Trackside Classic: 1941-46 Southern Railway Merchant Navy and West Country / Battle of Britain Class Pacifics – Wartime Ambition, Peacetime Reality

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We usually think of the Southern Railway as little more than a huge fleet of electric multiple units scuttling around London and south east England – impressive, but not exciting. But that ignores perhaps the most intriguing of the big British steam locomotives – the Bulleid Pacifics

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The Southern emerged from the Railway Grouping of 1923 that also gave us the LNER and LMS and preserved the GWR. It was the smallest of the four, and its key routes linked London with the south coast, from Dover in the east to Plymouth in the west – but the key focus was the south east counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex. This was an area ideal for electrification and multiple units, and the Southern completed what its predecessors had started with third rail electrification spreading steadily through the 1920s and 1930s.

SR poster. Map of System and Continental Connections

But steam traction was still the best bet for some things – the heavy boat trains from London Victoria to Dover, and the long distance trains to Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall in the south west, where electrification was not yet economic.

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For these routes, the Southern had the 16 Lord Nelson class 4-6-0s, and the more numerous but less powerful King Arthur class. By the mid-1930s, both were underpowered for the work they were assigned, and the Southern needed to move on.

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Chief Mechanical Engineer O V S Bulleid (1882 – 1970) was an intriguing character, and not one beholden to convention – in 1912, be bought only the third Cadillac in Britain. His early career was on the Great Northern Railway, where, after Army service in WW1, he rose to be Gresley’s personal assistant. He played a key role in the development and improvement of the A1, A3 and A4 Pacifics, and was on the footplate when Flying Scotsman achieved the first recorded 100mph. But, being only six years younger than Gresley, he needed to move to truly flourish and develop his ideas, and joined the Southern in 1937

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He soon persuaded the Southern’s Board of the need to move on from Lord Nelson, and developed something very different – 21C1 Channel Packet, the first Merchant Navy class Pacific. Other British streamlined engines like Mallard and Coronation were conventional underneath the casing – but Channel Packet was decidedly not.

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First, the wheels. Rather than the usual steel spokes, Bulleid used a wheel of his design, made from one piece of steel by the great Sheffield steel company Firth Brown. It has indentations in the disc to give strength, and holes to reduce weight. It is 10% lighter than a conventional wheel, and has a more even weight distribution, meaning less damage to the track.

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Next, valve gear. Instead of the normal Walschaerts gear used virtually everywhere else in Britain, Bulleid used a chain drive gear of his own design for Channel Packet’s three cylinders. It aimed to be light and compact, and drew on motor engine practice. The gearing was enclosed in a 40 gallon oil bath, to avoid the need for daily oiling of the gear. The aim was for the gear to run for 100,000 miles before needing maintenance.

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Merchant Navy Boilers at Eastleigh, 1941

Third, the boiler. Riveted boilers had been good enough for everyone else from Stephenson to Stanier, but Bulleid used the first welded boiler in Britain, and it was a success.

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Finally, the looks. The Southern was not a fast railway, and didn’t need streamliners, but Bulleid clearly wanted to catch up with the rest. His casing was perhaps more modern looking than Gresley’s or Stanier’s – there’s no attempt to follow the shape of the boiler, and the smokebox is accessible in the normal way – and the profile matched Bulleid’s new coaching stock. Bulleid always referred to it as air smoothed, rather than streamlined, and there is some evidence it was intended to allow the engines to pass through automated carriage washers.

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But some called them Spam cans, after the American delicacy Britain began to enjoy in wartime.

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And did I mention the bright malachite green livery with sunshine yellow lettering? Even the numbering was different, following the French practice that incorporates the wheel arrangement in Continental style notation.

On top of all that, there was a war on by the time 21C1 emerged from the Sothern’s Eastleigh works, in June 1941, making innovative streamlined express engines a luxury. Bulleid got round that by making the driving wheels just 6ft 2 in and calling it a mixed traffic design.

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As built, the Merchant Navies were almost 70 ft long plus the tender, and weighed 150 tons with the tender. The three cylinders were 18 inches by 24, and the boiler pressure 250 psi. Nominal tractive effort was 37,515 lbf, greater than the LNER A4s but less than Stanier’s Duchesses. The relatively small driving wheels constrained the class’s capacity for high speed, however.

Overall, you get the impression that Bulleid had spent 30 years watching others design locomotives, and was bursting to try all his ideas out at once. Some worked – the boiler in particular and details like electric lights and steam operated firebox door, and the cab was widely praised for its layout. But others were more problematic. The valve gear failed to live up to expectations of long life and low maintenance, and the streamlined casing had to be quickly altered to allow steam to rise clear of the boiler and not obscure the driver’s vision.

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An initial batch of ten Merchant Navies was completed by 1942, all named after British and Empire shipping lines, with elaborate nameplates incorporating the lines’ crests. A second ten were built in 1945, and a third batch in 1948-49. The livery changed from malachite green to plan black, however.

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Bulleid was proud of his Pacifics, and resolutely defended the unusual features of the design from his critics. And in May 1945, as the war ended, he doubled down with the first of the West Country class, which were named after cities and towns served by the Southern in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. These were a lighter weight and less powerful version of the same idea as the Merchant Navies, with a smaller, lighter boiler and power output of 31,000 lbf, but to most people looked identical.

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As they weighed 20 tons less, they were ideal for the lighter lines in southwest England, where the Southern‘s mainline from London to Salisbury, Exeter and Plymouth fed a network of minor lines through Devon and Cornwall. On the map, that network looked impressive, but it always played second fiddle to the dominant Great Western, and except the Barnstaple branch, everything west of Exeter has now disappeared. And by November 1946, there were 49 of these attractive engines at work

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The design was also the replacement for outdated motive power on non-electrified lines in south east England, and in January 1947, a new batch appeared, named after RAF planes, squadrons, bases and personalities involved in the Battle of Britain – then very fresh in the memory and obviously relevant to the south east. Just to confuse us, the Southern spoke of the West Country and Battle of Britain classes as separate, but they are identical and were numbered in the same series.

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The lighter weight Pacifics eventually totalled 110, 66 West Country and 44 Battle of Britain. The last was built by British Railways in January 1951, at the Brighton works of the old London Brighton and South Coast Railway. Others were built at the Eastleigh works, inherited from the London and South Western Railway.

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Bulleid also produced, in 1942, the Q1 class 0-6-0 freight engine. Perhaps in response to the reaction to the styling of the Merchant Navy Pacifics, which was seen by some as extravagant, these were of very austere appearance, to fit the times. The 0-6-0 was the British standard for freight engines for almost a century, and these were the most powerful of the lot. The class lasted until 1966

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But Bulleid wasn’t just a steam engineer. He designed the first third rail electric locomotives in Britain, numbered CC1 (1941) and CC2 (1945), with twin three wheel bogies. It was designed for mixed traffic use on the Southern’s electric network, and had a tractive effort of around 40,000lbf. These, and a further prototype from 1948, became particularly associated with boat trains to the Channel port of Newhaven until withdrawn by BR in 1968-69

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And then there was the DD double deck electric unit, which lasted 30 years despite being cramped and poorly ventilated, and thus unpopular with passengers. They were the only double deck stock on Britain’s railways, constrained by the relatively limited loading gauge.

Canpac

By the mid-1950s, the defects in the design of Bulleid Pacifics were becoming more apparent and problematic, and also more expensive and difficult to fix. In particular, the valve gear did not match conventional designs for longevity or reliability, with the chains proving insufficiently precise for the work they were required to do and the oil bath corroding and leaking. BR therefore commenced a rebuilding programme, starting with 35018 British India Line (the Continental numbering had been discarded at nationalisation).

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Rebuilding produced a very handsome locomotive. Gone was the air smoothed casing, replaced by conventional boiler lagging, and the valve gear was replaced by three sets of typically British Walschaerts gear. The reliability issues were banished, and BR produced to rebuild all 30 Merchant Navies by 1960.

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A similar programme commenced on the West Country and Battle of Britain class in 1957, and eventually 60 out of 110 were rebuilt before the march of electrification and dieselisation brought the programme to an end.

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In the public mind, the Merchant Navy Pacifics will always be associated with the boat trains from London Victoria to the Channel ports of Cover and Folkestone – most notably the all Pullman Golden Arrow

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This was the way to cross the Channel in the 1950s, with the coaches crossing the Channel on a dedicated ferry, unless you preferred its overnight companion service the Night Ferry. The engines assigned to the Golden Arrow always got preferential treatment, to suit the Golden Arrows that were affixed to each side and the smokebox.

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Heading west from London Waterloo was the Atlantic Coast Express, leaving daily with a train that ran through to Exeter and Plymouth, with through coaches connecting to the Southern’s branches in Devon and Cornwall. Although not the equal of the Cornish Riviera on the rival Great Western, it was a fine train, and inspiration for this classic poster.

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The ‘ACE’ was the preserve of the lightweight Pacifics, but the service slowly withered as holidaymakers switched to the road and branch lines were closed

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One other train deserves a mention – Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train, which took the great man to his final resting place near the family home in Oxfordshire after his state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The train ran from Waterloo, rather than the more logical Paddington, allegedly because Churchill insisted that President de Gaulle be required to pass through the station named for Britain’s victory over Napoleon 150 years earlier. The engine was the specially overhauled and repainted 34051 Winston Churchill (the engine predated the knighthood) of the Battle of Britain class.

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The engine is now in the national collection at the NRM, presented with the Southern Railway luggage van used to carry the coffin in a train of Pullman cars, and still bearing headcode discs in a unique ‘V for Victory’ layout.

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Bulleid didn’t stop innovating and experimenting after the war. In 1949, after three years of development, the Southern unveiled his Leader prototype. This was a steam engine, using the boiler of the Merchant Navy class, wrapped in a steel body with driving cabs at both ends, a fireman’s position in the centre and riding on two six wheel bogies like a contemporary diesel engine. Each bogie had three cylinders, with valve gear in an oil bath and Bulleid / Firth Brown wheels 5 ft 1 inch in diameter.

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Leader was a failure. Coal and water consumption was excessive, the working conditions for the crew (especially in the cab near the smokebox and the fireman’s central cab) were unbearably hot and the engine was too heavy. On a good day, performance showed promise, particularly in generating steam, but it was clearly not the solution. Only one of a planned five was completed, and by 1951 it had been withdrawn and all traces of all five were scrapped.

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Bulleid left BR in 1949 – the new nationalised system was not his style – and he moved to join the Irish Republic’s railway system, then known as Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE), leaving his beloved Pacifics behind.

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But Bulleid did take the Leader idea with him. In 1957, Inchicore Works in Dublin completed CC1 (that continental numbering again). This was a repeat of the Leader idea, but burning peat not coal – Ireland has no coal, but peat is plentiful. CC1 followed several years of testing and development of the peat burning concept, using converted coal fired engines, in conjunction with the government’s Bord na Mona, or Turf Development Board. CC1 used mechanical stokers to feed the turf to the firebox, which was centrally located on a double ended boiler (an idea we have seen before), and chain driven valves appeared again. But testing proved inconclusive, with heavy water consumption and issues around having to keep, in effect, two engines (one on each bogie) in sync. When Bulleid retired to Devon in 1958, the project lost its driving force and was abandoned, and the Republic went to EMD for diesels.

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By 1967, the Bulleid Pacifics had all gone from the mainline. Many ended at the famous Woodham Brothers scrapyard at Barry, near Cardiff, which became the source of many of the preserved steam locomotives that now operate on the mainline and preserved branch lines across Britain.

Today, there are plenty of Bulleid Pacifics about. 10 of the Merchant Navies have been preserved, all in rebuilt form, and some regularly grace the mainlines. Over 20 West Country and Battle of Britain versions are also preserved.

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The NRM in York has two. 34051 we have already seen, and is in original condition. Merchant Navy 35029 Ellerman Lines isn’t just rebuilt – she’s also cross-sectioned, to show people of all ages how a steam locomotive works – a simply brilliant and fascinating thing to see.

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To my mind, that makes Ellerman Lines the most important of Bulleid Pacifics, for education is surely the greatest thing any of us can do, and she’s been doing it in the NRM since 1975.