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.

Steam Railway (UK) - - GALLERY -

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.

spe­CIal mea­sures

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.

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