Please note: I am astounded by the huge response these humble efforts, regarding my 'UK lorry-driving' related pages, have caused from truck (ex-lorry?) drivers in many corners of the world. I must sincerely apologise, but I'm afraid that, due to the busy life I lead, I am unable to spare any extra time for replying to the many emails asking for further information from those days, except to gladly add a valuable link from YOUR lorry/truck-related site (although I'd be most grateful if you would sign my guestbook). How about if YOU write your own stories as YOU saw it - Maybe, between us, we'll all leave something about our experiences for the future, eh?
Signals Between Drivers.
The Main Types of Lorry Driving.
Return (or 'Back') Loads.
Roping & Sheeting Loads.
Page 2 - More on The Lorries and Conditions of the Work.
Page 3 - Recollections & Anecdotes from my UK Lorry Driving Days.
Page 4 - More Recollections & Anecdotes from my UK Lorry Driving Days.
Links to UK Trucking Sites.
Please - Sign My Guestbook. View My Guestbook.
What was it like to be a UK lorry (truck) driver during the 1960s to mid-1970s?
As a UK lorry driver during that period, and there seeming to be so little on the 'net concerning the subject, I've written up some of my lorry-driving recollections and anecdotes in the hope that other older UK lorry drivers will be encouraged to do the same.
For the moment this page is only about UK lorry driving, but I may add something about driving in other countries at a later date. At all times during the events recorded in these pages, my home base was at Reading, the County Town of Berkshire in the UK. Also, these reminiscences have been written as I have recalled them from the period of the events and I have preferred to leave things as they were. In the UK at the time, trucks were called lorries, measurements were in inches & feet, distances were in miles, weights were in pounds & tons, and money was mostly in pounds, shillings & pennies. I’m well aware of many changes that have taken place in the UK over the last 25 years that I’ve been away from that country, but I feel that I just wanted to write things as I saw them at the time. Nevertheless, I would be extremely grateful (and will give full deserved credits) to any persons who can supply any information that will help to make these recollections more complete so that we can hopefully leave a true record of UK lorry-driving from that period for our future generations.
If you have a father, grandfather, etc. who drove UK ‘lorries’ - how about nagging him for his stories and putting them on the ‘net, eh?
What she hadn’t realised was the fact that lorry driving, to me, was not only the way I earned a living - it was also another form of adventure in my eyes. The freedom of the open road beckoned, there were new horizons to discover, it was a relatively independent job of work, all other lorry drivers were your best friends whether you knew them or not, and anyway I wasn’t the type of person that could happily put up with being tied to one place each working day.
Apart from my step-grandfather being an old steam traction-engine driver, to me, as a youngster, there had been no signs that driving a lorry for a living would be any different than any other type of work. But I’d gradually become fascinated with the thought that people could drive around the countryside in a lorry and, at the same time, be paid to do it. My family called me a ‘wanderlust’. Wandering was a part of my nature, and I had caused them much concern through my desire to discover what was ‘over the horizon’. So it had only seemed natural to them that I would choose the type of work, such as lorry driving, that would get me out and about, giving me independence and plenty of variety.
The old photo beside this page index shows the first lorry I ever sat in, and my step-grandfather is standing beside it. The lorry (type & year unknown - I'd be grateful for any info on it) belonged to a relative who had used it to visit us for the day, and I spent most of that day sitting in the driver's seat pretending to drive it all over the country. I was ten years old at the time (early-1953), and you can just see me peeping around the back of the cab on the passenger's side.
If any reader of this narration is interested, the story of my life, of how I eventually became a lorry driver, and some of my very early lorry driving stories can be found in the 'My Life Story' section of this site.
I wasn’t an ‘exceptional’ lorry driver. I made mistakes, took many chances, and also worked for a few companies who didn’t mind if the law was flouted provided that their schedules were kept. But I did take a pride in what experience I gradually gained through my work, and with that experience I was always able to get plenty of employment (in spite of very often chucking in a job just because I wanted a week or two off to go up into the hills!).
One thing that helped me to get work so easily was the fact that, through that bit of chopping and changing employment, I quickly became 'experienced' at driving many makes and types of lorries. In the early days of my lorry-driving ‘career’ there were still vehicles around that had been manufactured by independent companies, but I also saw the gradual merging or taking-over of some companies, not to mention a few foreign makes creeping into the UK. Those facts enabled me to gain experience on such famous makes as: Leyland, Atkinson, ERF, Bedford, Guy, Albion, Thornycroft, Commer, Dennis, Scammell, Dodge, Foden, Bristol, Ford, AEC, Morris, Austin, Seddon, Mercedes, Magirus-Deutz, Scania, and Volvo.
Fortunately for me, by the time I began driving lorries the more-comfortable cabs were beginning to appear, and I have nothing but whole-hearted admiration for the early lorry drivers who only had the minimum of protection around them which barely helped to keep the cold wind and weather out. They must have had a very hard time of it. Nevertheless, even at the beginning of my lorry driving days there were still a few ‘comforts’ and modern safety features that were lacking in some vehicles.
The first item that comes to mind when I think about my early lorry driving days was the fact that cab heaters were either very poor - nothing like the sophisticated heating systems we enjoy today - or non-existent! For any reader that might be interested; towards the end of chapter 19 of my life story I have described what it was like to drive one of those heater-less lorries during the freezing British winter of 1962-63.
At the other end of the scale, I didn’t drive one lorry in the UK that had air-conditioning. There were a few hot days through the summer when air-conditioning would have been handy, but we didn’t really need it all that much. Now, after spending years driving trucks in Australia, and air-conditioning being a standard feature in those trucks, I wonder to myself if air-conditioning is standard in the modern UK lorries.
Seat-belts began to appear in some newer cars during the early 1960s, and eventually became a standard item. But I can’t recall having or wearing a seat-belt in any of the UK lorries I drove.
I do remember the arguments over whether to use seat belts or not. Many of my friends were of the opinion that seat-belts were restrictive and would trap them in the event of a fire in the vehicle after an accident. My main argument against that was that if no seat-belt was being used and the driver was thrown forward and knocked out, then they'd burn to death anyway. I actually saw an example of this right in front of my lorry as I was travelling along the A4 Bath Road between Newbury and Reading in the late-60s - I began wearing seat-belts in any vehicle that had them after that!
Radios, also, were not a standard item in any British lorries during those days. The first lorry I drove that had a radio fitted was a Volvo (mid-1972). I recall one time when I took a small battery-operated transistor radio on a trip with me (1965), but had quickly become fed-up. First because the radio kept losing the signal and had to be continually moved around due to only having an internal aerial. And second because the signal had trouble trying to get through the steel of the cab anyway. My main entertainment while driving along the many miles was to sing away to my heart’s content.
Cassette players actually fitted into lorries were a thing of the future. But I did take a small battery-operated one with me during 1974, when cassette players were just becoming popular. That didn’t last long either because the batteries ran flat very quickly, and there were no leads to plug into cigarette-lighter sockets in those days.
CB radios were still a thing of the future. Even so, around about 1973-4 I do recall that there was a communications company who were offering to put 2-way radios into lorries so that messages could be passed between the lorry driver and his own company (or any Emergency Services), via the communication company’s repeater bases up and down the country. Could that company have been one of the UK forerunners of CB radios?
And also, the mobile phone was a thing that was undreamed of and well in the future. When we wanted to contact our base for instructions, or to report any problems, we’d have to find a telephone and (usually) reverse the charges.
Most of the older lorries had no noise-blocking materials between the driver and the engine, and those cabs could be very noisy. But, if the cab was over the engine, with the engine cover between the seats, then at least the driver could cover that bonnet with old blankets to help keep the noise down a bit (that also helped to stop the draughts coming in through the ill-fitting engine covers on some vehicles, the blankets could be wrapped around the legs in very cold weather and heater-less cabs, and we could also use the blankets to wrap around us when we illegally slept in the cab!).
There were still many lorries around, in my early lorry driving days, that had coach-built bodies, deep-gloss paint-work, and hand-painted company names on the cab doors. Those bodies could be kept in sparkling condition with a bit of polishing and rubbing (usually while waiting to load or unload), and many of us drivers were proud of the ‘beautiful paint-work’ on our vehicles.
We had some fun with those old lorries, like driving along in the dark with headlights that were no stronger than if there were only a couple of candles stuck on the front bumper-bar, up-and-down-sliding cab windows that had to be propped up with a bit of wood, rear-view mirrors that had to be tied up with string to hold them in place against the slipstream, etc. And I can recall, on my first day with British Road Services (and the mechanics having put antifreeze into their vehicle’s cooling systems through the night ready for the coming winter), when I prepared five different Albions for my day’s work before I found one that wasn’t leaking coolant all over the yard (if there was a weak spot in the cooling system, antifreeze was sure to find it - usually resulting in the loss of all coolant!).
I started off my ‘career’ by first driving, and gaining experience on, ‘rigid’ lorries, then progressing onto ‘artics’.
‘Rigid’ was our word for all lorries that didn’t ‘bend’ behind the cab while turning corners, and usually having two, three, or four axles. The wheels on each side of the axles were usually known a ‘legs’, so, if you drove a rigid vehicle with two axles, you’d be known as the driver of a ‘four-legger’, and if you drove a rigid vehicle with four axles, you’d be know as the driver of an ‘eight-legger’. With the number of axles determining the weight of goods that could be carried, rigid lorries were then broken down into a further category - the type of body fitted. Mostly there were ‘flat-beds’ (sometimes with side-boards), ‘boxes’ (the goods being mostly loaded in from the rear of the box), tippers (for sand, etc.), and ‘bulk’ (for transporting fuels, gases, liquid chemicals, etc.).
‘Artics’ was our word for all articulated vehicles (semi-trailers) which consisted of a tractor unit (prime mover) with a trailer fitted to the back via a 5th-wheel (turntable). Again, the number of axles helped to determine the weight of the goods carried, first on the tractor unit (two or three axles) and then on the trailer (single- twin- or tri-axle). And then, as with the rigids, there were also the types of (trailer) bodies that determined what loads were carried. These were mainly flat-beds, boxes, bulk, ‘trombone-trailers’ (extendible trailers for both short and long loads), low-loaders, tippers, etc. all with many variations.
The first ‘artic’ I had experience of was a Scammell ‘Mechanical Horse’, a tiny articulated vehicle barely larger that the original horse & cart it was designed to replace. To me, the first time I sat in the cab, that lorry ‘felt’ huge (the very low seat didn’t help), but now, after being in amongst heavy road-trains for years I can look back and laugh with glee at the stumbling efforts and feelings of my early lorry-driving days.
But London, even in those ‘modern’ days of the mid-1960s, still had many dockland-streets and factories that had been designed and built in the ‘horse & cart’ era. The factory I had to deliver my load to was on the near-side (on the left and the wrong side for a driver who sat in the right-hand side of the cab as in the UK) of a narrow, one-way (of all things!) street, and I can vividly remember the horror and uncomfortable shame I initially felt - would it be ME who’d let the good name of us lorry drivers down by a bad exhibition of reversing a lorry in front of all those car drivers banked-up behind? - as a chap from the factory held the traffic up behind my vehicle while I struggled to reverse it back onto a weighbridge through the factory gate. In the end I amazed myself and managed the job with surprising ease.
Even though quickly gaining the necessary experience needed to competently handle the heavier articulated vehicles, I recall an occasion shortly after, at London’s Smithfield Market, when I noted what I thought was a good idea concerning the reversing of trailers (although not the ‘semi-trailer’ type) into tight spots. The Union Cartage Company of London had many small ‘tractor unit & trailer’ vehicles delivering loads around the old back streets and markets of the London area, although (to be fair to the artic drivers) their trailers were different from the ‘usual’ artic trailers, being of the ‘draw-bar’ type (and relatively short in length). When the drivers had to reverse their vehicle into very tight spots, they un-coupled the trailer, turned the tractor unit around, re-hitched the trailer draw-bar to a hook that was fitted to the front of the tractor unit, then ‘pushed’ the trailer back into the loading/unloading bay. If nothing else, at least they could easily see where they were trying to aim their trailers - with my still-inexperienced knowledge at the time, I thought that was a brilliant idea for getting the trailers exactly where they were supposed to go!!
Three months later I was happily driving all types of vehicles, rigids & artics, for the Reading branch of British Road Services, and that first successful attempt at reversing an articulated vehicle across a narrow London street became just a normal, everyday event!
used in Australia - But we now have plastic licenses.
As with my UK car license, this was automatically transferred
to an Australian license.
Obviously realising that it would be madness to completely shut down one of the UK’s main means of transporting goods around the country while the lorry drivers took tests to get the new license, it was decided that the new license would be automatically issued to drivers who had been driving heavy goods vehicles of the new classes for the full period during the six months previous to the introduction of the new license. The fact that drivers had driven the class of vehicle applied for during that period had to be proven by their transport companies and signed to that effect, and random checking of some company’s log sheets for the period was threatened (and carried out in many instances as I recall) by the Ministry of Transport lads just to keep everybody honest. This arrangement was ‘sprung’ upon us all at the last minute, so none of us really had a chance to ensure that we had jobs which would get us the ‘All Classes’ license.
The new license was grouped into eight classes, depending on the size and construction of the vehicles. The idea (for example) was that those lorry drivers who had driven the heaviest articulated goods vehicles, with manual (not automatic) gearboxes, for the previous six months before the introduction of the new licenses, would be issued with an HGV ‘All Classes’ license, which would enable those drivers to drive all the new classes of lorries on UK roads. On the other hand, those who had only been driving (for instance) a five ton, four-wheeled lorry, for the previous six months before the introduction of the new license, would only be issued with a license to drive that class of vehicle until passing a test to drive any higher classes of lorries.
I was fortunate enough to have been driving a full-tonnage AEC articulated vehicle during the six months previous to the introduction of the new license, so I automatically received an HGV ‘All Classes’ license (HGV License No. 2/K/A 004049 issued by the (if I recall rightly) Swansea Licensing Authority for the South Eastern Traffic Area). But I knew many drivers who were more than upset because they, although well experienced in driving the ‘big stuff’, had been driving light-tonnage lorries (for one reason or other) during the previous six months. When stories began to trickle through of these ‘hard-done-by’ lads taking the new test in an effort to get the ‘All Classes’ license category, there were more upsets and much moaning due to some of the points they apparently failed on. One friend came complaining to me because he’d been failed for looking through ONE rear-view mirror for more than ten seconds while reversing an articulated vehicle. He couldn’t believe it when I agreed with the examiner, saying that I also felt that ten seconds seemed a long time to look through one mirror without checking the opposite side, or front, of the lorry to see how things were going all around, not just down one side, of the vehicle. Of course, it was alright for me to take sides with the examiner, I had my full license, but I wonder how I would have reacted if I’d been forced to take another test under the same circumstances!
Not only was the Licensing Authority very strict with the issuing of the new licenses, they were also strict with laws as to whether we kept or lost them. For example, if we lost our ordinary car license (say, for driving while under the influence of alcohol), then we’d automatically lose our HGV license. On the other hand, if we lost our HGV license (say, for causing death by dangerous driving while in charge of a heavy goods vehicle), then we’d also automatically lose our car license. Just those two rules alone helped to ensure that many of us were better all-round drivers on the road, regardless of whatever the vehicle or circumstances we were in - And after all, that license did help to earn our living!
I recall that the writers of the UK lorry-driver’s magazine, 'Headlight', at the time called us, with our new licenses, ‘Professionals of the road’. That had made me very proud to be a lorry driver, and had also encouraged and helped me to try and be an even better and more professional driver. But not all lorry drivers cared nor felt that way at the time. Somewhere (I don’t think it was in the Headlight magazine) it was said that, now we had the new licenses we could compare ourselves with professional airline pilots - although already being terrified of flying anyway, it would have been even worse for me to think that there were pilots who flew their planes like I knew that, in spite of the new licenses, some of my mates were still driving their lorries!
Log sheets were also an important part of our daily working life. As lorry drivers, we had to record a ‘log’ of our working day on special forms called ‘log sheets’. The recordings were mainly our starting time and place (town), the hours we worked and rested, our daily mileage, etc. At first the log sheets came as a block of un-numbered forms where we could rip off the top sheet each day, enter the particulars with a pen, then hand in the finished sheet to our transport manager at the end of the day. Of course, if we were away from our main base for a few nights (as in a week’s trip up country) we would write out the daily sheets and save them, then hand in all the sheets from that trip when we arrived back at our base. All log sheets had to be kept by the company for ‘x’-number of years.
The daily recordings written down on our log sheets were supposed to be a truthful record of our working day - there were rules to adhere to which were designed to safeguard not only ourselves, but also the general public. For instance: Drivers who worked long hours and became tired while driving their lorries could be a danger to themselves and other road users if they fell asleep at the wheel.
The entries had to be written in as the day progressed (starting time, start of lunch time, end of lunch time, etc.), but often, due to the fact that in those days we had single log ‘sheets’ with no identifying numbers, we would ‘fiddle the hours’. This was usually done by starting on one log sheet, and then, towards the end of the day, screwing it up and writing out another log sheet that, for instance, read that the working day had begun later, or hold-ups had been written out, etc. That ‘fiddling’ of log sheets could very often give us the extra time needed to get home, or on to some particular town that pleased us. But the former day’s work, and the mileage-to-hours ratio also had to be taken strictly into account when doing so - sometimes we’d have to re-write the log sheets for a whole week!
Persons from the Ministry of Transport had the power to stop us at any time of the day or night to check our log sheets, and could bring any driver to court who was found to be breaking any of the laws through what that driver had, or had not, written down. But it wasn’t often that us drivers were caught out on the road by being asked for our log sheets by the Ministry chaps. As soon as they set up in a lay-by beside the road ready to stop any unsuspecting approaching drivers, passing lorry drivers on the opposite side of the road would begin to signal those approaching lorry drivers that the Ministry chaps were ahead. This was done by flashing the headlights, then waving log sheets out of the window. If the approaching driver had anything to hide regarding his log sheet, he would quickly stop beside the road and fix it up before proceeding on to where the Ministry chaps would be waiting.
But those Ministry chaps could also sit quietly and unobtrusively in a car beside the road, noting the registration number of a passing lorry and time of day at any location around the country, then go to the company’s office and ask to view the driver’s log sheet for that particular day so that they could check if the driver’s records were correct. This was a constant worry to us drivers who flouted the laws and drove longer hours than permitted for the day, or went over the speed limit set for commercial vehicles, so that we could get as far as possible on our journey or reach some particular town that pleased us. It could take many weeks, after ‘noting’ a lorry, before the Ministry lads got around to checking the driver’s log sheet at his home base. So, when we did break the law, we probably wouldn’t know if we’d got away with it for weeks - by that time we could have broken the law a dozen or more times! But, although a majority of lorry drivers were a fairly independent ‘breed’, most of them were fiercely loyal to their own companies and were quite happy to flout the laws here and there for their company’s, and their own, benefit.
Finally, around about the same time that the new HGV licenses were introduced (I can’t recall the exact date), and obviously in an effort to tighten up on the log sheet ‘fiddles’, the Ministry of Transport Department introduced log ‘BOOKS’ to replace the old log ‘SHEETS’. The log ‘book’ was just that - a book of log sheets that had to be kept in ‘book-form’ (without tearing off separate pages as with the old block of ‘sheets’). Each sheet in the new log books were specially numbered in sequence so that it would be known if any driver had torn one out. The companies signed for the log books they received from the Ministry, and each driver had to sign to say that he’d received a full log book (from his company office) with no pages missing, and to say that he was aware of, and accepted, the new transport laws. I cannot now recall how many pages were in the books - probably about a month’s worth - but each page had to be signed by the driver at the end of each working day, and the completed book handed into his company office for keeping just in case the Ministry lads wanted to view them in the future.
The new log books didn’t quite eliminate all of our log-related ‘fiddles’. Gradually, at that time in the very early 1970s, more miles of motorways were being added to the UK road system and, although heavy goods vehicles were eventually restricted to 70 miles an hour on the motorways (as were other vehicles - although HGVs were still restricted to 40 miles an hour on all other unrestricted roads), we could generally get away (at the time) with going over that speed restriction. On one occasion I can clearly remember going at a speed of 90 miles an hour down the M4 motorway past Swindon in a Volvo articulated vehicle - goodness knows how I would have stopped if I’d come upon an accident up ahead!! But at least we could make up a bit of time, after being held up in any towns, villages, or loading and unloading points, by speeding along the new sections of motorways, and it would have been hard for the Ministry lads to work out what more-minor roads or holdups we had, or had not, been required to travel along or endure.
Nevertheless, I recall at least one company (that I’m aware of) and its drivers that thought it would be easy to get away with cheating the new log book system and laws in a blatant manner. And, although it took a while, and a terrible accident, for the Ministry lads to catch on to the deception, it didn’t take them long to close the ‘loop-hole’! It was simple (so the guilty company and drivers thought) - create ‘Ghost-drivers’!
The new rules and licenses had caused a shortage of good articulated-vehicle drivers, and the company only had a fleet of articulated vehicles. So, without having to employ lower-classed license drivers, then having all the extra costs of putting those lower-classed drivers through further tests to gain their Class 1 license (due to the shortage at the time it was an accepted practice for companies to pay for the update of any prospective employee’s license), existing and willing drivers in the company were issued with a second log book under their name. The idea was that they would drive for a full working day under one log book, then drive on into the night under the other log book. If the Ministry lads came to the company saying that a lorry from that company had been recorded at some location, all the transport manager had to do was dig out the log book for the time the lorry was recorded. The Ministry lads would see that the lorry was in the right place and go on their way. The deception, as I remember, wasn’t discovered until one of the drivers had an horrific accident through driving too many hours and being so exhausted that he fell asleep at the wheel!
And so, although I was fortunate enough to have never been involved in such an undertaking, the use of ‘ghost drivers’ by that transport company (and I remember the company’s name to this day) was stashed away in the recesses of my memory and often became another subject of discussion whenever I got together with other lorry drivers.
But wait!! Even without the need to become a ‘ghost driver’, or for any other reason, on hundreds of occasions I had willingly driven well over my allotted hours! I can recall so many times when, at the end of a long day, the road ahead had blurred through lack of sleep! I can recall the white lines of motorways going off in three or four different directions ahead as I fought to focus my vision when, through the desperate need for sleep, I was so tired that I could hardly see! I remember so many times when I’d taken a chance and driven on through the night, and had been forced to actually hold my eyelids apart with my fingers so that I could stay on the road. And there was no such thing as taking a pill that would help keep us drivers awake as some drivers seem to be doing these days in the late 90s! (I don’t know much about the pills (Benzedrine, I believe) as I have never used such things!)
3am to 5am in the morning was the worst for me - it seemed between those times that it was the hardest to stay awake - especially during my ‘night trunking’ days, after maybe not being able to sleep through the previous day due to noise, etc.!!
Turning off the heater (if there was such a luxury in the lorry) didn’t always help, nor did opening the window in the hope that a blast of cold air would revive the senses. I know that on many occasions I actually raced along with my head stuck out of lorry windows into the cold slipstream in an effort to revive myself so that I could drive on a few more miles. On the other hand, I can also recall so many times when I’d finally been forced to pull over (or off a motorway) and have half an hours sleep to ‘freshen up’ a bit (it was surprising how even that short rest would help!). In a way, I was just as guilty as that company and its drivers had been!!
Some Lorries were fitted with a ‘tachograph’. This was a device that recorded the exact hours, mileage, etc. that a vehicle ‘worked’, and the results were ‘graphed’ onto disks of paper fitted into the device each day (week?) by the driver. For a while I drove a Mercedes (LP Series) articulated vehicle fitted with one of these devices, and it wasn’t very long before I was complaining bitterly about the ‘spy in the cab’ - our modification of the words ‘spy in the cockpit’ as used by some airline pilots when they were first against having voice-recorders fitted into their aircraft! The tachographs were ‘legal’ and had to be handed in with the log sheets, but it was hard to stick exactly to the legal hours and speeds and I was glad to finally get off that lorry. When I left the UK at the end of 1974, there was much talk of making tachographs compulsory in all heavy goods vehicles.
In spite of all the many times I flouted the log sheet/book laws, I was extremely lucky in the fact that I only got caught once. The offense occurred during June 1969 and, just as Murphy’s law would have it, I’d raced back down the country (for some reason that I cannot now recall) through the previous day and evening, and it was one of the few times that I hadn’t bothered to keep my records updated. I’d got away with it on a couple of previous occasions, but this time I was stopped by the local Ministry lads while sneaking into Reading just after 1:00am in the morning. All I could do was hand them the uncompleted log sheet from the previous day. At the end of November that year I went to court, pleaded guilty to five offenses, and was fined 25 pounds. For any person who might be interested, here is a breakdown of the offenses: Driving for a total of more than 11 hours in 24 hours. Failed to have at least 10 hours rest. Driving for a continuous period of more than five and a half hours. Failed to keep current driver’s record (previous day). Failed to keep current driver’s record (morning I was caught). The first four offenses were for the previous day and the last was for the morning I was caught. Twenty five pounds was a lot of money to a lorry driver in those days, and I paid the fines off in weekly instalments of two pounds.
Having mentioned that lorry drivers used to signal oncoming lorry drivers to expect a log sheet/book check ahead, there were also other signals that lorry drivers gave each other in those days. For instance: A flash of headlights from an approaching lorry and the thumbs-down sign out of the cab window warned that there was a police car, or a radar speed trap, somewhere up ahead. A flash of headlights followed by an arm, with flat hand, waving up and down out of the window warned that there was a hazard or accident up ahead. A flash of headlights and a happily waving hand from an approaching lorry was usually a friend passing. A flash of headlights from the lorry you’d just passed (seen through your nearside rear-view mirror) would let you know that it was safe to pull back to the left. And so on!
I also recall that many helpful car drivers gradually began to use some of these signals to us lorry drivers (and other car drivers) - especially when they had just passed a police speed trap!
But there was another recognised ‘waving of log sheets/book’ signal other than from an approaching lorry in warning to expect the Ministry lads up ahead. This one, used only while standing beside the road, was to attract other lorry drivers to the fact that you were a lorry driver yourself and wanting a lift.
With the legal allotted driving hours up, we were supposed to park up for so many hours rest before continuing on with our journey. Those hours of rest had to take place away from the vehicle. But sometimes the hours would be up when a driver was only a short distance away from home. Then the decision would have to be made - Whether to take a chance and carry on. Whether to park up and spend a night away, in spite of being so near to home. Or whether to park the lorry up, hitch home on the log sheets/book for the hours of rest, then hitch back and get the lorry after the rest period. Over my lorry-driving years (if nothing pressing was on), I usually carried on if I was closer to home than twenty miles when my hours ran out. But, if I was a bit further out, say twenty-five to thirty miles, and there was a direct main road into Reading (as would be the case, say, from Oxford to Reading) then I would use my log sheet/book to get a lift to home and back from other lorry drivers who were still travelling within their legal hours. As there were plenty of lorries roaming around the country, whose drivers began and finished their working hours at all times of the day and night, it was very easy to get a lift at any time. Naturally I gave lifts in return.
Huge amounts of goods are moved around countries by lorries (trucks), not only in the daytime, but also during the night.
In the UK, during my driving years there, drivers who took loads in any direction around the country were known as ‘trampers’ (or ‘roamers’). If a ‘day’ driver went along the same route every working day, he was known simply as a ‘trunker’ (a trunk-road driver - for example, the A1 or A4 roads were known as ‘trunk roads’ in those days). If a ‘night’ driver went along the same route through the night, he was known as a ‘night trunker’. Due to the shape of Great Britain, many of the UK night trunkers travelled north or south.
After a long drive through the darkness, the night trunkers would reach their destination where the ‘southern (or northern) shunters’ took over the lorry. It was the shunter’s job to deliver the load and re-load the lorry ready for the night trunker to take back up north (or down south) that night. Night trunkers slept through the day, shunters and trunkers usually slept through the night, and trampers usually slept whenever they had the chance.
For most of my UK lorry driving years I had preferred to be a tramper, due to the fact that, as long as I could find the loads myself (which in those days, with all the clearing houses and return-load depots, was easy if a driver was keen) and kept the money rolling in for my bosses, I was free to wander in any direction I chose.
Having brought up the subject of return loads in the last paragraph, and getting back to myself, and my chosen ‘career’! Another ‘arrow in my bow’ that ensured I could always get employment was that I rarely made my way back towards base without a ‘return load’ if required.
In general transport, return loads (now called back loads - in Australia anyway!) helped to pay the company’s way - empty lorries travelling about the country didn’t earn money! Mostly there would be a transport manager whose job it was to get the lorries loaded locally with goods for other parts of the country. Then, with the load delivered, a good transport manager would arrange (or ‘find’) a load back towards base for the vehicle if possible. This was mainly done by using ‘Return-load depots’ (or ‘Clearing-houses’). Return-load depots were mostly transport companies who acted as a medium for any companies in their particular area that required goods to be delivered around the country, and either used their own vehicles, or contracted the work out to other company’s vehicles for a small percentage. As a more clear example:
My company’s transport manager arranged for me to pick up a local load and take it up north to Carlisle. Knowing that, in two days time, he would have an empty lorry in that city (after I’d delivered the load), and not wanting the lorry to lose money by travelling back down to base empty, he'd phone around the Carlisle return-load depots (Robson’s of Carlisle was my favourite in that city) in an effort to get the lorry loaded with goods that needed to be transported back down south. If he could ‘find’ a load there, he'd instruct me to go to the depot where I’d be given directions of where to collect from and deliver to.
If there were no loads to be found in Carlisle, the transport manager would try getting loads from towns progressively further south such as Lancaster, Preston, Chorley, and Wigan. If he still failed to get a load at any of those towns, then he was sure to get me a load in Manchester or Liverpool, and it would be worth going off my course to either of those cities if I could get a good-paying load.
But, back to the load that I’ve picked up from Carlisle, and it might be destined for, say, Swansea in South Wales. If there was not much work on from our local area, the transport manager would be quite happy to let me go so far out of my way, knowing that there was every chance that he could get me a load back towards home from that direction. I’d deliver the load to that city, and the transport manager would then have to ‘find’ another load that would bring me closer to base, say, for Southhampton Docks. Then there’d be one last search for that week to get a load from Southampton that would enable me to be home for the weekend. This last load of the week could be another load for up north and, after spending the weekend at home I’d set off with that load to do it all over again.
Sometimes, as a tramper, we wouldn’t get home for 2 or 3 weeks, spending that time zig-zagging across, or up and down, the country while we got whatever loads we could, but that didn’t matter as long as the lorry was earning money for the company. Only occasionally would we return to base empty, usually if there was something urgent that needed to be delivered from our local area.
As far as many transport managers were concerned, if a driver could be left alone to go up country then find his own loads back, so much the better. It saved them a lot of work and worry as long as the lorry was happily paying it’s way, and any driver like that was a well-sought-after asset (transport managers also did the hiring and firing of drivers).
I was one of those drivers. I thoroughly enjoyed the independence of getting up country and being left alone to find my own loads - it was like working for myself in a way. But what was even better for me was the fact that I could pick and choose from which loads were available and go where I pleased. That gave me the opportunity to travel all over the country. Even after twenty five years have passed by since I last drove a lorry on British roads, I can still remember the company names of many return-load depots. Companies such as: A1 Transport, Reece, Merley’s, Bailey’s, Robson’s, Silver Roadways, Towlers, Blackwood’s, J & H Transport, Robinson’s, Hawe’s, 20th Century, Transmotor’s, etc. All the transport managers of return-load depots were good chaps, they knew we were away from home and would cheerfully help in every way possible to ensure that they found loads that suited us. Eventually I was almost able to show my face at any of those company’s offices and be recognised as ‘Jesse from Reading’! (‘Jesse’ was my nickname back in the UK - as in Jesse James.)
On the other hand, if a driver worked for a countrywide company like the British Road Services, who had their own depots in towns and cities all over the country, then he would call into the nearest depot after doing a delivery, where he could usually just pick up another ready-loaded trailer, or even a completely different lorry, for his next delivery.
While on the subject of collecting and delivering loads: As the nearest city/port to my home-base of Reading, I delivered and collected hundreds of loads for export and import to and from London, and the dockside-workers at the many wharves & warehouses on the docksides in the Port of London quickly set the precedent of what I came to expect from dockside-workers over most of the UK.
No matter where we delivered or collected our loads in the British Isles, the transport managers, foremen, receivers, dispatchers, loaders or un-loaders (and even tea-ladies with a ‘cuppa’ on some occasions) would be right there to help in every way - except for the UK dockside-workers!!
London, Tilbury, Southampton, Liverpool, Salford, Glasgow, Avonmouth, Newcastle, Swansea - it didn’t seem to make any difference at any of the important (to the UK) ports and docksides, the story was the same.
Having rushed up (or down) to, for instance London, as a part of your nature at ‘being British and proud that the British always do their best’, you could be (and most times were) faced with a queue of twenty, thirty, and often more, lorries parked up ahead at a dockside. You might just have one tiny parcel (that fitted easily under your arm) to deliver to the dockside warehouse for shipment overseas, or even be able to see a parcel, that you were to collect, right there in front of you. But, would those dockside receivers/dispatchers help to get you on your way (or off their back)? Not likely!! You’d be told to go back to your lorry and wait your turn! The hundreds of hours I waited at UK ports with (or for) just a small easily-carried package was astounding, and I often look back and think how lucky I was not to have a lorry loaded with little parcels, each for a different dock - I think it would have taken a couple of months to deliver the load!
Fair-go to the dockers, if I’d wanted to deliver or collect a large part- or full-load (which, on many occasions I’d been required to do, and had long recognised, and accepted, the fact that those lads couldn’t be expected to load or unload any major part- or fully-loaded lorries that were there before me in five minutes) then I could have understood the reasons for any long delays at the docks. But, when it came to being held up hours on end for something that a driver had brought right into the warehouse, or that the driver could see was right there, and only required a two-second signature either way, seemed so pathetically childish, extremely lazy, and showing a blatant disregard for the welfare of Britain and its reputation!
My best friend, Pete, used to be a receiver/dispatcher for the Ben Line at the London docks and he can’t recall being blasé in that manner - maybe the dockside workers should have swapped jobs with us for a few days of delivering around the dock areas!
I’d have to travel around the world a bit before realising that the ‘docker’s disease’ seems to be rampant in many countries!!
And that’s my moan over with!!!!
In my early days of lorry driving, many companies still didn’t have forklifts. Most of the loads were manhandled (called ‘hand-balling’ by the drivers) on and off the lorries, or cranes were used for the heavier (now pallet-sized) goods. But gradually, as more and more companies purchased forklifts, the manhandled loads became less, until it wasn’t often (usually causing a big groan from any driver unfortunate enough to get one by that time) that we’d have a ‘hand-ball’ load.
The job of ‘roping and sheeting’ (as it was called - actually the opposite, sheeting and roping, should apply if the words are said as the job is done) loads was a very important part of lorry driving. The ‘sheets’ are tarpaulins that cover the load to keep the weather out (and also to help stop any of the load being blown onto the roads by the slipstream). Then the whole load is tied down with ropes, using special knots (‘dolly-knots’) for tightening the ropes to prevent movement. With the different types, sizes, and shapes of loads that need to be covered, roping and sheeting is an art that can only be gained by experience, and most lorry/truck drivers are proud of that art.
But it doesn’t just end at covering and tying the load down, then happily forgetting it until the destination is reached. The load, sheets and ropes must be watched (through the rear-view mirrors, or the reflection of the lorry in shop windows that are being passed, or a quick glance back at the load (if driving an articulated vehicle) while turning corners or going around roundabouts, etc.), and checked fairly regularly, usually at lunch-stops, etc.
For example: In rainy weather the old natural-fibre (sisal) ropes used to shrink and tighten over the load. Then, after the rain had ceased and the ropes had dried out, they stretched back and could become loose enough for the load to shift. So it was worth stopping to check if the load was still secure, even re-tying the whole load if needed. Loads can even ‘settle down’ through the vibration and movement, causing the ropes to loosen.
There are also other considerations to take into account, for example: Many drivers used the clove-hitch knot (‘yorkie’ to some) on the hook (we had hooks, not bars) below the dolly-knot to secure the rope while they threw a loop over the next section of the load, and, in icy weather when spray caused these knots to freeze, they were almost impossible to undo until they’d thawed out.
Another thing that gradually crept in while I was driving lorries in the UK were containers. At first containers were a novelty, lifted up onto the deck and clamped down with a lengths of chain over the container and tightened up with ‘stretcher-chains’ (adjustable devices with a short chain and hook at each end, and a ‘locking’ lever in the middle that can be pulled down to make the distance shorter between the two hooks, therefore tightening the chain over the container - or load). But we soon realised that the use of containers saved the extra work and worry of roping and sheeting, and many of us eventually began to look for containerized loads rather than ‘open’ loads.
I have memories of all the above recollections because I went for the type of work that suited my 'wanderlust & rebelistic' nature instead of giving in to doing any type of hum-drum work that would cause me to get very frustrated & bored.
Don’t waste your precious life on following the paths to drugs, crime, boredom, frustration, and useless exploits. Be determined, get out, meet good people, and channel your energy towards worthwhile & more interesting causes so that you can have some real-life adventures of your own to remember and write about - even if they are only simple adventures like mine!
Brian's Bygone Browsings......Fascinating stories by an ex-UK lorry driver now living in Canada.
UK Truck Drivers..................A good site for UK truck drivers - with some world links.
UK Driving On-Line..............UK driving in general - with a lorry-driving related page.
The AEC (UK) Society...........Everything about AEC Buses & Trucks.
The Central Garage...............An interesting site on truck accidents in Scotland - with many pics.
Steve Forsyth's Home Page....Some good AEC pictures.
HGVWEB..............................A good-fun tongue-in-cheek look at UK truck driving.
Kingsley Foreman's Site.........Check this one out for Aussie trucker-related pages.
Back to top of page.
Back to index of my true adventure stories.
Back to main page