Railway Locomotives of the Past, plus a few Railway Stations.

The first main railway terminus in Birmingham. Miraculously, the portico still stands!

Nearly all men above a certain age are Vintage Railway enthusiasts. Perhaps not full-time fans, but our latent interest is often re-awakened by seeing an old photograph of a steam locomotive; or maybe we are watching an old film which has a steam train journey in it. In the latter case, few of us can resist the temptation to spot the often outrageous metamorphoses undergone by the locomotive? Poor continuity may result in an L.N.E.R. Pacific locomotive leaving St. Pancras in 1938, which, in the next external shot of the train, is fantastically transformed into a G.W.R. ‘Castle’ on its way from Bristol to Paddington in 1955. We have even known instances of the same alleged train arriving at its final destination pulled by a humble 2-6-2 tank engine. Presumably the other two engines had died of shame? Very few people know this, but at the end of the 1957 film ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, the sound of the locomotive as it approaches the bridge (filmed in Sri Lanka), is in fact the sound of a British freight locomotive, recorded in the North of England (see explanatory note below).

Postcard, unused. Ca. 1908?

Who has not spent some time at Birmingham New Street Station? It has always been, I think, an ‘unfortunate’ station. For a start, it was in two parts, with a road between them: the L.N.W.R. section larger than the M.R. part. Also, it is well below street level, which hems it in dreadfully. But at least in its early days it was open to the light, in the normal way.

Postcard, used in 1907.

Here you see New Street as a classic Victorian station with a great glass roof and daylight streaming in. The glass was painted over at the start of WW2 for the blackout, and after 1945 this was never removed. Worse, in the 1960s it was re-modelled and built over. In 2014, it is undergoing another multi-million pound rebuild, and we passengers descend beneath the surface to wander along gloomy platforms, even in midsummer. Still, it is one of the busiest stations in the country, and even I admit the trains run very well to time!

Postcard, used in 1908.

Postcard, used but stamp removed, so no date. View towards Birmingham.

On this website, we have dabbled with coins, stamps and other vintage items, so it’s the turn of postcards this time. Gravelly Hill station is on the line north from Birmingham New Street to Sutton Coldfield. It’s about half a mile north of Spaghetti Junction. The younger visitor to this moth-eaten website (if there ever are any) may ask: why make a photographic postcard of an admittedly unimportant suburban railway station? The answer is simple. Firstly, the postcard itself. (a) most people had no telephone 100 & more years ago; (b) a postcard could be sent for half an old penny – that is, about 1.2p of today’s money; (c) postcards to local destinations were delivered within an hour or two – there were many postal deliveries during the day in those far-off, primitive times! It was quite common to send a postcard to a friend at 10 o’clock in the morning, asking them if they would like to come to tea that afternoon. They would receive the postcard, write back a reply of acceptance saying: ‘Thank you; yes please. We’ll be there at 4 p.m.’, post it, and you would get it by 2 or 3 p.m., in time to pop to the baker’s shop and buy a few buns. Since most post cards carried just short messages (the Post Office rather insisted on this), the reverse of the card would carry an image. This might be something impressive, but sometimes perhaps just a photo of the street in which you lived. Local photographers would make such shots, and sell them to the locals via the newsagent &c. It goes without saying that there aren’t many formal photographs of ordinary streets – so old postcards are an enormously important source of topographic, historical and sociological study today. The above postcard was probably bought by someone who used that station – or maybe they lived in a house visible in the photo. It’s very common to see a house marked with a cross – ‘we live here’. Best of all, Gravelly Hill Station is still up and running; which, considering it opened in 1862, is pretty good going!

Brighton Road Station. Post Card, unused. Date unknown to me. If the M.R. (Midland Railway)
on the buffer beam is to be trusted, then pre-1923.)

By contrast, Brighton Road Station was only open to passengers for the 66 years between 1875 and 1941. The line is still used for freight traffic. I like this line because the freight line through it ran up an incline which dominated the playground of Camp Hill Grammar School, which I attended in 1955-56. It was a loco-spotter’s paradise, especially if one was satisfied with a modest but almost continual diet of ‘duck-sixes’. These were the workhorses of goods trains on the ‘LMS’. We all became specialists in those. Some of those 0-6-0 classes dated back to the 1880s, and I have always liked Old Things. But very occasionally, there would be a sensational occurrence: a Beyer-Garratt locomotive would come past. These were like two locomotives in one, very big, and to us kids they looked like something from another planet. We had two sittings for school dinner. Great and dire were the moans and groans uttered by those who were in the dining hall when a Garratt was ‘copped’ by those out in the playground at the time – you couldn’t see the railway line from the dinner room! We all had ‘refs’, which were small pocket-size books published by Ian Allan, which listed all current locomotives in service. When you saw one, you would tick it, or more usually underline the number. Of course, nobody, on pain of death, would underline the number of a loco. in their ‘ref’ if they hadn’t actually seen it. In such a case, the world would almost certainly have fallen in. In late 1956, the school moved to a new building in Kings Heath. The same freight line ran past this new school too, but was ‘faintly invisible’ from it. But enough of childhood reminiscence; we have quite a few more postcards to get through…Postcard, not used.

The serious railway buff will know about all these sort of locomotives; we can only add the simplest comments from Google. In any case, most of the postcards are very common & will have been seen many times before by the cognoscenti. But if anyone is not familiar with them, aren’t they lovely & so redolent of a Lost Age?

An unused but still battered card, but no matter. It’s a GWR Ambulance Train – see the red crosses, so obviously of the Great War period, 1914-1918. Even I can discover that number 401-something means it is of the ‘Star’ class. But most of the 4010 block (built in 1908) were actually named ‘Knight of ….’, which is obvious from the name plate. But Knight of what? If the number is 4017, it would be ‘Knight of Liège’, renamed from ‘Knight of the Black Eagle’, black eagles having become exceedingly unpopular in August 1914…. Over to the locomotive Detectives…

Stalwart goods locomotive in ‘works livery’; I remember this type well. 2803 was built in 1905.

Nothing written on the back of this unused postcard, though the front is relatively informative.

Unused postcard, no info.

“GWR Birmingham to London LUNCHEON CAR EXPRESS near Gerrard’s Cross”, says the reverse. Looks like a 29xx number; if so, that was known as the ‘Saint’ class. If – we only say if – the number is 2977 then it would be ‘Robertson’, built in 1905 without a name. It was given ‘Robertson’ in 1907, and I should jolly well think so. One can’t have such superb locomotives without a name hauling GWR Express trains –  Good heavens – hat would the world come to? ‘Robertson’ ran until 1935.

Unused postcard. The number is 33xx, so it’s essentially probably a Bulldog, or perhaps a Bird; anyway it doesn’t matter to me as 4-4-0 is my favourite wheel arrangement. Don’t ask me why. This general type of loco. was around from ~1900 until the 1940s.

This unused postcard was published by the GWR themselves. ‘Kirkland’ was built in 1905 and named after a race-horse. Later it was renumbered 2978 and renamed ‘Charles J Hambro’. It ran until 1946.

Another postcard published by the GWR itself. For once we can read the nameplate: ‘Pendennis Castle’. Built in 1924 and still exists, apparently currently undergoing restoration (2014). There’s something really appealing to me about photos. of locos. in works livery. They look magnificent in their pristine newness, and yet still they are not quite fully-formed in some way.

Aha – an easy one at last! Or is it? 3433 was ‘City of Bath’, but only until 1912. Then, it was renumbered 3710. Since it was built in 1903, the image can be confidently dated 1903-1912, can’t it? 8^)    Her sister loco. ‘City of Truro’ needs no introduction, being widely regarded at the first steam loco. in the world to exceed 100 mile per hour. I first saw ‘City of Truro’ in the Swindon Railway Museum, and like tens of thousands of others, just stood there in dumb awe and delight at her elegant, indeed exquisite and graceful appearance. And why should a highly functional and efficient machine not also have aesthetic appeal? Mind you, I did notice that it was quite a long way from the tender to the firebox. Some years later, I mentioned this fact to a chap who was a senior functionary on the Severn Valley Railway. He chuckled, and said: ‘You’re quite right. I have acted as fireman on ‘City of Truro’, and it’s no picnic!’ More years later still, I got to ride behind her on a Severn Valley special, playing in a Jazz trio. I kid you not:

I’m the one with the 1936 Boosey & Hawkes model 1001 thirteen-key clarinet. 1001’s are easy to spot when you see one (note the ‘square’ speaker key), but not terribly easy to find; they were only made for about 5 years. However, they are ideal for traditional jazz. They are rather shrill in tone, but are easy to play and have excellent ‘penetration’, a quality highly to be esteemed when performing in the company of drummers who have but four extremities yet who can somehow produce six different and largely conflicting rhythms, nearly all of which are redundant. But I digress…

GWR 2283. 4-4-2 tank engines like this were made between 1903 and 1905. They were an adaptation of the 4-4-0 ‘County’ class tender engines, with the same large 6ft 8.5″ driving wheels. These were large for a tank engine, which makes these ‘County Tanks’ so striking. To me, they are handsome machines indeed. But they evidently didn’t ride too well, like the tender engines from which they were derived, and all had disappeared by 1935. This image in not on a postcard; it’s an Award Card. These were given out by the London County Council, and perhaps other local authorities, in schools, as spot prizes for good work in class. That sounds to me to have been an excellent idea; perhaps one that might profitably be considered for use again in 2014? But no; we can’t have kids actually competing against each other for immediate reward, can we? You see, there are so many who are disadvantaged… Anyway, this card was won by Doris Verrall. At least, the signature Doris Verrall appears on the back, as you see below:

Female railway enthusiasts are few and far between, I think? Perhaps Doris Verrall was an exception; or, more likely, took it home and gave it to her brother, or swapped it with a classmate for some sweets, or some cigarette cards of film stars?

GWR, possibly 3327 or 3337? Circa 1900 – 1930s.

What gorgeous things these locomotives are. When in steam, they are of course, alive. Not just metaphorically, but literally. I may be preaching to the choir, but when a big locomotive pulls a train into a station, you are always just a little afraid of it. The platform throbs, rumbles and moves beneath your feet. You tend to feel that you are in the presence of forces beyond comprehension. The initiated may know it is only a large, mobile steam engine, but something else has been put into it. We become aware, that skilled engineers have made something that is more than the sum of its parts. It carried goods, commodities and raw materials from place to place in a few hours, where before it took days or weeks. Passengers too, could travel to visit family, friends and relatives; even go on holiday to the seaside and escape the noxious fumes of the factories and towns in which most of them resided. Above all, I think, the steam locomotive is the greatest engineering triumph of mankind that cannot, in itself, be used as a weapon of War. Many of the things that came later, could be so used, and were. The steam engine was also applied to ships. They could carry freight and passengers too, but ships had already been fighting vessels since the dawn of time. Steam propulsion facilitated their evolution into vast mobile artillery platforms of awesome potential. Such ships could not only sink other ships, but also bombard & obliterate coastal towns at a range of some miles. Again, the internal combustion engine was almost immediately applied to aircraft: to bomb, to strafe, to kill. Nuclear physics led to the atomic bomb – not to merely strafe, but to kill – to exterminate – on a scale we can still hardly comprehend. Long live the puissant and INNOCENT steam locomotive! (End of rant.)

GWR – probably ‘Glastonbury Abbey’? If so, number 4061. Built in 1922, withdrawn in 1957. I must have missed out as a kid growing up in Wolverhampton. My grandfather used often to take me to the High & Low Level stations there to see the trains. ‘Give me the child, and I will give you the man.’ But for all that, I don’t remember seeing an Abbey, let alone Glastonbury Abbey, which is very ironic considering its last shed was Stafford Road, Wolverhampton! Perhaps 4061 was merely sent there to be dismantled. Some of our family worked there, and my grandfather’s garden shed was said to have been ‘magicked’ from the Stafford Road Works when it (the shed) was about to be scrapped. This was before 1939. He had a wooden whistle stamped ‘GWR’ which he used for many years to start & stop the workers in the small lock-making factory in Wolverhampton in which he worked. When he retired, he gave it to me and I had it on my key-ring for many years, but don’t know what happened to it. Grrh.

You may think I am a monomaniac on the GWR. Not quite! Here is GER No. 1861, on another London County Council Award Card. Whoever got this one has not given us their autograph, but they’ve kept it in pretty good condition. We’re rather at sea in trying to identify this class, but it seems to come under the general description of ‘Claud Hamilton’ – the generic name of a series of very successful locomotive classes built by the Great Eastern Railway from 1900 onwards. What a marvellous sky-scape as well – it reminds us of the skies to be seen in our Rupert Bear Annuals back around 1950.

Well, that’s about it. If you’re still with us, hope you enjoyed these images. And oh yes: we need to make the footnote about the ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’. The redoubtable Peter Handford was the U.K. pioneer in making sound recordings of British (and other) steam locomotives. This worked with, and sometimes against, his career as a film sound recordist. His vast output of recordings on his own Transacord label, and later on Argo-Transacord is too well-known to be further described. Apparently, he was offered the job as a sound recordist for the ‘River Kwai’ film, but pressure of other business prevented him from accepting this task. When the film was being edited up, they discovered that somehow, no sound recording had been made of the first locomotive approaching the newly-finished bridge. Someone had the wit to refer the matter to Handford: he would know what type of steam engine sound would be appropriate, and could supply it. And of course, he did. That is why the film sound-track has a British mineral freight train, ascending an incline somewhere in the north of England, rather than the actual locomotive seen approaching the bridge. It may be rather trivial; but I’m sorry, I like Trivia. And have even supplied you with a short extract nicked from the film sound-track, so that you can hear this transplanted engine for yourself, right to the blowing up of the bridge. Warning: This last bit is quite loud!

For more on Peter Handford and his railway recordings, see:



P.S. Couldn’t resist annotating this old GWR advert, which must surely be pre 1914? 2 hours from Paddington to Birmingham! I don’t think they ever ran that fast again, because of the wear & tear of two world wars. Certainly, when I used to travel by steam from Snow Hill to Paddington in the 1960s, the fastest was about 2 hrs. 10 mins.


Page written 6th December 2014.
Page re-formatted 27th October 2017.