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Imagining History

Summary: The building of ‘Great Northern’ at Doncaster 1922, set in the context of the time. . . . . .


Imagine it is April, 1922, and your Grandad, recognising it is your birthday, has decided to take you to Doncaster Plant where he works. It’s a special day because Mr Gresley is about to unveil his new express passenger locomotive. You go down with Grandad and stand by the wooden fence outside the erecting shop while a small shunting engine emerges through the great wooden doors dragging a brand new steam locomotive into the light of day. Number 1470 is enormous, and especially to a youngster standing close by at ground level, looking up.

Even without steam it looks impressive, big and powerful, its running gear turning slowly and gleaming with oil, air squeezing out through the piston valves. Grandad mutters how it’s all come a long way from ‘Rocket’. Hidden inside it is the new conjugate valve gear and other modifications but, well never mind that, just look at it!

It must have been quite a moment for Mr Gresley and his team, he in bowler hat and suit, fussing over his creation. Why, he might even try to polish it a bit more!

It’s an unusual approach to telling a famous story, rather like ‘imagineering’ as Disney would call it. It’s different because many railway histories use the ‘river of time’ approach. Perhaps we have all read those articles that tell the story of a railway. It begins with the building of a new line, typically in mid-Victorian times and perhaps followed by mergers and acquisitions until it is swallowed into a larger company with Grouping in 1923. The railway survives to nationalisation in 1948 but then slowly declines until passenger and then freight services are withdrawn, finished off by Beeching in the 1960s, leaving only vague marks on the landscape of Britain.

There are other ways to tell a story. Perhaps our historian has access to a detailed archive events and is able to write something specific. You know, ‘A summer Saturday at South Junction’, for example.

Imagine, instead, we tell the story of 1470, set in the historical context.

1470 Great Northern.

Gresley and the team had been working hard on the new breed of express Pacifics for some years already – war years – and when it came to building their creation, Doncaster was short of men because of the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed it. You were too young to fight, grandad too old, so you were both survivors to see that day. They had been making munitions for much of the war. But Gresley had no choice about a launch year. He was charged with replacing Ivatt’s aging Atlantics with something that could power heavy expresses on the London to Edinburgh route. This couldn’t wait.

But, then, change was in the wind. There was talk of ‘Grouping’ and that the Great Northern Railway (GNR), owners of 1470, would be merged into the London and North Eastern Railway soon. In an act which some saw as defiance, the GNR soon named 1470 ‘Great Northern’ – not ‘Northern’ but ‘Great Northern’.

It must have been a statement, too, about progress, about optimism for the future and a new beginning after such a devastating period in British – world – history. Some chose to see it as a new dawn, the era of the Jazz and ‘the Flapper’, to be made famous by a new American Author, Scott Fitzgerald. ‘Paleface’ with Buster Keaton was on in cinemas that were bracing themselves for the arrival of ‘talkies’. The historians Robert Graves and Alan Hodge wrote a book about the inter wars years, calling it ‘The Long Weekend’, an evocative title. If this was so, 1470 appeared on the Friday evening……

Others were depressed by what had happened, foreseeing more disasters, gloomy economic reality, war damaged people. Paul Nash painted edgy British landscapes that hinted at the shattered fields of Belgium. A new poet in London, Thomas Eliot, wrote a poem called ‘The Wasteland’ - ‘…. We are in rat’s alley/where dead men lost their bones….’

Into this world came 1470, bringing with it, triumph and expectation, power and inspiration. But we know how it turned out. We can be nostalgic because we see it from the safety of knowing what came next – of 1470’s kin, ‘Flying Scotsman’, still going nearly 100 years later, of another war and the untimely death of Gresley.

The historian Simon Schama considers history to be a form of story telling. Maybe he’s right, maybe we can tell history so that it comes alive, not fiction but intriguing, full of meaning. Is that what railway historians should do?

Why not imagine? Why not look across the platform at Doncaster today and imagine that day at ‘the Plant’ when a new era began?

Great Northern Railway 4–6–2 Locomotive No. 1470 'The Great Northern' G. Harrison (active 20th C) National Railway Museum

A painting of 1470 by G Harrison c.1957 is in the National Collection. The nameplate of Great Northern is on display on the wall of the North Shed at the NRM (NRM Acc. no. 1975-7566).


John Swanwick

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