The Daily Telegraph
Shedmaster of the King’s Cross ‘Top Shed’ who deftly managed engines and men in steam’s last days
PETER TOWNEND, who has died aged 98, contributed to the last great days of steam on the East Coast main line as shedmaster of King’s Cross’s famous “Top Shed”, in charge of a stable that included 40 Pacific (4-6-2) express locomotives mostly designed by Sir Nigel Gresley.
Appointed in 1956 when only 31, Townend secured levels of performance from the engines in his charge comparable with the diesels that supplanted them, and made a point of turning out a steam locomotive in prime condition when one of the diesels broke down. He fitted double chimneys and improved blast-pipes to streamlined A4 Pacifics, and gave them to his A3s, together with the German-style smoke deflectors that Flying Scotsman carries to this day.
A locomotive engineer who had joined the London & North Eastern Railway as a premium apprentice at the “Plant” in his native Doncaster, at “Top Shed” Townend had to manage a large workforce across two sites, from strong-willed drivers and their equally individualistic firemen to the Poles who kept the engines in immaculate condition and the West Indians who cleaned out the fireboxes.
Townend tested the engines he had improved by getting them to run trains empty of passengers at maximum speed. Once, so as not to impede his measurements, he kept the Queen of Scots express parked in a passing loop near Newark while trialling another train; passengers in the Pullman stuck their heads out to see who could be more important than them.
Townend’s organisational skills were tested to the limit with the arrangements for the wedding of the Duke of Kent and Katharine Worsley in York Minster in June 1961. The decision was taken at the highest level that all trains should be steam-hauled, and Townend laid on a Royal Train and two specials for VIPS all hauled by A4s, plus an A4-hauled reserve train in case one failed and a standby locomotive at Hitchin. Every train ran flawlessly.
Regretfully, he accepted that the days of steam were coming to an end. Years later he said: “People generally were not prepared to accept the dirt, grime and smoke associated with steam traction, and there were many menial unpleasant tasks that had to be carried out in primitive conditions at depots, which few men really wanted to do.” But he made sure his engines, and the men who crewed them, went out on a high.
Peter Norman Townend was born on August 13 1925; his parents were teachers and he attended Doncaster Grammar School. As a nine-year-old he was captivated by seeing the first, silver-liveried A4 streak through Doncaster with the inaugural Silver Jubilee express. In 1941, soon after Gresley’s death, he started work at the “Plant”, learning the essentials of locomotive engineering. The condition of many LNER engines in wartime did not impress him.
He worked in the drawing office at Doncaster, where he met his future wife, before transferring to the motive power department and moving to Liverpool Street, where he designed headboards for the East Coast expresses, including the Flying Scotsman.
Townend was then sent out as a relief to manage sheds across East Anglia. Appointments to Hatfield and March followed, then to Boston, where he performed so creditably that he was promoted, despite his youth, to manage Top Shed. It was a testing assignment; one of his first actions was to give a “rollicking” to a fireman who had derailed the tender of an A4 by changing a set of points in the shed without realising there was a lump of coal stuck in them.
In 1961, diesels took over from steam on the fastest trains out of King’s Cross. Townend kept charge of Top Shed until it closed in 1963, being demolished within a month. Managerial posts followed, operating from King’s Cross, but Townend was a steam man at heart and retired to Torquay in 1984.
A keen railway photographer who learnt his craft from Eric Treacy, Bishop of Wakefield, he wrote and edited books including Top Shed (1977) and LNER Pacifics Remembered (2014).
As early as 1959 Townend was involved in steam locomotive preservation, helping Capt Bill Smith secure from British Railways the former LNER J52 tank engine which is now in the National Railway Museum at York. In retirement Townend advised on the construction of the new-build A1 Pacific Tornado and the restoration of Flying Scotsman. One of his last actions was to get that engine’s steam delivery pipe straightened; it had been constructed in 1923 with five right-angle bends and no one had seen fit to change it.
One of his proudest moments came in 2016 when he was invited to a reunion of the seven surviving A4s – including the world speed record-holder Mallard, which had been under his charge. Townend reminisced: “I have seen the A4s as they were built and have ridden on them since the 1940s. I wanted to come and see them on display for a final time.”
Peter Townend married Daphne in 1950; he died the day after her funeral. He is survived by their son and daughter.