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Still Steaming

The legacy of GWR CME Charles Collett. . . . . . . .

A “King” class locomotive working the up “Red Dragon” Carmarthen to London express at West Drayton & Yiewsley in spring 1962, the last year this class was used by British Railways. All were withdrawn after 35 years’ work. Photo: Mike Peart.

Looking at the locomotive designs of Charles Collett, it’s amazing how many of them aren’t yet leading new lives as cars, joists and domestic appliances. His designs contributed to around 2,400 successful locomotives for the Great Western Railway (GWR). Express passenger, mixed traffic, freight, shunting, branch and dock line locomotives were all examples of his work, along with his support in 1934 for the new breed of streamlined diesel railcar. Around 90 of them survived the end of steam on British Railways and are now preserved. Two are in the National Collection, “King George V” and “Caerphilly Castle” along with railcar number 4. Collett had also been involved with another locomotive in the National Collection, 3440/3717 “City of Truro”. He had wanted the GWR to preserve this 1903 record-breaking 4-4-0 locomotive in Swindon when it was withdrawn in 1931, but the company refused. Hence “City of Truro” ended up as a static exhibit at the first York Railway Museum having been given to the LNER, and it spent World War 2 being kept safe away from York and the threat of bombing in a shed at Kelso, Scotland. In 1957, “City of Truro” was put back in working condition and worked until 1961 when it became a museum exhibit again at its birthplace of Swindon. Then in 1984 it was restored to working order again and ran until 1992. Then it was back to static display again until 2004 when it had another lease of working life from 2004 until 2011. It looked then as if this 108 year-old might have to remain static: that’s still the case at present.

In 1924, “Caerphilly Castle” was proudly exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley alongside “Flying Scotsman”. On withdrawal in 1960 with 1,910,730 miles on the clock, the locomotive was prepared at Swindon Works to be presented to the Science Museum in full GWR livery. This took place on Sunday 4th June 1961 when an early forerunner of the TV programme “Train Truckers” took the locomotive and tender on two trailers from Park Royal to Kensington. The locomotive remains in the National Collection and is currently at “Steam” museum in Swindon.

4073 “Caerphilly Castle” on its Pickfords trailer in immaculate condition passing John Barker’s department store in High Street Kensington on 4th June 1961. The front buffers had to be removed so that the 80 ton locomotive could fit on the trailer. Photo: Mike Peart.

Ever keen to promote their company’s reputation, the GWR Board arranged for their newest passenger locomotive to be completed at speed to show to the Americans. The new “King George V” was shipped from Cardiff to the USA in 1927 for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s “Fair of the Iron Horse” and impressed American railroaders between August and November that year with its performance in power and speed. A 543 ton train was powered up to 74 mph but the driver was asked to slow down! The locomotive was presented with a commemorative bell and two cabside medallions which it retains to this day.

6000 “King George V” with its commemorative bell at a jaunty angle passing Southall gasworks in 1962 – its last service of service for British Railways - with a race special to Newbury Racecourse. Photo: Mike Peart.

The man behind all this, Charles Benjamin Collett OBE, JP, M.Inst.CE, M.I.Mech.E was born at Westbourne Park, London on 10th September 1871. After education at City & Guilds Engineering College, Kensington, he started work for a London firm of marine engine builders. He then moved to the GWR drawing office at Swindon in 1893 as a junior draughtsman before becoming assistant to the chief of the drawing office. He then became a technical inspector at the locomotive works in June 1900 before being promoted to Assistant Works Manager in 1901. He was appointed Swindon Works manager in 1913. In May 1919 he was appointed as G J Churchward’s Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer. Collett was appointed as GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer in January 1922 following the retirement of G J Churchward. He had already made his mark and GWR Chairman Viscount Churchill said of him, “He is imbued with Great Western traditions and we are glad to have on our staff an engineer of his standing and ability to fill the position.”

Charles Collett.

Another of Charles Collett’s most successful designs, the “Castle” class. This locomotive, 4079 “Pendennis Castle” built in 1923, was exchanged with the LNER for trials between Kings Cross and Doncaster in 1925. Its outstanding performance influenced Nigel Gresley in his designs of LNER express passenger locomotives. 4079 had a colourful life, was withdrawn in 1964, bought privately, was shipped to Australia in 1977 to work a heritage line, brought back to the UK in 2000 and restored to working condition at the age of 99 at Didcot Railway Centre in 2022. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

Collett was responsible for designing the 30 members of the “King” class, of which three survive. Eight of his numerous “Castle” class and 11 of the “Hall” class survive, and some work with steam-hauled special trains and on heritage railways. The class of 30 “Manor” class locomotives built from 1938 onwards proved very popular for preservation and nine still exist. Eighty of the “Grange” class were built between 1936 and 1939 but there are none surviving. However, a new-build example, 6880 “Betton Grange” using a boiler from a “Hall” class locomotive is nearing completion. Then considerable numbers of his 2-8-0, 2-6-2, 0-6-0, 0-6-2 and 0-4-2 designs are still with us, many of which are working or in course of restoration. One feature of his period in charge was the move towards standardisation of locomotive classes, their boilers and other parts. This policy has, in a way, assisted the restoration of GWR steam locomotives that continue to work to this day. Apart from locomotive design, his role saw him take great interest in the design, improvement and comfort of rolling stock. He also promoted the extension of the GWR safety system of Automatic Train Control (ATC) fitted in locomotive cabs to aid footplate staff.

4901 “Adderley Hall” built in 1928 and shown in workshop grey soon after manufacture. 259 of these mixed traffic locomotives were built by Swindon Works to Collett’s design. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

Collett not only thought of large named express and mixed traffic classes. The 14XX class of 1932 was an updated version of the life-expired “517” class of 0-4-2 tank engines for branch line and suburban work that had originated in 1868. 1421 is seen here in 1961 working the 2¾ mile “Marlow Donkey” auto-train service between Marlow and Bourne End (Bucks). Photo: Mike Peart.

Described as “quiet and kindly” with a caring attitude for his workforce, Collett was a vegetarian teetotaller who was said to avoid social events as far as he could. He did, though, serve as a magistrate in Swindon for seven years. Retirement came at age 70 in July 1941 and he moved from his house in Bristol Street, Swindon to Wimbledon, south west London where he lived for his remaining eleven years. In 1938, Swindon Borough Council agreed to name a road after him in Rodbourne. Collett Avenue runs parallel with Churchward Avenue and both still exist. He died in Wimbledon on 5th April 1952 after eleven years in retirement. Seventy years on, his legacy is still alive and well.

Mike Peart

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