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Heavy Lifting!

Crane locomotives working in locomotive works. . . . .

GWR crane locomotive number 16 named “Hercules” as in service during 1922. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

In April 1922 the last of the Great Western Railway’s three crane locomotives entered service. This was 0-6-4 pannier tank number 16, named “Hercules”. Built in Swindon Works, it was allocated there for its entire life before withdrawal in September 1936. By this time, travelling cranes around the works were more common and the crane locomotives became superfluous. The locomotive was a six-coupled pannier tank with a Belpaire firebox, 165 lbs boiler pressure and 4ft 1½ inch diameter wheels. There wasn’t the characteristic pannier tank dome as the end of the crane jib rested in the travelling position where the dome would have been. The crane load was 6 tons at 18ft radius with a double chain, and 9 tons at 12ft radius with a treble chain. Total weight was 63 tons 12 cwt.

The two other crane locomotives number 17 “Cyclops” and number 18 “Steropes” based on the numerous “850” class had also been built at Swindon Works much earlier in 1901. By contrast, the 850 class pannier tanks without the crane extension weighed just 36 tons. These two locomotives were also withdrawn in 1936. They had a lower boiler pressure at 150lbs with the same 4ft 1½ inch diameter wheels. “Cyclops” spent a considerable amount of time working at the GWR’s Stafford Road Locomotive Works at Wolverhampton. The Wolverhampton Works finally closed in 1964 while Swindon Works carried on until 1986.

Whoever was responsible for choosing names for locomotives did their best with this heavy lifting trio. I believe that according to Greek mythology “Cyclops” and “Steropes” were two of three strong one-eyed giants. I’m not sure about the one-eyed business, but the reference to strength is relevant! “Hercules” comes from Roman history as the god of strength and heroes, certainly renowned for strength. “Hercules” was one of 35 locomotives in British railway history to be given the name. There have been 17 named “Cyclops”, but only two named “Steropes”.

One of the three GWR crane engines had a weekend away in Paddington in June 1931. It was there to lift pre-cast concrete sections into place for Platform 8 which was being lengthened by 270 feet to accommodate the longer trains of the time. Otherwise, crane engine duties were mainly limited to tasks around their respective locomotive works.

The two 1901 crane tanks received steam reversing gear which the GWR was fitting to most new locomotives built between 1899 and 1907. However, the gear wasn’t popular as it tended to creep away from the position set. Regarded as unpopular, steam reversing gear came to be replaced with screw/lever reversing gear which was generally fitted to GWR locomotives from 1908 onwards. According to an engineman friend of mine on the footplate at the time, one of the last 2-6-0 “Aberdare” locomotive survivors, still with steam reversing gear, was giving drivers headaches in 1949 by repeatedly jumping into reverse when any attempt was made to adjust forward gear!

1901 vintage crane locomotive “Cyclops” shown in steam at Wolverhampton. Photo: Great Western Trust

There had been an earlier version of a crane tank locomotive. In 1878, a part-completed broad gauge 2-4-0 saddle tank locomotive was acquired by the GWR from the South Devon Railway (SDR). Amalgamation had taken place, and the SDR was eventually absorbed into the GWR in February 1876. The locomotive, due to be named “Jupiter”, was being built at the SDR’s Newton Abbot works. It was taken to its new owners at Swindon for completion but was converted to a standard gauge 2-4-0 side tank. In 1881 it was given a smaller capacity crane to take a 1½ ton load fitted where the coal bunker might have been. This locomotive weighing just under 29 tons was sent to work first at the GWR Engineering works at Reading. After two years it returned to Swindon, and was rebuilt there in 1925. It worked until 1936 and was finally cut up in 1938.

Crane locomotive “Glenfield” at work installing lineside Travelling Post Office apparatus at Didcot Railway Centre during the 1970s. Photo: Angus Davis.

Quite a few railway companies and industrial concerns used steam crane locomotives. At least three preserved examples remain to this day on heritage concerns in Britain. One such is “Glenfield” built by Andrew Barclay & Co in 1902. This crane locomotive with a 5-ton capacity worked at a Kilmarnock foundry of Glenfield & Kennedy Ltd until about 1966. It later became the property of the Oxford Polytechnic Transport Society whose members restored the locomotive and worked it at Didcot Railway Centre. “Glenfield” has changed hands several times since, and is now at Ribble Steam Railway & Museum, Preston, Lancashire.

Mike Peart

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