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The Great Western Railway Broad Gauge in Colour

A colour scheme for early locomotives. . . . . . . .



“Acheron” emerging from Box Tunnel, from a painting by John Cooke Bourne. Copyright National Railway Museum/SSPL.

In January 1842, “Fire Fly” class locomotive “Acheron” was delivered to the Great Western Railway (GWR) from the makers, Fenton, Murray & Jackson of Holbeck, Leeds. Although withdrawn by 1866, the locomotive later starred on the sign for “The Railway” pub at West Drayton, Middlesex. There is still “The Railway Arms” at West Drayton next to the station on one side, and the “De Burgh Arms” on the other side. In the days when station staff and branch line crews could go for a quick drink between trains, they had choice close at hand.


Chief Mechanical Engineer F W (Frederick William) Hawksworth was in post for the GWR during the nationalisation transition period to British Railways (Western Region), retiring at the end of 1949. An artist’s enquiry to him in his final year asked about the livery for the first broad gauge locomotive “Acheron”. There was a later one taking over the name in 1866 as well as two locomotives on the London & South Western Railway which also carried the name. All were named after a Greek river and a character who appears in Greek mythology. Those responsible for drawing up names of locomotives were big on the classics back then!


Details of this locomotive’s livery were answered from the official records which still existed. The enquirer was told that the frames were painted chocolate brown, and the frame ties, steps, lifeguards, axleboxes and springs black. The front buffer beams were vermilion, and the buffers were of leather. The wheels had dark green rims and spokes, and the faces of the tyres were black. The boiler and the firebox were lagged with wood strips, painted dark green and bound with brass bands, and the top of the haystack firebox, the safety valve cover, the spring balance, and the whistles were of brass. The boiler brackets were painted black. The smokebox and chimney were painted black. It is not clear whether the chimneys of these early engines had polished copper caps. Brass was used for the splashers and handrails, but the handrails were supported on steel columns. Apparently, no lining was used in the livery of these early engines and there is no record of the painting of the tender, which would, presumably be finished in the same general style as the engine.



The replica “Fire Fly” in action on the broad gauge layout at Didcot Railway Centre. Note that the driver is wearing the correct white fustian overalls used in the early broad gauge days. Photo: Frank Dumbleton.

There is still an example of the “Fire Fly” type in the broad gauge replica 2-2-2 locomotive completed by The Fire Fly Trust in 2005. It weighs around 24 tons and has the 7 feet diameter driving wheels. It is now on static display at Didcot Railway Centre. The original locomotive “Fire Fly” was one of the first batch of a class of 61 locomotives designed by Daniel Gooch for passenger services on the Great Western Railway. It was delivered in March 1840 from the makers Jones, Turner and Evans of Newton-le-Willows and was quickly introduced into service. It was withdrawn in 1870. “Fire Fly” soon distinguished itself on 25th March 1840 by making a successful run between Paddington and Reading with a three-vehicle Directors’ train. The 36 miles was covered in 45 minutes. The return journey saw a maximum speed of 58 mph which was reportedly achieved and publicised in the “London Courier” issue of 1st April. After a stop for water at Twyford, the 31 miles to Paddington was covered in 37 minutes. At the time, “Fire Fly” was fuelled with coke, although Locomotive Superintendent Daniel Gooch experimented unsuccessfully with peat the following year. While this fuel worked, the rate of consumption of peat to maintain suitable levels of steam was simply too high.


Queen Victoria’s first railway journey from Slough to Paddington on 13th June 1842 was also behind a “Fire Fly” class locomotive. Daniel Gooch was driving the locomotive “Phlegethon” [Greek mythology again – one of the five god rivers of Hades!]. The 18¼ mile journey was completed in under 30 minutes. Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to her uncle King Leopold of Belgium, “We arrived yesterday morning, having come by the railroad from Windsor, in half an hour, free from dust and crowd and heat, and I am quite charmed with it.” She noted in her diary, “The saloon we travelled in was very large and beautifully filled up. It took us exactly 30 minutes going to Paddington, and the motion was very slight and much easier than a carriage, also no dust or great heat, in fact it was delightful and so quick.”


To mark the completion of the line from Paddington to Exeter via Bristol, on May 1st 1844, the 27 year-old Daniel Gooch drove “Fire Fly” class locomotive “Actaeon” [Greek mythology strikes again] out of Paddington with the 7.30 a.m. train to Exeter which was reached precisely five hours later at 12.30 p.m. There was a celebration “great dinner” held in the goods shed at Exeter. The return train, again driven by Gooch, left Exeter at 5.20 p.m. to arrive at Paddington by 10.00 p.m. Allowing for stops this was an average speed of 45 mph for the return journey of 193¾ miles. North Devon Tory MP Sir Thomas Dyke Acland was on this up train and was able to tell the House of Commons that very evening when he rose to speak at 10.30 p.m. that he had been in the city of Exeter at 5 o’clock. Gooch recorded in his diary the following day that it was a very hard day’s work and the only chance he had of sitting down was for an hour at dinner. The following day he reported that his back ached so much he could hardly walk. Mr Brunel wrote him a “very handsome letter” to thank him and to say that “all were very much pleased”. We still are, and maybe Queen Victoria was slightly amused as well….


Mike Peart


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