How some historic locomotives escaped scrapping while others survived as replicas alongside the originals. . . . . . . . .
In January 1838 the Great Western Railway (GWR) locomotive “North Star” was steamed for the first time. Built by Robert Stephenson & Company, this 2-2-2 locomotive was first made to the 5ft 6 inch gauge of the Pontchartrain Railroad in New Orleans which had been using steam traction since 1832. However, for some reason it wasn’t delivered and was converted for the GWR 7ft 0¼ inch broad gauge and given larger 7ft diameter driving wheels. It was rebuilt in 1854 and had completed 429,000 miles in service before withdrawal in December 1870. This historic locomotive was then kept mothballed at Swindon Works. It was spruced up and exhibited at the Earls Court Exhibition in 1897. However, in 1905, the GWR directors agreed with their Chief Mechanical Engineer G J Churchward that it should be scrapped as it was taking up valuable workshop space at a time when the works was in full production of new locomotives. This was done, although some foresighted and, possibly, sentimental members of staff at Swindon secreted away smaller parts of the locomotive. Some were brought out of hiding and used when a non-steaming replica “North Star” was built for the GWR Centenary celebrations in 1935. The replica still exists in the “Steam” museum at Swindon having originally been exhibited in Swindon’s first railway museum which opened in 1962.
Another historic GWR broad gauge locomotive that was also kept at Swindon after withdrawal was the 4-2-2 “Lord of the Isles”. Built in 1851, it had featured at the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park, London that year. The exhibit won a prize medal. The loco was withdrawn in June 1884 and was then kept at Swindon Works. It continued to be exhibited until 1905, for example at Edinburgh in 1890, Chicago in 1893 and with “North Star” at Earls Court in 1897. For the Chicago exhibition, the locomotive was painted and varnished with materials from Docker Brothers Paint and Varnish Works in Birmingham, a company much used by railways for special finishes. But like “North Star” it was occupying much needed space at Swindon Works. It was offered to the South Kensington Museum, Mason Science College (part of University of Birmingham) and the Swindon Technical Committee who all declined. The locomotive was cut up at Swindon in February 1906, much to the disgust of the “railwayacs” who, had they known according to the press at the time, might have started a preservation scheme. All that remained of “Lord of the Isles” were the 8 feet diameter flangeless driving wheels which were exhibited at the Festival of Britain in 1951. They later went to the first railway museum in Swindon and are now at “Steam”. However, the GWR 150th Anniversary in 1985 prompted the building of a similar working replica “Iron Duke” GWR 4-2-2 broad gauge locomotive. First exhibited working in 1985, it is part of the National Collection and is now on static display at Didcot Railway Centre.
The scrapping of “North Star” and “Lord of the Isles” caused outrage at the time and the GWR directors were criticised for not making public their intention to scrap them. Writing in “The Railway Magazine” in 1906, Charles Rous-Marten [the man who had timed the “City of Truro” record run in 1904] said, “Yet again my tear-bottle is called into requisition to provide a regretful tear for more locomotive veterans that have passed to their rest!......I fear it is hopeless to expect locomotive superintendents to occupy too limited space with the locomotive ghosts of former days......A few years ago a movement was set on foot to establish a sort of mausoleum for defunct locomotives - a “Railway Museum” it was to be called. A strong committee was formed, of which I had the honour to be the chosen chairman, and a good deal of preliminary work was done. But I soon ascertained that there was not the remotest probability of our receiving the slightest assistance from either the Government or the railways.” One suggestion was that the museum should be sited at Alexandra Palace which was served by the Great Northern and Great Eastern companies.
Had he not died from influenza in April 1908 at the age of 66, Charles Rous-Marten may well have carried on campaigning vigorously for a national railway museum. He was a regular contributor to “The Railway Magazine” who had studied numerous railway companies’ operations and timed runs in Britain, New Zealand and France. For a report and recommendations to the New Zealand government on railway operations, engineering and good practice, he travelled 40,000 miles on Britain’s pre-grouping railways. He undertook a similar study of French railways for a report to the French government, and he was even offered the “Legion d’Honneur” award for his work, but he declined. He was also a musician, music critic, theologian and astronomer and became a Fellow of the Meteorological, Historical and Geographical Societies. Fittingly, his funeral at Clapham was conducted by a clergyman who was also a regular contributor to “The Railway Magazine”.
While some early railway exhibits were taken on board from 1857 by the South Kensington Museum in London, the first railway museum at Queen Street, York came about in 1927. This was when the London & North Eastern Railway started their collection which was added to by examples and artefacts from British railway companies. So, we can thank our lucky stars, North, South, East and West that not all historic locomotives ended up as scrap back then.
Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is 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 one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961.
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