Celebrities for scrap
HOWARD JOHNSTON explains the eleventh hour move that rescued the famous ‘Brits’ in 1963, including Oliver Cromwell, after the Eastern Region had turned its back on steam.
August 2018 will be a special month for surviving ‘Britannia’ 4-6-2 No. 70013 Oliver Cromwell, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the end of BR main line steam. But it so nearly wasn’t that way. Back in 1963, five years before it was singled out for preservation, this celebrity two-cylinder Standard ‘Pacific’ could easily have been among the third of the class consigned to the torch. Dumped at the side of the Eastern Region’s March steam shed, it was simply 143 tons of scrap metal awaiting the preparation of paperwork for its disposal. It was on the condemned list because it was unemployed, and was also considered to be clapped out. How it all worked out well in the end for ‘Cromwell’ is a scarcely told account of eleventh hour intervention by the London Midland Region. As well as a reprieve for No. 70013, there was another chance for first-built No. 70000 Britannia, and over a dozen of their down-at-heel classmates. Scrapping quite modern locomotives was taboo at this time, as shown, for instance, by the transfer of Standard 2-6-4Ts to Central Wales following the electrification of the London Tilbury & Southend line. At least six of the March ‘Brits’ (Nos. 70000/1/5/10/12/34) had suffered frost damage from their time in the open, and heavy overhauls at Crewe Works were sanctioned by the LMR before they could take up their new roles as replacements for the last Stanier ‘Princess Coronations’, and ailing ‘Patriots’ and ‘Royal Scots’, handling services mainly in the North West. After all the praise poured on them when they revolutionised LondonNorwich services in 1951, the ‘Brits’ quickly fell from grace, and they would continually be in retreat as new diesels arrived in squadron numbers. A handful held on until December 1967. One by one, they were cast aside after suffering severe mechanical failure, or occasionally collision damage, beyond cash repair limits. Rarely cleaned (except for the occasional railtour duty), and stripped of their nameplates, the final chapter of the ‘Britannia’ story is typical of the rapid rundown of British main line steam. In truth, despite their modern design there had never been enough ‘Britannias’ built to have any lasting impact on either top link passenger trains, parcels or even freights. It might have been different if there had been 100 or more, but the 55 were always quite thinly scattered across several depots to act as gap-fillers for short-lived initiatives. In their early days, the Western Region didn’t like the ‘Brits’, and the Scottish, North Eastern and Southern were only ever allocated a few each. Even in their final years, the London Midland sometimes regarded them as nothing better than a Stanier ‘Black Five’, and their final disappearance was scarcely noticed.
HARD TO IMAGINE
It was the reminiscences of former Eastern Region Hamilton House HQ employee Derek Lawman in the December 2014 issue of our sister magazine Steam World that highlighted the proposed early scrapping of its ‘Brits’. He had developed a deep interest in the class, and as a BR employee was later able to obtain some inside knowledge. Having spent a lot of time as a young spotter at Bishops Stortford in the
1950s, he recalled how the named ‘7P6F’ 4-6-2s were then absolutely at the top of their game, lovingly cared for with their lined green paintwork kept beautifully clean by their regular crews and maintenance staff. Derek said: “It was inconceivable back then that they would have such short working lives on the Great Eastern before being transferred away, then quickly consigned to the scrapheap”. His personal favourite ‘Brit’ was No. 70007 Coeur-de-Lion, which was the first – and last – example that he saw on its original patch, bidding farewell to it at Bishops Stortford in 1962. Three years later, in June 1965, this engine was the first of the class to be withdrawn at Crewe Works after arriving for overhaul, and failing an inspection; it was broken up there at the end of the following month. If the phrase ‘rave review’ had existed 67 years ago, it would certainly have been applied to the appearance of the doyen of the class, No. 70000 Britannia, on its first Liverpool Street-Norwich run on Thursday, February 1 1951, ready for the new timetable that came into operation on July 2. Displacing underpowered LNER ‘B1’ and ‘B17’ 4-6-0s, as well as a few troublesome Bulleid air-smoothed ‘West Country’ 4-6-2s briefly on loan to Stratford, a ‘Brit’ could comfortably cut London-Ipswich journey times from 80 minutes to 76, with another 45 minutes allowed for the remaining 46 miles to Norwich. Crews enjoyed their handling characteristics, and with two round trips expected of each engine every day, it was not out of the ordinary for the engines to chalk up 2,500 miles a week.
The Great Eastern had certainly had its money’s worth out of the ‘Brits’, and as more became available they were rostered for the ‘Hook Continental’, ‘Day Continental’ and ‘Scandinavian’ boat trains to and from Harwich Parkeston Quay. They were also seen regularly running north to south via Ely and Cambridge, and often worked into Great Yarmouth and Southend. The first batch of locomotives on the GE was intended to be in the 70000-14 range, and it was a mild irritation for number collectors that No. 70004 William Shakespeare spoiled the sequence by its nonappearance. It was diverted to the Southern Region after its display at the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition at South Bank, and its operating base for the next seven years would be Stewarts Lane shed in South London to work the ‘Golden Arrow’ and ‘Night Ferry’ from Victoria to Dover. It was joined there by No. 70014 Iron Duke, but this was of less concern to Eastern spotters, who were satisfied with underlining No. 70013 as the engine at the end of the sequence. The second production batch intended for the Great Eastern was Nos. 70035-44, but this also did not quite work out as Nos. 70043/4 went new to Longsight on loan in 1953 and never made it to the GE. Their places in the GE pool were taken by ex-Holyhead No. 70030 William Wordsworth, and ex-Longsight No. 70034 Thomas Hardy. Another floater, No. 70042 Lord Roberts, drifted off to Kentish Town in July 1958.
DIESELS SPOIL IT
With everything so apparently settled on the Eastern, it was surprising that the ‘Brits’ were so quickly knocked off their perch by the region’s determination to be at the forefront of diesel technology, and the spectre of early redundancy hung over steam when five new English Electric Type 4 diesels arrived at Stratford depot in 1958.
A skilled staff shortage quickly led to its ‘Brit’ allocation being transferred to Norwich, and the steady invasion of replacement traction meant they were re-diagrammed several times in a short period. By 1960, this cascade policy led to regular appearances along the south Essex coast, and also the ‘Hook Continental’ and boat trains that would take them to Sheffield via March and Lincoln. To observers on the ‘Joint Line’, their daily appearance in mid-morning and early evening would be a great relief from the seemingly endless drudgery of heavy freights to Whitemoor hauled by unkempt Robinson, Gresley and Thompson engines. Evidence that the Great Eastern had a significant surplus of express power was the transfer of seven ‘Brits’ to Immingham (Nos. 70035-41) at the end of 1961, where their new regular duties included through trains from Cleethorpes to King’s Cross via the East Lincolnshire Line through Boston and Peterborough, fast fish trains from Grimsby Docks, and fill-in turns into East Yorkshire. By the end of 1962, Norwich had sent all its ‘Brits’ to March, and they soon surrendered almost all their long-distance duties to even more new diesels, this time English Electric Type 3s. Soon after the New Year, many of the class were put into open store in the steam shed area, sometimes with their chimneys sacked, sometimes not. Then came the surprise that Derek Lawman recalls: “A part of the [‘Britannia’] story that is not quite so well known is that those at March in storage came very close indeed to being condemned in December 1963. “At literally the eleventh hour, the London Midland Region, never overly keen on the class in general, very reluctantly agreed
to accept them, otherwise the fallback decision had already been taken, which was to condemn them.”
HELP ON THE WAY
Rightly or wrongly, the LMR had committed itself to the early elimination of its Stanier ‘Duchess’ fleet (overhauls at Crewe had ceased at the beginning of the decade). The earlier ‘Princess’ 4-6-2s had already all gone, and three-cylinder rebuilt ‘Royal Scots’, ‘Patriots’ and ‘Jubilees’ were also being rapidly withdrawn as they became due for heavy maintenance. Deliveries of new diesels could not keep pace and they were unreliable. This planned rescue of a third of the ‘Brits’ for a new career was followed by an extensive (and expensive) overhaul programme at Crewe Works. The retrievals from March were a sorry bunch, particularly the first six that had been laid aside. Nos. 70000 Britannia, 70001 Lord Hurcomb and 70005 John Milton were nominally reallocated to Willesden in the month of March, to be followed by No. 70010 Owen Glendower, 70012 John of Gaunt, and 70034 Thomas Hardy during April. Others, in better condition and transferred later in the year, were No. 70030 William Wordsworth to Crewe North in July, and the balance to Carlisle Upperby in December – Nos. 70002 Geoffrey Chaucer, 70003 John Bunyan, 70006 Robert Burns, 70007 Coeur-deLion, 70008 Black Prince, 70009 Alfred the Great, 70011 Hotspur, and 70013 Oliver Cromwell. The same month, Immingham offered up its six engines to Carlisle Upperby, Nos. 70035 Rudyard Kipling, 70036 Boadicea, 70037 Hereward the Wake, 70038 Robin Hood, 70039 Sir Christopher Wren, 70040 Clive of India and 70041 Sir John Moore. In the early months of 1964, Nos. 70000/1/5/10/2 were pushed through Crewe Works between March and June, and before the year’s end, Nos. 70002/6/8/9/11/34. Visitors to the works could always expect to note at least one ‘Brit’ receiving attention, and no fewer than eight were there in November. By this time, the Stanier 4-6-2s had been safely dispensed with.
Before the influx of surplus ‘Brits’ to the London Midland from other regions, the number at many depots was always too tiny to have much effect. Four, Nos. 70030-33, had been sent from new to Holyhead at the end of 1952 to haul North Wales expresses, but the idea was a failure because they ran short of water, and it was another 18 months before a second attempt was made with
Nos. 70045-9, whose tenders had greater capacity. Longsight also had a few ‘Brits’; Nos. 70031-33 were used for a time on Manchester-Euston services. Western Region crews were never entirely happy with their small batch of ‘Brits’, which they saw as a poor match for their Swindondesigned 4-6-0s, and those originally based at Old Oak Common, Laira (Plymouth) and Newton Abbot were swapped in 1956/57 for Cardiff Canton’s ‘Castles’. The WR had no use for the class at all after the short-lived ‘Warship’ diesel-hydraulics arrived in 1961, so they too were sent to the London Midland to finish their careers. Polmadie was originally responsible for the final five (Nos. 70050-4), hence their ‘Firth’ names, with regular workings from Glasgow to Carlisle and Perth. Leeds Holbeck engines had a couple of rosters over the Settle-Carlisle line and up to London. By 1965, all 55 ‘Brits’ were based on the LMR, primarily at Crewe North and Carlisle Kingmoor and Upperby sheds, and apart from a brief foray on Great Central duties the engines were soon on the back foot. By now sharing duties with almost any class still operational, they were regarded as mixed traffic engines. Kingmoor and Upperby used the ‘Brits’ regularly on passenger services over the S&C to Leeds and Bradford, to Manchester, Crewe, Edinburgh (over the Waverley Route), Glasgow, Perth and Aberdeen. Summer specials to Blackpool were also commonplace. This was supplemented with parcels duties, and even ICI tanks between Northwich and Whitehaven and the occasional coal train. Despite some withdrawals by 1966, all 41 survivors had accumulated at Kingmoor, and over a third of them received minor attention at Crewe that year. Exclusive ‘Brit’ diagrams dwindled away, and by summer 1967 the condition of many was so poor that crews refused to take them out. One only had to look at their external condition, as cleaning had long ceased unless the engine was rostered for railtour duty, as at least Nos. 70000/2/4/12/13/20/32/38/39 were at one time or another. It is known by almost every ‘Brit’ follower that No. 70045 Lord Rowallan brought down the curtain for normal running when it worked the 1.10pm Carlisle-Skipton passenger service on December 30 1967, running light to Rose Grove for a final coal train trip to Wigan on New Year’s Day. Apart from No. 70013, that was it.
Willesden-allocated No. 70014 Iron Duke saunters through Watford Junction with a Down freight circa 1964. The locomotive still retains the drilled holes in the smoke deflectors for the small arrows carried during its ‘Golden Arrow’ heyday at Stewarts...
The overhaul that helped secure Oliver Cromwell’s place in preservation: a gleaming No. 70013 stands in the works yard at Crewe on February 2 1967 immediately after being unveiled. The painted injector pipework and brass cab window frames suggest that...