The Gresley Spirit around Edinburgh

In Scottish folklore it is believed that no matter where you are in the world, at the moment of your death your spirit immediately returns to the place of your birth. Consequently, because in 1876 Sir Nigel Gresley was born in Scotland , his spirit – naturally – would have returned to Scotland’s capital city.

The biggest concentration of his locomotives in Scotland was probably in and around Edinburgh. Perhaps therefore his ghost might be allowed to occasionally hang around Clockmill Road where St Margarets sheds used to be, or by the portals of Calton Tunnel at the entrance to the Waverley Station. His wonderful locomotives were synonymous with these parts of the city.

With pride he can wonder in amazement as he casts back to the time when his engines thundered through Craigentinny to build up speed for the ascent of Abbeyhill, or perhaps – with some humility – watch his Pacifics slip on the last lap into the vast Waverley station, often needing an ex ‘NBR’ shunt to help the train in to its allocated platform!

Between time at these haunts he may be permitted to traverse the steam and smoky route to Heaven where he can perfect even more his conjugated valve gear – good or bad depending on your point of view.

Sir Nigel Gresley died in April 1941, and I came on to the scene a few weeks later at the beginning of May following on from the worst blitz of the war at Clydebank. Indeed I was always told that my arrival was really an unreleased bomb which had accidentally fallen on its way back to Germany. Well, you can believe anything!

To all intents and purposes I was born not much further than a long stone throw from St Margarets yard where my father – plus other friends and relatives – earned their daily living. Tongue in cheek, the perpetuation of the Gresley spirit fell to me and whilst family and friends used to refer to my elder brother as having water in his blood (he became a naval architect), I was considered as having steam in mine – Gresley of course!

There was never enough time to visit St Margarets as often as I wanted, especially after 1949 when the family moved to Saughton Mains in Edinburgh’s western suburbs. Nevertheless I would use any excuse, such as taking my father’s ‘piece’, to enable one to board these magnificent engines.

My various pretences to call on ‘Big Tam’ (as my father was known) at St Margarets enabled me to become very familiar with the massive variety of locomotives – not just Gresley ones – all of which had their own character and personality.

In reality was there ever a better railway engineer than Sir Nigel Gresley? Not just because he designed the locomotive that holds the world’s steam record, but because he produced ‘horses for courses’ (excuse the pun if you’re thinking of his A1/A3 names), albeit with a certain amount of standardisation.

(64B) Haymarket was blessed with many A3 Class locomotives, and my favourite was 60035 “Windsor Lad”. This particular locomotive spent most of its working life in the Edinburgh area, especially on expresses to Glasgow and Newcastle, and not least of all over the ‘Waverley Route’ plus the Fife main lines to Dundee and Perth. Mr ‘Jock’ Ross, a Top Link driver at Haymarket who happened to be my next door neighbour was the regular driver of this engine which he declared as very much his favourite locomotive.

He had nothing but praise for the power of these locomotives, particularly during the war years, and assured me that on one occasion he uplifted 22 coaches from Newcastle to Edinburgh without double-heading which was quite an achievement. Mr Ross ended his days on Deltics, and whilst he accepted the modernisation needed for the railway system of that day, nevertheless his first love was for Gresley steam.

Whenever I think of a steam engine, Gresley’s V3 tank always springs to mind as the first class of locomotive with which I could identify. I’m sure this comes from the drawings my father made, plus my mental images of holidays, to which I associated these engines. I could only have been about five years old (hence immediately after the last War), but whenever we went for a day out we started our journey at Leith Central where empty coaching stock tended to be stored overnight. Invariably it was a V3 which hauled these trains up to the ‘Waverley’ before handing over to a V2 or a Pacific. It also meant that you got the best seats before the masses boarded at the principal station!

Over half of these V1/V3 tank engines were allocated to the Scottish Region. Those working in the Edinburgh area were mainly based at St Margarets Shed primarily for duties on the Dunbar, Musselburgh and North Berwick branches; Edinburgh suburban lines, and further afield to Galashiels in the Borders. 67668 headed the final passenger services from Penicuik to Edinburgh (Waverley) on 9th September 1951 and hauled the last special over the Dalkeith branch on 25th August 1962, being withdrawn shortly after that journey. 67608 took the last scheduled train out of Leith Central prior to that station being converted into a diesel maintenance depot.

I have always had great affection for the V2’s, and had more of them been named, it is possible that they might have become even more popular than the A3s and A4s. It was a named V2 that I climbed up on at St Margarets when I was eight years old — plus a few ‘Glens’, K3s and ‘Pugs’. Anyway, Sunday at St Margarets was quite a highlight for a very small boy beside an extremely large, but beautiful locomotive, well accoladed as the “engines which won the war”, such was their power and reliability.

Whether hurtling round the curve at Saughton Junction, or accelerating away from the Tay Bridge towards Leuchars at the head of the ex Aberdeen ‘Blue Spot’ refrigerated fish special bound for London, this class of locomotive seemed to be perfectly at home on any part of the railway system. For that reason, more than any other, I feel the V2 was the real Gresley masterpiece, and not really given the full credit to which it was entitled.

Sir Nigel designed his engines as unique structures in their own right, even though most of them had a common means of propulsion. The K3s in particular couldn’t help but impress, with their massive six feet diameter boilers. To me the conjugated valve gear on this class seemed to sound out more prominently than any other Gresley three-cylinder locomotive.

Initially I wasn’t really interested in writing engine numbers down, I was more attracted to locomotives with a name. I’m sure my strength in geography was simply due to Gresley’s D49 ‘Shires’ and A4 “Streaks” – and I don’t mean naked engine men!. My own county ‘Morayshire’ – represented by 62712 – is preserved at Bo’ness by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society after ending its ‘commercial’ days as a standby boiler at Edinburgh’s Slateford Laundry!

And, who could fail not to be impressed by (64B) Haymarket based ‘Commonwealth of Australia’, ‘Empire of India’ or our own beloved ‘Union of South Africa’. They must have been powerful countries, simply by the way these engines on the Glasgow run regularly beat those on the Perth ‘4pm Races’ through Saughton Junction.

Nevertheless, after all these years, it is surprising that the Gresley engines which stand out in memory – by association – are A3 class “Dick Turpin”, “Shotover”, “Neil Gow”: 60080/1/2. (The mental picture of a notorious highwayman jumping over someone playing a fiddle has always remained in my mind, though in reality the A3s were primarily named after racehorse winners.)

An engine which fascinated me as a sat on the walls of Saughton Junction was the V4 Class 2-6-2 61700 “Bantam Cock”, one of only two that were built, both being allocated to (65A) Eastfield shed in Glasgow. Although they finished their days at Thornton Junction these engines did a lot of useful work where they earned the reputation of being fast and economical if properly handled. Often considered as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of Gresley designs; the prototype emerged at the time of his sudden death.

Just mentioning the West Highland line gives me ‘goose pimples’ as I have a tremendous fondness for this part of Scotland. The K2/2 moguls were heavily identified with this line, and although allocated to Eastfield for operation on the railway to Fort William and Mallaig they were also seen on freight trains through the Edinburgh suburbs or on shed from time to time. Thirteen of the class were named after ‘West Highland’ lochs. In acknowledgement of the fierce climatic conditions of the Scottish environment side window cabs were fitted along with an extended cab roof. 61794 “Loch Arkaig” was the last named K2 in service.

The Class K4 2-6-0s were specifically designed for the West Highland routes to eliminate double-heading of trains. In 1959 they finished their useful life working in Fife where their high tractive effort was much appreciated on coal trains. The look of 61995 was completely spoiled on one side by the fact that it had a replacement elbow-shaped outside steam pipe from a ‘V1’ tank loco.

In a heavy industrial area like the Lothians, freight engines really came into their own, particularly the J38 class which were totally allocated to Scotland. However, some of the more numerical J39s – the first 0-6-0 tender locomotives built by the LNER -found their way north of the Border, often used in a ‘mixed-traffic’ capacity. Whilst St Margarets had an allocation of J39s, the three main sheds in Edinburgh had a Gresley presence when surprisingly 64794 was based at the former LMS Dalry Road Shed on the other side of the city quite near to the ‘glamorous’ Haymarket depot where Sir Nigel’s engines were treated like Gods. (Well, it is a spiritual article!)

By 1925 there was an urgent need in Scotland for powerful goods engines to handle the heavy traffic from the Fife coalfields. The result was the free steaming Class J38 locomotive which ended up among the last handful of Gresley types to remain in service. I do not recall ever seeing a ‘clean’ J38; indeed they seemed at their best in the muck and grime of everyday existence! 65927 was a personal favourite as it had been seen with the St Margarets breakdown-crane. My Great Uncle Tom was regularly involved in the operation of this latter piece of apparatus.

Perhaps a strange prototype to be allocated to Scotland was the J50/3 tank engines; seven of the class finding themselves transferred far northwards. That particular group found themselves at both the principal LNER sheds in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with two of them eventually heading across the latter city to the former LMS stronghold at Polmadie! Whilst technically a ‘GNR’ design, the Scottish allocation were actually built during LNER days.

I always tend to associate the Class N2 0-6-2T engines with Kings Cross and the London outer services, nevertheless forty of them were to be found in a similar role around Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow, though not requiring condensing apparatus, but had taller chimneys and originally fitted with Westinghouse braking systems. Most of the Scottish contingent returned south once the V1/V3 tank engines came on to the scene, but ten of them were still in the Central Belt during the early sixties.

There was indeed a spiritual affection for the A4s, and never more so than 60009 “Union of South Africa” which fortunately is still with us and until recently was based on the preserved Severn Valley Railway. During the Second World War she hauled a troop train with a record number of 26 coaches. This particular engine on one occasion – owing to flood damage – actually recorded (along with sister engine “Kingfisher”) the longest non-stop journey of well over 400 miles in so far as the train was diverted via Kelso and St Boswells. Provision had been made for a stop at Galashiels to take on water and attach a pilot engine to assist on the climb up to Falahill Summit if needed, but it was not required.

When the locomotive was withdrawn by British Rail in 1964 it was purchased privately and ran over almost one mile of track on the base of the former Lochty, East Fife Branch line, becoming the first preserved operating railway in Scotland. Shortly after this British Rail permitted live steam propulsion to be used once again on the main line across Fife. Once more ‘No 9’ was back on her former regular playground, and I had the privilege of being a guest on this ‘re-run’ as a representative of a daily morning newspaper.

Since then she has hauled many steam specials throughout Britain – not least of all on the former Highland line to Inverness. I wonder what Sir Nigel would have thought of that? Indeed, on one of these specials from Perth to Aberdeen, “Union of South Africa” completed the 89 miles stretch in a record 87 minutes!

Traditionally the former ‘North British Railway’ operated a system whereby drivers were allocated to their own engines. This approach continued well into ‘BR’ days when ‘No 9’ was primarily the preserve of Jim Paterson, one of Haymarket’s top-link drivers.

He joined the ‘North British Railway’ in 1908 and became a most competent driver. His resourcefulness was put to the test during the disastrous floods of 1948 when his prompt action prevented a serious mishap. In appreciation he received a special award and certificate. His last assignment was the Royal Train when the Queen travelled to Doncaster for the St Leger in 1955. Although becoming a driver immediately after the First World War, he really belongs to the Gresley regime. His two loves were engine-driving and lay-preaching, excelling himself in both.

When I interviewed him in 1973 he said, “I have had a few thrills and many an anxious moment, but that is nothing compared with the unspeakable joy of controlling such a ‘steed’, and having the care and responsibility for thousands of lives. Never do I step on the footplate without first seeking God’s blessing and committing to His care, myself and the passengers.”

I’m sure Gresley would have been pleased with that statement, especially in being the son of a clergyman.

By Ian Lamb

Posted in Ian Lamb.