Trackside Classic – 1938 LMS Princess-Coronation Pacific No 6229 Duchess Of Hamilton – Greatness Out Of Chaos

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CC has already seen Flying Scotsman and Mallard of the London and North Eastern Railway, perhaps the most graceful and stylish steam locomotives in British history. But what about the LNER’s competitor, the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS)? Its locomotive history is very different, starting in confusion and division, but ultimately producing Britain’s most advanced and powerful express steam locomotive – the magnificent Princess-Coronation or Duchess class of 1937.

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The LMS was a product of government mandated merger between rival companies, in 1923, as Britain’s railways were consolidated into four new groups as an alternative to nationalisation. The London and North Western, running from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester and Carlisle on the Scottish border (the West Coast Main Line or WCML) was pushed together with the Midland Railway, its great rival running on a broadly parallel route north from London St Pancras through the Midlands and Yorkshire. Both were historically proud, strong and influential companies – and reluctant partners. Imagine the Union Pacific and the Santa Fe being told to merge when at their peak, and government expecting a harmonious marriage.

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Along with the English companies, the LMS also included three Scottish companies, partners of the LNWR and Midland, taking the new network from London to Inverness, and serving all the great cities of the English midlands, north west  and Scotland. It was, by some measures, the largest company in the world, covering some 8,000 route miles, inheriting almost 10,000 locomotives and employing 250,000 people.

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But a merger of the LNWR and the Midland was never going to be a happy one. As well as their identities, history and pride, on a practical level their operating philosophies were very different. The LNWR favoured big engines like the Claughton class 4-6-0 pulling heavy trains; the Midland liked small engines and small trains, or two small engines on a larger one.

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In the early days, the Midland influence was dominant, and the pride of the fleet was the Midland Compound, a 4-4-0 design dating back to 1902.. The LNWR’s smart lined black locomotives and plum and cream coaches were repainted Midland Red, and the company even built another 195 Midland Compounds, virtually unchanged from a 20 year old design, and by now underpowered and outclassed.

Throughout the early 1920s, the LMS was beset by internal arguments about the next generation of express power. While the Great Western was happily developing the Castle and then King classes as larger versions of its existing express power, and Nigel Gresley was perfecting his gorgeous Pacifics for the LNER, the LMS squabbled between operators, led by the former Midland operating superintendent James Anderson, and the locomotive engineers, led by George Hughes, Chief Mechanical Engineer and formerly of the LNWR. Hughes saw the need for modern and more powerful engines, and drew up several proposals for a Pacific for the West Coast Main Line expresses to Birmingham and Scotland. Anderson point-blank refused to work with the proposed engines, and stuck to the Midland small engine philosophy – and took delight in such tactics as refusing to invest in the larger turntables a Pacific would need. Not for nothing was the company called the ‘ ‘ell of a mess’

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By 1927, when Hughes had retired, and Henry Fowler, who was ex-Midland, took his place, new express power was still desperately needed – and things were so bad, the LMS had to seek external help. The LMS turned to locomotive builder North British Locomotives (NBL) in Glasgow, the largest locomotive building business outside North America, for help. With significant design input from NBL, 50 Royal Scot 4-6-0s were hastily built, to be the new frontline LMS express engine.

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The Royal Scots looked impressive, but were clearly no more than a stopgap. Even so, it wasn’t until 1932, and Fowler’s and Anderson’s retirement, that a new and dominant Chairman Josiah Stamp (seen here with the Mayors of Liverpool and Birkenhead) determined to do what should have been done in 1923– bring in a new Chief Mechanical Engineer from outside, with no ties to the old traditions, to end the infighting, and design and produce a fleet of modern locomotives for freight, mixed traffic and express trains across the network.

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His choice was an inspired one – William Stanier (1976-1965), then Works Manager at the Great Western’s huge Swindon works, where he had worked since the age of 16, and where his father had also been a senior engineer. Stanier’s skills lay not in innovative design but in leadership, management and organisation, and in building and maintaining successful and powerful engines. He was just the man to bang heads together and get the resources of the LMS pulling as one.

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Stanier set to work with a vengeance; his first move on the LMS was to replace the chief draughtsman, another Midland Railway stalwart, with his own choice, Tom Coleman, whose career began at one of the LMS’ minor constituents and who also had no loyalties to either LNWR or Midland traditions. And within three years, the LMS was building huge numbers of new standard locomotive, with  three classes of new mainline power to the fore, and a big clear out of the inherited locomotive stock began.

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The ‘Black Five’ 4-6-0 (so-called for its black livery and power classification of 5) became the staple LMS mixed traffic locomotive, handling virtually everything everywhere. Eventually, 842 were built – the largest fleet of any British locomotive.

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The Jubilee express 4-6-0 was closely related to the Black 5, but with larger driving wheels. Almost 200 of these powerful and versatile were built in three years, such was the need for modern power on the LMS.

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The 8F 2-8-0 freight engine followed; by 1945, the LMS had 331 of these rugged haulers, and the other British railways, at government behest, had another 245. Together, these engines brought the LMS up to date, and all three types lasted to the end of British steam, in 1968. The last mainline steam train ran in August 1968, hauled by two Black Fives.

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So that left just the frontline express passenger engine problem to address. By 1933, the Royal Scots were clearly outclassed by the LNER A1 and A3 Pacifics and the Great Western King and Castle 4-6-0s, and the LMS needed to upgrade urgently if its expresses were to compete. In 1933, Stanier produced his first solution – the Princess Royal class Pacific, so named as the first, no 6200, was named The Princess Royal. Soon the popular name ‘Lizzies’ took hold, after 6201 was named Princess Elizabeth, after the woman we now know as Queen Elizabeth II. Like all of Stanier’s engines, these impressive looking machines showed clear Great Western influences, with four cylinders and a tapered boiler including a Belpaire firebox (with a distinctive squared upper half) and with the  new house style evident in the styling.

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The Lizzie’s weighed in 159 tons, including the tender, with driving wheels 6ft 6in in diameter, and a 250lb per square inch boiler feeding 4 cylinders each 16½ by 28 inches – a layout that was pure Great Western in style, and promising more power than Gresley’s 3 cylinder racehorses.  But despite their looks, the Lizzies were not an instant success. Although capable of generating some 2,500hp – greater than Gresley’s A3s – the design had weaknesses, principally an inadequate level of superheating, and poor steaming. This was one area where Stanier’s Great Western experience let him down – the GWR used top quality Welsh coal, not the varying English types that the LMS did, and he quickly learned, with amendments made in the second batch of 10 Lizzies completed in 1935.

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6201’s greatest moment was in November 1936 when she made what was then the longest non-stop steam hauled journey in the world – 401 miles from London Euston to Glasgow Central. The run was a test of what the LMS could do to compete with the LNER’s A4 Pacifics hauling the forthcoming streamlined ‘Coronation’ express, which was launched in 1937 (marking the Coronation of King George VI) covering the 393 miles from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley in 6 hours.

While 6201 achieved the goal of showing what the LMS could do, with a time of 5¾ hours and an average of over 70mph (enough to earn the driver an OBE), the WCML was too busy and demanding for that to be a realistic daily schedule, and the LMS kept its new streamliner, the ‘Coronation Scot’, to a 6½ schedule – which was still 2 hours faster than the fastest trains in 1932.

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And the ‘Coronation Scot’ would have a locomotive more powerful still than the Lizzies – Stanier’s masterpiece, officially the Princess-Coronation class. A batch of 5, numbered 6220 – 6224, were completed in 1937 at the former LNWR works at Crewe, with names continuing the Princess theme, except for 6220, which was named ‘Coronation’, hence Princess-Coronation class. The class was  soon known as Duchess when a series were named after several of that particular group of the aristocracy (this is England in the 1930s, remember; daft ideas like that seemed sensible. The later ones were named after cities served by the LMS, which makes a lot more sense to me).

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The new engines were an improved version of the Lizzies, with a 10% larger firegrate to solve the steaming problem, driving wheels of 6ft 9in rather than 6ft 6in and even higher superheating capacity in a larger boiler. The tender now held an impressive 10 tons of coal – still manually stoked and probably at the limit of what one fireman could manage, even with the help of a unique steam powered coal pusher to shove coal forward.LMS Poster: "The Coronaton Scot: Ascending Shap Fell" , by Norman Wilkinson

Although officially credited to Stanier, much of the design work on the new Pacifics was done by Tom Coleman, who had a keen sense of the weaknesses of the Lizzies and was determined to get it right this time – and did he succeed! The new engines had a tractive effort of over 40,000lb, compared to  35,000lb for Gresley’s A4s, and the larger driving wheels than the Lizzies allowed them to sustain higher cruising speeds. In horsepower terms, the consensus is that the Duchesses could generate as much as 3,300hp when properly handled – that’s Deltic territory, and at least 25% more than an A4! It is hard to argue that they are not the peak of British steam design and power.

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Together these changes gave a very different look to the graceful Lizzies – the Duchesses project great power and strength, even when streamlined. In the streamlined casing designed by Coleman (over Stanier’s objections) for the first five, the striking blue livery (based on the colours of LMS constituent the Caledonian Railway, which linked Carlisle, Glasgow and Aberdeen) with silver trim running from the buffer beam to the very rear of the train for the ‘Coronation Scot’, they looked like nothing else on Britain’s rails. Perhaps the newly restored Norfolk and Western J class 4-8-4 611 is a fair comparison?

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The second five (6225 – 6229) were in LMS maroon, but with gold striping. They looked just as dramatic as their blue sisters, but blended better with the LMS maroon coaches on trains other than the ‘Coronation Scot’. Not as graceful as the LNER’s A4s, perhaps, but you sense the power!

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It wasn’t until 6230 – 6234 were built later in 1938 that we saw a Duchess without the streamline casing. And, remarkably, 6235 – 6248 were built as streamliners as late as 1943, at the height of the war, when metal was at a premium and the maintenance disadvantages of the streamlined casing apparent.

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Production finally ended in 1947, with the last two of the total of 38 (6256 and 46257) being further improved with roller bearings and other detail improvements. Fittingly, 6256 was named Sir William A Stanier FRS, to mark her designer’s election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest academy of sciences in the world, dating back to 1660. Stanier was only the third locomotive engineer elected to the society – a singular honour.

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But back to the ‘Coronation Scot’. The train hit the headlines in June 1937, just prior to the launch of the service. On a press run from Euston to Crewe, 150 miles north, the engine was pushed hard on the last descent into Crewe, and touched 114mph – beating the previous record of 113mph set by the LNER’s A4 Silver Fox.  But the LMS did not have the LNER’s advantage of a long straight descent for speed runs – so the speed record was set just 2 miles from Crewe Station, and the junctions at the station entrance, limited to 20mph, were taken at 57mph! That the train stayed on the tracks showed the quality of track maintenance and engine design, but the LMS never tried for a speed record again.

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In 1939, when the LMS wanted to send the ‘Coronation Scot’ to the New York World Fair, 6220 needed an overhaul so 6229 Duchess of Hamilton took on the identity of 6220,  and with prototypes of a new and more luxurious trainset for the service, was shipped to New York.

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They were displayed at the Fair from April to October 1939, and over 2 million visitors passed through the train. However, by then Britain was at war and 6220 / 6229 was trapped in New York until 1942.

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After the war, the streamlining was removed – the last was gone by 1949. This initially gave them an odd appearance, with a sloping top to the smokebox, until boiler replacement caught up.

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However, the real strength of the Duchesses wasn’t speed, but pulling power. The LNER’s East Coast Main Line is a billiard table compared to the WCML, which as well as being one of the busiest mainlines in the world (then and now) is beset with curves, junctions and hills.

Between Preston and Glasgow it rises from sea level to over 900ft at Shap in Cumbria (on the edge of England’s spectacular Lake District), back down to sea level at Carlisle, then back up to over 1,100ft at Beattock in the southern uplands of Scotland and then back down to sea level again to Glasgow – all in 200 miles, with north and southbound trains facing long stretches of 1.3% grades, and frequent manky weather. Not for nothing was the world’s first tilting train (British Rail’s ill-fated APT) designed for this route.

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The Duchesses excelled where everything else had toiled when hauling heavy expresses over this challenging route, through the war and for 20 years afterwards. The last Duchess was retired in late 1964.  They were replaced by 2,000hp diesels, which inevitably struggled to match their performance, and there was no diesel powered acceleration of WCML expresses north of Crewe – that had to wait for electrification to be completed in the early 1970s.

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Liveries changed over time of course. The stunning blue was replaced by the red and gold of the second batch and the second generation of ‘Coronation Scot’ coaches by 1939, to give greater flexibility to use the class with standard coaching stock. War brought plain black, and then the LMS brought back its standard maroon while also trying a very smart glossy black with red and gold lining and lettering.

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British Railways (from 1948) went for a green based on the old Great Western colours, but from 1956 the London Midland Region (the English part of the old LMS) brought back maroon for the Duchesses, to match maroon coaching stock.

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Cleaning wasn’t always up to Coronation Scot standards however!

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Three Duchesses survive, including the original 6220, presented as 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, plus 6233 Duchess of Sutherland and 6235 City of Birmingham. 6229 is part of the UK’s national collection, and is displayed at the National Railway Museum in York. She was restreamlined in 2009 after railfans raised the funds, and now stands proudly alongside Mallard in the Museum’s Great Hall – appropriately, as Gresley and Stanier were great friends as well as rivals, and liked nothing better than spending a weekend comparing notes on their streamliners.

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And, in 1948, when British Railways finally opened the Locomotive Testing Station that both Gresley and Stanier had argued for before the war, which two engines were in first? Yes, 46256 Sir William A Stanier FRS and 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley.

Sadly, neither is likely to run again, but Duchess of Sutherland  is a regular and popular performer in the preservation charter train world. So if you want to see Britain’s greatest and most powerful express stream engine hard at work, doing what it does best – hauling a heavy train over the hills of northern England and southern Scotland,  – you can – and you won’t be disappointed.

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And did you notice the American style hooter, rather than a traditional British whistle? The LMS had come a long way by 1938!