow.

We then had to get into the the leading carriage, sit down and wait until he opened his cab door to take me inside. As for my mother, she was to get out at Edgware, take the next bus home, go to bed and forget all about us.

So, Dad and me, alone, on an adventure.

His train came roaring out of the tunnel mouth and there he was, waving. With the other waiting passengers, we got in. The cab door opened and I leaped to my feet and joined him. He shut the door and sat me on his knee.

I heard all the carriage doors rolling shut.

‘Right’, he said, conspiratorially, showing me the two really important controls. ‘This one’s the brake and what we do is this,’ and he placed my right hand on a small brass horizontal lever. The he took my left hand and placed it on a much bigger one on the left. It had a palm-sized black mushroom-shaped button at the top. ‘And this one’s the throttle – it train faster or slower and we call it the Dead Man’s Handle. When we hold it down, it makes contact with the power. If we let go, it springs up and loses contact. I asked him why it was called by that funny name. ‘Well, just suppose I fainted while we were going along,’ he said. He closed my left hand on it, pressed the button down and clamped his strong hand over my own. ‘I’d fall over, wouldn’t I? And this black black button would spring up, all the power would be shut off and the brakes would come on automatically. The train would be safe and gradually draw to a stop -‘

A loud bell clanged from somewhere over my head.

‘Right! First, we take the brakes off.’ He made my right hand turn the lever round to its fullest extent. The brakes were off and we were free to move.

‘And now we apply the throttle.’ My left hand and his made the Dead Man’s Handle move round until there was one click. We began to roll from the electric light of the underground platform into the tunnel. My hand was moved round to the next click, and the next, and the next, until the throttle was fully open. Eventually we were at full speed, something like 40 miles an hour. Ahead, the blackness was broken only by regularly-spaced lights in the tunnel roof, their reflection glinting along the rails that vanished into the distance.

Under my father’s hands, my own held on tightly. I wasn’t going to mess things up for him; I was going to drive his train as well as I jolly well could. No messing.

Ahead, a very bright, yellowish hole appeared in the blackness and was slowly getting bigger. It was the next station.

He and I moved the Dead Man’s Handle back to where it had started from, and I felt the train losing speed.

‘Now, we apply the brake very gently, a little bit at a time.’ Our right hands moved the brass lever forwards, then back again, just giving the brakes a gentle touch and releasing them. Then we moved it a little further forwards, and back again. This went on until the lever had travelled to its limit and, in the bright light of the station, we rolled along at walking pace.

Just a moment before the train stopped he said ‘Now back again,’ This took the brakes right off so that the train was left to roll the final inch or two to a natural stop, so that there was no sudden jerk to make standing people stagger. Then we put the brakes fully on. The train was securely held still. (Years later as I learned to drive a car I adopted the same sequence and achieved the same kind of comfortable non-jolting stops. I’ve done it ever since.

Six or more stations followed and, finally, we rolled to a stop at Edgware. It was after midnight.

‘Come on up to the Mess-room!’ We galloped up a flight of iron steps into a quietly noisy smoke-filled room where half a dozen or so men relaxed between trips. Amongst friendly joking about the new driver I was introduced. They chatted with me as my father collected his coat and bicycle clips.

Then, on the road, we were swerving on to his short cut journey across the edge of the dark golf course, turning off into Kenton Lane, squeaking to a halt under the crab-apple tree by the front gate of our little terraced house. His keys rattled, the front door opened and we were indoors. The house was eerily silent and we whispered so as not to wake my mother. There was some larking about as he looked for the milk jug in the larder and poured two cupsful into a saucepan, lit the gas burner and make us both a hot cocoa before bed.

A ‘goodnight’ hug, and the adventure was over.

Thanks, Dad.