While peacefully enjoying some refreshment in the pretty garden setting of the City of London Crematorium and Cemetery café, I gazed vacantly through the boundary railings to the street. What met my relaxed gaze was a steam engine, shiny black and gold, steaming its way majestically along the busy road, with trails of modern vehicular traffic following behind at the same slow pace, (whether the drivers wanted to or not). It’s not what you would expect to look upon in a busy East of London suburb, especially when there was no obvious fair, celebration or rally, for it to arrive at on the surrounding common land.
Up to the first World War, a steam engine of this type would have had a less preened and glorified existence. It would have been heavily worked, probably trailing such ignominious vehicles as wooden accommodation vans for the workers, who would hire out their agricultural labour. The accommodation van did not have the romanticised look of the decorated and cute Gypsy caravans sometimes seen at shows today. It would have been a wooden construction, with heavy wheels. Inside there would have been bunks for the men and a large chunky stove for heating and cooking. In certain parts of the country, the stove is likely to have been stoked up with peat turfs. An accommodation van I saw on a walk, which is a marker on a particular ordnance survey map, though decaying (shame), still contained its neglected stove and the bunks were just still intact. A man on the walk remembered seeing the caravan in use on the local farms for a time during and just after WWII. He added for effect, and just in case anyone thought he was much older than he looked, “I was only a really young lad then“.