Great Western Railway - a history


My latest book - Great Western Railway: a History - is on sale NOW, priced £18.99 - and on the 175th anniversary of the Great Western Railway I'll be posting an exclusive article on this website with some further thoughts on the importance of this astonishing institution.

It's a fascinating story in which I certainly learned a great deal about a unique institution. From the early days of the broad gauge through the ups and downs until nationalisation in 1948 - and then beyond to the end of steam, the rise of railway preservation and to the present day, the Great Western Railway is much more than chocolate and cream coaches behind a 'Castle' on the Sea Wall. As a brief taster, here's an excerpt from a chapter on one of the better known achievements...

"In 1904 competition between the Great Western Railway (GWR) and London & South Western Railway (LSWR) for the lucrative Trans-Atlantic mail to and from Plymouth was hotting up. Sending the mails to and from London via Plymouth was the fastest way for letters to cross the Atlantic and although public opinion had firmly turned against railway 'racing' following the Great Races to the North of the 19th century drivers from both companies were starting to ignore the schedules.

It was a matter which was giving the Great Western's 47-year-old Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Superintendent, George Jackson Churchward, some niggling headaches. He was keen that the Great Western shouldn't be seen to be slower than the LSWR and when he heard that his opposite number Dugald Drummond was taking an interest in the trains it became personal. Churchward felt, probably correctly, that his locomotives were far superior to the LSWR's and was damned if he was going to be beaten. For a hunting, shooting and fishing loving sportsman this contest - because that's what it was - was one professional pride demanded some serious thought if it were to be won. He leaned back in his chair at Swindon Works and stroked his bushy moustache - he was bald so he couldn't ruffle his hair - trying to decide how the Great Western could do something so dramatic the LSWR would be forced to concede defeat.

Churchward summoned a young locomotive inspector from Newton Abbot, GH Flewellyn, into his office and outlined his thinking about the Ocean Mails. Flewellyn was charged with supervising the running of the trains and ordered to ride on the footplate of each one. As a locomotive inspector it would be Flewellyn's job to encourage the driver and fireman to make good time and to intervene if necessary either to speed up or slow down. Churchward spoke to Flewellyn with calm authority: his experience on the running sheds of the South Devon Railway and on the Great Western meant that he knew what he was talking about, as did the young locomotive inspector. The emphasis should be on speed, Churchward said, but not at the price of safety - he would decide when and how far the risks should be stretched. "Withhold all attempts at a maximum speed until I give you the word: then you can go and break your bloody neck," he concluded. The profanity was for emphasis - something he used often. Flewellyn would not have been surprised or offended by Churchward's swearing.

In early May 1904 Churchward sent word to Flewellyn to prepare for a really fast run from Plymouth to London. The locomotive selected was No. 3440 City of Truro, one of the Great Western's most modern passenger locomotives. It had been built in May 1903 at Swindon Works and was of the right age to attempt something out of the ordinary: old enough to run smoothly and have any glitches solved but young enough for everything to still be nice and tight. The date was set for 9 May.

The driver selected was Moses Clements, a man who, to borrow from automotive parlance, liked to put his foot down - or to be more exact, put his regulator arm up. Clements' reputation was known from Devon to London as one of pushing the free-steaming Great Western locomotives to the very limit. His fireman (who after all would be doing most of the work) is sadly unrecorded.

When the guard's whistle blew at 0923 Clements released the brakes at the now long closed Plymouth Millbay station and put City of Truro to work with the light train of 148 tons. Three minutes later it had passed Plymouth North Road (today's main station) and flew up Hemerdon Bank immediately outside Plymouth at speeds rarely if ever seen before. Between there and Totnes she made short work of the stiff Devon banks that were the legacy of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's failed attempt at finding an alternative to the steam locomotive in the 1840s and which to this day test the fastest and most powerful trains. The fireman was working like a demon, shovelling coal furiously but precisely in a bid to keep pace with City of Truro's demand for steam and Clements was using his intimate knowledge of the route to the full, gaining as much speed as possible down the banks and braking as late as he dared. Flewellyn and the men working in the mail coaches behind were being given a good shaking and with no intervention forthcoming, Clements realised that very high speeds really were there for the taking. It was entirely up to him as to when to slow down.

The spectacular sea wall section between Teignmouth and Dawlish limited speeds and perhaps holidaymakers gave the train a wave as it hared past, the safety valves simmering with pent-up pressure. With the characteristic bark of a Great Western locomotive, City of Truro was in its natural environment, green paintwork complemented by burnished copper capped chimney and brass safety valve bonnet with an almost mirror finish. This relatively slow section allowed the fireman to build up his fire and once past Exeter, Clements opened City of Truro up once more. They tore up towards Whiteball, a distance of 20 miles, and when she nosed over the summit at something like 50mph Clements really went for it and something magical happened..."