Living Museum of the Great Western Railway

Home » BLOGS - Going Loco

Going Loco

BLOG - Facts and stories about GWR locomotives & rolling stock

With a collection of locomotives and rolling stock dating from Victorian times to the 1960s, there's plenty to discover.


Latest Blogs

23 FEBRUARY 2024

Centenaries - As Far As The Eye Can See…

No 4079 Pendennis Castle turns 100 this year. We have a special event to celebrate it on 2 and 3 March – why not come along to celebrate?! We had another century event last year, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the first Castle class locomotive – No 4073 Caerphilly Castle – being completed. There is another centenary next year – that of No 4079’s domination on the LNER / GWR locomotive interchange trials and her attendance at the Empire Exhibition in 1925. Plans for an event here are afoot too .… That’s a lot of centenary celebrations. But we aren’t the first to celebrate a centenary on the Great Western.

Signwriters painting carriage roof destination boards for the rebranded Cornish Riviera Limited and the new Cornishman trains. Photograph published in Great Western Railway Magazine, July 1935 edition

The Great Western celebrated their own centenary in 1935. There were a whole host of events that were conceived to celebrate this and promote the fact that they were basically still the same railway company that had been set up in the 1830s. A remarkable record in anyone’s book. A banquet was held in Grosvenor House Hotel in London for 1,100 people. There were a whole host of updates to reflect the forward looking nature of the company and the Art Deco design movement. Its sweeping streamlined lines, geometric patterns and polished metal and chrome defined the age and had become all the rage on the railways of the U.K. at the time.

The complete ten-coach Centenary Cornish Riviera Limited, alongside the river Teign in Devon. Photograph in the Great Western Trust collection

We have already had a look at the only surviving Centenary coach, No 9635, which is in our collection, so why don’t we take a look at how the Great Western themselves celebrated their 100th birthday way back in 1935. Our source is the Great Western Railway Magazine via our legendary image and information guru, Photo Frank …

The magazine’s July 1935 edition introduced the new timetable for the summer holiday period:

“With the constantly increasing holiday traffic to Cornwall an entirely revised schedule has become necessary, and in this connection the ever-popular and widely-known Cornish Riviera express enters a new phase in its history. The traffic attracted to this famous service has, in past summers, severely taxed the carrying capacity of one train, and to meet the heavy requirements a companion express will be introduced, the two trains to be known, respectively, as The Cornish Riviera Limited and The Cornishman.

The Centenary Cornish Riviera Limited crossing St Austell viaduct in July 1935. Photograph published in Great Western Railway Magazine, August 1935 edition

“The Cornish Riviera Limited will leave Paddington at 10.30 am and Penzance at 10.0 am, and will carry reserved seat passengers only. From Mondays to Fridays it will run non-stop in each direction between Paddington and Truro (279 miles) and convey passengers for and from Truro, Falmouth, St Ives, and Penzance only. On Saturdays, the non-stop run from London will be extended to St Erth (299 miles), and the train will serve St Ives and Penzance only, passengers for Falmouth and Helston travelling by a relief express, leaving Paddington at 10.25 am.

“The Cornishman will cater for intermediate traffic not served by The Cornish Riviera Limited. It will run each week-day, and it virtually becomes the train it is designed to relieve. The down train will leave Paddington at 10.35 am and carry passengers for Newquay, St Erth, Helston, Penzance (due at 5.7 pm), and other Cornish stations. The up train will start at 10.20 am from St Erth, and call at Gwinear Road, Truro, Par, and Plymouth, from which point it will run without intermediate stop to Paddington, where it will be due at 4.50 pm.”

An O gauge model, by Kenard, of Centenary first class dining saloon and kitchen. This is one of a complete rake of Cornish Riviera Limited O gauge coaches recently donated to Didcot Railway Centre. The original of this vehicle is stored in the carriage shed at Didcot

Then the next month, the magazine described the carriages:

“The New Great Western Railway Cornish Riviera Trains

“The article on the Great Western Railway summer service in the July issue of the Magazine intimated that an important new passenger train, The Cornish Riviera Limited, would be put into service on 8 July, leaving Paddington at 10.30 am – the same time as the former Cornish Riviera Express. The rolling stock comprising this train has been constructed in the Company’s Swindon works. It is of a new style and reaches a very high standard in travelling comfort and amenities.

The kitchen side of the Kenard model of the Centenary diner. Note the five circular gas tanks in the underframe, for cooking

“There are in due course to be two such trains, providing a daily service in each direction. At the moment only one has been delivered, confining the use of the new stock from the London direction to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the return journey of the new coaches being made on the alternate days. The new Cornish Riviera Limited carries booked seat passengers only, and runs non-stop to Truro* (279 miles) on weekdays, except Saturdays, when the down train makes its first stop at St Erth*, 299 miles from Paddington.

“Each of the new trains consists of ten coaches of the following formation:

• Brake Compo 36 seats
• Brake Compo 36
• Third Class 56
• Brake Third 16
• First and Third Class Compo 48
• First Class Saloon and Kitchen 24
• Third Class Dining Saloon 64
• Third Class 56
• Third Class 56
• Brake Third 16

The interior of the first class dining saloon in the Centenary diner, as built. Photograph published in Great Western Railway Magazine, August 1935 edition

“All the vehicles are 60 ft long and 9 ft 7 in wide, and have vestibule entrances with over hanging bow ends, which reduce the length of the gangway between the vehicles. The bodies are constructed with fire-proof floors and are completely encased with steel plating. They are carried on massive steel underframes mounted on pressed steel bogies of an improved design, which give very steady riding. The first class compartments are panelled in light quartered oak and walnut, with oval mirrors, and upholstered in various colour schemes in blue, green, and brown. The third class compartments are panelled in gaboon mahogany and walnut, with oval mirrors, the upholstery being in brown moquette.

Interiors of the first class and third class dining bays in the Centenary trains. Photographs published in Great Western Railway Magazine, August 1935 edition

“The windows throughout the train are of extra large size, of the drop type, and are fitted with rayon curtains. The floor covering is of linoleum laid on felt, with carpets and rugs to match the upholstery. Accommodation for twenty-four passengers is provided in the first class restaurant car, which is finished in light quartered oak and walnut. The saloon seats are of the fixed pattern; they are upholstered in brown repp, and have loose, spring-filled cushions.

A Kenard O gauge model of a Centenary brake composite coach. This has a guard’s and luggage compartment on the left, then two first class compartments (blue curtains) and three third class compartments. Note the subtle difference in the widths between the windows of the first class compartments and the third class, giving more space in first. Following habits at the time, first class has one smoking and one no smoking compartment (triangular label), while third class has two smoking and one no smoking

“The kitchen, which is separated from the pantry by a serving vestibule, is lined with stainless steel sheeting and equipped with gas stove, plate warmer, and hot water circulator for supplying hot water to the sinks in the kitchen and pantry. Two refrigerator cup boards are fitted, being cooled by an electrically- operated refrigerating plant carried under the coach. The pantry contains accommodation for the storage of china, cutlery, etc, in addition to wine cupboards, sinks, and serving tables.

The arrival of the St Ives portion of the Cornish Riviera Limited is formed with one of the brake composite coaches. The small road motor (GWR terminology for buses) is to take passengers to the Tregenna Castle Hotel. The photograph was published in the Great Western Railway Magazine, September 1939 edition, titled “Literally at the seaside”

“The third class dining saloon, which is panelled in gaboon mahogany and walnut, accommodates 64 passengers, tip-up spring seats being arranged in groups of four on either side of the centre corridor. Passengers using this service will readily appreciate that they have accommodation fitting to the dignity of a new Cornish Riviera express which, in its performance, adds lustre to an already great tradition.”

The Cornish Riviera Limited in Sonning cutting behind No 6022 King Edward III. Photograph published in Great Western Railway Magazine, July 1936 edition

Don’t you just love the language used in these old publications?! We of course are going to celebrate No 4079’s 100 by making some steam and noise, marketing a new beer and trying to gather 100 different Castle related items together including models, souvenirs and original nameplates being specially displayed from the Great Western Trust’s collection. Sounds like fun and I hope you can join us. The link for booking tickets can be found by clicking here:

Thanks once again to Photo Frank and we will see you again next time!

* Although the train was advertised at non-stop, there was a stop, not at a station, for the engines to be changed after the four-hour journey from Paddi

16 FEBRUARY 2024

The Other McAlpine Engine at Didcot

We have a famous locomotive that has the very great fortune to be associated with that towering figure of railway preservation – Sir William McAlpine. He of course was once the owner of our very own No 4079 Pendennis Castle. He also owned No 4472 Flying Scotsman at one point too, but one of the locomotives less well known that was owned by Sir William is an engine that was part of his family firm of engineers. She has sadly reached the end of her current boiler certificate.

No 31 climbing the 1in 13 gradient at Fawley Hill

Thankfully, the overhaul was tendered for and won by our contractors Pete and Ali at Didcot. An agreement with the Great Western Society followed swiftly after as to the use of the works at Didcot as well. The strong links between Fawley Hill and Didcot are quite apparent and there are several volunteers that serve at both railways. The fact that the two venues are relatively close geographically also means that the Fawley volunteers are able to come and work on the loco.

A close up of the compensated suspension

No 31 has amazingly been owned by a McAlpine in one way or another since her construction. She was ordered from Hudswell Clarke way back in 1913. By then the company had been in existence for about 53 years, having been founded in 1860. They had been known variously as Hudswell and Clarke, Hudswell, Clarke and Rodgers (1870), Hudswell, Clarke and Company (1881) and finally became a limited company in 1899.

They weren’t just a locomotive builder either. They worked on prototypes of compartment boats which were an early form of freight carrying inland waterway vessels. Mining equipment was also in their inventory including pit props and other hardware. They ended up being responsible for constructing the casings for munitions in WWII and even post-war nuclear weapons such as the Blue Danube and parts for the Centurion main battle tanks.

During No 31’s previous visit to Didcot, in 2019, she is climbing the coal stage – not so steep as her home incline at Fawley!

On the railway front, they were limited in standard gauge at least to the smaller and industrial scale machines. 0-6-0 and 0-4-0 designs being the most common. This they did successfully for many years. They also built diesel locomotives that were used in a variety of industrial scenarios including underground in the mining industry. They built a range of narrow gauge machines, both steam and diesel. One of the most famous of the diesel versions are those that still operate today on the 20” gauge Scarborough North Bay Railway and the 21” gauge Pleasure Beach Railway at Blackpool. These are unusual in that they look externally like main line steam locomotives. They are in fact diesel hydraulic machines and are amongst the earliest versions of this power train in use on UK railways.

No 31 is a small, 0-6-0 saddle tank contractor’s locomotive that is typical of the designs of the early twentieth century. She is simple, rugged and easy to look after as suits this purpose. One of the remarkable features of the engine is the suspension. It is fully compensated and when you watch her go along you get the feel that she would go over a ploughed field! If you are watching her as she moves, it is much like watching the suspension on an off-road vehicle. Every bump is soaked up effortlessly and the ride from the cab, even at the maximum permissible preserved line speeds, is very smooth.

No 31 with Port Talbot Railway No 813, also built by Hudswell Clarke, at Didcot in 2019

She has Stephenson valve gear as is typical in industrial locomotive design, operating valves for two inside cylinders which are 15” diameter by 20” stroke. She has 3’ 7” diameter driving wheels and a tractive effort of 14,232 lbs force. Not bad for a little engine that weighs no more than 26 tons. Another remarkable feature of the engine is the efficiency and effectiveness of her braking system. This loco always performs incredibly well in this regard which is very fortunate when you consider that she works the steepest adhesion worked incline that we know of at Fawley Hill – an amazing 1:13 at its toughest!

No 31 working Santa Specials at Didcot in December 2019, and displaying the 81M shed code plate

No 31 was originally ordered by the Ministry of Fuel and Power but was delivered when completed to the Robert McAlpine & Sons depot at Cuffley in the southeast of Hertfordshire between Cheshunt and Potters Bar. She was painted in the company livery of Caledonian Blue which she was to remain in for her entire working life. She was used on a series of famous construction projects in her time. The Empire Exhibition and Stadium Complex at Wembley (1923-1924), RAF Boscombe Down (1944) and Llanwern Steelworks (1960-1961) were just a few examples. She was sent back to her builders in 1938 and the engine was extensively rebuilt. One of the biggest visual changes was the swapping of the saddle tank from a squarer original to the curved version she has today.

No 31 worked until 1961, after which she was put into store at the McAlpine yard at Hayes, west London. She went on the scrapping list in 1965 and that should have been that if it were not for a certain member of the McAlpine Family – The Hon William (as he then was) – spotting the engine and her plight. Like so many things railway, she was delivered to Fawley in September 1965 to be preserved. There wasn’t much of a railway at Fawley at the time and the solution to get the engine to her new home was nothing short of cartoon-like.

On 28 January 2024, No 31 was briefly coupled to Pendennis Castle when being shunted into the Lifting Shop

Remember if you will, that bit in the fantastic Wallace and Gromit film The Wrong Trousers – the bit when the train is going along the floor. Gromit is desperately laying track ahead of it to allow it to continue.

In a similar action, No 31 ventured off across the fields of the Fawley Estate on a couple of track panels. Rolling from the first to the second, the first then moved from behind to in front, and the whole process repeated until she was safe and sound! She was also repainted into Sir William’s favourite livery of GWR Middle Chrome Green with all the lining, a livery that has remained with her to this day. The shed at Fawley was also given its own shed code in the same style as the British Railways codes in use at the time. 81 was used as the number, as Fawley is near Henley-on-Thames and this puts it in the London Division of the former Great Western*. The letter code could only be M for McAlpine though. Thus she proudly carries the 81M shed code plate to this day.

On 3 February 2024, with the tank lifted off the boiler, Leigh Drew (left) Didcot’s Locomotive Manager is with three volunteers from Fawley Hill Museum, left to right Tim Breeze, Nigel Parker and Di Breeze

She needs a thorough inspection and will get a boiler overhaul and will be thoroughly inspected mechanically and repaired as well. She is also long overdue for a repaint and if there’s anywhere she is likely to come out of the works in Great Western Livery, I suppose it’s Didcot! The engine has had a thorough boiler washout using our high pressure gear and is being dismantled in order for the inspection and overhaul to commence. I will keep you up to date with the progress of this historic machine.

*The same as Didcot which was 81E under BR.

09 FEBRUARY 2024

Let’s Watch the Trailers

Given that we are on the build up to the return of the pioneer Great Western Society locomotive, No 1466, I thought we had better watch the trailers. They come before the main show, right? I am of course not referring to the lurid advertisements of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster. I’m referring of course to auto-trailers. Depending upon how you look at it, we either have three or four in the collection at Didcot. We will explain that in a future chat .…

No 92 as first seen by preservationists, in use as a mess room at Cardiff docks

The first Great Western Railway auto-trailer was built in 1903. They were built in the matchboard style with the sides of the coach made up of thin, vertical planks of wood. They also had Dean type centreless bogies. This meant that the wheeled trucks under each end of the vehicle were supported on arms sticking out of the sides of the body rather than on a central pin. It is thought that these early vehicles were to be used with the then new steam railmotors of the same design then being built at Swindon.

No 92 had to be lifted and turned through 90 degrees to be reunited with the track before movement for preservation

The design of both the railmotors and their associated trailers progress with the technology and styles of the time. The match boarding went out early on and was replaced with the more familiar wood-panelled style. The sides were covered with a sheet of wooden panelling and where the joins occurred, wooden mouldings were fixed. This gave their outsides an intricate and complex appearance, enhanced by lining out.

No 92 at Taunton in 1976

The centreless bogies also gave way fairly early on, too. The centre pin variety being much easier to produce and maintain. The diagram U coaches, of with our very own No 92 is a member, sported what was known as the ‘American’ bogies. These were, not unsurprisingly, based on American practice of the time and employed a clever equalising beam arrangement to supply the suspension. They were available in both 8 or 9 feet wheelbase versions although the latter was more typical for trailers.

After the award of a Heritage Lottery grant for restoration of the railmotor and trailer, they moved to Llangollen for the work to be carried out. 92 is nearer the camera, 93 is under the green cover

By the time No 92 was built in September 1912, the designs had in some versions grown in size too. The railmotors and trailers were now 70 feet long and 9 feet wide. The internal layout became fairly standard. Going from the end that attached to the locomotive, there was usually a luggage compartment, a small seating area, the passenger doors, a large passenger compartment and then the driver’s cab at the far end. The seats in the diagram U trailers were of the tram or walkover type that could be easily rearranged so that the passengers could sit in the direction of travel.

The SMU (Steam Multiple Unit) coupled together for the first time at Llangollen in April 2013, after restoration. The train can be driven either from the railmotor, or the cab at this end of No 92

An unusual feature of the diagram Us was the fact that they had corridor connections at the locomotive end of the coach. In theory this enabled them to be coupled to railmotors also so equipped but this was not done very often as railmotors thus equipped were even rarer! The corridor connections were not for the convenience of passengers, but allowed the guards through to check tickets.

Coupling 92 and 93 together, showing the corridor connection at the end of 92

They were all gas lit from new, although the march towards the elimination of gas lighting on the railway caught up with No 92 in October 1931. These trailers were very long lived and lasted well beyond the demise of their railmotor partners who were all gone pretty much by the mid 1930s.

Showing off the gas lights (now converted to electricity) while in a tunnel on the Llangollen Railway

As they aged, their beautiful panelling became somewhat compromised in some cases. As the sections became damaged or deteriorated, they were unceremoniously replaced with plain steel panels. This could make these grand old vehicles look decidedly down at heel.

Inside No 92 at Didcot Railway Centre

The diagram U trailers began to be withdrawn in the mid 1950s but the last one in service, No 91, lasted into the early 1960s. Our example, No 92, was condemned in January 1957 and that should have been that but it was used as a mess room for staff from GKN at Cardiff Docks. From here it was noticed by members of the Great Western Society and eventually purchased in 1969.

The SMU passing Radstock signal box at Didcot Railway Centre

It moved from Cardiff to Swindon initially but migrated to the depot at Taunton in 1972 and thence to Didcot in 1977. It was cosmetically restored from then and used as staff accommodation. Eventually, the idea to rebuild the railmotor came to the fore and as part of the Heritage Lottery application, it was proposed to rebuild No 92 as the perfect partner to Railmotor No 93. The numbers are even sequential – clearly it was meant to be! No 92 now serves as a fantastic reminder of those early auto trailers and is a unique survivor of its type. To step on board is to step back in time and that’s exactly our aim at Didcot. Mission accomplished!

The SMU passing Radstock signal box

The auto-trailer that isn’t an auto-trailer next time .…

02 FEBRUARY 2024

The Lucky Thirteen

We talked about No 1363 a LONG time ago in Going Loco. Some of the earliest blogs were on this engine * and while we have covered quite a bit of the engine’s history since she was built in 1910, the current restoration and overhaul has escaped us. Until now .…

1363 taking water in the snow, 1 January 1979

The locomotive hasn’t been steamed since the early 1980s. She was also nearly a century old when the current overhaul started so she has been through a thing or two .… As she hadn’t been touched in so long, she really was an unknown quantity both structurally and mechanically. Only stripping her down would reveal the extent of the work required to bring her back to life. Let’s just say, the answer was that there was a fair bit to do .…

Part of the original frames (upside down) after being cut away, showing the corroded state

The first bit noticed was the fact that the main frames and practically everything else around the cab area was in pretty poor condition. Most of the metal here looked exactly like it was a century old. The steel was thin and dented. Certainly no longer capable of being part of an operational steam locomotive. This rot went right down to the main frames of the engine. In places these were wasted through corrosion to less than half of their original thickness. Considering that this section is where the main brake shaft and the drag box where the coupling to the train goes, it’s an area that needs to be fairly durable .…

Riveting the replacement section of frames

The rear three feet of the frames were replaced in the end. The only major parts that were reused here were the cab steps and the fittings such as the buffers, vacuum pipes, brake shaft and so on. The rest is all new. This replacement programme has continued up from the rear frames. The bunker, in its entirety, was also very badly wasted. The bunker itself had a huge crease in it from a coming together with another rail vehicle sometime in the dim and distant past. The cab floor was in an equally poor condition too and has also been replaced. The cab sides and the front are the originals however. The sanding mechanism was also in pretty poor condition and has been overhauled throughout. The front drag box had been repaired a few times and was no longer fit for service. This is also now new.

The new part of the outer firebox throatplate being welded

The boiler has needed extensive repairs. The lower sections of the steel outer firebox were thinned to beyond acceptable limits and have been cut out. The process for doing this is quite involved. The tricky bit here being that the side panels are on top of the front and rear panels. This means that you have to remove a small portion of the side panel each end to get the front and rear sections off. The remains of the side panels hold the inner firebox and foundation ring in position while the new sections are welded in front and rear. These are then riveted in place and the remains of the side panels cut away and new sections welded in and riveted back together. It’s quite the job .…

The lower part of the throatplate in position, with the welded joint

A number of stays (the things that hold the inner and outer firebox together and prevent the plate work bending under the pressure) have needed replacement as well as the front tube plate. This is the flat panel at the front end of the boiler and, as its name suggests, it has holes for the boiler tubes and a few other items in it.

The crown stays are being replaced. They are caulked, then nutted, but to take account of the shape of the firebox, spacers are fitted between the nuts and firebox top

Each spacer is individually shaped and identified for its position with a code of numerals and dots. The spacers are cast in bronze and two of them have been polished for this portrait

The front tubeplate being marked out by Pete Gransden

Mechanically, the engine was also very tired. The list of parts refreshed or replaced is extensive. The main wheel bearings were the start of it all so that she could sit back on her wheels again. Whilst the wheels were out, the tyres were turned to restore the flange profile back to standard. All of the other white metal bearing surfaces have been replaced. This means the cross heads, the rod bearings and so on. The pins that hold the rare Allen straight link valve motion together were all renewed and the die blocks replaced too. The slide valves were found to be in good condition but the pistons required new rings to be manufactured and fitted.

One of the crossheads stamped with the loco’s number

The cylinders were still in good order and the overhaul uncovered the fact that the cylinders on the engine are not a matching pair. It is thought that one of them is a replacement that is of the same design as the later pannier version of the design. The upshot of this is that despite there being a 1361 class locomotive in preservation, there is only one surviving cylinder to that design! No 1363 also needed to have her suspension overhauled. The team found that there were several pins and other parts that were seized in place and required some quite determined removal(!). All of the pins were replaced and the springs were sent away to be remanufactured back to their original tolerances.

The new cab roof being fitted by Angus Pottinger (left) and Chris Handby (right)

The final big item for the overhaul will be the saddle tank itself. This is what makes the locomotive unique. She is the only saddle tank built at Swindon to survive in preservation. The problem with the tank is that it is quite a complex design with a series of overlapping and highly curved steel plates. An investigation carried out by cutting out a section known to be too thin has shown that the lower tank is in far worse condition than the upper section. The team working on her have a plan, but it’s not going to be a simple repair.

1363’s chassis outside the engine shed on 28 January 2024, with the cab sides and roof and the new bunker fitted

The team working on her have had made amazing progress recently and a project that took a back seat for a number of years while Castles, Saints and Kings ** were completed. It’s now time for this plucky survivor to come to the fore. It will be a great day when ‘the big thirteen’ steams again and she will be a fantastic thing to see. The oldest Swindon-built engine in our collection. A genuine machine produced in the white heat of Churchward’s technological advances and yet a strange anachronism in that she was based on a design that went back over 50 years when she was built.

1363’s chassis with the boiler alongside on its trolley, outside the engine shed during a rearrangement of the lifting shop and loco works on 28 January 2024

She is a lot of things to a lot of people, but the one thing she definitely is, is a rare insight into the small engines of the Great Western before the era of dominance of the pannier tank.

* 24 April 2020 and 12 June 2020

** Our little 0-6-0T King George, not the other one!

26 JANUARY 2024

Wonderful Winter Wagons: Something smells fishy

It’s been a January of specific goods traffic hasn’t it? We’ve done China Clay, Grain and now it’s time to take a deep dive into the piscatorial goods that gave us tadpoles and bloaters and gave rise to one of the most famous stories in the Reverend Awdry’s Railway series – the legend of The Flying Kipper.

Two fish wagons are in the foreground of this scene of broad gauge wagons at Swindon in 1892 after the 7ft 0¼in gauge was finally abolished. Great Western Trust photograph

The movement of fish by rail opened up whole new markets for the trade of this food that we now think of as everyday. Before the railways, the transport of fresh fish was limited by how far you could go before it spoiled. In a world without refrigeration, especially in hot weather, it wasn’t that far. You could of course cure the fish in salt or some other preservative, but that’s just not the same as having the fish fresh.

A Tadpole fish wagon with guard’s compartment in the centre. Photograph: Trainiac by Creative Commons

It was the fast, cross-country nature of the railways that first made the transportation of fresh fish possible to consumers a long distance from the port of capture. Thank the railways for the proliferation of your fish and chips country wide for example. Of course, having your fish bump along in the 25mph unfitted freight trains of the steam era kind of negates the advantage of fast moving fish traffic, so even in the earliest days of specialised GWR fish wagons, they were fitted with larger diameter wheels and vacuum brakes. This meant they could run at passenger train speeds.

Front page of fish traffic regulations, 1912: note section 3 which refers to fish vehicles fitted with brakes and guard’s compartments. Great Western Trust collection GWT/2015/D.15

Separate vehicles were needed of course because of the smell. This meant that they were invariably coupled at the rear of the train so the smell was wafted downwind of any passengers that might be in the coaches. The surprising thing about these wagons was that they were open wagons, not covered vans. The fish was packed in barrels or boxes with either salt or ice. These open fish trucks were quite large affairs. They were built like coaches and indeed were converted old coaches in many cases. They could be six wheeled or even eight wheeled with two bogies. Being built on old chassis, there wasn’t a huge amount of standardisation in the designs.

Bloater A No 2123 fitted with both air and vacuum brakes for through traffic over other railway companies. Photograph: Phil Kelley collection

These were odd vehicles for many reasons. The weirdest being that some of them contained a guard’s compartment in the middle of the wagon. Quite what this did to the olfactory well-being of the poor guard was not recorded but given that some of the old coaches were brake coaches, it made perfect sense to maintain all the equipment in there and box over to provide a shelter for the guard. These bizarre specimens were given the telegraphic code TADPOLE. This name was later applied to all the large open fish wagons. This rather motley collection of vehicles was present in both the broad gauge and the later standard gauge Great Western and have a hugely complex history in which some of the wagons were re-gauged from broad to standard, some shared diagram numbers as scrapping or reorganisation occurred. This is far too much for a Going Loco blog so I think we’ll turn out the light on the TADPOLES and quietly back out of the room .…

A part of the timetable for fish traffic by passenger train from South Wales ports to destinations around Britain, September 1924. The whole document unfolds to 16 inches square and lists arrival times at 250 stations. Great Western Trust collection GWT/GWS/3761

Fish vans didn’t happen on the Great Western until 1909. These early fish vans were smaller vehicles that looked not unlike the equivalent MINK four wheeled covered goods vans being developed in the same era. The beginning of the longer wheelbase fish vans happened during WWI. These had all the features that were to be seen on the later vehicles. There were step boards so you could climb into the van from the ground. You had sliding doors to allow easy and fast access. Time was freshness don’t forget. They had roof ventilators instead of the end ventilators of the MINK style wagons. They became known as BLOATERS.

Cover of booklet published 1927 by the GWR: Milford Haven Where the Fish comes from; 32 pages. Great Western Trust collection GWT/GWS/1429

The one we have on site at Didcot is again owned by the GWR 813 Preservation Fund. No 2671 is a member of about 50 vehicles that were built to diagram S10. The lot number was No 1356 and they were built between 1924 and 1926. The S10s are quite typical of the later vans. Although four-wheeled, they are 28’ 6” long which puts them in the longer side for this type of vehicle. They had six sliding doors arranged three on each side and of course were fitted with vacuum brakes and 3’ 2” diameter wheels to enable them to travel at express speeds. The buffers were of the self-contained type which meant that the shaft of the buffer didn’t protrude behind the buffer beam when compressed, leaving more space for structures and equipment behind them.

Photograph of fish train published in the Milford Haven Where the Fish comes from booklet

The fish traffic from the West Country had steadily been declining from the start of the 1930s. As a result, an increasing number of the fish carrying vehicles sought other employment. Their ability to be put in passenger and fast freight trains meant they were (presumably once thoroughly washed!) in demand for other services. Luggage and parcels were obvious starting points but a whole panoply of different tasks were eventually taken on.

The INSIXFISH wagon introduced in 1947. Photographs published in British Railways Western Region magazine, December 1948

The last design of fish wagon was a bit of a curve ball. The INSIXFISH was a novel vehicle that had many innovations incorporated into it. They were six wheeled (the clue is in the name!) and were also insulated (also in the name) and refrigerated with dry ice for the first time. Wooden slatted racks were fitted inside for the crates of fish to sit on and allow the cold air to circulate. There were only two pairs of doors a side and strangely they opened on hinges. There were ladders at the ends of the vehicle and these were there to allow workers to climb up onto the roof and fill the refrigerant tanks with dry ice (solid CO2). The diagram S13 wagons were ordered by the GWR but only appeared right at the end of the company’s existence in 1947.

Bloater 2671 awaiting restoration at Didcot

Fish traffic is a largely forgotten traffic on the railway but its historical significance in broadening the diet of the nation cannot be underestimated. In an age where we can buy food from all over the world in our local supermarkets, we forget just how limited people’s diets used to be early in even the nineteenth century. It’s just one more reason why we should be incredibly proud and indeed grateful for what the railways have done for us. It’s a bit like that line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian isn’t it?. What have the Romans (railways) done for us? Well, apart from allowing the masses to move about, keeping the follow of goods moving at peace and war, the fish and chips, etc, etc, etc .…


Wonderful Winter Wagons – Engrained History

We took a look at the China clay traffic last time and this time we will look at something different. Although, just the one blog on this. I’m not going to turn it into a cereal .…*

The transport of farm goods goes back to the earliest days of the railway. Here on Going Loco we have discussed the long (although now-ended) traffic of milk on the Great Western. There were a few other bulk farm goods that were transported by rail and indeed have been until relatively recently.

The May 1919 edition of Great Western Railway Magazine included this photograph of machinery at Plymouth docks which automatically weighed grain and put it into sacks before being loaded into open wagons

Grain has always been a staple of the human diet and its cultivation part of the very bedrock of civilisation itself. It is convenient because unlike many other foodstuffs, it is quite durable and as such can be harvested mechanically and stored for long periods of time. This means it can be used to bridge over lean times and keep people alive. Its transport and trade has also been a large part of human history too.

The Great Western, like many railways, transported grain in all sorts of different vehicles, mainly in sacks. It was common practice for grain to be carried either in open wagons that were covered with tarpaulins or the ordinary MINK covered vans. The turn of the twentieth century saw the continued increase in industrialisation and mechanisation and small containers like sacks were no longer the ideal solution. They needed to think bigger and this was done initially by not accepting that dedicated grain vehicles were required.

No 42239 as built with heavily-framed side doors

What, I hear you say? Well, yes, it’s a bit weird but the G W R was a bit reticent to make vehicles that were entirely dedicated to the traffic of grain. They did not carry a huge amount of this type of traffic so dedicated vehicles were possibly seen as a waste of money. The story of these wagons begins in 1905 when an experimental 20 ton van was built. This van was given the diagram number V10, placing it in the wider diagrams of covered goods wagons. What made No 47728 unique for the railway was that it had a sliding hatch in the roof and angled false floors that created a chute type affair inside. This turned the van into a hopper type design that could be rearranged with the false floors repositioned, to become a standard goods van.

These photographs of grain wagons being loaded by crane and discharged through the hopper were published in the Great Western Railway Magazine, June 1928 edition

There was to be a small fleet of these vehicles built, but strangely that went to the wayside and the bulk transport of grain wasn’t thought about again until after the Great War. 25 standard 16ft goods wagons were modified to ‘make necessary alteration’ so they could carry grain. In 1925, the next move was to convert some diagram O25 OPEN A 12 ton open wagons with the fitting of some hoppers and presumably a sheet rail so a tarpaulin could be fitted to keep the load dry. The next move was to go back to the convertible van idea.

The V20 convertible grain van is where the connection with the collection at Didcot comes in. It’s a bit of a weird and complicated one too. The idea of being convertible is weird to start with but it was an odd size too. There were plenty of standard sizes available but an unusual 10ft 6in wheelbase version was used instead. This took the automation of grain transport further in that there was an opening hopper bottom to the van too. This was in concert with the opening roof.

A diagram V20 wagon after conversion back to carrying grain, now with no side doors

This meant that loading from the top via a crane and grab and emptying from underneath using a conveyor belt became possible. The doors were built very sturdily as the force that the 20 tons of grain could impart on them was quite large. The van also has two small windows in the ends and this enables you to see if the van is loaded or empty. Suitable steps and handrails were also supplied to get you up there to peek in! The example at Didcot is a very rare survivor and is No 42239, built in 1927. It is part of the impressive freight collection amassed by our friends in the group that owns and operates 0-6-0 saddle tank locomotive No 813. No 42239 is probably the only survivor of the 12 Diagram V20 vehicles built. The vans were used to transport grain between the port at Birkenhead and Cobden Flour Mill at Wrexham.

This description of the Grano hopper was published in a GWR brochure illustrating wagons for special traffics

This didn’t last long and they were converted to carry bulk cement from the Bristol Channel Cement Co. The reason for this was the fact that the traffic they had been built for had ended. They gained a new galvanised steel liner to protect the wooden structure. Swindon gave them a new diagram of V29. The idea of convertibility was abandoned at this point and the doors were screwed shut. They were converted(!) back to transport grain traffic again (and re-diagramed back to V20 – I told you this was complicated .…) in the summer of 1939, with our example – No 42239 – being noted as the first. The new conversion gave them all new sides without doors this time.

No 42239 currently in use as a store behind the carriage shed at Didcot

The other vehicles that were developed were the famous GRANO hopper wagons that were basically a steel bodied purpose built hopper version which was slightly shorter that the V20s. These 12 wagons began construction in 1935 and were given the diagram No V25.

No 42239 has been something of a chameleon throughout its life, changing its look several times but the wagon has gone on. Clearly the traffic was never massive as the wagons were built in such small numbers but the grain wagons hold their own unique place in the history of the Great Western Railway freight pantheon.

*I apologise for this and I’ll get my coat .…


Wonderful Winter Wagons – Me Old China!

Well, here I go again on my own*. Going (Loco) down the only (rail) road I’ve ever known**.

That’s enough of that .…

Which is a round about way of saying that it’s the start of a whole new year of scribblings from your man on the ground for Going Loco. As is traditional, we will start the year with the unsung freight moving heroes of the collection – the wagons – and you don’t get any more unsung or humble than a 4 wheel, 5 plank open wagon.

A William Cookworthy mug, limited edition produced by English China Clays

Unlike many of our Going Loco stories, this one starts in the Far East! Kaolinite or china clay was first used in China well over ten thousand years ago. It is a rare type of decomposed granite, finer than most talcum powders, that arises naturally. Its use was of course in the production of fine white ceramics like porcelain. These became highly sought after products in Europe, where nothing of the sort had been seen before. Now, transporting delicate goods thousands of miles, back in the eighteenth century, was clearly something that was both tricky and expensive. It was something only the very wealthy could afford.

No 4 jetty at Fowey in 1910 showing the new conveyor and a wagon being tipped into it. This made it possible to increase the rate of shipment from 200 to 300 tons a day to 200 to 240 tons an hour. Horses were still used for shunting

Enter into this scenario a genius from Plymouth by the name of William Cookworthy. He was born in April 1705 and became one of those figures in the early industrial revolution that was a leader in several fields of technology. He was a noted pharmacist and chemist. He was also partly responsible for the development of hydraulic lime with John Smeaton which enabled the construction of several lighthouses. A type of artificial ‘glassy’ porcelain was already being produced in Britain at the time in places like Bow, Chelsea and Derby but the real thing still eluded the UK ceramicists.

No 8 jetty at Fowey was opened on 27 September 1923. This photograph show Lord Mildmay performing the opening ceremony with a gathering of principal officers of the GWR

Cookworthy took on this problem in the early 1740s. He had access to the writings of French missionary Père Entrecolles, who had visited China and noted the processes used, to guide him. He set out to see if the raw materials to make porcelain were present in the geology of the British Isles. He spent a great deal of time travelling across Devon and Cornwall and eventually he found them near St Austell. It took a further twenty years for him to perfect the recipe .… In the mid to late 1760s, he used this discovery to found a porcelain factory in Plymouth – the first of its kind in Britain. It was eventually moved to Bristol and sold, but he had laid the foundations of a huge industry.

A general view of No 8 jetty

Kaolinite turned out to be a wonder material and its use in ceramics was just the start. It is used in huge amounts in the paper, pharmaceutical and many other industries. So what on earth has this to do with the Great Western Railway? Well, the mines were in Great Western territory! Therefore it was natural that the Great Western would want it as goods traffic. An extensive network of small branch lines built up around the china clay deposits. Facilities to powder the clay known as ‘dries’ were common along the routes and these all fed towards the port. Fowey became a hub for the export of china clay and an extensive facility for the movement of kaolinite from railway wagons to ships was developed.

An elevated view of No 8 jetty. It was constructed at an angle to the shore so that vessels could moor alongside for its entire length

There were also wagons developed specifically for this trade. Although it was originally carried in barrels in open wagons, the idea of simply filling the wagon up was clearly more attractive. As luck would have it, china clay has a mass to volume ratio of about 1 ton to 28 cubic yards. The perfect full load for a ‘standard’ five plank open goods wagon. The use of an opening end door to allow the material to tip out completed the design. The wagons were placed on a pivoting platform that was sited next to a jetty. The end door was unlocked, the platform was tipped and the contents were dropped onto a conveyor belt that transported the material into the hold of an awaiting ship. There were several of these jetties on the quayside.

No 92943 preserved at Didcot

These wagons date way back into the history of GWR goods vehicles. One of the earliest identified open wagons from the company is indeed a china clay wagon. This means that a fleet of these wagons was in existence long before the outbreak of the First World War. Just before the Great War, renewals in the fleet were being considered. Various types were introduced but the type that became the standard was the diagram O13. We have a representative of this type at Didcot - No. 92943. These were built from 1913 and ours is one of this early batch. There were 500 of them built – giving an idea as to the scale of the operation.

Detail of the ‘Return empty to Fowey’ lettering

The end door on No 92943

Detail of the end door fastening on No 92943

They were modified several times in their lives and were given upgrades to their brakes and various other details. One thing that was discovered was that the clay would rot out the floor planks. To combat this, zinc sheeting was applied to the floor of many of the wagons. As the clay was in powder form, keeping it dry was of paramount importance. A steel rail was fitted so that a tarpaulin could be spread over in a ‘roof’ shape to keep the rain off. British rail built another batch of wagons to a very similar pattern in the mid 1950s and these types were operating well into the 1970s. The china clay traffic is still alive and well and the United Kingdom is still a major producer. It’s nice to see a continuity of industry dating back so long and yet still relevant in the modern era. One also represented with us here at Didcot.

* Except for the whole Going Loco team of course.
** With sincere apologies to Whitesnake.


The Pioneer's Progress - Part 10

A bleary eyed blogger turns the lights back on at Going Loco headquarters. An email awaits .…

What do you mean “I’ve got to get on with writing Going Loco again”? Is it that time already? What do you want me to write? Nothing? It’s a new year update on No. 1466 from our roving reporter, Phil? Well, in that case, take it away good sir .…

Thanks, Drew!

Well, it’s a short-ish update this time round .... But nevertheless progress! As I write this, Ryan and his team at the West Somerset Railway are wrapping up the work before the Christmas holidays. Looking back, it’s difficult to comprehend just quite how much has gone on but all in all, it’s fair to say it’s been a very busy year and we’ve overcome and achieved a great deal on 1466, and next year is set to be very fruitful. Since my last update and after a short delay in the delivery of rivets, the inner firebox is now fixed back in its rightful position within the boiler. Having previously had British Engineering Services (BES) sign off the alignment, it’s all now thankfully been riveted back together.

Ryan Pope knocking down the foundation ring rivets. Photograph by Phil Morrell

The new palm stay brackets have also been fitted and riveted into place along with the new palm stays themselves being fitted. The steam collector and its associated pipework are currently being re-fitted back into the boiler.

Josh Chivers taking a fresh white-hot rivet out of the forge. Photograph by Phil Morrell

A full set of boiler tubes (all 195 of them!) have been ordered and delivery is anticipated by mid-February 2024. Having previously sourced all the required material for the crown-stays and side-stays earlier in the year, we are now currently putting together orders for the manufacture of them.

The big question is on your lips is clearly, ‘What does 2024 hold?’

Matt Healey placing the rivet from the inside of the firebox. Photograph by Phil Morrell

The new year should see the stays being manufactured. The lads at WSR will be spending quite some time (quite some weeks in fact!) drilling, reaming and tapping the firebox ready for the fitting of the crown and side stays once they arrive back from the machinists. Then the longitudinal stays will be refitted and then so will the boiler tubes. Exciting stuff!

A view of the inner firebox and water space in the boiler – a view not often seen. Photograph by Phil Morrell

The chassis will also be entering the paint-shop in the new year to make a start on preparations for its final livery to be applied. Seeing as the mechanics and chassis of 1466 have previously been completed, it should, in theory produce a quick-ish turn around, once the boiler has had its official hydraulic and steam test examinations.

The firehole door ring all bolted together prior to riveting. Photograph by Phil Morrell

That once ‘far off horizon’ can now been seen clearly in sight and is drawing closer day by day. So watch this space. And, with that, it’s back to the studio .…

Cheers Phil! Well, I hope that was a nice new year’s present for everyone! That’s great news to hear that our little pioneer, the engine that started it all, is well on the way to coming home. What a great start to 2024!

Back to the beginning at Didcot – 1466 in the ash shed in 1968


Going Loco - Explore The Archive


Didcot Railway Centre Newsletter

Stay up to date with events and what's going on at Didcot Railway Centre.
You may unsubscribe at any time. We do not share your data with 3rd parties.


Make A Donation

Click To Donate