PILING ON THE COAL
ROB LANGHAM explores the story of the ‘Jellicoe Specials’ – the long-distance coal trains that kept the Royal Navy supplied with fuel throughout the First World War.
The Royal Navy’s control of the seas was vital to protect trade routes and for the transport of men, equipment and stores to wherever in the world the fighting happened to be. It may have won the shipbuilding race against the Imperial German Navy before the war, but without the coal which powered the majority of its ‘Dreadnoughts’, it wouldn’t be racing anywhere. These floating behemoths and their smaller counterparts required a colossal amount of fuel. The efforts to keep them supplied was one of the First World War’s most enduring stories, and a testament to the hard work of the railways (the Great Western in particular): the ‘Jellicoe Specials’.
Since the late 19th century, the Royal Navy had depended on highquality anthracite from the South Wales coalfields to power its warships. Even with the development of oil-burning engines, by the outbreak of the First World War the majority of Royal Navy warships still burnt coal, with oil-fired warships still being in the minority by the end of the war (the first battleships to burn oil were the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class super-dreadnoughts, the first of which did not enter service until 1915).
Keeping them supplied with fuel was of the utmost importance. With most of the Royal Navy’s fleet based at Scapa Flow, the logistical difficulties of moving the coal from South Wales in the quantities required was exacerbated by the distance.
In peacetime, the coal was transported by rail to the nearest port and then sent by coastal shipping to the destination – this was common around Britain, as it was cheaper than sending it by rail all the way. But with the outbreak of war the threat to shipping from U-boats severely curtailed coastal trade, and coal trains would instead run through to the destination.
This put further strain upon the railways, which were already under immense pressure from the increased demands of the war, transporting men, horses and supplies; and later locomotives, wagons and even the rails themselves requisitioned to aid the war effort in France. To begin with, the colliers still plied their trade, travelling up the coast of Wales and across the Irish Sea then around the north of Scotland to Scapa Flow. Unsurprisingly, they were a tempting target for the U-boats, and although the colliers continued in service until the end of the war, sinkings of the vessels gradually increased reliance on the railways.
The Admiralty was prepared for this eventuality – as soon as war broke out an official was sent to South Wales to secure contracts for the supply of the coal, as well as hiring 4,000 railway wagons to supplement the colliers.
The trains – soon nicknamed ‘Jellicoe Specials’ after the commander of the Great Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe – were formed at Pontypool Road on the Great Western Railway, the wagons being gathered from the Aberdare and Rhondda areas, and marshalled into one train, which usually consisted of 40 wagons carrying 600 tons of coal in total.
The first ‘Jellicoe Special’ left Pontypool Road at 12.35am on August 27 1914 for the 375-mile journey to Grangemouth. It was specially signalled to give it as clear a run as possible, travelling via Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester to Warrington before handing over to an LNWR locomotive. From Warrington, the trains travelled via Preston to Carlisle, then onwards via either the Caledonian, the Glasgow & South Western or the North British railways.
Although other ports were initially used, after a year of war it was decided that Grangemouth would be the final destination for the trains, and from there the coal was put on colliers for the final leg to Scapa Flow. It may seem surprising that somewhere so relatively south in Scotland was chosen as the destination for the railway leg of the journey, and closer ports were considered, but Grangemouth was considered to have better facilities for handling the large amount of coal, and there was another factor that made more northerly locations less suitable…
Go wIth the flow
As early as 1905, Admiral Fisher had chosen Scapa Flow as the wartime base in the event of war with Germany, owing to its ideal location. But supplying the fleet does not appear to have been considered, and the Highland Railway could not have been less suited to handle such traffic. It was mainly geared towards seasonal passenger traffic for tourists in the summer, and curtailed its services and staff numbers in winter.
At first, it coped surprisingly well, but it was not long before it was in a bad way and had to borrow locomotives from other railways. The slow ‘Jellicoe Specials’ would have clogged up the line, which was mostly single track with passing loops, and was busy enough with naval passenger traffic heading north, as well as timber from the area’s forests being sent in both directions.
It is little wonder that the Naval specials, introduced in 1917 to transport naval personnel to Thurso, became known as ‘The Misery’ owing to the long and uncomfortable journey.
More and more wagons were hired by the Admiralty, two to three hundred at a time. By October 1915 the LNWR could not cope with all the ‘Jellicoe Specials’, as well as the other wartime traffic, and the route was modified. The GWR still took the trains to Warrington, but from here some would be diverted via Patricroft and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway to Normanton, then onto the East Coast Main Line on the North Eastern Railway, and Berwick-on-Tweed on the North British Railway.
By summer 1916 the NER was also asking for help. With coal forming such a large percentage of its traffic, the need to move coal by rail probably had a more severe effect on this company than any other. It was already shipping Admiralty coal to Newcastle (Admiralty coal traffic was by no means just heading to Scapa Flow from South Wales – Harwich, Immingham, Glasgow and Southampton also needed it, as well as the Tyne), and Yorkshire coal was being sent to Harwich for the naval force based there. From then on the ‘Jellicoe Specials’ were diverted from Warrington to Carlisle via Blackburn on the L&Y and Hellifield on the Midland Railway.
While other railways were struggling, the GWR continued to solely handle the ‘Jellicoes’ between Pontypool Road and Warrington, using its most powerful heavy goods locomotives – the ‘28XX’ 2-8-0s. The prototype (originally numbered 97 but later renumbered 2800) emerged in 1903 and production started in 1905, with 56 in service (including the prototype, and the nowpreserved Nos. 2807 and 2818) by the start of the war.
When the call came in 1917 for powerful eight-coupled locomotives for the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers on the Western Front (see pages 42-46) this put the GWR in a difficult position. Other railways were able to help, including those who handled the ‘Jellicoe Specials’, the LNWR sending a number of their 0-8-0s and the NER their entire 50-strong fleet of ‘T1’ 0-8-0s. GWR General Manager Frank Potter reported that it was “impossible to release any of the 2-8-0 class as they are employed exclusively on the Admiralty
coal traffic”. Instead they sent 11 of their newest ‘43XX’ 2-6-0s (including now-preserved No. 5322) to the ROD. Although smaller than an eight-coupled locomotive, with typical Swindon pride it declared that “the Great Western type of 2-6-0 engine is in point of power and efficiency practically equal to other Companies’ 0-8-0 engines”!
The journey to Grangemouth took just under 24 hours, with an average speed of under 8mph. Although to modern eyes this seems extremely slow, the constant procession of trains ensured that enough coal was available. In early 1918, 79 ‘Jellicoe Specials’ carrying a total of 32,000 tons of coal were running each week, but this was not enough and it was increased to 109 trains carrying 44,100 tons of coal per week.
These were organised as 15 planned trains per day over seven days, the remaining four being run wherever most convenient. This increase finally became too much for the hard-working GWR, and two more routes were implemented. One was from Cardiff to Gloucester, from where the Midland Railway would take the trains north; the other was via the Brecon & Merthyr and Cambrian Railways through Talyllyn and Moat Lane Junctions to join the GWR at Gobowen, then on to Warrington via Chester.
By December 31 1918, the total number of Admiralty coal trains run since their inception was 13,631, carrying an approximate total (based on the average of 40 wagons per train and 10 tons per wagon) of 5,452,400 tons of coal (see panel).
Although not glamorous, the ‘Jellicoe Specials’ and other Admiralty coal trains were a real success story. The administrative effort of making the journey as smooth as possible, especially over so many different routes, would have been incredible and it is one of the finest achievements of Britain’s railways that the world’s largest navy was never left wanting for coal.
HMS Bellerophon, a typical ‘Dreadnought’ of the Grand Fleet, was reliant on the ‘Jellicoe Specials’.
Still delivering the goods after more than 100 years… ‘28XX’ No. 2807, a locomotive that worked on the ‘Jellicoe Specials’, charges up the North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s 1‑in‑49 bank at Darnholm with a photo‑ charter organised by Matt Fisher on September 27 2014. The 1905‑built Churchward 2‑8‑0 was visiting from the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway for the NYMR’s autumn gala. ARMISTICE CENTENARY
A Royal Navy warship being coaled: a hard, dirty job and the advent of oil-fired warships meant crews much preferred the new way of ‘coaling through a hose’.
The only known image of a ‘Jellicoe Special’, with an LNWR 0-8-0 at its head. The location appears to be Shap, with a banking engine assisting at the rear.