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On Their Way to Wembley

The 1924/1925 Empire Exhibition. . . . . .

Number 4472 “Flying Scotsman” on show in the Palace of Engineering at Wembley in 1924. Photo: National Railway Museum.

On 23rd April 1924 (Saint George’s Day) King George V opened the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The exhibition ran until 1st November that year and attracted between 17 and 18 million visitors. A new station at the site was served by train from Marylebone. The exhibition reopened the following year and another 9 million visitors attended between May and October. One of the outcomes of the new exhibition was to see the building of the new Wembley stadium which helped to put Wembley firmly on the map.

Palaces of Engineering and Industry, along with seven pavilions representing parts of the Empire covered particular themes over the large site. Among the displays in the Palace of Engineering was number 4472 “Flying Scotsman” which had been built the previous year at Doncaster “Plant” Works as 1472, and which was an important addition to the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) fleet. Also on display in 1924 was the Great Western Railway (GWR) number 4073 “Caerphilly Castle” which had been built at Swindon Works the previous year. For the 1925 opening, 4073 was replaced by 4079 “Pendennis Castle” built in 1924. A notice proclaimed it to be “The Most Powerful Express Locomotive in Britain” which might have been a bit of an exaggeration as 4472 was marginally more powerful on paper. Nonetheless, 4079 was exchanged with the LNER for trials and put in a sterling performance on heavy trains out of Kings Cross to Peterborough and Doncaster. Onlookers were said to be surprised when 4079 took 16 coaches out of Kings Cross up the bank through the Gasworks and Copenhagen Tunnels without slipping on wet and greasy rails. The train was recorded as achieving 83 mph at Arlesey. One of the Flying Scotsman’s fellow Pacifics, 4474 “Victor Wild” was tested on the GWR but didn’t fare too well on the Devon banks.

Coincidentally, the 1924 FA Cup Final at the new Wembley stadium was refereed by a GWR employee, Captain W E Russell who was a clerk at Swindon Works. It was a very wet day and the game was won by Newcastle United who beat Aston Villa 2 – 0 in front of a 91,000 strong crowd. Never to miss a trick, the GWR ran 28 extra trains that day for 9,700 passengers going to the match!

The Great Western Railway’s “Pendennis Castle” displayed at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925. The whitewashed interior of the smokebox was a nice idea, although not a practical one when the locomotive was in steam. Photo: Great Western Trust.

The British Empire Exhibition was good for railway revenue. Between the 1st May and 30th June, 374 extra trains were run into Paddington station for visitors to the Wembley event. By the time the exhibition had closed on 1st November, an estimated 750,000 visitors had passed over the footplate of 4073. Retired enginemen W Butcher and R Bargus were on hand for the duration to explain the locomotive’s workings. Another GWR exhibit alongside their locomotives was the new wooden hip-roofed signal box from Penmaenpool (between Dolgelley [Dolgellau] and Barmouth Junction). The line and box closed in 1965, but the Penmaenpool signal box lives on as an information centre for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The route of the “Never Stop” railway running through the British Empire Exhibition site. Photo: National Railway Museum.

A screw-driven double track 2 feet 8-inch gauge “Never Stop” railway built on the “step on step off” principle ran for 6,600 feet round the large exhibition site. Regardless of the pleas in the days of slam-door stock, “waiting until the train has come to a stand” didn’t feature here! This peculiar railway had a top speed of 20 mph and slowed to 1½ mph to allow passengers on and off. One wonders how many casualties that feature brought about. The varying pitch of the rotating spiral screw which drove it slowed or increased the speed of the passenger cars. The working “Never Stop” railway can be seen in a Pathé newsreel film of the time.

Visitors to the GWR stand at the exhibition were given a twenty-page souvenir booklet which somewhat over-emphasised the GWR’s willingness to help and displayed the verbose vocabulary of the PR team! “It is the desire of the Company to make the utmost endeavour to satisfy the requirements of the public they cater for so far as it is reasonably practicable to do so. Special staff are employed to deal with enquiries and it is earnestly hoped that full advantage may be taken of the arrangements that are in force for supplying information upon any subject connected with railway travel.”

Wembley Stadium is still with us, as is Penmaenpool signal box. The “Never Stop” railway didn’t last, but locomotives 4472, 4073 and 4079 all have survived 98 years on. 4472 in the guise of 60103 is frequently seen on special excursions. 4079 has this year been restored to working condition at Didcot Railway Centre after spending 23 years in Australia. 4073 remains as a static exhibit at “Steam” Museum in Swindon.

Mike Peart

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May 30, 2023

There is a season train ticket on ebay for the never stop railway as part of the british empire exhibition currently being sold on ebay, is that authentic?

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