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Issue 88 - Scotland's Railway Workhorses

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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Scotland's Railway Workhorses

John Hannavy explores the legacy of Scotland's locomotive builders

Over the years during which I have worked on Scotland Magazine my interests in our country’s rich heritage have been given full reign - from spectacular landscapes to magnificent buildings, from the country’s great writers to its great manufacturers. To regular readers, my admission to being an incurable steam enthusiast will come as no surprise. It is a passion which regularly overlaps with my journalistic meanderings and, as this is the 100th feature article I have written for this publication since I joined in issue three, way back in July 2002, I am celebrating that milestone - and indulging myself - by exploring the story of one of Scotland’s greatest industrial exports, the steam locomotive.

Scottish locomotive works exported across the world, as well as supplying locomotives and rolling stock to the country’s own railways. In addition to mainline engines, Scottish builders - especially Andrew Barclay, Sons & Company of Kilmarnock - manufactured the industrial workhorses that gave sterling service over decades in hundreds of colliery and factory yards both at home and abroad.

More than 160 Barclay locomotives survive, most in the UK, but 30 of them can be found spread across the world at locations in Argentina, Australia, India, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Spain, Trinidad & Tobago and the United States. Scottish engineering was renowned the world over, so these solidly built and highly reliable engines were exported in large numbers.

While many of the surviving examples are museum exhibits or are awaiting restoration, a number still regularly pull passenger trains on heritage railways scattered across the country from the north of Scotland to the south-west of England - not bad considering that the majority of the locomotives are now between 70 and 100 years old. They are cheap to run and easier to maintain than their large mainline counterparts, yet powerful enough to pull quite long trains - an ideal combination for the heritage lines where economic considerations are of paramount importance. Having spent some time at the controls of a small 0-6-0ST tank engine, I can confirm that they are also a delight to drive.

Scotland was an industrial powerhouse during the 19th and 20th Centuries, manufacturing and exporting much of the output from its finest manufacturers, and the owners of the world’s expanding railways knew where to come for quality equipment: Glasgow and the central belt.

Today, sadly, little remains of the huge engineering works in which some of the greatest steam locomotives ever built were constructed; but many of the engines themselves, now lovingly restored and back doing what they were designed to do, remain as a testament to the thousands of men and women who once worked in the industry.

When railways were being developed in Scotland - during a period that can only really be described as industrial madness - businessmen the length and breadth of the country saw what they believed to be a gilt- edged guaranteed opportunity to make an industrial killing.

Myriad small companies raised capital to develop relatively short lengths of line, initially to serve local interests, and later to offer connections to the growing network of main lines. Very few of those companies - and there were almost 150 of them - ever showed a profit for their investors. In their enthusiasm, relatively few had actually worked out a viable business plan based on achievable returns from their massive investment.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that more than 60 manufacturers sprung up - in sometimes-unlikely places - to build the leviathans on which the railway companies’ backers depended for their success. That’s two locomotive builders for every five railway operating companies - a totally unsustainable ratio in a country of just 2.6 million people, less than half the number who live in Scotland today.

Not surprisingly, many manufacturers lasted for just a few years, opening in the mid-1840s and closing down or being absorbed by larger companies before the end of the decade, their individual output sometimes fewer than a dozen locomotives. It would seem that their business plans were no more robust than those of the railway companies.

One company never made it to the starting blocks: Timothy Burstall of Leith’s first locomotive, named ‘Perseverance,’ might have had a chance to become as well- known as Stephenson’s ‘Rocket,’ but for an unfortunate accident on its way to the famous ‘Rainhill Trials’ in 1829. Burstall was already a maker of steam road coaches when he decided to stake his claim to a share of the lucrative railway market.

It was not to be. The locomotive suffered considerable damage on its way to Liverpool and although it did make some preliminary runs on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway’s tracks on the days before the famous trials, it never managed to get beyond 4 mph, and did not take part on the trials day itself.

The majority of the locomotive builders were located in the central belt - Glasgow and its environs; Ayrshire; Perth; Dundee; and Leith. There were a couple in Aberdeen; there was also the Highland Railway’s locomotive works at Lochgorm, Inverness, and the Great North of Scotland Railway’s Inverurie Loco Works - a name still carried by the town’s Highland League football team.

Relatively quickly, a few major manufacturers emerged who would go on to dominate not just the home market for steam locomotives, but some of them would export across the world as well.

By the closing years of the 19th Century, in addition to Andrew Barclay, four great enterprises dominated the market: the Caledonian Railway at their St. Rollox Locomotive Works; Dubs & Company’s at Queens Park; Neilson & Reid’s Atlas Works; and Sharp, Stewart & Company at the Hyde Park Works, all four of them based in the Springburn area of Glasgow.

The numbers involved were huge. In the year 1900 alone, Neilson & Reid’s 3,500 workers turned out over 300 locomotives. Sharp, Stewart & Company had moved from Manchester to Springburn in 1888, into the former Clyde Locomotive Company works - which they expanded considerably. By the time of their merger with Du¨bs & Company and Neilson & Reid just 15 years later in 1903, to create the North British Locomotive Company, they had built an estimated 5,000 locomotives. Du¨bs & Company had built around the same number.

The new merged company, the largest locomotive manufacturer in Europe, had a workforce of more than 8,000, and would go on to build locomotives for railways in Angola, Argentina, China, Egypt, France, Japan, Palestine, Paraguay, Spain and just about every railway in the British Empire.

While much of the output from the various Springburn factories was destined for British train operators, huge numbers of steam locomotives were exported from the Clyde. It is estimated that in total more than 30,000 were hauled down to the river on tracks laid along the streets from the factories, initially by teams of Clydesdale horses, later by traction engines and eventually by heavy diesel tractors. The North British Locomotive Company alone exported around 2,000 units to South African Railways.

Once they reached the river, they were lifted onto ships by the giant Stobcross Crane that still stands as a monument to the industry on Finnieston Quay. The crane - officially known by the rather unappealing name of the Clyde Navigation Trustees Crane No.7 - was completed in 1928, replacing an earlier one that had been erected in the 1890s and demolished to make way for a planned bridge across the river. When the bridge project was cancelled, the new crane - the last giant ‘Hammerhead’ cantilever crane to be built on the riverside - took its place. It could lift loads weighing a staggering 175 tons. Despite looking like one of Sir William Arrol’s Titan cranes, this one was built by a consortium of the Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company and Cowans, Sheldon & Company of Carlisle.([For more on Glasgow’s Titan cranes, see: Scotland Magazine #87).

Unfortunately, the big Glasgow locomotive builders never really adapted to the demise of steam and, by 1962, the North British Locomotive Company had been wound up. Ironically, when it ceased trading, its goodwill and some of its assets passed to the much smaller Andrew Barclay, Sons & Company in Kilmarnock who became the last builder of steam locomotives in Scotland.

Some of Scotland’s finest can be enjoyed at the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway where Caledonian Railways No.419 - built at St. Rollox in 1907 - and No.673 Maude built by Neilson & Reid in 1891 regularly haul trains. In the adjacent Museum of Scottish Railways, visitors can see the Great North of Scotland Railway’s 4-4-0 No.49 Gordon Highlander, built by North British in 1920 and on loan from the Glasgow Museum of Transport, together with hundreds of other exhibits relating to the history of the country’s railway companies and locomotive builders.

The Riverside Museum in Glasgow houses several impressive locomotives including a giant 4-8-2, one of the 2000 built by North British for South African Railways. Also on display is a Drummond-designed 0-6-0T tank engine built by North British in 1917 for the Glasgow & South Western Railway; a 4-2-2 passenger locomotive built by Neilson in 1886 for the Caledonian Railway; and No.103, a 4-6- 0 good engine built in 1894 by Sharp, Stewart & Company for the Highland Railway. No.103 is the only preserved example of a Highland Railway locomotive.

On the Strathspey Railway between Boat of Garten and Aviemore, visitors experience journeying behind Caledonian Railway’s McIntosh 0-6-0 No.828, built in 1899 at St. Rollox, the sole survivor of its class. In Rev Wilbert Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine books, Donald and Douglas are based on this locomotive.

If you make your way south of the border to Shildon, you can see Furness Railway No. 20, an A5 Class 0-4-0 tender engine built in 1863 by Sharp, Stewart & Company, now Britain's oldest standard-gauge steam locomotive still regularly doing what it was built to do.

On heritage lines across the UK - and occasionally on the main lines - the beautiful Jubilee Class locomotives can be seen in steam. Of the four Jubilees in preservation, North British built two - Bahamas and Kohlapur - and, at the time of writing, both are being overhauled and should return to service soon.

A number of heritage lines even offer the opportunity to drive a steam locomotive. To me, driving a Scottish-built one - whether it is a little industrial tank engine or a massive Class 8F freight locomotive - gives a special frisson to the experience. That intoxicating smell of hot oil, burning coal and even hotter steam can be totally addictive.

Visitor Information

Riverside Museum
100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow, G3 8RS
+44 (0) 1412 872 720

Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway
Bo’ness Station, Union St, Bo’ness, EH51 9AQ
+44 (0) 1506 822 298

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