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Big Wheels!

Wellington’s statue mounted on its railway-wheeled wagon. Photo taken from an “Illustrated London News” report.

Locomotive driving wheels in the early days of railways tended to be on the large side. They were often a single pair of wheels with diameters ranging between eight and ten feet. As time went on, sizes reduced somewhat and cumbersome larger-wheeled locomotives were scrapped. But the wheels sometimes had their uses.

In September 1846, the new equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington was due to be installed on top of the Wellington Arch (or Green Park Arch) at Hyde Park Corner, London. The Duke had sat for the sculptor, Matthew Wyatt, although his celebrated horse, Copenhagen, had died earlier and a substitute horse had been used, said by some to have been a much poorer specimen. To support the weight of the sculpture, the legs of the horse needed to be solid bronze. Getting it to Hyde Park Corner from the sculptor’s studio in Harrow Road presented a bit of a challenge as the work was 27 feet tall and weighed 40 tons. Much of the metal used came from cannon captured at the battles of Salamanca and Vittoria where the Duke had been victorious. A wagon to hold the statue was specially constructed, but what about its wheels? The Great Western Railway in the form of their Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Locomotive Superintendent Daniel Gooch came to the rescue. They still had two pairs of ten-feet diameter driving wheels from two locomotives, “Hurricane” (made by the R & W Hawthorn Company of Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and “Ajax” (made by the Mather Dixon Company of Liverpool) which had been scrapped after these unsuccessful early locomotives had worked for less than two years. So, the wheels were fitted to the wagon, the illustrious Duke was loaded and 29 heavy horses were harnessed to their load to take it to Hyde Park Corner. The horses, wagon and wheels did the job successfully. It is not said how the statue was hoisted to its position atop the arch.

It was realised quite soon that the sheer weight of the statue wasn’t ideal for the arch supporting it, but it was felt that to remove it during the Duke’s lifetime would be a slight on the nation’s hero. So the statue remained on the arch long after Wellington’s death in 1852. Then in 1882 with the agreement of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, the statue was lowered from the Wellington Arch and transported to the Army garrison at Aldershot where it remains to this day.

Bristol & Exeter Railway broad gauge tank locomotive 8 feet 10 inch diameter driving wheels at Swindon Works in 1962. Photo: Mike Peart.

The flangeless wheels from the Bristol & Exeter Railway tank engine had been kept at Swindon Works as a curiosity after the locomotive had been scrapped there around 1890. They rusted away quietly for years initially inside and then out in the yard until they were taken into the National Collection. They can now be seen outside the National Railway Museum car park entrance in Leeman Road, York.

Mike Peart

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