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A locomotive for all seasons

One of the strangest events of the Second World War was that Oliver Bulleid, then Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway (SR), obtained approval in 1940 to build a fleet of totally novel Pacific locomotives to provide the backbone of the SR’s heavy passenger and freight workings. Nominally “mixed traffic” locomotives, these were out and out passenger locomotives in all but name. The thirty examples were known as the Merchant Navy class because they were named after the shipping lines serving the SR ports. One of them, 35029 Ellerman Lines, is in the Museum at York but she will never run again as she has been sectioned lengthwise to show the workings of a steam locomotive.

When the war was over Bulleid wanted to improve the railway’s efficiency by building a locomotive that really could “go anywhere, do anything” so he designed a slightly smaller version of the “Merchant Navy” class: those destined for the east of the region were named after RAF Squadrons, fighter stations and personnel involved in the Battle of Britain. Those for the west were named after West Country holiday resorts. There is no difference between them and all were built at Brighton.

Eventually, 110 of these “light Pacifics” were built - far more than was really necessary – and they could often be found doing very humdrum work.

Unfortunately, Bulleid’s ideas did not find favour with the operating staff and all the Merchant Navies and many light Pacifics were rebuilt along conventional lines in the 1950s. They are now among the most popular of our preserved locomotives.

The novelty of the original locomotives meant that one had to be saved for the National Collection and the choice eventually rested on 34051 Winston Churchill, an example in virtually original condition and which, on 30 January 1965, had hauled Sir Winston’s funeral train from Waterloo to Long Hanborough, the nearest station to his burial site at Bladon in Oxfordshire.

Photo: Ian Harrison

January 30, 1965 was a bitterly cold day and 34051 makes steady progress through Twickenham on the funeral train to Long Hanborough.

Oddly enough, 34051 was always based at Salisbury and so was a “Battle of Britain” among the “West Countries”. She was withdrawn in September 1965 and earmarked for the National Collection. But there was no secure place to store her so she spent time at Hellifield and Brighton before going to Swindon for removal of the asbestos boiler lagging. Unfortunately, these periods in open store left her vulnerable to ‘cannibals’ who removed many valuable items such as the injectors, cab instruments, cylinder drain cocks and piping etc.

Photo: Ian Harrison

After some years stored in the open, 34051 looks in a poor state before the experts at Mid-Hants Railway begin their £45,000 renovation. Jim Lester, fireman on the funeral train in 1965, stands alongside Winston Churchill.

By the early 2000s she was on public display in the NRM but in a rather sorry state. Representations by the South of England Group of FNRM to the Museum Director led to an arrangement whereby if the Group would fund a cosmetic restoration, the Museum would procure the work. Eventually a contract for £45,000 was awarded to the Mid Hants Railway (The Watercress Line) to carry out the work at its Ropley works.

There was an intention that the work should be complete in order that an appropriate celebration of Sir Winston’s funeral journey could be held on 30 January 2015.

A team of dedicated people at Ropley set to work with a will. A complete strip-down was not necessary but a great deal was required to repair the ravages of time and the removal of so many items. The work was completed just in time, the locomotive emerging from the works for a public showing on 15 January 2015, after which she was transported by road to York for the 30 January event.

At that event, 34051 was reunited with the SR baggage car (S2464) which had contained Sir Winston’s coffin on the journey from Waterloo. This vehicle has an interesting history of its own having been bought by an American and sent to the USA. It was then brought back to England and resided for many years in the open air on the Swanage Railway, gradually deteriorating. When the prospect of the 2015 event was mooted the Swanage Railway Trust agreed to the baggage car being cosmetically restored to match the locomotive’s condition. This work, carried out at Locomotion, Shildon, was also funded by the Friends.

January 20, 2015 and the cosmetically restored 34051 stands at the home signal at Alresford on the Mid-Hants Railway before travelling to York for the 50th commemoration of the funeral train exhibition Photo: Matt Bentley

At a moving ceremony on 30 January 2015 the media and invited guests saw 34051, the baggage car and Pullman car Lydia – also part of the funeral train – propelled into the Great Hall. The train remained on show for four months. 34051 is now on display at Locomotion, Shildon and the other vehicles are in private ownership.

Ian Harrison

Read more about Friends contributions here

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