From the pen of Mr Latimer Naseby.
I heard many odd stories in the cosy bar at Doolin when I was a young engineer. Some were tall tales, some were lies, but a couple haunted me and I recall them still. I leave it to you to decide if they be true or false.
I’ll start with a ‘rum tale’ that I am assured is true. It doesn’t haunt me in the least, but I find it amusing. The original Tube that ran from England to the Continent did not, as you’d expect, start out from Dover. It was instead run from Kingsdown near Deal across to a spot close to Dunkirk. Thus was it to be kept free from shipping, dragged anchors and the like. Large engine houses were built at either end to maintain the necessary pressure, or lack thereof, as it is of course, mostly vacuum. The laying of the Tube itself had not been difficult. A superseded battleship, the ‘Great Charles’ had been modified for cable laying. There have been many tales of the daring of the deep sea divers who were repeatedly needed to maintain the seal. Before Blessed’s vulcanisation process many types of pitch and tar were tried.
Much more daring were those who worked inside the Tube. There were many heroes, but few will tell of their exploits. They were invariably small people, recruited from the ranks of coal and iron miners and some hardy souls who enjoy the sport of caving. Travelling inside the Tube requires one to have no fear of confined spaces, nor a terror of the dark. Although the original Tube was somewhat larger than the current one, it was not possible to do so much as crawl along it. The repair men and women lay on small trolleys and propelled themselves along with their feet.
A strong line was attached to the trolley, much in the way that a diver is tethered to their ship. In cases of danger, the build up of dangerous gases, or the risk of a serious implosion, the trolley could be drawn back out of the tunnel. There was a fine steel cable that ran in a recessed niche at one side of the pipe. It contained along its length a series of tags. In normal usage a container would flick these as it passed along. A series of bells and an apparatus not unlike a ship’s telegraph could thus indicate the progress of the delivery. By the movement of these tags, the intrepid travellers could communicate with their fellows on shore. I should also add that the containers terminated at each end with a metal ring. The inspectors could attached a cable to this ring and a jammed or stopped package could be thus retrieved. This much can be read in Palgrave’s ‘Treasury’ of course, but I am still stirred by the tale.
One night, after a successful day of transferring containers, the engineers were preparing to open the air valves to relieve the vacuum inside. Both engines were to be stopped for cleaning. This would occur after ‘The Bottlebrush’ as they called it, had been propelled along the way. It was an ingenious contraption designed to remove any build up of dirt and grease within the pipe. As the engines were stopping there came a furious clacking from the Tube’s telegraph, as if someone was moving inside it. Given the pressure of the air at one side and the vacuum of the other, no living creature should have been able to survive for a moment. The telegraph however, indicated that something was moving along the tube at a steady pace.
When the vacuum was fully discharged the pressure seals were removed and the loading apparatus was opened. Before a trolley could be made ready, it became obvious to the engineers that something was making its way toward them. At times the indicator bell would ring twice or more, as if the object had struck it repeatedly. It was decided to wait and see what would emerge. After some fifteen minutes a dark shape appeared, illuminated only by the engineers’ lamps. As it got closer to the dispatch station it would stop, lean and nudge the telegraph tags, sometimes repeatedly. Then, to the astonishment of the watchers, a large cat sauntered out of the tunnel. It paused to rub its head on the pressure seal door, as it had been doing with the telegraph tags along the way.
The animal appeared to be in good health and also in good spirits. There were many theories as to how it had got there, but all were discounted. The cat was a large male tabby (white underside) with a small collar and a red tag attached thereby. There was nothing to be seen either on the tag or the collar. Apart from being hungry, he seemed no worse for wear. Unless our French colleagues had placed him there for a joke, there was no rational explanation to be found as to how he had come to be there. The French certainly played no part. Their engine house was some forty miles away. The transport containers were always sealed so as to ensure that the contents were not damaged by the vacuum. Certainly no living creature could have survived when the Tube was operating.
The animal responded equally to English or French, but like most cats, often feigned deafness. He quickly became a favourite at the engine house,always finding the warmest spots to sleep. In later life, I’m told, he transferred to the lighthouse in Kinsale on the Irish coast. The chief of engineering had retired there and the animal followed him into retirement.
I’m inclined to think that the whole tale was an elaborate way of ensuring official status (and rations) for the engine house cat. Then again, having known a number of the creatures personally, nothing that they do would surprise me in the least.
Old Engine House, Brunel’s Atmospheric Transfer System, Kingsdown, England.
Monument to ‘Mr Russell’ the engine house cat.
This is another excerpt of an ongoing fiction work ‘Mr Faraday’s Cage & Other Tales of Obscure Science’. I will be publishing new parts twice weekly.