A tribute to the man who rescued Flying Scotsman
THOMAS BRIGHT pays tribute to one of preservation’s most influential and passionate supporters, Sir William McAlpine.
There might be no Flying Scotsman without Sir William McAlpine. Nor might there be main line steam, the ‘Jacobite’ or the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway if not for him. In fact, many things that enthusiasts take for granted were only possible because of Sir William’s involvement, intervention and interest. If preservation had a figurehead, he was a worthy candidate. To many, Sir William was the man who saved ‘Scotsman’, but to say he is remembered solely for his relationship with the world’s most famous steam locomotive is to do him a gross disservice. He was so much more. Sir William might have been a businessman first and foremost, but he was an enthusiast through and through, and dedicated much of his time, energy and resources to supporting preservation projects across the country.
RAILWAYS IN HIS BLOOD
Born on January 12 1936 at the Dorchester Hotel in London, Sir William Hepburn McAlpine claimed he had the railway bug from birth. As a member of the McAlpine construction and civil engineering dynasty, he had railways in the blood. His great-grandfather, Sir Robert McAlpine, 1st Baronet, built the West Highland Line and pioneered the use of concrete in the construction of the railway’s bridges and tunnels – notably on Glenfinnan Viaduct – earning him the nickname ‘Concrete Bob’. One of William’s earliest memories was his nanny taking him in his pram to a railway bridge near the family’s Lyttle Hall home in Nutfield to watch the trains go by, with the youngster persuading his minder to stay as long as possible. Railways were also an integral part of the family business, as the firm employed steam locomotives to assist in the construction of large projects, ferrying materials wherever they were needed. In his hands-on approach to the company’s operations, the young Sir William often accompanied his father on site visits. For anyone doubting his enthusiast credentials, there is no greater measure of Sir William’s passion for railways than the line at his family home in Fawley Hill. Many an enthusiast has dreamt of their own private railway – Sir William actually had one. The seeds for what is now one of the most singular railways and museum collections in Britain were sown in 1965 when, at the age of 29, Sir William acquired his first steam locomotive. During a visit to the family firm’s Hayes depot, he learned that one of the locomotives stored there – Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0ST No. 31 (Works No. 1026) – was due to be scrapped. The locomotive had been employed by the company for the entirety of its life, but had lain out of use since 1961. Sir William cancelled the scrapping order and, determining that the locomotive was in good condition (it had been overhauled at Hayes prior to its last contract at Llanwern Steelworks), ordered it to be delivered to Fawley Hill. So that he had somewhere to both store and run his new toy, Sir William laid an initial 100 yards of track. This would expand over the years into what is now the Fawley Hill Railway, a onemile private line which boasts a gradient of 1-in-13 – the steepest adhesion-worked incline in Great Britain. The motive power collection would also grow, with the subsequent acquisitions of Avonside 0-6-0ST Pitsford and 0-4-0ST Elizabeth, as well as the unusual Aveling & Porter 4wWT Sirapite. Fawley Hill was notable not only for its motley collection of locomotives, but also its incredible array of railway architecture. An invited visitor to the line on one of its open days would be greeted by the ex-Great Eastern Railway station building from Somersham, the ex-Midland Railway Shobnall Maltings signal box, the station façades from Ludgate Hill and Broad Street, the Waterloo station arches, a cast iron London, Chatham & Dover Railway crest… The list goes on. All this, in addition to the bewildering amount of railwayana and other railway-related exhibits displayed in Fawley Hill’s dedicated railway museum, believed to be the biggest such collection in Britain outside of the National Railway Museum, makes the railway unique. Such was Sir William’s interest in preserving railway architecture that he was chairman of the Railway Heritage Trust (which helps the ‘big railway’ look after historic infrastructure) from its inception in 1985. His influence saved many iconic structures from demolition and ensured their restoration. In the early 1970s came the two events in Sir William’s life for which he is arguably best remembered. The first was his rescue of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. The death of its founder, Captain J.E.P. Howey, in 1963, mired the 15in gauge line in financial difficulties. Two retired bankers purchased the line, but owing to the damage inflicted upon the railway during the Second World War, investment was sorely needed. In 1968, a consortium bought the railway but with much of the track requiring renewal, consideration was given to closing parts of the line.
Pleas reached Sir William’s ears, who rejected buying the railway outright, but instead led a group of 20 backers, each providing at least £5,000, to not only give the railway a secure financial footing, but also the necessary investment it needed. On February 14 1972, the RHDR was purchased by the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Holding Co. Ltd, with Sir William as its chairman and major shareholder. During this time, it came to Sir William’s attention that one of the RHDR’s original locomotives – Krauss 0‑4‑0TT No. 4 The Bug – was lying in a derelict state in a Belfast scrapyard. It had been built to haul works trains but, being too small and underpowered for the majority of the line’s traffic, was sold in 1933 to a Blackpool showman who in turn sold the engine on to Belfast Zoo for use on the Bellevue Park Railway. The Bug was sold for scrap when the line closed in 1950, and it was only by chance that it survived, buried beneath other scrap in the breaker’s yard. Sir William bought the beleaguered engine for £300 and sent it to Cushing Engineering in Kent where, in 1974, it received a complete rebuild and subsequently returned to traffic.
The same year he came to the rescue of the engine with which he would be forever associated: Flying Scotsman. In 1972, the ‘A3’ was stranded in San Francisco after an exhibition tour of the United States, ostensibly to promote British business, had bankrupted its then‑owner Alan Pegler, and No. 4472 was in danger of being repossessed by various creditors. Realising ‘Scotsman’s’ precarious situation, staunch preservationist and Bressingham Steam Museum supremo Alan Bloom contacted Sir William urging him to intervene. McAlpine contacted Alan Pegler’s collaborator George Hinchcliffe and paid for him to fly out to America to liaise with the lawyers handling ‘Scotsman’s’ sale. With the railroad companies to which Flying Scotsman Enterprises owed money seeking custody of the ‘Pacific’, time was short to rescue the engine. Flying Scotsman’s fate was decided during a transatlantic telephone call in January 1973. Sir William asked George: “If I buy the locomotive, can you get it home?” The response was “Yes”, to which Sir William replied: “If I get it back, will you run and manage it for me?” George was hesitant, especially in light of his experience with the ill‑fated America tour, but after replying in the affirmative, Sir William said: “Go ahead then, I’ll send the money.” With that, McAlpine took ownership of one of the world’s most famous locomotives; one that would remain under his stewardship for the next 23 years – longer than any other private owner. Sir William later reflected on his intervention: “I think it was almost my patriotic duty. I did feel that it needed to be saved and it should be brought home. Somebody ought to do it, and at that stage I didn’t really know how it would be done, whether other people would want to join in, or what. But then the die was cast. George got it home.” Under Sir William’s stewardship, Flying Scotsman enjoyed arguably the most stable and prosperous era of its preservation career, with the highlight being a trip to Australia where it set a world record for a non‑stop steam‑hauled train – 422 miles. Shortly after its return to the UK, Sir William agreed for it to be turned out in its latter‑day BR guise as No. 60103 for the first time since 1963, and from 1993, co‑owned the locomotive with Pete Waterman. However, just two years later, the locomotive was withdrawn with a cracked firebox, and the engine was sold in 1996 to Dr Tony Marchington.
BASE OF OPERATIONS
Flying Scotsman wasn’t the only main line locomotive owned by Sir William: also under his wing was No. 4079 Pendennis Castle, which he had bought from Mike Higson, in partnership with the Hon. (later Lord) John Gretton, in 1971. Needing somewhere to stable the four‑cylinder 4‑6‑0, as well as Flying Scotsman and Sir William’s growing collection of rolling stock, the pair identified the former British Steel Corporation site at Market Overton, Rutland, where they erected a four‑road shed for stabling and restoration purposes. BR’s decision to disconnect the Market Overton branch from the
it was almost my patriotic duty. i did feel that it should be brought home SIR WILLIAM McALPINE
network in early 1974 thwarted Sir William’s plans to turn the site into a main line steam facility so, in 1976, nearly all the rolling stock and equipment was shipped to Steamtown, Carnforth. The following year, Sir William and John Gretton sold No. 4079 to Hamersley Iron Co., and the locomotive was shipped to Australia. Speaking to Steam Railway at the time it was announced that Pendennis Castle would be returning to Britain, Sir William said: “There was some criticism of me when it went to Australia, but I only sold it in the first place because it was lying in the shed unused, it was out of gauge for many of the lines in the north of England that we wanted to run it on, and it was in need of extensive boiler repairs which we had no money for. “When Hamersley approached me, it was Flying Scotsman they actually wanted to buy. I said ‘no – but you can have Pendennis Castle instead’… Brunel extended the Great Western to America; I’d like to think I extended it to Australia.”
STEAM THEME PARK
Realising Steamtown Railway Museum (as it was then called) would be perfect for his realigned purposes, Sir William purchased 65% of Steamtown shares and transferred his locomotives there, expanded its facilities and attractions, and turned it into what was, arguably, Britain’s first railway ‘theme park’, holding various open days and offering brake van rides. Sir William facilitated the revival of the ‘Orient Express’, helping locate and secure a number of Pullman cars which were restored to main line standard by the Sea Containers Group, which leased part of the Steamtown site, as well as advising James Sherwood on running a privately owned luxury train on the main line. Sir William also purchased his own rake of vacuum-braked ‘Metro-Cammell’ Pullmans in the late 1970s, renovating them for main line railtours, as well as the former BR Special Trains Unit coaches when it became the first part of British Rail to be privatised. Sir William owned many carriages in his lifetime, including rare pre-Grouping examples. One of the most significant was former Great Eastern Railway First Class saloon No. GE1, which was unique in having an inspection platform at one end. This coach could often be seen accompanying both Flying Scotsman and Pendennis Castle on main line railtours, but one of its most important duties was when it was used on a normal service train over the Fort William-Mallaig line, to convince BR officials of the viability of running regular steam services over the line. They were clearly swayed, and it was apt that Sir William’s private coach helped towards regular steam services over the line built by his great-grandfather. Sir William was also integral to the formation in 1975 of the Steam Locomotive Operators Association, an organisation formed to liaise with BR with regards to running steam on the main line, and ensuring it could continue and expand. It was his involvement with the SLOA that brought Sir William into contact with David Ward, the-then BR Director of Special Trains. In his foreword to the Oakwood Press biography on Sir William, David writes: “It would be safe to say that steam operations on the main line would have ceased in the 1970s had it not been for Sir William’s influence in countering the bureaucracy and opposition, much of it at a very high level, to steam’s continued operation.” At the time of Sir William’s death, David told Steam Railway: “Sir William had enormous influence in places where it mattered and he used it with great discretion. “He was a most friendly and generous host at meetings, and it was rare to come away from a meeting with him without achieving the progress wanted. It was all done quietly and without any fuss. “In the 22 years I had responsibility for preserved steam on the main line, he never went over my head unless I said this was his best option. When he owned Flying Scotsman he never sought privileges not available to others and he would say to me ‘if you want my help please let me know’.” As a measure of the high regard in which he was held by his fellow enthusiasts, Sir William was president, patron or chairman of countless societies and groups. He made things happen. He was noted for saying two things. Firstly, he often said: “No organisation manages any situation worse than the Government.” Secondly: “Never fall out with anyone – you never know when you might need them.” SR
The man who saved ‘Scotsman’: Sir William and Penny Vaudoyer – the daughter of Alan Pegler – at the National Railway Museum, just after Flying Scotsman’s inaugural main line run on February 26 2016.
Pendennis Castle and Flying Scotsman run in parallel at Northam, Australia, on September 24 1989.
Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0ST No. 31 climbs the fearsome 1-in-13 gradient to Somersham station on the Fawley Hill Railway on June 13 1999.
Fresh from its visit to Australia, and still wearing its commemorative headboard, Flying Scotsman stands under the coaling tower at Carnforth on May 23 1990.