‘HALL’ OF FAME
The 6989 Restoration Group has written itself into Barry folklore, reports TOBY JENNINGS.
No. 6989 Wightwick Hall – the 150th ex-Barry locomotive to be restored
It’s pronounced ‘Wittick’, not ‘White-wick’, as one might reasonably assume – or so the restorers of No. 6989 have been assured by local residents near its namesake, and other visitors who share Wightwick as a surname.
It’s important to get that straight now, because lots of people will be talking about this ‘Modified Hall’ pretty soon. Just over 40 years after it left Barry scrapyard, the Hawksworth 4-6-0 has set a landmark in railway preservation history. Of the 213 locomotives that were rescued from Dai Woodham’s famous yard, it is the 150th to return to steam.
SIGNED AND SEALED
As described last issue, your author’s battered, pencil-marked copy of The Barry List keeps track of every locomotive from that South Wales elephant’s graveyard that returns to steam, and after October 18, the grand total on its last page was reading ‘149 steamed – 80097 – 64 to go’.
On Wightwick Hall’s footplate on December 11, as the locomotive was making one of its first runs under its own steam at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, the magic ‘S’ was written next to the number 6989 in the list, and the total ceremoniously altered to ‘150 steamed – 6989 – 63 to go’.
Alan Vessey, one of two volunteers still with the 6989 Restoration Group who have been with the project since its inception, described the engine’s completion as “a dream come true… something I didn’t think I’d ever live to see, being aged 84!”
Yet ironically, had the group’s early and optimistic predictions come true, Wightwick Hall would have been closer to the 50th Barry restoration than the 150th. Or we could have been writing this article about an entirely different Western engine. The authentic GWR ‘150’ reporting number adorning Wightwick Hall’s smokebox door for its first moves was kindly loaned by the Great Western Society at Didcot. This turned out to be oddly appropriate, for Alan remembers that the original restoration team comprised “50% from Quainton Road and 50% Didcot men”, the latter led by Rod Thomas, a BR employee at Paddington and the 6989 Group’s first chairman.
They had originally been interested in ‘2884’ 2-8-0 No. 3803 (which, in the event, returned to steam at the South Devon Railway in 2006 and is now awaiting a further overhaul). But then they spotted the derelict, rusting hulk of Wightwick Hall.
“It was a sorry sight,” recalled Alan as he looked at the gleaming BR lined green machine simmering before him at Quainton Road. “It was black, streaked with rust and asbestos was bursting out of the boiler cladding.
“But now look at it – that’s through sheer perseverance!”
Jeff Jackson, who is writing a history of the epic restoration, takes up the story: “They discovered that the Bristol Suburban Railway Group [now the Avon Valley Railway] no longer wished to purchase No. 6989, so it could be ours for £5,000.
“The purchase of No. 3803 was therefore abandoned and a group was formed to raise the asking price for No. 6989. Some months later, as funds were steadily increasing, the asking price was raised to £8,500 owing to increased scrap metal values!
This large jump was beyond our means, so a loan was secured from Adrian Tucker of the 6024 Restoration Team and the Quainton Railway Society.
“Subsequently, having fought off a competing bid, representatives of the newly formed consortium comprising Rod Thomas, John Wood (who trained as an apprentice at Old Oak Common), Brian Wheeler (a BR (WR) Signal & Telegraph engineer) and Roy Oxendale, plus members of the original group, represented by Eric Miller, Chris Tayler, Alan Vessey and his son Robin, went back to Barry on January 8 1977 and Rod Thomas handed over a cheque for £9,180, including VAT, for No. 6989 and a tender to Dai Woodham.”
…AND FAKE NUMBERS
With the ‘Modified’ secured, the volunteers began working at Barry to protect it against the salty sea air from the Bristol Channel, and generally make it look more presentable. In the latter, at least, it seems they were successful.
In his book The Barry Locomotive Phenomenon, Peter Nicholson recounts: “The founder of the Barry Steam Locomotive Action Group’s Midlands group, Harry ‘H’ Barber, decided that an engine was not properly dressed without a chimney. After a few attempts he perfected his glass fibre replicas to such good effect that, when No. 6023 King Edward II was officially examined, the report read ‘chimney in position’
– as good an accolade as ‘H’ could hope for!”
Something very similar happened with Wightwick Hall, explains Jeff: “The group put a resin replica numberplate on No. 6989’s cabside to restore its identity.” The replica was so convincing that someone mistook it for the real thing and tried to steal it, he adds.
The next step was the move to Quainton Road but, says Jeff: “Having had to spend more than was expected on the purchase, limited funds dictated that the group could move either the tender or the engine, but not both. The decision as to which to move first was made for them when it was discovered that No. 6989’s bogie would have to be removed for the locomotive to fit on the low-loader.
“Further funds were raised and a visit made to Didcot Railway Centre to work out how best to remove the bogie from a ‘Hall’. The working party went back to Barry on January 8 1978 to remove the bogie and load the now 0-6-0 ‘Hall’. The tender had been collected on July 23 1977, arriving at Quainton the following day.
“No. 6989 was above the weight limit for the Severn Bridge (the second bridge was not built then), so the journey had to be made via Chepstow and Gloucester, with an overnight stop in Cheltenham.”
The haulage contractor was Mike Lawrence of Highbridge, who played a significant part in the Barry story – Wightwick Hall being the fifth of around 80 locomotives that he transported to their new homes. Recalls Jeff: “Not long afterwards, Mike invested in a new rig that could have accommodated the whole engine and saved us having to remove the bogie!”
From the very beginning of its life, Wightwick Hall was setting milestones; although completed under BR auspices on March 25 1948, it was the penultimate steam locomotive ordered by ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’ prior to nationalisation.
The gods were smiling on it for its first moves in preservation, too – a crisp and still winter’s day, with a cloudless sky in which the column of steam from its safety valves was visible some miles from Quainton.
In contrast, the engine’s unloading there on Tuesday January 10 1978 “was carried out in very unpleasant conditions. There was a black frost and bare hands would stick to the metal.”
On the previous “cold and damp Monday evening” when the low-loader arrived at Quainton, the press were also in attendance – a reporter from the local Bucks Herald. Asked for a statement, and with the eternal optimism of the preservationist, Eric ‘Dusty’ Miller – then the group’s chief fund-raiser – replied: “We paid more than £8,000 for her. Structurally she is very sound and the boiler is in good condition.
“It’ll take three to five years to complete the work.”
And so the work began – but it would take a great deal longer than three to five years.
There can’t be a Barry restoration project anywhere that has not had to track down components scattered to the four winds, but for Wightwick Hall, it seems that some are so near and yet so far.
As the ‘Modified’ gingerly inched its way into the history books under its own steam on December 11, it was just a few yards from Quainton’s Up side restoration shed. Here, some of the parts taken from it at Barry are thought to remain – but the group can no longer get at them.
Explains Jeff: “We found out in 2015 that some items were buried at Quainton as a precaution against theft because there was no effective control of entry to the site at that time. Unfortunately, the current team was not made aware of this and we suspect some components ended up in the foundations of the Up yard shed.”
From the very beginning of its life, Wightwick Hall was upholding the pride of the Great Western Railway. When turned out from a newly nationalised Swindon Works, instead of wearing BR’s new lined black livery, it was carrying the traditional green, albeit with ‘British Railways’ lettering on the tender.
Says Jeff: “Around February 1948, BR instructed Swindon Works that by the end of that week no more green paint was to be made in their paint factory. Five hundred gallons of Brunswick green was hurriedly made to beat this deadline and stored in unlabelled fivegallon drums. Once the drums were opened, they had to be used!”
The dedicated volunteers have also stuck to Swindon tradition. To ensure accurate reproductions of the nameplates, Alan Vessey recalls how the engine’s namesake hall near Wolverhampton
– a special needs school since 1956 – allowed him to “climb up onto one of their sideboards” to take a brass rubbing of the original nameplate displayed on the wall.
The brass beading on the resulting replica ‘plates was made by Swindon coppersmith Trevor Tremblin – but, despite appearances, the letters are neither brass nor copper, but gunmetal. Charlie Jones, the group’s chief engineer, assures us that this was “not uncommon” at Swindon.
A TALE OF TWO TENDERS
From the very beginning of its life, there seem to have been odd parallels of history for Wightwick Hall. Perhaps it was always meant to be the 150th Barry restoration.
During November and December 1959, when allocated to Worcester, it worked in turns with classmate No. 6984 Owsden Hall on the ‘Cambrian Coast Express’ between Shrewsbury and Wolverhampton – and 60 years later it is currently coupled to a Collett 4,000-gallon tender hired from Owsden Hall, whose own restoration from Barry condition is nearing completion at the Swindon & Cricklade Railway.
Wightwick Hall’s own tender is still to be completed; the one with which it entered Barry was bought by the GWS for No. 5051 Drysllwyn Castle, so the 6989 Group acquired tender No. 2825, which was last paired with No. 7927 Willington Hall.
With former ‘Barry Ten’ engine Willington Hall now dismantled to provide parts for the new ‘Grange’ and ‘County’, it’s heartening to know that its tender will still feed coal and water to another ‘Modified Hall’. But to finish said tender, the group still needs £20,000 – so the fund-raising efforts are not over yet.
Chris Tayler is the group’s other longest-serving volunteer, having been its treasurer for all of those 40 years – but he pays tribute to his wife Ann, who runs the group’s sales coach and who, he estimates, “has raised two-thirds of the funds”.
“It goes to show what a group without big financial backing can do,” he says. Charlie adds: “The only backers have been our own members – and at times there’s only been four or five of us.”
Chris’s son Mike, who was aged seven when the group was formed, concludes: “We’ve not totted up the cost as we would scare ourselves.”
Over the 50 years (and counting) of the Barry story, many have criticised the collective effort to buy so many locomotives from the legendary scrapyard, on the grounds that all it achieved was to scatter its contents across the country in dozens of ‘mini-Barrys’, where the wrecks continue to rot in sidings without the finance or manpower to restore them. Which makes it all the more fitting that Wightwick Hall should set the landmark of the 150th Barry restoration, and that Quainton Road should be the location.
For in its early days, Alan recalls, the centre “was always known as the ‘Barry of Buckinghamshire’,” with Wightwick Hall, ‘72XX’ 2-8-2T No. 7200, No. 6024 King Edward I, ‘West Country’
No. 34016 Bodmin and BR ‘4MT’ 2-6-0 No. 76017 all gathered there in various stages of restoration… or receiving no attention at all.
“But we’ve outlived those days,” he continues, observing how all of those locomotives have been returned to steam – with the exception of No. 7200.
In the centre’s Down side restoration shed, just a stone’s throw from where Wightwick Hall made its first moves, that heavy freight tank is now at an advanced stage of restoration – and the impressive ‘72XXs’ are the last class rescued from Barry of which we have still to see an example steam in preservation.
More than 50 years after the first acquisition from Barry, the legacy of Dai Woodham’s yard continues. We are still achieving historic milestones – and there are more to come.
On the main line again? It almost looks that way as Wightwick Hall runs gently along the Up side demonstration line at Quainton Road on December 11.
On the footplate of a moving Wightwick Hall, the locomotive is ‘signed off’ as having returned to steam in The Barry List.
The graffiti conveys new hope for a forlornlooking Wightwick Hall at Barry in 1977, sandwiched between rebuilt and original Bulleid ‘Pacifics’. The 6989 numberplate on the cabside is the resin replica referred to in the text.
The BR traffic notice for No. 6989’s movement to Barry in 1964.
The Quainton Railway Society’s receipt for the purchase of Wightwick Hall – although interestingly, it does not specify which locomotive they had bought.