They were a small footnote to the British Army’s battle to wrestle back control of the Front Line, but one of Boulogne dock’s forgotten shunting engines is making a fitting return to action, as NICK BRODRICK finds out.
To think of a war veteran locomotive might conjure images of battered platework and worn paint. That’s exactly how former Railway Operating Division ‘P’ 0-6-0T No. 27 has looked for the best part of 35 years – but not because of its service in France during the ‘Great War’… ‘Primrose’, by its preservation moniker, scuttled up and down the five miles of track between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes almost continuously for 13 years and made a resplendent sight in the extravagant South Eastern & Chatham Railway lined green livery, but within a couple of decades it was akin to a Barry wreck.
Someone who can explain why as well as anyone is Clive Emsley. He is one of a small army of Bluebell Railway volunteers who are now meticulously returning the SECR engine to grace.
“‘27’ last ran in September 1974 and was dismantled in 1982. It was the basis of a training scheme by BR for [Stratford Works] apprentices. It was taken apart, but shortly afterwards the scheme finished. It was also found that stuff couldn’t be fixed cheaply or easily.” The overhaul was put on hold...
“Storing it outside hasn’t done it any favours – but even if we had started on it straight away, it still would have taken a long time,” adds Clive, pointing to a hard-working career and a primitive final BR works visit in 1961.
Instead of rejoining classmate No. 323 ‘Bluebell’ in the running fleet, No. 27 slipped silently into the background. Denied the simple dignity of carrying a boiler, No. 27 became something of an emblem for projects that have been started but not finished. “It wasn’t forgotten about,” Clive says, “but it was always case of ‘we’ll do that next’.”
The operational need for a small ‘P’ has gradually diminished since 1974. Longer trains, increased track mileage and the recent reliance on diesel shunters has pushed engines like ‘Primrose’ to the periphery of the Bluebell. The beleaguered No. 27 was something that the band of volunteers who took it on actively wanted, rather than had to do.
“There is a use for them at the Bluebell – albeit diminished with the arrival of diesel shunters – at branch line weekends and for short trains like the ‘Autumn Tints’,” Clive argues.
“We do need to keep the little engines working. We wouldn’t be where we are now without them.
“We want to get to the stage where we have three small working engines in rotation, so that they can go to other railways for galas and extended visits as ambassadors for the Bluebell.”
But No. 27 still had to wait a considerable time for its turn.
With its debut project – the overhaul of ‘Terrier’ No. 672 Fenchurch – almost complete around the turn of the century, members of the Fenchurch Fund “asked ourselves whether we would carry on… and if so, what for?”
The answer was lurking among the containers and bushes of Sheffield Park.
Clive and his colleagues knew that it would take a “hell of a lot of fund-raising”, but simply locating all of the dismembered parts of No. 27 was a potential nightmare.
“We were going over bits and pieces from the engine around 2008 and looking round the railway to find where the known bits were. Some had been in wagons which had been moved around the line. There were parts at Horsted Keynes and Sheffield Park – all over.” Luckily, the search was far from fruitless. “It didn’t take that long actually,” Clive recalls. “People knew that we were on the lookout and some would come to say ‘I’ve found this, is it part of ‘27’?’
“For instance, the whistle had been put on ‘473’ [‘E4’ Birch Grove] – it’s now back in the stores – so the original will go back on.
“I don’t think that we’ve identified any components that are missing.”
It was around this time that the Fenchurch Fund joined forces with the (Wainwright) Villas Gang (a nickname that dates back to the days of using an SECR carriage as a store), who had just completed the overhaul of Fletcher Jennings 0-4-0T Baxter.
Project 27 was born. Now, the true extent of what the team had taken on revealed itself…
Clive takes up the story from when the lifting of the frames in January 2015 represented the first big push.
“We’ve had to make a new dragbox; all fabricated at Sheffield Park. There was little left of the original! The bunker had never been properly cleaned, meaning that rainwater would become trapped inside. Then it mixed with the acid in the coal and caused serious corrosion.
“The frames had two cracks in each side and the back third of the frames had been almost completely eaten away.”
“We did attempt to weld the cracks, but the cracks began to get longer as we were doing it. That also caused star cracking elsewhere, so we thought ‘that’s enough’.”
The tough decision was made to cut new frames, at a cost of £6,500, and so it became only the second preserved standard gauge (rather than new-build) locomotive, along with ‘Small Prairie’ No. 4561, to receive a replacement set.
It raises the perennial locomotive identity crisis, at least while the battered old frames are still knocking around Sheffield Park: which set is technically the real No. 27? The old, or the new… or both?
Regardless, the rolled 22mm plates are
“as near as damn it” to the 78 / in thickness of the originals, Clive says.
Since being cut by Tata Steel in Scunthorpe, all the drilling has been done, holes tapped, horn apertures ground out and bolted together to check the alignment, while new bufferbeams were also procured. But that wasn’t all for the bottom end.
The cylinder block, which also acts as a frame stretcher and smokebox saddle, was beyond repair.
Premier Patterns used polystyrene to make new castings for No. 27, and the Bluebell’s third ‘P’, No. 178, which has been relegated to light duties in recent years.
The cylinders are currently being machined, meaning that Project 27 should be in the motivating position of being able to begin reassembly of the Wainwright engine by Christmas.
With only two frame stretchers and the motion bracket cleft from the original, it gives, in Clive’s words, “a 100-year restoration of the frames, because we know what the spec is.”
At least the wheels weren’t in bad nick…
Tellingly, Clive says: “It’s all about the boiler – the engineering side is the easy bit,” as thoughts turn towards the next stage. Not that No. 27 has a boiler it can call its own.
The ‘Bluebell’ has four ‘P’ class boilers; the best two are in use with Nos. 178 and 323, leaving No. 27 with the pick of the others.
But because neither is in particularly good order, the best bits of both will be grafted together to make one good boiler.
“There will likely be a survey on both – we already know one has a good barrel, one has a good foundation ring and one has a good dome.
“The current thinking is that we’ll use ultrasonic testing; identify the good parts, then combine them and fill with new metal where necessary. It maintains the originality, but will also make it good for 40-50 years,” Clive forecasts.
“We don’t want to patch it only for it to fail after eight years. We’re spreading the word that spending a few extra quid on it now will mean it lasts four times as long.
“It’s probably the locomotive’s biggest overhaul ever. Once finished, it will be good for years.”
Despite its onerous nature, the overall restoration cost is estimated to be “around £120-130k, which is a lot cheaper than we thought.”
Two thirds of that sum have still to be raised, however.
‘P’ IS FOR PURE
Project 27 is also acutely aware of the importance of authenticity.
Buffers may only be a detail in the grander scheme of a project that involves such fundamental rebuilding, yet the acquisition of four original SECR conical shanks and slender heads from old bufferstops are No. 27’s pièce de résistance. The engine was fitted with the rather more bruising Southern Railway type at Ashford works in March 1961 – just three months before it was withdrawn and delivered to the Bluebell under its own steam.
You might think that the ‘P’s’ war service would steer the volunteers towards returning the engine to its unvarnished green, with ROD lettering and number 5027 on the tank sides.
Actually, it’ll be neither, not least because the boat for the First World War anniversary has been missed. Instead, the rather attractive 1920s Southern lined passenger green livery, with the number A27 guise, has been chosen for when the pocket-sized machine returns to steam in around five years; dovetailing with the Bluebell’s olive green carriages and brown wagons.
“It’ll be different to all the black engines – and lots of the Chatham engines have carried Wainwright’s ‘Modern Amusements Livery’,” Clive quips.
That isn’t to suggest that its military service has been forgotten. In fact, one of its water tanks has been on display outside the Bluebell’s gift shop in ROD livery since April 2015, and it will still be there for the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice.
Further, it is believed that No. 27 and its contemporary, preserved No. (5)753, were actually the very first British standard gauge locomotives to cross the Channel to assist the war effort when they arrived in Boulogne on April 24 1915, perhaps giving the pair greater significance than has been afforded.
The duo were operated by the ROD primarily for the purposes of extending the Boulogne docks’ network of sidings for the transhipment of munitions and the construction of a breakwater; an engineering project that was actually controlled from Britain by the SECR. Their stay in northern France was brought to a premature end on October 20 1916 – replaced by more powerful SECR ‘T’ 0-6-0Ts.
Even though the ‘Ps’ weren’t a major success across the water, and the major anniversary has passed, Clive reckons it would be fitting to reunite them at the Baie de Somme Railway – 40 miles south of their former seaside haunts.
“With the right backing, it could happen.”
Maybe then, No. 27 will finally wear its army uniform again.
One of the earliest pictures of No. 27, six years after it returned from war duty, on Dover shed, circa 1922.
There are no known photographs of the ‘P’ tank engines in France, so this depiction by Bluebell Railway resident artist Matthew Cousins is as close as it gets.
A sorry sight: how No. 27 looked after it was taken indoors after 30 years in open storage.
Happier times at the Bluebell on August 3 1969 as No. 27 is matched with SECR stock.
How No. 27 will eventually look, in lined Southern green.
One of the life-expired side tanks was cosmetically refreshed in ROD livery for display in April 2015 to mark 100 years since No. 27 arrived in France.