Look around at the steam locomotives running for the “Big Four” railway companies after the 1923 Grouping, and at those running in the days of British Railways, and you’ll find over 460 with the “Pacific” 4-6-2 wheel arrangement. The London & North Eastern Railway had over 200 and the Southern Railway 145. The Great Western Railway (GWR) had just one, named “The Great Bear”! It was numbered 111 and was irreverently known to some of the staff as “Nelson” or “Lord Nelson” - with 1 eye, 1 arm and 1 leg.
In January 1907, the GWR Board voted approval of the sum of £4,400 to build its first “Pacific” locomotive. An additional £860 was agreed later to cover various expenses. The directors wanted the largest British locomotive, but they also wanted it completed as cheaply as possible. These were the instructions given to GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer G J Churchward. The total sum spent amounts to £647,000 at 2021 prices. Some of the drawing work at Swindon for the locomotive was done by F W Hawksworth who much later became GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1941. The finished locomotive and tender weighed in at 143 tons. As for other companies’ later “Pacific” express classes, driving wheels of 6ft 8½ ins were fitted, although in service “The Great Bear” was limited to 65 mph. Churchward was interested in boiler efficiency and improvements, and the original superheater was changed after five years. The locomotive was believed to have steamed well, although the grate area of almost 42 square feet was probably a challenge for the fireman.
This giant locomotive was a valuable publicity asset for the GWR. In May 1908, the Franco-British Exhibition opened at the White City, London. In the Machinery Hall, the GWR exhibited models of “The Great Bear”, described as the “mammoth engine”. Then as part of the publicity drive, in August 1908, six months after entering service, number 111 successfully worked a 100-wagon goods train from Paddington Goods to Stoke Gifford yard (which we now know as Bristol Parkway). This was one demonstration of many of the hauling capacity of the GWR locomotive fleet at the time.
Due to its length and weight, this locomotive was greatly limited in where it could run and had usually worked between London and Bristol. It often worked passenger services from Paddington to Bristol, often returning with the “Cocoa”, Bristol Temple Meads to Acton fast vacuum-braked freight train. Throughout its life it was allocated to Old Oak Common shed, London. It was reported once to have got as far as Newton Abbot via Bristol. The “Chums” children’s comic once included a colour picture of the locomotive working an express on the scenic coastal stretch between Dawlish and Teignmouth, but this seems to have been an unlikely event driven by artistic licence. “The Great Bear” was prone to wheel slip and was barred from backing into Platform 1 at Paddington after a number of derailments there. The eight-wheeled bogie 3,500 gallon tender may have been responsible for some of these events. With their proximity to the ashpan, the trailing wheels sometimes ran hot, not an ideal situation. On one occasion, the unsecured tender tank filler flew open when the locomotive was passing over water troughs with the scoop down. The resulting torrent of water broke the vestibule connection to the first coach and flooded it to a depth of one foot. Some passengers had to be compensated.
After a relatively short life of 16 years, “The Great Bear” spent its final day as a Pacific locomotive on 7th January 1924. This is when work started at Swindon Works to convert the locomotive to a “Castle” class 4-6-0. The original had run for 527,272 miles up to its conversion. How much of the original locomotive was used is uncertain. It emerged in September 1924 as number 111 “Viscount Churchill”, so named after the company Chairman. In this form the rebuilt locomotive ran for 29 years putting another 1,989,628 miles on the clock. The large eight-wheeled bogie tender continued life as a stabiliser firstly for locomotives with a reputation for rough riding and, later, for two other 4-6-0 classes. This original GWR Pacific hadn’t been popular. When Churchward heard in 1922 that Nigel Gresley was building a Pacific locomotive for the Great Northern Railway he said, “What did that young man want to build it for. We could have sold him ours.”
Mike Peart is a former railwayman and the co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and “Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was a founder member of the Great Western Society in 1961.