Smokebox Door Numberplates

Identifying a locomotive from the front. . . . . . .

Great Western Railway (GWR) “Hall” class number 6910 “Gossington Hall” seen in 1948 newly painted in British Railways black livery and carrying a non-standard brass smokebox door numberplate. Photo: Great Western Trust.

British steam engine smokebox door numberplates are much sought-after items which now fetch three and four-figure sums. Before nationalisation in 1948, only the London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) fitted smokebox door numberplates to most of its locomotive stock apart from some of those inherited from the London & North Western Railway. The other “Big Four” companies simply painted the locomotive numbers on bufferbeams, cabsides and tanks. The GWR had a long tradition of fitting brass or cast iron cabside numberplates to its locomotives, and even combined cabside numberplates and nameplates. With the advent of British Railways, the British Transport Commission decided that all its locomotive fleet should carry a numberplate on the smokebox door. One exception seems to have been the Southern Region’s Isle of Wight locomotives. Generally, cast in iron with raised numbers to be painted white, these plates were produced in the various locomotive works with foundry facilities. The new British Railways (Western Region) at Swindon Works very briefly carried on a tradition of casting in brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) before reverting to cheaper cast iron.

In the middle of 1948 very soon after nationalisation, four former GWR locomotives being overhauled at Swindon Works were given new brass smokebox door numberplates. 6910 “Gossington Hall” was at Swindon Works for a heavy general repair. It was decided to paint the locomotive in the new British Railways mixed traffic black livery and this was the first of the “Hall” class to receive it. At the same time the locomotive received a new brass smokebox door numberplate which it carried for 17 years until withdrawal. This locomotive was one of those on display at Paddington station for the day on 29th July 1948 to show railway managers and the public the new British Railways liveries. Also exhibited that day was “King” class 6009 “King Charles II” which was painted blue and fitted with a new and different style of brass smokebox door numberplate. Another recipient of a brass smokebox door numberplate was “Castle” class number 5023 “Brecon Castle” which was painted in another trial livery of apple green. Another “Hall” class locomotive, number 5954 “Faendre Hall”, received a brass smokebox door numberplate around the same time. It may have been the prohibitive cost of brass that meant that former GWR locomotives receiving smokebox door numberplates after nationalisation were fitted with cast iron ones. The new experimental liveries were also found to be unsuitable as they weren’t durable, showed the dirt and couldn’t be touched up or patched. The result was that they had to be modified with a new colour scheme for colours and linings which appeared in 1949.

“Castle” class number 5023 “Brecon Castle” with brass front numberplate in store at Swindon in 1962 and withdrawn the following year after 28 years’ work. Photo: Mike Peart.

Thereafter, only the last steam locomotive to be built by British Railway, number 92220 “Evening Star”, built at Swindon in 1960 was given the honour of a brass smokebox door numberplate. At the naming ceremony in 1960, Mr R F Hanks, Chairman of the Western Area Board of British Transport Commission, described the locomotive as “the hero of the day”. Mr Hanks admitted that as a BR Standard locomotive she wasn’t of the “Great Western” breed, but he said that Swindon Works had done their best by “dollying her up in good old Western colours and by conferring upon her the finest honour we can - the halo or crown of Swindon - the copper cap on her chimney.”

The question remains why smokebox door numberplates were ever used in the first place. They were hardly likely to have been introduced as an aid to trainspotters as they were often obscured by train headboards and reporting numbers. Presumably crews searching in the engine sheds for their locomotive for the day could identify them by the numbers painted elsewhere: easier in a roundhouse than a shed with rows.

Your guess is as good as mine! An unidentified “King” class locomotive hauling the up “Red Dragon” at West Drayton & Yiewsley in April 1962. The reporting number A35 obscures the smokebox door number. Photo: Mike Peart.

0-4-2 tank engine 1453 at Bourne End (Bucks) in 1960. After this locomotive’s smokebox door numberplate disappeared in mysterious circumstances, some enterprising person at its home depot of Slough made a wooden painted smokebox door numberplate. Photo: Mike Peart.

Railwaymen in Exeter believed that the front numberplate of 1451 “disappeared” one weekend while the locomotive was at the engine shed there. 1451 is pictured at Tiverton (Devon) station in 1961 about to work the “Tivvy Bumper” to Tiverton Junction. Photo: Mike Peart.

Mike Peart

[Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum, York. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961 and its Honorary Secretary for several years.]

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