Malcolm Barker: A town at the heart of the age of steam

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BOB Walker, who was editor of the weekly Doncaster Chronicle in the 1950s, would offer junior reporters advice on the niceties of railway terminology: “The train is the Flying Scotsman. The engine is Flying Scotsman, with neither definite nor indefinite article. It stands alone.”

So it remains, a stand-alone engine if ever there was one, and preserved for all time at the National Railway Museum at York. With steam up, it is like a mettlesome thoroughbred ready for the off.

Flying Scotsman, a Gresley Pacific No 4472, is coming up to an important anniversary. It will be 80 years tomorrow since it became the first steam engine to be clocked officially at 100 miles per hour. Also, plans have just been revealed to honour its creator, Sir Nigel Gresley, with a statue at King’s Cross station in London

Bob Walker’s insistence on getting details right was understandable. His newspaper circulated in a thriving industrial town, making anything from tractors to toffee, brass taps to car bodies, and at the hub of all was the Railway Plant Works. Train manufacture had come to the town in the 1850s due to the efforts of Edward Beckett Denison, chairman of the Great Northern Railway, and within half a century Doncaster’s population had increased from 6.000 to 30,000, with many skilled railway workers housed in new terraces at Hexthorpe, Hyde Park and Balby.

Sufficient craftsmen were employed at the Plant to develop locomotives and other rolling stock from bare metal, and a hierarchy soon developed, with ranks denoted by headwear.

A photograph of Patrick Stirling (locomotive engineer, 1866-1895) shows him top-hatted as he poses with departmental foremen, all in bowler hats. Another picture is of carriage repairers, all wearing flat caps.

The Plant eventually had its own church, fire brigade, sports-ground and drama group. It also grew its own skilled workers. About 250 people figure in a 1965 group photograph of its apprentice trainees and their instructors. The London and North Eastern Railway and, later, British Rail encouraged employees to participate in municipal affairs. At one time a member of the staff, Alderman AE Cammidge, doubled up as chairman of the Doncaster Council race committee. A highlight of his year (and the town’s) was Leger Week. Nigel Gresley, who was dubbed knight in 1936, began his career as a premium apprentice at Crewe and was appointed Locomotive Superintendent at the Plant in 1911. When the Great Northern Railway was absorbed into the LNER he became its Chief Mechanical Engineer, a post he held until his death, aged 65, in 1941.

His Flying Scotsman emerged from the Plant Works on February 24, 1923. Five years later it hauled the first non-stop service from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, gobbling nine tons of coal and scooping water from troughs set between the tracks, with no break in its headlong progress.

Gresley had designed a passageway through the coal tender so the relief crew could reach the footplate during the journey. He is reputed to have demonstrated his idea by rearranging his office furniture. His devotion to steam was legendary. He tried a steam car on the streets of Doncaster, and a colleague said: “If there was such a thing as a steam watch, he’d have one.”

The 100 mph performance in 1934 was carefully monitored by instruments in a special dynamometer car, and it is interesting to note that the announcement of the world record was carefully qualified by the use of the term officially.

The reason for this was possibly a claim that 30 years earlier, on May 9, 1904, a Great Western Railway locomotive, City of Truro, ran at more than 100 mph while hauling the Ocean Mails train from Plymouth to London. This train did not usually carry passengers, but on this occasion, possibly because something special was afoot, an exception was made for Charles Rous-Marten, a journalist who specialised in railways, and had previously worked in New Zealand where he edited two newspapers.

Using a stop watch and line-side quarter-mile posts, he reckoned a speed of 102.4 mph was achieved. For a newspaperman, Rous-Marten, who died in 1908, showed extraordinary reticence, not publishing his scoop until the following year, 1905, and even then not naming either the railway company or the locomotive.

This may have been out of respect for the GWR’s diffidence about speed after two derailments involving its trains had been attributed to “unstable locomotives” during the 1890s. The directors suspected that such mishaps cooled passengers’ ardour for travelling at what they viewed as extreme velocities.

If City of Truro’s feat haunted Flying Scotsman enthusiasts after the LNER engine attained 100 mph on November 30, 1934, a Gresley A4 Pacific, the streamlined Mallard, left no doubt about its status as the world’s fastest steam locomotive on July 3, 1938, when it attained 125.88 mph hauling six coaches and a dynamometer car. Its world record for a steam engine still stands.

There were resounding names in that A4 class, Dominion of Canada, Commonwealth of Australia and, in honour of his 100th Pacific, Sir Nigel Gresley. It may seem odd that the primus inter pares of this group of famous engines should honour a humble water-fowl. But others in the class were named after birds, and anyway Sir Nigel liked ducks, and kept a few mallards on his garden pond.

The statue of Sir Nigel at King’s Cross is to be created by the sculptor Hazel Reeves, and the Gresley Society Trust is seeking to fund the project by raising £95,000. The aim is to unveil it on April 5, 2015, the 75th anniversary of Sir Nigel’s death. Doncaster, where his triumphs were realised, has named a new square in its Waterdale civic and cultural quarter after him, and the statue would fit admirably in the new square. But the site at King’s Cross has been allocated and approved, so perhaps Doncaster could be provided with a replica?

• Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.