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Shannon/Jane/WTC number 5

A locomotive with 95 years of work to her credit. . . . . . .

“Shannon” working a Wantage Tramway passenger service in 1925. Photo: Great Western Trust

1857 was a significant year for pioneering locomotives now in the National Collection. The Stockton & Darlington Railway’s 1825 “Locomotion No 1” designed by George Stephenson and built by Robert Stephenson was first exhibited in public in 1857 after being withdrawn and preserved on account of its importance.

Another pioneer, also part of the National Collection, is “Shannon”, a real survivor from 1857. This 0-4-0 well tank engine was built by George England & Company at the Hatcham ironworks, New Cross, London, now in the London Borough of Lewisham. The customer was Captain Peel’s Sandy & Potton Railway in Bedfordshire, and the price is believed to have been £800 (£66,000 at today’s values). When “Shannon” was named, the ceremony was performed by the widow of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. The name came from the steam screw frigate HMS Shannon commanded by her son Captain (later Sir) William Peel RN VC. He won the Victoria Cross by picking up a live shell with the fuse still burning which fell near powder cases at the siege of Sevastopol in 1854! He threw it over a parapet just before the shell burst. Captain Peel never saw his railway in action as he died of smallpox at Cawnpore, India in 1858 following the Indian mutiny.

The London & North Western Railway took over the Sandy & Potton line in 1862 and “Shannon” became L&NWR property and was numbered 1104. The locomotive was tried on the Cromford & High Peak Railway but wasn’t found suitable. So, it was sent to work as a shunter at Crewe Locomotive Works and was renumbered as 1863 in 1872. In 1878 it was sold to the Wantage Tramway Company (WTC) for £365 8s 1d (£31,500 at today’s values) and was given the number 5 and an unofficial name of “Jane”. Number 5, a.k.a. “Jane”, was overhauled several times by the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Swindon Works and was kept in working order until 1945.

The 2½ mile long standard gauge Wantage Tramway had opened in 1875 running between Wantage town and Wantage Road railway station (at the time part of Berkshire). This was probably yet another example of the GWR building a station not exactly close to the place it served and was named after. It was the first steam tramway in Britain to open for passenger traffic. Before the Great War, a single journey cost sixpence, and this was raised to ninepence in the 1920s. A special reduced fare from Wantage was available to those who were seeing people off at Wantage Road station and returning by the next service. The last passenger train ran on 31st July 1925 and the service changed to a GWR omnibus running between Wantage Road station, Wantage and Swindon.

A local cartoon showing WTC number 5 being overtaken by the local chimneysweep’s donkey-hauled cart. Image courtesy of Great Western Trust

1925 saw the WTC’s last passenger train, although a freight service carried on until 1945. The last working trip on the tramway took place on 21st December 1945 when “Shannon” was towed to Wantage Road before being taken to Swindon for overhaul and fitting of a new “Shannon” nameplate. Assets of the company after its closure were sold by tender in April 1946 when the GWR bought the loco for £100 (£4,500 at today’s values). This was after mentions in “The Times” newspaper: a leader article in the paper influenced the GWR’s Chief Mechanical Engineer F W Hawksworth to do a preservation deal for his company.

“Shannon” or “Jane” then spent many forlorn years under a fenced-off covered shelter as an exhibit on the down line platform at Wantage Road station, Oxfordshire. The station closed in 1965 and the locomotive was moved to be stored at nearby premises of the Atomic Energy Authority. Then in early 1969 it was agreed that the locomotive could be moved and restored at Didcot Railway Centre. By October 1969 it was back in working order and was a star of the show at the 1975 Stockton & Darlington 150th anniversary celebrations. Eventually, the boiler ticket expired and inspection revealed cracks in the firebox. Costly major repairs would be needed to restore the locomotive to working order and, 165 years after its first steaming, it is now cosmetically restored as a static exhibit at Didcot Railway Centre. This lady of modest appetites was only able to carry 250 gallons of water and up to half a ton of coal.

“Shannon” in 2017 after restoration at Didcot Railway Centre. Photo: Great Western Society

As an aside, it’s of interest that in 1880 the Wantage Tramway Company bought two Mekarski patent compressed air locomotives. They were typically used on continental tramways as they were said to be cleaner and didn’t frighten the horses! The locomotives were charged up with compressed air in a building near the Wantage town terminus. Their running speed was an average of 9 mph. Coal was used to power the compressor but it was soon found that the quantity needed was four times that needed to power a conventional locomotive. These locomotives only worked for about three months.

Mike Peart

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