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Locomotive “La France”

Bought by the Great Western Railway (GWR) for comparison. . . . . .

De Glehn compound 4-4-2 “La France” as supplied to the GWR in 1903. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

French-built de Glehn 4-4-2 Compound “La France” arrived in pieces at Poplar Docks, London on the 19th October 1903. The locomotive’s parts were taken to be assembled at Swindon Works in thirteen trucks of varying sizes. It was a French design of a type already working in the north of France. The GWR did specify changes to the smokebox door, chimney and brake equipment. A standard GWR tender was fitted, and trials of the locomotive started shortly afterwards. These locomotives had proved their performance on similarly-graded track in France working 360 ton trains for 95 miles at an average speed of 60 mph and averaging 75 mph with a 305 ton train over a ten-mile stretch of level and slightly rising track. Principal designer Alfred de Glehn attributed their performance to the high pressure cylinders driving one axle and the low pressure cylinders the other. “Compounding” is where steam is first fed into high pressure cylinders before being exhausted into lower pressure cylinders to make further use of its expansion power. The design was, though, a result of collaboration with Gaston du Bousquet who was chief engineer of the Chemins du Fer du Nord, the French northern railway company.

Alfred de Glehn was born in Sydenham, south London, the son of a Prussian nobleman and Scottish mother. He studied engineering at King’s College, London. After further studies in France and Switzerland, he worked for the Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques (SACM) at their Mulhouse head office and works at Belfort, both in eastern France. He was, incidentally, a brother-in-law of the Bishop of London.

“La France” was built at the SACM works at Belfort. After assembly at Swindon as GWR number 102, “La France” made its first trial trip on 10th November 1903 with a train from Swindon to Bristol using the new South Wales line. The locomotive was painted black throughout, apart from narrow brass beading around the splashers of the bogie and the coupled wheels and bright metal on the cylinder covers, outside motion and wheel centres. It retained its cabside nameplates until withdrawal. The run was made with an English crew despite rumours that a French crew would have to be brought in. These were not the first French locomotives to run on British rails as thirty years earlier the Great Eastern Railway had taken delivery of some express locomotives built by the Schneider company at their works at Le Creusot, Eastern France. On the third day of satisfactory trials, “La France” did unfortunately jump the points at Bath station.

Following continuing trials, the first regular passenger turn for “La France” was on 2nd February 1904. This was to work the 12 noon Paddington to Swindon train, and before it departed de Glehn’s sister handed Driver Burden a bunch of violets tied with tricolour ribbon. The flowers were fixed to the locomotive’s smokebox. The 1st July 1904 saw the first public run of a new non-stop express at 10.10 a.m. from Paddington to Plymouth and Penzance via Bristol and vice versa, timed to run at an average speed of 55.6 mph. New water troughs at Exminster, beyond Exeter, helped to make this feat possible. The first train was hauled by “La France” with Driver Gane, and Plymouth was reached in 4 hours 27 minutes.

102 “La France” double-heading a Birkenhead to Paddington express. Photo: Great Western Trust.

In June 1905, two more SACM 4-4-2 locomotives were added to the GWR fleet. These were numbers 103 “President” and 104 “Alliance”, given names in 1907, and both were slightly larger than “La France”. They were so named with GWR-style curved nameplates to mark the signing of the Entente Cordiale agreement with France in April 1904.

A 1/50th scale blueprint in French for numbers 103 “President” and 104 “Alliance” (“Locomotives à grande vitesse”) from Mike Peart’s collection.

Meanwhile at Swindon, GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer G J Churchward decided that for the purposes of comparison, Swindon-built “Saint” class number 171 “Albion” (later 2971) should be converted to the same 4-4-2 wheel arrangement. This took place between October 1904 and July 1907. For its last four months in 1907 as a 4-4-2, the locomotive was named “The Pirate”.

A postcard view of number 171 “Albion” running as an Atlantic 4-4-2 wheel arrangement.

In their time, all three French locomotives were reboilered, superheated and given some of the features typical of GWR locomotives at the time. “La France” ran over 728,000 miles before withdrawal in October 1926. “President” was withdrawn in March 1927 and “Alliance” in September 1928. They had served their purpose of being compared with the GWR’s two-cylinder express locomotives. Comparisons of performance influenced the company’s engineers not to pursue compounding and to adopt four-cylinder designs for its successful “Star”, “Castle” and “King” classes. Examples of all three classes are in the National Collection – number 4003 “Lode Star”, 4073 “Caerphilly Castle” and 6000 “King George V”.

“The Frenchmen” as they were known worked all over the GWR network. The last word on them must come from Charles Rous-Marten, who timed the “City of Truro” 1904 record-breaking run. He noted in 1906 that he had timed both “President” and “Alliance” down Wellington Bank, Somerset, at over 90 mph. Wellington Bank had a gradient of 1 in 81 to 90 for about 2¼ miles with half a mile at 1 in 126 through the tunnel and a further half mile between 1 in 103 to 220 above Wellington station.

Mike Peart

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Aug 01, 2023


A vintage postcard collector, I have -up to now- 2 cards of locomotives I believe to be the same loco. One has 'LB&SCR, painted on the side, the other has 'AVIGNON'..I have seen another with 'France' inscribed. The last loco got its name in WW1 for carrying French Premier Poincaré to Portsmouth...My query is : all locos are 0-6-0 and English built(?) but where is the 'French connection' from? I don't think they operated on any cross-channel service, but all belong to end 19th 1st half of 20th century. Thanks for your help - Barrie Wilson

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