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Horse Racing for Railway Historians

A locomotive named after a famous racehorse. . . . . . . .

Photo: Paul Steele

In retirement I volunteer for all sorts of things – not just the Friends of the National Railway Museum but also the National Trust. The latter takes me to Beningbrough Hall, a stately home set in parkland about six miles north of York. What’s this got to do with railways? You might ask. After all, the only apparent link is the ECML, running north of York to Thirsk, which passes just about within earshot of the park. But wandering through the offices of the National Trust staff there a few weeks ago I discovered they were working in the ‘Sun Castle suite’. ‘Sun Castle’? That rang a bell.

The last owner of Beningbrough Hall was the widowed Lady Chesterfield whose great passion was breeding thoroughbred racehorses, one of which was named ‘Sun Castle’. Those of you who follow such matters might know that Sun Castle (1938 – 1941) won the St Leger when it was run at Manchester in 1941 (Normally, this would be Doncaster but the war had intervened. The war also had an impact on the prize money – down from £10,465 in 1939 to £3,550 in 1941). Sadly, Sun Castle’s promising career ended in 1942 after contracting tetanus through a foot wound.

The ‘real’ Sun Castle emerged from Doncaster Plant in August 1947 as a Peppercorn class A2/3 Pacific. Sharp eyed readers will notice the attribution to Peppercorn. Edward Thompson, who had taken over as CME for the LNER on the death of Gresley in 1941, initially received authority for 30 new Pacifics but only fifteen were built during his tenure with a further 15 appearing as Class A2/3, modified by his successor, Arthur Peppercorn. Sun Castle was one of the latter.

Sun Castle was predominantly a locomotive associated with the southern part of the LNER, being based at Kings Cross and New England in its later years. Certainly, New England is where I saw it – on the scrap line in 1963.

I can remember schoolboy debates about the A2s – partly because they seemed to be made up of all sorts of rebuilds and experiments, mostly from the Thompson years. It was a brave lad who could give a definitive account of why such and such a locomotive was an A2/1, 2 or 3. Of such esoterica are schoolboy memories made. There was the question of what modifications were made by Peppercorn and why and, indeed, why it seemed necessary to move away from Gresley’s Pacific designs after his death. Much of the changes came from alternative valve gear and drive arrangements. Thompson experimented by rebuilding Gresley P2 2-8-2s built for heavy expresses on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen route (these subsequently becoming A2/2). (This is starting to get complicated, now, so let’s move on …….)

The schoolboy debates also drifted into how come they had the names they did. Big and sturdy looking locomotives, why was one called ‘Herringbone’ (60524)? It was almost as daft as calling an A3 Class engine ‘Pretty Polly’. The common denominator, of course, was racehorses. Not all A2’s were so named but there was 60523, ‘Sun Castle’, and there, also, was ‘Owen Tudor’, 60520, which also ran in that St Leger of 1941. It was enough to drive any teenager into a life at the bookies.

My National Trust colleagues were well informed about Sun Castle, but that ended when we segued into steam locomotives. Eyelids fluttered from those who know me as a railway enthusiast; others thought I might make a good team member for a pub quiz. The thing is, though, there’s no shortage of stories like this when researching railway history. I think it reminds us all of how well integrated into everyday life the railways had become, even to the extent of the naming of locomotives after racehorses. And, of course, one result was the ability to dazzle your friends by naming the various winners of the Derby, the St Leger and so on, down the years.

I suggested we might do a book on Beningbrough Hall and A2/3 Pacifics but there were no takers. Back to data input on the computers then…….


John Swanwick

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A2/3 Pacific

Sun Castle lives on – as a Hornby Model

Beningbrough Hall

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Beningbrough Hall, The Gardens and Walking The Grounds by Paul Steele

Photos courtesy of Paul Steele

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Mike Peart
Mike Peart
May 16, 2022

I'm delighted to point out that Great Western Railway "Modified Hall" class number 6972 built at Swindon in October 1947 was named "Beningbrough Hall". This was presumably at a time when the GWR was running out of names of Halls in its own territory.

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