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The ‘Titfield Thunderbolt’ Travels Home

The Liverpool & Manchester Railway (L & MR) was the world’s first ‘inter-city’ railway and the first to use only steam traction. It opened to the public 190 years ago on 15 September 1830. Forty years ago next month, a cavalcade of past and present motive power was held at Rainhill near Liverpool to mark the railway’s 150th anniversary. Rainhill, of course, was where the L & MR held trials in 1829 to find the best design of locomotive. Most famously the winner was Robert Stephenson’s Rocket – now on display in the NRM.

Photo: ©Philip Benham

One of the films recently screened by the BBC, to keep us entertained during the Covid-19 emergency, was the Ealing Comedy ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ (you can catch it on IPlayer until 6 May). Made in 1953, the film was inspired by the story of how the Talyllyn Railway was saved by volunteers to become the first preserved railway. It tells a similar tale of rescue by local villagers after the branch line to fictional Titfield is closed by British Railways. Star of the film is the locomotive Thunderbolt ‘liberated’ from the local museum to work the line. Thunderbolt was actually No 57 Lion, one of two similar 0-4-2 locomotives built for the L & MR in 1838 by Todd, Kitson & Laird of Leeds to a Robert Stephenson design.

Lion became the property of the Grand Junction Railway and then the London & North Western Railway as early railways were amalgamated in the mid-1840s. In1859, the engine was sold to the Mersey Docks & Harbour Board at Liverpool for shunting work, eventually becoming a static pumping engine at Princes Dock. After years in hidden obscurity, Lion was rescued in 1928 by members of the Liverpool Engineering Society. Given an overhaul at Crewe Works, Lion went on to take part in centenary celebrations for the L & MR in1930 and the London & Birmingham Railway in 1938, before going on display at Liverpool Lime Street station. Stored at Crewe during World War II, post-war, as well as becoming a film star, Lion was exhibited at Liverpool Museum.

Photo: ©Philip Benham

Having taken part in the centenary celebrations, Lion was an obvious attraction for the 150th celebrations. So it was that in 1979 the locomotive was given an overhaul by Ruston Diesels Ltd, including a complete re-tube, before going into the care of the now closed Southport Railway Museum (Steamport). At the time it was oldest working locomotive in the world. Then on Sunday 18 May 1980, complete with two replica 1830s coaches, Lion worked from Southport to Bold Colliery where all the locos taking part in the cavalcade were being marshalled. That British Rail sanctioned the movement, including running along the West Coast Main Line ‘under the wires’ (electrified overhead lines at 25k volts) with footplate crew on a cab-less footplate and guests in an open carriage truck seems incredible!

These days, Lion is once again on static display at the new Museum of Liverpool. In 2019 railway historian Anthony Dawson cast doubt on Lion’s authenticity, but whatever the truth this remarkable engine undoubtedly dates from the very earliest days of railways.

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Philip Benham

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