Fireman (steam engine)

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A boilerman, sometimes called a "fireman" or "stoker"

Fireman or stoker is the job title for someone whose job is to tend the fire for the running of a steam engine.

On steam locomotives the term fireman is usually used, while on steamships and stationary steam engines, such as those driving saw mills, the term is usually stoker (although the British Merchant Navy did use fireman). The German word Heizer is equivalent. Much of the job is hard physical labor, such as shoveling fuel, typically coal, into the engine's firebox.

Royal Navy[edit]

Stokers in the boiler room on board HMT Stella Pegasi, Scapa Flow, 6 June 1943

The Royal Navy used the rank structure Ordinary Stoker, Stoker, Leading Stoker, Stoker Petty Officer and Chief Stoker. The non-substantive (trade) badge for stokers was a ship's propeller. "Stoker" remains the colloquial term used to refer to a Marine Engineering rating, despite the decommissioning of the last steam-powered vessel some years ago.

Royal Canadian Navy[edit]

The Royal Canadian Navy currently has steam powered ships: both of which are Replenishment ships. All Marine Engineers in the RCN, regardless of their platform (CPF, 280 or AOR) are nicknamed "stokers".


A fireman working on a German Class 52 steam locomotive.
A fireman refills the water tank of 34067 'Tangmere'.

On steam locomotives, firemen were not usually responsible for initially preparing locomotives and lighting their fire. As a locomotive boiler takes several hours to heat up, and a too-rapid fire-raising can cause excess wear on a boiler, this task was usually performed by fire lighters working some hours before the fireman's main shift started. Only on small railways, or on narrow-gauge locomotives with smaller and faster-warming boilers, was the fire lit by the fireman. Whoever was responsible for fire-raising would clear the ash from the firebox ashpan prior to lighting the fire, adding water to the engine's boiler, making sure there is a proper supply of fuel for the engine aboard before starting journeys, starting the fire, raising or banking the fire as appropriate for the amount of power needed along particular parts of the route, and performing other tasks for maintaining the locomotive according to the orders of the engineer (US) or driver (UK) (or Lokomotivführer in Germany). Some firemen served these duties as a form of apprenticeship, aspiring to be locomotive engineers themselves. The engine itself was cleaned by an engine cleaner instead of the fireman.

Mechanical stoker[edit]

A mechanical stoker is a device which feeds coal into the firebox of a boiler. It is standard equipment on large stationary boilers and was also fitted to large steam locomotives to ease the burden of the fireman. The locomotive type has a screw conveyor (driven by an auxiliary steam engine) which feeds the coal into the firebox. The coal is then distributed across the grate by steam jets, controlled by the fireman. Power stations usually use pulverized coal-fired boilers.

Depictions in popular culture and art[edit]

Yank, the protagonist of Eugene O'Neill's play The Hairy Ape is the stoker on a ship. Mat Burke, a principal role in O'Neill's Anna Christie is also a ship stoker.

The Swedish graphic artist, drawer and mural painter Torsten Billman - himself coal trimmer and stoker 1926-32 at various merchant ships - has portrayed the hard work in coal bunkers and stokeholes.

The first chapter of Franz Kafka's novel Amerika is entitled "The Stoker".

The lead character, Bill Roberts, in Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York is a stoker.

Jeremy Clarkson acted as Stoker on No. 60163 Tornado while performing a Top Gear Race to the North against Top Gears Richard Hammond and James May. It was a hommage to the historical Race to the North, a rivalry between British steam engines, trains and men of different companies between London and Edinburgh.


Further reading[edit]

  • Jon R. Huibregtse, American Railroad Labor and the Genesis of the New Deal, 1919-1935. University Press of Florida, 2010.
  • Walter Licht, Working for the Railroad: the organization of work in the nineteenth century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • John W. Orr, Set Up Running: The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman, 1904-1949. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
  • Joseph Hugh Tuck, "Canadian Railways and the International Brotherhoods: Labour Organizations in the Railway Running Trades in Canada, 1865-1914." Dissertation. University of Western Ontario, 1976.