by Chris Tobin
It’s smoky, dirty and you can even get burnt if you are not careful.
That doesn’t worry Thomas Kyle (14).
He loves steam traction engines and has recently become probably the youngest person in the country with a ticket to drive them.
“I loved them from the start,” he said.
That start was at a very young age, well under 5. The reason – traction steam engines are in his family’s blood.
His father, John, has long held a steam ticket and his mother, Issie, became the first woman to achieve the feat more than 25 years ago. Then there’s his 12-year-old sister, Victoria.
Mum Issie said: “Victoria’s favourite smell is coal burning. She’ll get her steam ticket, too.”
They also own three engines of their own.
If you delve into the family history this family fascination with steam-powered engines is totally understandable.
For many years John’s grandfather, Bill Clarke, operated traction engines from Seadown.
“My grandfather had 150 men working for him with 12 engines,” John said.
“They worked mostly south of the Opihi in a big part of South Canterbury. There were a lot of other contractors in those days.”
It is a time that has long faded into history.
During harvest season, contractors with their steam engines would haul threshing machines from farm to farm.
Each traction engine and mill had a driver-feeder, bag sewer, bag carrier, forker, straw wallopers, tankie or water joey and a cook to keep everyone fed. There could be 10 to 12 men to feed each day.
John’s father, Tom Kyle, emigrated from Northern Ireland and drove and worked on mills and chaff cutters for Mr Clarke. He married Mr Clarke’s daughter, Irene.
“Tom bought four engines and kept contracting until the 1950s when threshing finished as headers and harvesters came in.”
His father had a big clearance sale but held on to a couple of traction engines and started going to rallies. The family had continued this tradition.
In 2010 and 2011, when Thomas was 5 and Victoria was 2, the family travelled to England, spending three months living the carnival life, attending traction engine rallies. They did it for two years and attended the world’s biggest steam and vintage equipment show, The Great Dorset Steam Fair.
“When we were in England John bought a four-and-a-half scale [steam engine] and it’s easier to use,” Issie said.
“John was being protective of having the kids on the big ones.”
Thomas and Victoria learned how all the bells and whistles operated on this small version traction engine.
As for getting his steam ticket, Thomas, also a highly competitive swimmer and the junior swimming champion at Timaru Boys’ High School, said it comprised theory and practical.
“With theory it’s about safety vales, injections, pumps, keeping the water up, how to fire, and how to stop. I did it by correspondence.”
Then came the practical test over 13km on a road outside Christchurch. It was overseen by Dowell McLeod, an engineer who worked on the restoration of Pleasant Point’s locomotive AB699, and who did the test for steam ticket assessor Peter Boys, of Darfield.
Just getting started was a challenge in itself.
“Before you start, you check the water,” Thomas said.
“If you’ve got a third of glass you are OK; after that you get a diesel and rag, light it, put wood in and you keep adding wood.
“You go round and check oil and parts; after you’ve got a bit of head you add coal and build up till you’re ready to go.
“It can take two hours to steam up.”
Mr McLeod said Thomas – now the fourth generation of his family to have a steam ticket – showed ability beyond his years.
“He’s a very competent and very responsible young lad.”