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 a Saint using a later development of the class, rescued from a scrapyard, as a donor locomotive for the boiler and frames.
When the Saint class began to appear at the dawn of the 20th century 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.
The last Saints were withdrawn and scrapped in 1953, long before the railway preservation movement was established.
No 2999 ‘Lady of Legend’ is a recreation of the Saint Class locomotive. The gap in the ‘line of succession’ created by the absence of a Saint in the GWS collection was identified early in the Society’s history and the Centre has long held an ambition to create a working Saint to help demonstrate the GWR story to its visitors. That ambition came to fruition in 2019 with the completion of a project, 45 years in the making, to build locomotive 2999 using parts from 4942 ‘Maindy Hall’ (one of the classes developed from the Saint design). No. 4942 had been purchased in the early 1970s with the specific purpose of recreating a Saint, by reversing the process the GWR had used in 1925 when the prototype Hall Class was produced by the conversion of ‘Saint Martin’, but early attempts floundered and the prospect of success remained a dream until 1995 when the project started in earnest.
For decades, the project had been considered beyond the capability of preservationists and prohibitively expensive. However, restoration of No. 6023 ‘King Edward II’, which among other things involved construction of a new driving wheel set, proved that the Society could successfully undertake major reconstruction and refurbishment projects, and the Saint Project was born.
Major new components include three new driving wheel sets, as the Halls had 6ft drivers while the high stepping Saints sported driving wheels of 6ft 8½in diameter. Two bogie wheel sets were cast to the correct 3ft 2in size and two identical ‘half’ cylinder blocks were cast to recreate the inside cylinders fed by a straight steam pipe that was integral to the Saint design. The lever reverse was also made from scratch while the frames from No. 4942 were extensively modified and strengthened. Many other components, including the boiler, were refurbished, while still more came from surviving parts from other GWR locomotives – further testament to the far-sighted Swindon practice of standardisation. Parts include a connecting rod from 2906 ‘Lady of Lynn’ and the whistle from 2910 ‘Lady of Shalott’ and the chimney from a 68XX Class.
The new locomotive has been numbered 2999, taking the next number in the sequence allocated to the Saints – the previous one, 2998 ‘Ernest Cunard’, having been outshopped in 1913! The winning entry in the competition to name the locomotive was ‘Lady of Legend’ as it evokes the GWR practice of naming early members of the class after mythological or historical ladies.
The recreated Saint has been built with straight frames so that it can also run as an Atlantic 4-4-2, as Churchward did in the 1900s. Rear extension frames have been constructed, trial fitted and placed into store.
The £825,000 project, funded entirely by donations and bequests, means that over a century since the previous member of the class was built, an example of Churchward’s iconic 20th Century design, which influenced almost all subsequent British steam development, is back on the rails to delight, inform and entertain 21st Century visitors.
The engineering excellence that went to create 2999 was recognised by the Heritage Railway Association in February 2020 when the project won the first-ever Chairman’s special prize at the organisation’s annual awards. The project was also 'Highly Commended' at the national Museums + Heritage awards in September 2020.
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.