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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April 2, 1934.)

Some Railway Memories — Locomotives with Names

page 33

Some Railway Memories
Locomotives with Names

(W. W. Stewart collection.) A typical night scene at the Auckland station yard.

(W. W. Stewart collection.)
A typical night scene at the Auckland station yard.

I Sometimes think that in their wholly admirable policy of popularising the railways the authorities in New Zealand might very well consider a very simple and cheap device which for generations in the Old Country has had a cumulative, if indirect, effect in that direction—I mean naming the passenger locomotive. This was the practice in England almost from the days of George Stephenson and the “Rocket.” Several companies, notably the London and North-Western, carried on the tradition until the great post-war amalgamation, since when the naming of leading locomotives has become more widespread than ever. Even America is said to be falling into line.

As with many other old British customs there is more in this than meets the eye. What's in a name? Almost everything. Give a man a mere number and he loses his identity in the mass of other numbers. So it is with engines. Who remembers, for instance, the number of the locomotive that drew him so sturdily and faithfully on the Limited or the Express out of Auckland or Wellington, though he might have gone forward to look at it, as good railway lovers do, if they have time, before the start or later, strolling along the platform at one of the stops? In England people will tell you years after about the great run they had on such and such a train behind such and such a famous engine and how at the end they were among those who went up to shake hands with the driver. It begins with them as boys and lasts with them through life and you will find them sharing with their own sons the “Meccano” or any other magazine that tells about locomotives, old and new, and publishes their pictures. Such popularity is an asset to a railway in these days.

Financially and otherwise, English railways were in their very heyday in the last decade of last century—the Gay ‘Nineties, as they say now, truthfully enough, no doubt. In the ‘nineties the railways were supreme in the transport of the people over land, peerless and without rival, unless it were the modest bicycle, then, too, at the height of its vogue. There were many companies, big and little, but the greatest of all was the old London and North-Western, an institution in the land like the Bank of England, and as profitable, for it never paid less than 7 per cent, and its shares were over the double century mark. This was in the happy days—for railwaymen—when motors were just a curious, almost ridiculous, sort of toy, and road transport negligible, except with traction engines on the granite sets of Lancashire highways.

I was born among railways in the very heart of the North-Western system just outside Manchester. From the top of a high, square tower, which made the house a landmark for miles around, it was possible on a rare clear day with the aid of a telescope swinging round the points of the compass, to see over twenty different lines of railway, five of them distinct main lines, linking Manchester with London and also with its neighbouring cities in the populous industrial North. So busy was the traffic in that region that hardly a minute passed without its train visible somewhere, near at hand in vivid action or faintly in the far distance with slow moving plume of steam or smoke. Incidentally, it may be added, this commanding strategic position was utilised in the Great War by the military authorities to mount searchlights on the tower with an antiaircraft battery to guard the vital main lines against attack from the sky. I saw the whole equipment in 1919 after the War before it was removed. The house itself was demolished in 1930 to make room for suburban growth.

Of all the English railways, those in our neighbourhood and those we came across travelling, the North-Western was easily our favourite, for its spick and span passenger engines were named, and it was the hobby of the boys in our family for years to collect names and numbers of L. & N-W locos, and keep them neatly recorded in note-books with all the red-ink embellishment that boys love. We were never without our note-books, for there was a rivalry between us to get the best collection, like birds' eggs or stamps, and anywhere at any time a gorgeous stranger engine might glide into our ken and give us a fresh entry of name and number to be shown gloatingly to a brother, envious of our luck. The essence of the code was that no details of any engine might be entered, unless the bearer of name and number were actually seen. This kept us all on the alert for something new and strange. Thus it was indeed a red-letter day when alone I came across No. 1 of the vast North-Western loco. army. Its name I have remembered clearly across the mist of years—“Saracen.”

While I am as sure as it is humanly possible to be that No. 1 engine on the North-Western of the ‘nineties was “Saracen,” I vary in my visual image of its type. Was it one of the old original single-driver, outside-cylinders, 2-2-2, greyhounds of the plains, surely the most graceful locomotive of all time, the perfect embodiment of lightness and speed, or was it not rather one of Ramsbottom's next series, an inside cylinder, coupled engine, 2-4-2, 6ft. 3in. driving wheels, and an exceedingly long funnel, of the class we boys nicknamed “long spouts”? I cannot be certain and must leave the issue in doubt, but I should like to think it was an “outy,” like old Cornwall, rather than a “long spout,” which even forty years ago we were apt to regard as something too superannuated for the dignity of the L. & N-W. to retain on page 34 the road, too much like ghosts of the past. In fact by the later ‘nineties most of them had already been re-boilered and, I believe, recylindered on a larger scale, which, with a shorter funnel, made them much more presentable and effective.

Not that any of the North-Western locomotives were ugly. In an age and a country where and when designers of any class of machinery had an eye to beauty, or at least to appearances, and the different companies had locomotives of individual characteristics and distinctive colours, none surpassed the L. and N-W. in the sheer artistry of their engines. It is true that the company was conservative, not to say, old-fashioned. The North-Western must have been almost the last of the great railway lines of the world to adopt the bogie for their rolling stock. So far as my recollection goes, they had not a single bogie engine in their service when the twentieth century dawned, unless it were some side-tankers then recently introduced. And, personally again, I think, the L. and N-W. were right. Theirs was in the main a splendidly engineered line with few sharp curves and it was not until trains became far heavier and locos, had to follow suit that the bogie really came to fit in with the design of longer and bigger boilers and a weight that had to be distributed over more wheels.

Take the typical L. and N-W. locos, of the “nineties. The single-driver out-side-cylinder light-weights, already mentioned, the “Charles Dickens” class, 2-4-2, with 6ft. 6in. driving wheels—the “Charles Dickens” already famous for its million-mile record, mostly on the London-Manchester run—and the Webb compounds, notably the “Teutonic” series. Could anything have been more perfectly lined and proportioned to suggest power and speed, with the peculiar forward overhang in front of the setback leading wheels, giving at rest an instant and ineffaceable impression of an athlete set in his marks and waiting for the pistol, and in motion the same runner in full career? To put a leading bogie under such a slim, trim, athletic-looking figure, as we now deem it, would be to make it look flat-footed and clumsy and destroy at once the illusion. A study of a photograph of any of these old engines will reveal the truth of what I mean, better than any description.

Those Webb compounds, a marked departure from L. and N-W. conservatism in mechanical principles and arrangement, if not in externals, were our prime favourites. No doubt the way in which their name and fame were noised abroad had something to do with it, for they were to be seen at the great exhibitions not only in Britain but in foreign countries also, and the papers were full of them. But they had other peculiarities that made them specially attractive to us boys. First, they had three cylinders, which was odd, and then two pairs of driving wheels not coupled, which was odder still. The two high-pressure cylinders were outside well back, hung below the frame, driving the rear pair of wheels, and the single low-pressure cylinder forward under the smoke box, driving the front pair of driving wheels. The exhaust came from the single big low-pressure cylinder, so that there were only two puffs to a revolution, instead of the usual four, and this slow thud … thud used to herald their advent long before they swept into view with their distinguishing mark—the big cylinder cover of polished steel in front between the buffers.

It was mostly on the main West Coast line to Scotland, between Lan-caster and Carnforth, that we used to see these compounds. Here at a place named Hest Bank, the one spot on the whole line from London to Edinburgh where it touches the sea, we used to spend our summer holidays on an uncle's seaside farm through which the railway ran. It was a dead level stretch of a few miles, dead level and dead straight, and along a part of it lay the troughs from which passing expresses picked up water at full speed by means of scoops let down from the engine cab. To see one of the Webb compounds carry out this feat at anything up to a mile-a-minute speed, with the spray blowing back over the train, like the crest of a breaker whipped by an offshore wind, never failed to thrill, but there was always the chance the name and number of the engine, especially if it was the second of a “double-header,” might be obscured and that would be annoying and spoil the fun.

It was on this line that, in 1888, I think, and in 1895 the special expresses tore along in the mad East Coast v. West Coast railway races from London to Scotland when an average speed of over sixty miles an hour was attained over a longer distance than between Wellington and Auckland. I wish I could say that I witnessed this race, but I was very young then and I fancy this part of the route was covered in the early hours of the morning. But I do remember lying awake on a soft summer night in the attic of the old farm house and hearing the familiar thud … thud of the compound miles away and, peeping out of the window later, seeing the lighted train with fiery dragon of an engine, lunge round the curve into the straight and gathering speed, fly past into the distance.

This is the enchantment of the railway for youth and it may be that the children of our own central Main Trunk country, for whom the Limited and the Express are always like resounding torchbearers, running their race through the darkness, feel it more than their sophisticated compeers in the daylight sections who see but a nameless engine pulling a familiar train, and never gain to the high romance of the mysterious messenger of the night. But give the engine a name—and we have many worthy names in the history of New Zealand— and you give life and make friends of the railway among the young whom to-morrow you may need. And, perhaps, some day you will have, as in the Old Land, a goodly companionship of lovers of the locomotive, men who will be proud to shake the hand of the driver of their train and congratulate him upon the very fine run made by the “Governor Hobson” shall we say? or “Te Rauparaha,” or the “Sir George Grey,” the “Richard John Sed-don,” or whatsoever else the name may be.

The Romantic

(Continued from page 31.)

“Oh, yes. Far too long. Far too long.” And she was down on her knees beside the dead boy.

“I don't think you understand,” Mephistopheles began, but she waved him into silence and gazed down on the young dead face so close to her own. It seemed such a waste. Such a dreadful, cruel waste. All this death—because of her. With gentle fingers she smoothed the waving hair, closed the staring eyes, and straightened the sprawling limbs. Then she went to cross the dead hands on the dead breast, and not till then did she realise how blind she had been, for the hands told their own tale. The long, tapering fingers, already stiffening in death, were all turned inwards, grasping, like the claws of a bird of prey.

Police-Inspector Brady rose from his chair beside the counter. Fatigue had accentuated the lines on his face, and his deep-set eyes were very tired.

“We'd better get him out of here as quickly as we can,” he said, and he assisted Miss Mitford to rise.

When, long afterwards, she returned to her sitting room, she found that the book she had been reading, with its cover depicting an Elizabethan Gallant, sword in hand, had fallen into the fire. Slowly the leaves had curled up, burst into flame, and then crumbled away, leaving only a shapeless, blackened mass to remind her of the tale.