Pe­tit ‘Ps’

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.

Steam Railway (UK) - - ‘JELLICOE SPECIALS’ -

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.


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.

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