The most important steam locomotive design of the early 20th century has been re-created at Didcot Railway Centre and will be launched by Prue Leith on Friday 5 April at 11 am.
The Saint class locomotives were introduced by the Great Western Railway (GWR) from 1902. They served for half a century, but all were scrapped by 1953. The Great Western Society (GWS) has rebuilt at Didcot, a Saint using a later development of the class, rescued from a scrapyard, as a donor locomotive for the boiler and frames.
Prue Leith was a member of British Rail’s hotel company board, appointed by British Railways Board (BRB) chairman, Peter Parker, in the mid 1970s.
From there she graduated to the main British Railways Board where she recalled: “Peter chivvied me to be bolder, to complain more loudly about BR’s hopeless record on equal opportunities, to make my weight felt.”
The name of the locomotive Prue Leith is to launch on 5 April? Lady of Legend.
When Lady of Legend’s sister locomotives of the Saint class began to appear at the dawn of the 20thcentury they represented a step change from what had gone before, reflecting the change at the head of the British empire which took place at the same time.
The staid Queen Victoria whose reign set the tone for 19th century Britain was succeeded in 1901 by her louche son King Edward VII. The Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian decade.
An equally dramatic regime change took place at the same time on the GWR when locomotive superintendent William Dean retired in 1902 and was succeeded by his assistant, George Jackson Churchward, who had revolutionary ideas on locomotive design.
Dean had been in charge since 1877 and his locomotives conformed to Victorian expectations with driving wheels and working parts hidden behind outside frames and inside cylinders. This mirrored the Victorian fashion dictate of ladies hiding their legs behind long skirts.
In a quest for efficiency Churchward had studied locomotive design in the USA and brought many of the New World’s practices home with him. The new Saint class locomotives were brashly transatlantic with large driving wheels fully exposed, outside cylinders, and coupling and connecting rods pumping for all to see.
Public opinion was scandalised, accustomed as it was to the beautiful locomotives of the 19th century decorated with lovingly polished brass and copper. Just one or two sets of driving wheels sufficed in Dean’s era, but Churchward’s austere-looking Saint class had three sets to cope with heavier trains. Passengers were now expecting trains to offer dining cars, corridors and toilets, all of which added weight for locomotives to pull.
The performance of Churchward’s new locomotives did not go unnoticed among other railway companies, who adopted many of his innovations, including the long-travel valves which let steam in and out of the cylinders more efficiently.
The Saint class ushered in a period of standardisation on the GWR that lasted nearly 50 years until the railway were nationalised in 1948. This unprecedented half century of design continuity makes the locomotive collection at Didcot Railway Centre all the more worthy of study, representing as it does most of the classes from that era.
These locomotives became part of the GWR brand, with their familiar Brunswick green livery, copper-capped chimneys and brass safety valve covers. The new Lady of Legend now fills an important missing link in that brand.