Britannia: sidelines to stardom
It should have been the officially preserved example of its class – but prototype BR Standard ‘Pacific’ No. 70000 had to wait for its place in the limelight.
Amidst all the debate about the rights and wrongs of de-accessioning locomotives from the National Railway Museum, let’s take a moment to consider one that had every right to be in the National Collection, yet had to give up its place to an equally historic classmate – and was then lucky to be preserved at all. Britannia. When new in 1951, No. 70000 was the face of the newly nationalised railway industry amid the optimism of ‘Festival of Britain’ year; the first of Robert Riddles’ new design of ‘Pacific’; and the pioneer of his new fleet of 999 Standard steam locomotives. As such, it represented an important milestone in British railway history – and was justly earmarked for official preservation upon withdrawal. Yet in the very different world of the next decade, it was the ‘last’, not the ‘first’, that claimed the historic kudos. As the final steam locomotive to be overhauled at Crewe Works in February 1967, and having brought down the curtain on BR steam with the ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’ the following year, it was another ‘Brit’ – No. 70013 Oliver Cromwell – that took the prototype’s place in the list of engines saved for the nation. Meanwhile, the locomotive with the stirring national name was left by the wayside, and might have ended up in the United States – or worse, gained the dubious distinction in 1970 of being the very last steam locomotive sold by BR for breaking up.
The ‘Britannias’ first earned a name for themselves on the Great Eastern main line, where their speed and power made for dramatic improvements to the express timetable between Liverpool Street and Norwich. For No. 70000, life came full circle following its withdrawal from Newton Heath shed in May 1966, when it was sent for storage at Stratford – the depot to which it had been allocated new 15 years earlier. Many subsequent accounts have stated that the ‘Pacific’ was vandalised during this period – but apart from the inevitable broken cab windows, the only ‘vandalism’ was what you might term ‘official’. It was also rumoured that No. 70000 was withdrawn because of front-end damage from colliding with a set of buffers at Birmingham New Street – or Manchester Exchange. However, Keith Adams – who joined what became the Britannia Locomotive Society in 1969, attended its first working party on the locomotive’s restoration at the Severn Valley Railway in May 1971, and later became its chairman – recalls: “Its bufferbeam was only bent on one side, and we understood that it had been sideswiped by another locomotive on Newton Heath shed. “Nowadays you’d just replace it, but at that time, it was a major undertaking for us to heat it up and jack it back into shape!” David Ward – then BR Divisional Commercial Manager at Norwich – also has no recollection of a bufferstop prang, and confirms the real reasons why it came to be Oliver Cromwell and not Britannia that was officially preserved. He explains: “Britannia’s firebox had a red ticket on it, having been condemned because of a problem with the lap seams – so I persuaded John Scholes [BR’s Curator of Historical Relics] to swap it with Oliver Cromwell, which was just out of shops. “He wrote to Terry Miller, the Chief Engineer for Traction & Rolling Stock, who agreed, subject to No. 70000 being retained for spares.” Britannia was duly moved to Brighton’s Preston Park Works, then one of the safe and publicly inaccessible locations used to store locomotives designated for the National Collection – among the other engines there at the time were Evening Star, Green Arrow, Lord Nelson and ‘J17’ 0-6-0 No. 65567. Here, explains David, he and Norwich shedmaster Bill Harvey removed Britannia’s exhaust injector steam pipe “and one or two other bits” for use on Oliver Cromwell (“it was standard practice in later years to blank off the exhaust steam supply to make them more reliable”) after which, having served its purpose, No. 70000 was moved to Redhill shed.
It now looked very much as though the pioneer BR Standard was destined for scrap. Indeed, says Keith: “I met John Scholes on several occasions, and he told me that once the decision was made to preserve Oliver Cromwell, he was under instructions to get rid of Britannia – because, of course, the museum only wanted the one.” As well as the scrap dealers, it was rumoured that a “wealthy American” was interested in purchasing Britannia at this time – although Chris Pinion, who later became the engineer on the locomotive, reckons this may have been “a ruse to help fund-raising.” In the event, salvation was at hand much closer to home, in the form of the East Anglian Locomotive Preservation Society – formed in 1967 to save a large engine for that region, with particular interest in a BR Standard type. Martin Sixsmith – who joined the society that year and took over from Keith Adams as chairman in 1982 – remembers: “We were offered a number of ‘Britannias’, and it would probably have been a lot easier if we had taken another – and the advice we received about boilers!” But, as with so many other worthy schemes to save celebrity engines at the end of steam, sufficient funds were not forthcoming: “We were raising money by taking a sales stand
I PERSUADED JOHN SCHOLES [BR’S CURATOR OF HISTORICAL RELICS] TO SWAP IT WITH OLIVER CROMWELL, WHICH WAS JUST OUT OF SHOPS DAVID WARD
to traction engine rallies – but spending most of it on the petrol getting to them!” With the remaining ‘Brits’ sent for scrap after the closure of Carlisle Kingmoor shed on December 31 1967, only ‘Cromwell’ and Britannia were left. Around this time, the Rev. Richard Paten was seeking to buy a locomotive for preservation in Peterborough – ending up with ex-Patricroft ‘Standard 5’ No. 73050 and what much later became the Nene Valley Railway. But Chris Pinion, who holds NVR membership No. 3, also remembers: “The EALPS approached Richard Paten and asked if he’d buy Britannia – but because it was in poor condition, the New England men advised him against it.” Fellow NVR founder member (No. 7) and former Steam Railway editor Howard Johnston was also the 35th member of the EALPS in 1968. He recalls difficult meetings because the society declined to supply audited accounts and had clearly raised very little money. It had only gathered £173 in the first nine months of 1969, and in September had just £497 in the bank – a long way short of BR’s asking price of £4,500. Only thanks to Mr N.R. Watson, a solicitor from Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex who loaned £2,000, was the society able to hand over the balance of £3,690 for No. 70000 on February 23 1970. BR had declined its initial offer of £2,750, and the final cost was knocked down to £4,100 – still equivalent to around £62,000 today. To find the money, Mr Watson had dropped his planned purchase of another BR engine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, he insisted that a limited company be formed to secure his loan, which he registered at Companies House on February 5 1970, along with Roger Scanlon, Ken Howard and Colin Richell – although Martin’s recollection is “we did it more because it sounded good!” This made Britannia a pioneer in another way, as one of the first preservation groups, if not the first, to do so (the Stanier 8F Locomotive Society, owners of No. 48773 at the Severn Valley Railway, was registered as a company on September 29 1970). Certainly, the insistence of Companies House that the EALPS’ new body should be called ‘The Steam Locomotive Preservation Co. Ltd’ does rather suggest they hadn’t dealt with such a thing before.
HuNT FOR A HOMe
Still languishing at Redhill, No. 70000 was by this time missing almost all of its cab fittings except for the regulator handle, reverser, AWS and injector handles. The chime whistle and even the smokebox door dart had disappeared. Members unsuccessfully scoured scrapyards for parts, and a well-wisher donated a replacement (genuine) whistle – but the next hurdle was finding a home for the ‘Brit’. Keith recalls: “There was a problem with access to Redhill – it was virtually impossible to have working parties on the engine, probably because the shed was still in use and they weren’t happy about having amateurs working near running lines.” Martin adds that “the decision was made very quickly” that the locomotive had to be moved off BR metals – but in 1970, where could you take a 143-ton ‘Pacific’? Apart from Bressingham Steam Museum – already home to Oliver Cromwell – and the fledgling Peterborough scheme, there were few other preservation sites in East Anglia at the time. The North Norfolk Railway was quickly ruled out as Britannia would have been far too heavy for its permanent way, and weight restrictions on Chappel Viaduct similarly meant that the future East Anglian Railway Museum at Chappel & Wakes Colne was not an option. The EALPS had told its members in 1969 that it had “well-advanced plans” to build a shed for the engine at Bowaters’ siding next to the East Coast Main Line at Stevenage – and that it had asked a contractor to quote for a full overhaul to main line condition prior to the move. Keith also remembers that the society “was offered a siding at Bishops Stortford – but that was unworkable as well because it was next to a running line and had no facilities.” Finally, in late March 1971, Britannia was moved to the Severn Valley Railway – which Martin recalls “was the favourite option from the beginning” although the newly formed Great Central Railway had also been considered. Keith organised the early working parties at Bridgnorth, “for my sins,” he says, “because I was daft enough to say I’d do it!” Having repaired that bent front bufferbeam, they went on to undertake another major job for the period. Says Keith: “It was the first large locomotive in preservation to have its smokebox completely renewed – Flying Scotsman having had its top half done the same year.” A replacement smokebox is no big deal today, but in the mid-1970s, a 9ft long, 6ft diameter tube could only be produced by a shipyard such as Barrow. Another (probably apocryphal) story that did the rounds at the time was that after making Britannia’s new smokebox, this yard completed the construction of a submarine “only with some difficulty”! However, laughs Keith: “I don’t know if there’s any truth in that – when I went up there with the SVR’s storekeeper, they had plenty of steel lying around!” But if the smokebox had been relatively easy – even at the expense of leaving a submarine short of metal – keeping the firebox watertight was another matter. Not only had it been the reason for Britannia’s withdrawal, its problems were to haunt the engine throughout much of its preservation career. Keith continues: “This didn’t rear its head until about the middle
of the restoration period – we started out as a bunch of amateurs and learnt as we went along – but our attention was drawn to the fact that the ‘Britannias’ had a reputation for leaking from the back corners of the firebox.” This information came ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ as it were – for the locomotive’s designer, R.A. Riddles, was a keen supporter of the project, and Keith recalls visiting him for dinner at his home in Calne, Wiltshire, on several occasions. The problem dated back to when Britannia was originally built, explains Mike Hart – a director of Jeremy Hosking’s Locomotive Services (TOC) Ltd at Crewe, where No. 70000 resides today: “The firebox had its rivet holes drilled while it was still flat plate – but they forgot to allow for when it was bent into shape and joined up with the throatplate and backhead, so it was almost exactly half a hole out! “They filled the holes with threaded copper bungs, then drilled new holes roughly halfway between – but over the years, as the rivets were changed for the next size up, they started touching the bungs which then fell out! Major firebox repairs were uncharted territory for the emerging preservation movement, and BR’s expertise was needed. Keith continues: “A team of Derby boilersmiths came down to put patches in using gas welding – electric welding hadn’t arrived in the 1970s. “Being Derby men, they were already a bit sniffy about the workmanship on Crewe boilers…” Even after this, he adds: “It still gave us problems – it was fine when we had it in steam for three months in 1981, but as soon as it went back to having one week in steam and one out, the leaks started to come back.”
NEW BASE AT NENE
After seven years’ restoration, No. 70000 was steamed for the first time on May 18 1978, and officially launched back into service ten days later, with its renaming ceremony performed by none other than Mr Riddles.
One might then have expected it to become the flagship of the SVR fleet – but once again, its weight was the limiting factor. With a maximum axle-loading of 21½ tons, it was too heavy to run across Victoria Bridge, and could only operate on the southern section of the line from Bewdley – with no destination to reach, for the new terminus at Kidderminster would not be built until 1984. “They had plans to upgrade the line,” says Keith, “but Britannia was right on the limit. After one gala weekend, an inspection showed that it had broken several rail chairs.” On April 16 1980, No. 70000 moved to the Nene Valley Railway where it did indeed gain ‘flagship’ status, proving popular with visitors and heading the visiting VSOE Pullmans on May 27 1985. To enable it to work such trains, and the NVR’s Continental stock, it was fitted with an air pump for the first time – but not the last. In his time with the society (which ended in 1982), recalls Keith, main line running was no more than an aspiration: “During the first restoration at Bridgnorth, we weren’t specifically aiming for it – there was a feeling that we would find it difficult to resource.” Yet in a perverse way, the firebox issues that continued to dog Britannia helped to get it back onto the national network. In 1982, the 4-6-2 failed at the NVR when the lap seams opened up on the left-hand side, and engineering firm Resco Railways (which later became the first private Vehicle Acceptance Body with the onset of privatisation) was called in to carry out repairs. But when the same fault showed up on the right-hand side in 1984, and funds had run dry, Resco director Rick Edmondson solved the problem by purchasing shares in the Britannia Locomotive Company. He recalls: “Everyone seemed pleasantly surprised that someone had come along saying ‘yes, we can go main line with this’.” Britannia was moved to Carnforth by road in January 1987 – the first time it had been on a lorry, its movements from Redhill to Bridgnorth, and from the SVR to the NVR, having been dieseltowed by rail. By the time it returned to steam in December 1990, Rick was the majority shareholder. It returned to the main line on July 23 1991, with a light engine test run from Crewe to Shrewsbury via Chester. Two days later, it retraced its steps for a loaded test run – but ran a hot bearing on the right-hand side connecting rod big end. Martin remembers how, while the coaches were taken on by a diesel, the support crew removed the rod at Shrewsbury’s Crewe Bank Sidings and “knocked out” the big end brass – allowing Britannia to run the 32 miles back to Crewe as a single-cylinder engine, with the rod wedged in the corridor of the support coach and sticking out of the door! “It was remarkably smooth once it was going,” he says, “but setting off was a bit rough. In the coach it seemed to be rocking back and forth” rather than from side-to-side as one might expect. Meanwhile, the big end brass was being rushed to Bridgnorth for re-machining, and was returned to Crewe by midnight, allowing the engine to be reassembled on Friday July 26 – the day before its first public run from Crewe to Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford. “It was a bit tight,” Martin sums up drily.
OLD SCHOOL OVERHAUL
Chris Pinion, whom Rick had employed as the locomotive’s full-time engineer, recalls: “The Carnforth overhaul was done at minimum cost – it was a runner, but it still needed an awful lot doing to it.” Says Rick: “They gave us a fabulous locomotive, but the overhaul had been partly based on old-fashioned techniques – 20 years later, you have to do things differently. “It needed love, care and attention, which Chris and the team gave it – he didn’t have the backup of a big running shed or Crewe Works, but he did have a good bunch of people.” After its early runs over the Settle & Carlisle and ‘North and West’ routes, the ‘Brit’ returned to more of the class’s former stamping grounds with a series of ‘Fenline’ specials between King’s Lynn and Cambridge on October 19/20 1991, followed by the North Wales Coast during 1992. Throughout that time, says Chris, “we were constantly improving it. “There was always a fair bit of play in the bottom end and it clanked a bit – but after the loaded test run we never had another hot bearing. If you tighten the tolerances they’re less forgiving… they’re not Rolls-Royce aero engines.” Britannia went on to blaze its trail as a star of the 1990s main line scene, returning to old haunts of the class such as Norwich and Cardiff, and becoming one of the first steam locomotives to run on the Southern Region third-rail network, operating after
dark to forestall trespass. It officiated at the closure of Dover Marine station (with the opening of the Channel Tunnel) on September 25 1994; attended the first Yeovil Railway Festival the same year, when the restored turntable at Yeovil Junction was rededicated; and the following year it broke new ground when it became the first steam locomotive to reach Penzance since 1964. “We were arriving at places where nobody had seen a steam locomotive before,” remembers Rick. “We were there at just the right moment. With the run-up to privatisation, it got more relaxed and you could go to new places.” One highlight came on July 9 1994, when the support crew got to ride behind Britannia over the S&C three times in 24 hours, after ‘A2’ No. 60532 Blue Peter failed at Carlisle and No. 70000 was called northwards from the Mid-Hants Railway to take over its ‘Cumbrian Mountain Express’. Explains Martin: “We had to rush up to Carlisle, do some work on it there, haul the train southbound… and then go back to Carlisle to take the traction inspector home! “We were supposed to go to the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, but an inspector wasn’t available to take us there – the Carlisle man said he’d do it, but BR wouldn’t provide him with a taxi from Keighley, so we had to take him back. “I did suggest it would be cheaper for us to pay for a taxi than use all that coal.” Though Rick cannot recall the date, this may have been the same trip that left him with his most entrancing memory of his time with Britannia – riding on the ‘Pacific’s’ footplate through the night over the ‘Long Drag’. He remembers: “It was an inky black, moonless night, but a clear one with every star out, occasionally a green signal, and the lights of remote farms and cottages dotted about the hillsides. I turned round to speak to the driver and fireman, and saw their faces lit bronze and gold from the fire… it was a magic moment.” More complicated logistics were required on January 20 1993, when Britannia carried three different identities in one day to mark the retirement of two highly respected railwaymen – Steam Locomotive Operators Association Chairman R.H.N. Hardy and its Chief Mechanical Engineer John Peck. Martin remembers: “The train was run at no cost – we supplied the locomotive free of charge, someone else paid for the coal, and everyone on the train had to buy lunch. “We took Britannia from Didcot to Stewarts Lane depot, where we cleaned it up and renumbered it as No. 70004 William Shakespeare. These chaps came to see it – we think they knew something was going on – and then they went on the train to Dover, diesel-hauled, while we followed. “We backed onto the train at Dover while the speeches were being made at the other end – and then they came up to find their names on Britannia.” This wasn’t the only change of identity for the ‘Brit’ – for the Penzance trip on October 14 1995 it masqueraded as former Western Region example No. 70019 Lightning; for the closure of Dover Marine, it ran in the guise of former ‘Golden Arrow’ locomotive No. 70014 Iron Duke; while in 1993, in conjunction with Steam Railway, it was renumbered as No. 70047, the only member of the class never to carry a name. In a readers’ competition, the name ‘James Watt’ was chosen. “We were keen marketeers,” says Rick. “We’d do all sorts of things to draw attention to ourselves.”
WE HAPPY FEW
“They were great times,” Chris recalls fondly. “Like any locomotive, it was hard going for a small group – we had 20 volunteers at most – but we got a lot out of it. “Those were the days when we all just had a good time on the main line. “Yes, it was strict when Steve McColl was running the Special Trains arm of InterCity, but you could do things then that you can’t today. “We were limited to 60mph – but we fitted a redundant AWS set off a diesel and immediately went to 75mph! “We had some fantastic high-speed runs – for something that had been overhauled at minimum cost, it really was a cracking engine.” Sadly, after six and a half years, the good times came to an abrupt end at Hellifield on March 1 1997, when No. 70000 failed with leaking tubes on a ‘Cumbrian Mountain Express’. Two years before, when double-heading with ‘4MT’ 4-6-0 No. 75014 on a Carlisle-Liverpool ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’ marking the end of Special Trains, Britannia had ended up pulling the train and pushing the ‘Standard 4’ after the latter suffered a broken crosshead pin. “We thrashed it hard,” remembers Chris, “and it never really recovered from that.” Although the engine was repaired at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, it was finally withdrawn at the NVR on June 16 1997 – this time because the firebox foundation ring and crown stays were down to minimum thickness. One way or another, Britannia’s firebox has shaped its entire preservation history. Just as it got Rick involved in the first place, so it was a major factor in his decision to sell the locomotive on to Pete Waterman in late 1999. “We did briefly discuss building a new-specification boiler,” he says, “with oil firing. “About 30 seconds later, in a room full of appalled people, we decided to stick with coal, or it would no longer be Britannia. “In commercial terms we’d put a lot of money into it – but we
were here to preserve a historic artefact, and if we couldn’t afford it, it had to go to someone who could.” Though back at its birthplace, No. 70000 remained at the back of the queue for attention while Pete financed the overhaul of another celebrated Crewe machine – LNWR ‘Super D’ 0-8-0 No. 49395. Finally, in 2006, the ‘Brit’ became part of Jeremy Hosking’s extensive steam fleet – and was restored to full health at Crewe in 2010, almost six decades after its construction went wrong there. Explains Mike Hart: “We cut out and replaced the first three to four inches around the lap seams and corners on either side, right to the top – and we haven’t had to do very much to the boiler at the current overhaul.” But while the firebox may have been sorted out once and for all, another difficulty from the locomotive’s early days would now resurface – this time on the bottom end.
In October 1951, the whole first batch of 25 ‘Britannias’ had to be withdrawn after their driving wheels began shifting on the axles. Or, as then-Liverpool Street Assistant Superintendent Gerard Fiennes so eloquently put it in his infamous autobiography I Tried to Run a Railway: “The axles went round faster than the wheels, which wasn’t so good for the motion.” It was a basic flaw in the whole concept of the ‘Brits’, says David Ward: “They’re cheap and cheerful – they were built to a specification to do a job for a short period, and they don’t have the backbone of a ‘Big Four’ thoroughbred like an ‘A4’ or a ‘Duchess’. “BR was trying to get the performance of a three or fourcylinder ‘Pacific’ out of two cylinders – and it paid the penalty. “Bill Harvey said that after ten years on the Liverpool Street-Norwich expresses, it showed – in his words, ‘it’s the pace that kills’.” Over 60 years later, the axle problem reared its head again on a Westbury-Kingswear railtour on October 24 2015, when No. 70000’s footplate crew reported excessive vibration. Inspection confirmed that one of the driving wheels had moved on the axle, meaning that the crankpins were no longer exactly 90º apart. “With hindsight, BR was always trying to overcome this issue,” says Mike. “The cylinders are the size of large dustbins, and they’ve got loads of power, but the motion struggles to cope. “You can see the differences on the frames, where all the brackets have been stiffened up over the years. “We have the records of its mileages – they were incredibly low. “It also appears that towards the middle of their lives, they ended up on fairly flat routes” – working from sheds such as Immingham or March, on less demanding duties than the Norwich ‘flyers’ (see Howard’s article on pages 68-73). Withdrawn from service immediately, Britannia has since undergone an extensive rebuild of its bottom end, with all its Timken roller bearings (bogie, driving, trailing and tender wheelsets) replaced for the first time in preservation (only two or three were new at the Carnforth overhaul, confirms Chris). The new bearings are being pressed onto the axles by South Devon Railway Engineering, who, says Mike, “knowing of this problem, are paying extra-special attention to getting it spot on”. The ‘Pacific’ is now “on its way to being re-wheeled,” he concludes. “We’re looking forward to having it going again in June or July, when it’ll become a core locomotive of our new Train Operating Company, along with Royal Scot and Braunton.”
Britannia’s return will be particularly welcome, for with a ‘heavy general’ overhaul looming on the horizon for Oliver Cromwell, it will – in the short to medium term at least – fall to No. 70000 to fly the flag for this much-loved class on the national network. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we can enjoy the longawaited sight of both ‘Britannias’ running together for the first time in preservation – perhaps double-heading over Shap, just as the ‘Pacifics’ often did towards the end of steam. But in the meantime, it is somehow fitting that 50 years after it handed the mantle of ‘National Collection treasure’ to Oliver Cromwell, Britannia will take up the baton of keeping the class in the national consciousness. Once again, No. 70000 will be the trailblazer, and we can be thankful that it survived against all odds.
THEY WERE BUILT TO A SPECIFICATION TO DO A JOB FOR A SHORT PERIOD DAVID WARD
Main line steam at its best: perfectly matched with a full set of ‘blood and custard’ Mk 1s, Britannia crosses Arten Gill Viaduct with a York-Carlisle charter on March 3 2012. Note the white cab roof, applied for its turn on the Royal Train on January...
A late 1980s scene of Britannia passing Ferry Meadows on the Nene Valley Railway.
1: Just over two years old, No. 70000 rushes down towards Brentwood from Ingrave summit with the Up ‘Hook Continental’ from Parkeston Quay on May 9 1953.
6: Britannia sits in the Down sidings at Hellifield after failing with leaking tubes on the ‘Cumbrian Mountain Express’ on March 1 1997. It was repaired for some further steamings at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, but this proved to be its last...
2: A forlorn-looking Britannia dumped at Redhill shed on an unrecorded date in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
5: British and Continental design contrasts at the Nene Valley Railway, as Britannia is shunted along with Swedish 2-6-2T No. 1178 – minus its chimney and undergoing a boiler re-tube.
4: In an undated photograph, restoration of Britannia is well under way at Bridgnorth. Note the replacement smokebox – a preservation first.
3: A slightly more presentable No. 70000 at Bridgnorth on April 9 1971, less than a month after its arrival at the Severn Valley Railway.
Remember the days of InterCity ‘raspberry ripple’ stock? Britannia slows for a signal check at Bugbrooke, on Hatton bank, with a Didcot-Sheffield tour on March 12 1995.
Two prototype Riddles ‘Pacifics’ meet at Carnforth on June 8 1991, as the freshly overhauled ‘Brit’ eases past ‘8P’ No. 71000