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Forgotten Counties and Shires

1906 vintage GWR “County” class 4-4-0 number 3818 “County of Radnor” in workshop grey. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

The use of names of counties and shires were easy pickings for railway staff charged with finding names for their locomotives.

How did they do it? Which to put in and which to leave out? Was there such a job as “naming clerk” one wonders? The sheer variety of the names of obscure counties and shires possibly sparked curiosity and improved the British and Irish geography knowledge of trainspotters. While the county of my birth, Middlesex, disappeared in 1965 to become part of Greater London, many historic counties live on, and some find themselves celebrated today in the names of diesel and electric traction.

In 1904, the Great Western Railway (GWR) saw the first of a class of 40 4-4-0 passenger locomotives named after ten Irish counties and thirty British ones, mostly served by the GWR. Irish traffic of regular passengers, excursionists, mails, general freight and cattle was important to GWR revenue and deserved recognition. The first of the “County” class, number 3800, was named “County of Middlesex”. The company fell foul of the good people of the county of Chester by naming number 3814 “County of Cheshire”. After protests, the name was changed to “County of Chester” within months. A point was stretched when “County of Leicester” and “County of Bedford” were included, both of which were near although outside of the GWR’s territory. The locomotives had 6ft 8½ inch driving wheels, a short wheelbase and large outside cylinders. This caused them to roll giving the footplate crews some rough rides and the chance to use colourful language in their conversation and reports. They acquired the nickname “Churchward’s Rough Riders”. Some attempts were made to stabilise them using heavier tenders but the problem was never fully solved. However, the class survived on express passenger work around the GWR system for about 25 years.

The next generation of “Counties” appeared from 1945. So, as a Middle Saxon, I was pleased to see the county of my birth used again on Great Western Railway (GWR) locomotive number 1000 “County of Middlesex”, the second to carry the name. This 4-6-0 locomotive was the first of a class of 30. They were mixed traffic locomotives designed by Chief Mechanical Engineer Frederick (F W) Hawksworth. These powerful two-cylinder locomotives were designed to cope with West Country gradients whether they were working express passenger trains or trains of Lyons’ Cakes from London to Penzance. They were not always popular with enginemen. To the firemen they were heavy on coal and known as “guzzlers”, having a tender capacity of seven tons of coal to shovel. The Civil Engineering department wasn’t that keen on them either as the axle weight of nearly 20 tons and the two cylinders heightened the “hammer blow” effect on the track. At first, they were pressed to 280 psi before their boiler pressure was later reduced to 250 psi knocking 10% off their tractive effort. Changes to improve performance were also made to their chimneys and draughting. By the end of their days, and the end of steam, they were better performers.

The name “County of Chester” was used again to appease the good people of that county. Yet again, minor offence was caused when “County of Carnarvon” appeared in 1946 and was renamed “County of Caernarvon” in 1951 despite its 1911 predecessor having carried the original spelling of the name for 20 years. Some trainspotters did wonder what and where was the “County of Brecknock”, and I only found out by going to a Boy Scouts’ camp in said county near Brecon in 1956. Strangely, in 1911, the first one had been named “County of Brecon”. But I’m still not sure if I could put my finger on the map to pick out accurately the counties of Merioneth (1019), Montgomery (1021) or Radnor (1025). “Sori” as they say there!

All of the second batch of the “County” class had been withdrawn and scrapped by the end of 1964. However, such was the desire to see this class represented for posterity that a re-creation project has been underway since 2004. The build of a new number 1014 “County of Glamorgan” using some parts from scrapped locomotives is now well advanced at Didcot Railway Centre. The name celebrates the contribution to the project of Vale of Glamorgan Council and the Barry, Glamorgan scrap yard of Woodham Brothers Ltd.

Number 1019 “County of Merioneth” soon after overhaul, seen at Swindon motive power depot in 1962. Photo: Mike Peart.

We must not forget that there were 34 of the LNER’s 1927 D49 class of 4-4-0 locomotives named after English and Scottish shires and counties. Among these were “Roxburghshire” and “Kincardineshire”, but the LNER seems to have fought shy of using Kirkcudbrightshire and Clackmannanshire. Was this a case of too many letters for the arc-shaped brass nameplates? The locomotives were said to be unpopular with enginemen as, while they were powerful, rough riding tended to lead to the fireman being thrown about the cab and getting bruised. As for the GWR “Rough Riders”, the driving wheels were 6ft 8 inch diameter. The firemen might also have objected to the potential amount of shovelling as the tender capacity for coal was 7½ tons, even greater than the later GWR “County” class. With the designer Nigel Gresley’s quest to improve valve gear performance, there were several different types fitted to the class which seem to have been used as testbeds. The D49 class of 76 locomotives lasted in service up until about 1961, and one, “Morayshire”, has been preserved and is owned by National Museums of Scotland. After withdrawal, “Morayshire” first had a brief stint as a stationary boiler for a laundry before overhaul and running on heritage services.

62706 Forfarshire, in early BR livery, was taken at Perth on 27 August 1950. Photo Chris Nettleton

Much the same as for local government changes in England and Wales, Scotland’s shire and county names changed with local government reorganisation in 1975.

Mike Peart

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 and its Honorary Secretary for several years.

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