The story of W P Allen and the locomotive named after him. . . . . . .
It is 1948 at Doncaster Plant, by now British Railways rather than LNER. But there was a last hurrah for LNER locomotive designs when Peppercorn Pacific 60114 emerged into the daylight on 6th August. Rather like its predecessors it was a large locomotive with a pleasing design. Arthur Peppercorn, its creator, had begun work under the LNER regime but by the time 60114 arrived, LNER had become BR. BR liked the A1 idea and went on to build 49 of them with all eventually going to scrap. As I expect you know, an A1 is now with us, however – the new build ‘Tornado’.
At first 60114 went un-named but then on 28th October it was christened ‘W P Allen’ and, for some time afterwards, trainspotters and casual followers of the railway scene wondered who W P Allen was. A man distinguished enough to have the very first A1 Pacific named after him?
William Philip Allen was born in 1888 and started work in 1907 as a locomotive cleaner for the Great Northern Railway. William Allen was a talented man in many respects and as he rose through the ranks to become a driver, so too did his interest in Trade Union affairs, notably with ASLEF. A few years ago I interviewed Alan, a retired fireman, who had a similar interest in ASLEF though without ever being a branch official himself. ‘Never met the guy,’ he said, rather curtly I thought, but I didn’t pursue it at the time.
Allen’s career with ASLEF took him through the ranks at Hornsey to become, eventually, its General Secretary in 1940. He became a member of the General Council of the TUC and was awarded a CBE in 1947. It was in 1947 that something unusual seemed to happen as he joined the board of the new British Transport Commission. It was an unusual step, I think, but then probably politically appropriate. In 1948, as 60114 emerged from Doncaster, a Labour Government was in charge, the railways nationalised. No time, then, for naming locomotives after peers and aristocrats, businessmen with railway pedigrees. Goodbye ‘Andrew K McCosh’ and ‘Ralph Wedgewood’, hello ‘W P Allen’. The history fits. Was 60114 to be somehow a standard bearer of a new age of railways? It’s a bit far fetched but, well, history sometimes jumps around like that, illusive, slippery.
‘W P Allen’ looks the part in all the surviving photos of the locomotive, big and powerful, ready for action. But something wasn’t right when I dug deeper into the story.
‘Was it true that this locomotive had a painted notice inside the cab saying ‘Not to travel north of Newcastle’? one commentator speculated (without ever having been in the cab).
‘Yes’, said another. ‘The locomotive had its nameplates stolen twice on two separate occasions when in Scotland so, to stop it, they banned it from going there.’
That trail seemed to go nowhere except that some supported the story. You know, the Internet, false trails, that sort of thing. Or maybe…….
Back, then, to 1948. In his magnum opus. ‘Railways; Nation, Network and People’, Simon Bradley quoted from Eric Treacy, clergyman and distinguished railway photographer. Treacy wondered how a trade unionist driver might feel about driving an engine ‘bearing the name of an aristocratic parasite whose very existence was a threat to the emancipation of the working class.’ Bradley goes on to suggest the naming of ‘W P Allen’ was ‘double edged, for Allen has crossed over to take up the role of chief negotiator with the railway unions on matters of pay.’
So perhaps my interviewee, Alan’s reaction, those disappearing nameplates, are part of the story of a ‘turncoat’ to some, not worthy of being named on a locomotive. Whether this is true, or whether the naming of a trade unionist in this way was just a passing idea, certainly British Railways soon went back to its old ways. ‘Britannia’ Pacifics were named in various ways but we had the likes of ‘Lord Hurcombe’, not ‘W P Allen’.
The real W P Allen died in 1958 but his locomotive outlived him. I was lucky enough to see 60114 fired up and ready to go on an up express at Peterborough North in 1963. Built in the year I was born the engine and its sister ‘Meg Merrilees (not a trade unionist but a character in a Sir Walter Scott novel) both had a special appeal to me – we were the same age. We were born with British Railways in the year that changed everything about railways, 1948. It was all in the stars, I thought.
“W P Allen’ met its end in 1964 when it was seen being towed dead through Newcastle to the Hughes Blockow scrapyard at Sunderland on December 26th. When it was being cut up I wonder if anyone looked inside the remains of the cab and saw that mysterious inscription?
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A nameplate for ‘W P Allen’ appears in the National collection. You can read more about the locomotive here
The history of ASLEF is told in Norman McKillop’s book ‘The Lighted Flame; a History of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen’ (1950).