The “Saint” class 4-6-0 passenger locomotives on the Great Western Railway (GWR) passed forever when the last of the class of 77, number 2920 “Saint David”, was withdrawn in 1953. Or so they thought! This iconic class was a mainstay of GWR passenger work for over 40 years and one locomotive achieved 1,935,000 miles on the clock. However, in 2004 the Great Western Society decided to re-create a “Saint” using parts from a withdrawn “Hall” class locomotive and some new parts specifically matching the original specification. Thanks to GWR standardisation and interchangeability of parts, the task wasn’t as onerous as it sounds. The work completed and April 2019 saw the launch of the new “Saint”, number 2999, “Lady of Legend” by restaurateur, chef and broadcaster Prue Leith CBE (now Dame Prue Leith). Dame Prue was also a member of British Railways Board from 1977 where she advised on improvements to railway catering.
“Saints” designed by GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer G J Churchward were built between 1906 and 1913. One of their number was the first modern superheater loco to run in Britain. With 6ft 8½ inch diameter driving wheels, matching some of Gresley and Stanier’s later racehorses, and two cylinders of 18-inch diameter and 30-inch stroke, there was potential for a lighter and fast locomotive. One worked the first mile-a-minute “Cheltenham Flyer” express in 1923. Despite there being twenty with “Saint” names, others in the class were named after fictional ladies, large houses named “Court”, GWR directors and heroic fictional characters.
A strange experiment took place in 1906. Churchward was away from Swindon Works on business. His Assistant Works Manager at the time, and eventually his successor, Charles Collett, later famed for his designs of Castle, King, Hall, Grange, Manor and mixed traffic and freight classes, saw a golden opportunity while the boss was away. He wanted to see if a completely new ex-works locomotive could run immediately at 100 mph. Normally, new-builds and major overhauls were taken through a careful process of running-in. A new locomotive, an as yet un-named "Saint" number 2903, was taken to Stoke Gifford (which we now call Bristol Parkway), and fired up for this unofficial test run as a light engine. On the footplate with Driver H J Robinson were Charles Collett, Locomotive Inspector George Flewellen and Swindon Shop Foreman Evans. Inspector Flewellen had also been on the footplate when “City of Truro” achieved the record 102.3 mph in 1904, so he wasn’t averse to high speeds! The loco ran back towards Swindon and was stopped at Chipping Sodbury. On the footplate they waited to receive “line clear” for the 20-mile stretch as far as Wootton Bassett. The new “Saint” was then driven at high speed down the long 1 in 300 from Badminton past the nine-mile descent "racing ground" through Hullavington and Little Somerford. Those on the footplate took stopwatch readings from mileposts and some of their results showed that a speed of 120mph might have been reached for some distance! It wasn’t until 26 years later that Collett owned up to the trial by confirming the details when asked by the "Railway Magazine". He felt that from his timings a speed of at least 120mph had been achieved. The 4½ miles between the signal boxes at Hullavington and Little Somerford was covered in two minutes and this was confirmed by the signalmen. It gave rise to speculation that 135mph may have been reached at one point! Certainly, a speed of well over 100mph was achieved, an impressive result for a new light engine. In April 1907 the locomotive was named "Lady of Lyons" and she worked until withdrawal in November 1949.
On 1st July 1910, "Saint" number 2902 “Lady of the Lake” worked the first GWR two-hour express train from Birmingham to London. Before the train left, a well-wisher threw the good luck symbol of a horseshoe onto the footplate. As agreed by G J Churchward, the horseshoe was later mounted in a suitable frame and was then carried on the locomotive until her withdrawal in August 1949.
This legendary “Lady” has recently been seen working on the Severn Valley Railway. She represents a wonderful example of how the skill, patience, determination and dedication of engineers and volunteers can bring history back to life.
Mike Peart is the co-author of Volume 3, 4 and 5 of “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” and "Trains of Hope" published by Friends of the National Railway Museum.
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