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G J Churchward: Influential Locomotive Engineer

Churchward’s 1902 pioneering 4-6-0 locomotive number 100. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection

George Jackson Churchward 1857 - 1933

George Jackson Churchward CBE, JP, M Inst C E, M I Mech E, (31st January 1857 to 19th December 1933) was born at Stoke Gabriel, Devon. Educated at Totnes Grammar School, at the age of 16 he started work as a pupil of the Locomotive Superintendent of the South Devon & Cornwall Railways which were absorbed by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1876. He moved to the GWR Swindon Works Drawing Office in 1877, and became Assistant Manager of the Swindon Carriage & Wagon Works in December 1882 working under James Holden. In 1885 James Holden moved to the Great Eastern Railway and Churchward became Manager of the Carriage Works. He was promoted to Locomotive Works Manager in 1896. The following year he was appointed Chief Assistant to Locomotive Superintendent William Dean and became Locomotive Superintendent on 1st June 1902.

A 21st century rebuild of a Churchward “Saint” class locomotive number 2999 “Lady of Legend” at Didcot Railway Centre. Photo: Great Western Society

One of his most significant designs was that of locomotive number 100 in 1902 (later named “Dean” in honour of his predecessor). This was a two outside cylinder 4-6-0 locomotive that set the scene for many successful express and mixed traffic locomotives that followed, such as the 92-strong “Saint” class. Record-breaking “City of Truro” was also made at Swindon in 1903 during Churchward’s time. Between 1903 and 1905 he imported three 4-4-2 compound locomotives from France to compare with his own designs. He decided that compound locomotives weren’t right for the GWR and in 1906 designed the four-cylinder 4-6-0 number 40 which was a pioneer and prototype for the GWR’s famous “Star”, “Castle” and “King” passenger locomotive classes, all of which are represented in the National Collection. Churchward was keen on standardisation of designs and parts, improving boiler efficiency and excellence in manufacturing and performance. Standardisation led to the design of 2-8-0 heavy freight and 2-6-2 mixed traffic tank locomotives, examples of which were still in use in the 1960s. He was quick to adopt locomotive engineering best practice from around the world and consulted widely to tackle and resolve problems. To improve the skills of the workforce, he fostered technical education and staff self-development through societies and lecture programmes.

1913 vintage Churchward 2-8-0 heavy freight locomotive still working in 1962 passing Ealing Broadway station with an up freight train for Acton Yard. Photo: Mike Peart

In 1905, outrage was caused when he decreed that two withdrawn early GWR broad gauge locomotives “North Star” and “Lord of the Isles” stored in the Swindon workshops should be scrapped as they were taking up valuable space! Both were scrapped although a replica of “North Star” using some original parts which had been secreted away was made for the 1925 Stockton & Darlington Centenary.

Known at Swindon as the “Old Man”, his job title changed to Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1916 and he held this post until retiring in December 1921. In his time, he has been Chairman of the Swindon Borough Council from 1887 and then the first Mayor of Swindon. He was awarded the CBE in the 1918 Birthday Honours list and in October 1920 was made the first honorary freeman of the Borough of Swindon. During his time with the GWR at Swindon, he had supervised the building of 888 locomotives, 586 of which were still in use in 1950. It was the vanity of the prestige-seeking GWR directors that caused him to design just one “Pacific” locomotive, “The Great Bear”, which appeared in 1908 and was the first and only British 4-6-2 locomotive for 14 years. It worked, but was limited in operation and was converted to a 4-6-0 in 1924. His designs lived on, and in subsequent years over a thousand more locomotives were built to them.

He was a keen gardener and ornithologist, and his interest prompted the naming of the 1908 “Flower” class of twenty 4-4-0 locomotives said to been named after his garden favourites. Some of the large class of “Bulldog” 4-4-0 locomotives built in 1909/10 were said to have been given the names of British birds at his request, although it’s unlikely that any pelicans or penguins were ever seen in Swindon!

Churchward started retirement in January 1922. The GWR Chairman, Viscount Churchill, said at the time, “It is impossible to speak too highly of Mr Churchward’s services to the company. His reputation as a mechanical engineer is so well known - it is indeed world-wide – that it needs no tribute at my hands. In his management of our great establishment at Swindon and our other depots, and in his development of the magnificent locomotives which it is our good fortune to possess today, he has placed us in a position second to none in this most essential department of railway working.”

Sadly, Churchward was killed near his house on the misty morning of 19th December 1933. He was hit by “Castle” class 4085 “Berkeley Castle” with Driver Griffiths was hauling the late-running 8.55 a.m. Paddington to Fishguard express. He was seen bending down inspecting what he thought was a track defect and was struck by the locomotive’s buffer. Some reports say he had glaucoma affecting his eyesight, vertigo and defective hearing. He may have thought the express had already passed as living next to the line he kept an active interest in the passing trains. In retirement, he was known to frequently cross the line to visit the Works. He had been retired for eleven years and continued to live in the GWR’s Newburn House, Dean Street where he had been allowed to remain after he retired as CME. He was a single man and was looked after by a housekeeper, chauffeur/valet and maids. He normally wore a tweed suit and was said to resemble a country squire. His retirement present had been a fishing rod. As a man he never fished for compliments, but he certainly caught plenty from his peers, staff and friends.

Mike Peart

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