Above: a pair of Edwardian era large 'Atlantic' locomotives get a heavy southbound passenger train under way from Grantham in the late 1930s.
An Introduction by John Clayson
The following essay by John F. Clay was first published in 1966 in The Railway Observer in two parts (Vol. 66, 1966; pages 174-176 and 275-277).
The Railway Observer is a magazine published monthly since 1928 by The Railway Correspondence and Travel Society (RCTS). All issues of the entire Railway Observer archive are available via the Society's website RCTS.org.uk either free, for online browsing, or paid for as searchable PDF downloads.
This article is reproduced here by kind permission of the current (2023) Managing Editor of The Railway Observer, Mike Robinson. When it was published in 1966 there were no illustrations, so we've taken the opportunity to supplement it with some photographs.
John Frederic Clay was born in Lincoln in 1914 and had close family ties with the Grantham area. A relative was a clerk with the Great Northern Railway at the town's station. He grew up in Barrowden near Stamford, where his father was a headmaster, then attended Reading University and became a primary school teacher in the Leicester area.
In John's own words, written for his Foreword in LNER Steam at Grantham by Rev. Arthur C. Cawston, 'In the early 1930s, as a schoolboy with a box Brownie camera, I used to haunt the platforms at Grantham station, where I met a young clergyman with a more sophisticated camera.' He goes on to recall that during those platform encounters he met not only local curate Arthur Cawston but also a practiced photographer from Nottingham, Gordon Hepburn.
30 or so years later John wrote this article for his fellow RCTS members, an audience well versed in railway history. On account of this the writer presumes a certain level of familiarity with railway and locomotive development. This need not, however, hinder the general reader's enjoyment because the author is also generous in sharing personal insights into Grantham's railway community. He embellishes the narrative with anecdotes, and he recalls many locomotive drivers and others on the railway who, over the decades between the 1850s and the 1960s, made contributions, both collectively and individually, to fostering the widespread recognition of Grantham as a premier railway centre on the East Coast Main Line.
Grantham - The Rise and Decline of a Railway Centre
by John F. Clay
The closure of Grantham m.p.d. [motive power depot, or engine shed and associated facilities, known in Grantham as 'The Loco'] and the decline in the station’s importance as a traffic centre has produced little comment in the railway press. It is interesting to trace a few of the highlights of the past century, not only as a locomotive story but also as a story of changing human attitudes towards the railway industry. Not architecturally notable, Grantham station was always a popular place with enthusiasts. Traffic observation was rewarding while there was variety in the contrast between the main line engines and the veterans that worked the branch services.
One of the earliest photographs taken of a Great Northern express engine is of a Sharpie standing in Grantham station in 1858 published in Grinling’s History [The History of the Great Northern Railway by Charles H. Grinling]. E. L. Ahrons [a locomotive engineer and author] mentions reboilered Jenny Linds working on the Nottingham services in the latter part of the 19th Century and old railwaymen could recall the Sturrock singles on the Lincoln branch. These engines were said to excel at spark throwing, one driver claiming that “This engine has burnt the feathers off half the sparrows in Lincolnshire.” The Stirling 7-foot 2-2-2s were used up to the early years of the 20th century and some interesting photographs of these engines on the Leicester branch are in the famous Newton Collection in Leicester Museum [the S.W.A. Newton Collection is now in the care of the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland].
It was, of course, the glorious days of the Stirling 8-footers and 7ft. 7in. singles that Grantham enginemen recalled with the greatest pride. Although earlier attempts had been made by the narrow gauge to challenge Gooch’s broad gauge flyers it was the Stirling 8-footer that first achieved an equal degree of public esteem. Grantham drivers rose to fame with the 1888 and 1895 Races to Scotland but they ran almost as well on the fast timings of the Manchester trains between Grantham and King's Cross. Rous Marten made special mention of fast running he had recorded with Drivers Silkstone, Hall, Hawbrook, Lamb and Knight. In the 1930s there were still Pacific drivers who recalled firing with some of these men. Driver Lamb had perhaps the most glamorous reputation of all owing to his exploits with No. 775 in the latter stages of the 1895 Races to Aberdeen. He did equally notable running with 2-2-2 No. 878, running from King's Cross to Grantham in 115 minutes 48 seconds (114 minutes net) with 225 tons. Driver Silkstone with No. 231 and the same load ran up in 115 minutes, 113 net. Opinion was fairly equally divided on the merits of the 7ft. 7in. singles versus the 8-footers but there seemed general agreement that Stirling had “ spoilt ” the design with the 1003 class. Yet it was with one of these, almost certainly Grantham engine and men, that Rous Marten recorded a time of 81½ minutes for the 82.6 miles to York with a load of 195 tons gross. The 1003 class engines occasionally worked the relatively light Newcastle portion of the 5-30 p.m. from King's Cross northwards from Grantham up to 1908/9.
The rugged individualism of the Lincolnshire man is a matter of local pride and the men who toiled on Stirling footplates were no exceptions, tough, hard cases many of them and yet they were skilled in the technique of handling a Single. They are said to have regarded the Races to Scotland as a frivolous proceeding but they were proud of their running standard in regular service. It is not surprising that such men did not, at first, take kindly to the changes brought about by Ivatt. Grantham was, perhaps, not a happy choice for an early allocation of the first Atlantic, No. 990. According to legend Ivatt took some important friends to King's Cross to see the new engine arrive on the up “ Scotsman.” To his surprise a Stirling 2-2-2 came in on time with almost 300 tons. "You must have had a hard trip with this engine, driver.” ‘‘What! No trouble at all with this engine, now if it had been that new-un...” ! The story may well be apocryphal, similar tales are told of Maunsell and Fowler in the early days of the Nelsons and the Scots, but it has been revealed that Ivatt transferred the Grantham shed master to York because of his Stirling bias.
Inevitably some of the famous drivers survived to do good work with the Atlantics and smaller Ivatt engines. The three Hawbrook brothers received honourable mention for their running with Ivatt singles, 1321 class 4-4-0s and the Klondykes. Tales are told of intense rivalry over the coal consumption figures of the large Atlantics, but it is said that, if a train was checked alongside a wagon of locomotive-coal and the night was dark, strange rites were performed. The large-boilered saturated Atlantics had a reputation for being weak on the banks but fast downhill, yet, at first, there were times when they were driven hard uphill and Rous Marten clocked some quite vigorous climbs to Potters Bar and Stoke. Special efforts were undoubtedly made for Rous Marten’s benefit but when the famous Grantham Atlantic No. 281 passed Potters Bar in 184 minutes and reached Peterborough in 77¼ minutes net with 300 tons the Rev. W. J. Scott declared that the run was a chance sample with Driver Wright unaware that he was being timed.
It is perhaps significant that, writing about the Grantham accident of 1906, Rous Marten remarked that the poor climb to Stoke by the ill-fated No. 276 was not typical and he claimed that, in his experience, minimum speeds at Stoke with comparable loads were over rather than under 50 m.p.h. A few years later minimum speeds were in general 10-15 m.p.h. slower than Rous Marten’s claim.
Death fell on Grantham from the skies on a night in 1942 while the toll of the Great North Road has been heavy and continuous yet the railway accident of 1906 retains its horror. Old people’s memories of waking to the glare in the sky and the roll of wheels as the injured were taken to hospital still evoke a shudder. Just why No. 276 over-ran its signals on that fatal night will never be known but, according to legend, a possibly worse accident was narrowly averted. A northbound express is said to have over-run all the Grantham signals and came roaring round the bend near Barrowby Road box just as a cattle train was entering Peascliffe tunnel. The signalman at Peascliffe box realised the situation, dashed out and put detonators on the line with the engine almost on top of him. A full brake application saved a collision in the tunnel. A collection was made for the signalman but the driver was removed from the footplate. Forty years later two different retired signalmen each claimed to have been the hero of the occasion.
With the large East Coast Atlantics and such engines as the Caledonian Railway's 'Cardeans' the simple saturated British express engine, which still retained its nineteenth century front end, was reaching the end of possible development. When extended they must have stretched firemen to the limit. The Great Northern’s attempts to reduce coal consumption by compounding had negative results. Rationally designed simple engines on the Churchward pattern might have become essential but the capital expenditure of a large restocking operation would have been most unwelcome. The situation was saved by superheating. Grantham made good use of their 4-4-0s of the 51-65 series by working the easily timed 2-20 p.m. from King's Cross forward to York with 400-ton loads. It is only fair to recall, however, that Driver Sharp did almost equally well with the saturated No. 41 and 425 tons. In reporting these runs C. J. Allen said that Grantham shed was at that time unrivalled on the G.N.R. for locomotive performance. Such work contrasts with the poor reputation of the D1 class in Scotland in L.N.E.R. days. G.C.R. men who handled the D2s and D3s on heavy excursion trains from Leicester Belgrave Road found them weak on the banks but conceded their ability to run fast downhill even if they 'nodded their heads' in the process.
The improved performance of the large superheated Atlantics was put to good use in the final months of the First World War in working loads of up to 600 tons on easy schedules. No. 1431 driven by Driver J. Ledger of Grantham with a 495-ton load was assisted to Potters Bar and re-starting passed Yaxley, 59.9 miles in 63½ minutes. By this time the two-cylinder Moguls were sharing the work with the Atlantics, their initial starts were good but they could not compete in sustained fast running. The three-cylinder engines No. 1000-7 were a different proposition and their work with 600-ton trains in the 1921 coal strike threw the spotlight on the G.N. main line and gave a significant indication of what was to follow.
Many new designs have appeared since 1922 but those who first saw No. 1470/1 with the uninhibited enthusiasm of childhood have experienced nothing like it since. Initially the Grantham drivers had some misgivings about the Pacifics but before long they were doing good work. A man of Gresley’s professional stature produces varied reactions but such a man can never be ignored and drivers recalled personal encounters with pride. One Grantham driver told how in the mid-1920s he worked 18 bogies up to King's Cross on time. He was met by Gresley who asked him “How do you like my engines?” ‘‘They are all right, Sir, but you hang too much on behind them.” "Well, never mind, when you have worn this one out I'll build you another” !
Visiting engines enlivened the Grantham scene through the years. Between Grantham and Retford G.C.R. engines gave the G.N. men something to think about. The side-windowed cabs of the N.E. Atlantics contrasted with the exiguous Ivatt shelters but the G.N. claimed that “our Atlantics steam better.” In 1948 King Henry VI was on the Leeds trains; an 80-year-old former Pacific driver stood on the platform end. "I remember when Pendennis Castle was here, that Bill Young was a great engineman.” One felt that here was the true testimonial. Local pride, however, had the last word. “Our Pacifics would have done better on the Western if they had used Grantham men, Gresley wanted to send me.” As a result of the 1925 Exchanges the Gresley Pacifics were modified and the standard of running improved. In 1930 C. J. Allen published a number of Pacific runs on the G.N. main line and observed that it was at Grantham that the enterprising feats of driving began. It was clear that Grantham shed was maintaining its old time reputation for time keeping.
Among the less widely published recordings of Grantham Pacifics in the early 1930s may be mentioned No. 4479 Robert the Devil, hauling 615 tons from Grantham to Doncaster 50.5 miles in 56 minutes. No. 2545 Diamond Jubilee, the black sheep of the 1925 trials, but an engine well thought of during its Grantham allocation, worked a 510-ton train from King's Cross to Grantham in 114 minutes following this by passing Newark in 15 minutes 36 seconds, Doncaster in 47¼ minutes and reaching York in 85 minutes. By this time the Atlantics had been improved with their thirty-two element superheaters and Driver J. Ledger ran up from Grantham in 114½ minutes with No. 3285 and 460 tons. Shortly afterwards he worked 450 tons to York in 85½ minutes with the same engine. Good as they were, these Atlantic runs were eclipsed a few years later by men from other sheds. When through workings from King's Cross to Newcastle were instituted Grantham men lost their most glamorous assignments, though they continued to work many heavy and important trains.
In the 1930s road transport was making heavy inroads into railway traffic and Grantham tradespeople were serving car and coach on the Great North Road in a way that surpassed the heyday of the stage coach. Nevertheless the railway still loomed large in the life of the town. The local weekly newspaper, The Grantham Journal, gave wide coverage to events on the railway. The trials of No. 2001 Cock o'the North were reported in great detail with long extracts from Modern Transport. Interest rose high when The Silver Jubilee made its spectacular debut. The boys of King's School were all taken to the playing fields to watch the trial run of 27th September 1935. During the winter of 1935 it was the practice of the men in one of the town’s clubs to stop the billiards, the drinking, the card playing and the tale telling at five minutes to seven each evening. Then, as the chime of the A4 floated over the town, watches were consulted and the normal activities resumed. It was also reported that it was rare indeed for the train to be as much as two minutes down. Even in the hunting notes in the local paper it was reported that as the Belvoir hunt emerged from a fox cover near Barkston they had a wonderful view of 'the new Silver Jubilee' train also in full cry. The railway was often the centre of interest in a weekly feature written by a local rector. The intense public appeal of the Gresley streamliners is something that can never fully be appreciated by those who have only known the Deltics.
Grantham shed received its first allocation of two A4s in 1938 and used them on very long rosters which took them to Edinburgh (July 1938 Railway Observer). When an A4 was not available the 180lb. Pacifics deputised in a very competent manner. Grantham drivers praised the capacity of the A4’s but hated the side valances. Grantham’s fastest turn was the 08.30 to King's Cross which was given 58 minutes for the 58.9 miles up from Huntingdon. This train was still called the “Mark-lane” by the men and was the successor of one on which fast running had been made by the Stirling singles. In 1932 I enjoyed a pleasant run up in a net time of 54 minutes with Galtee More and 300 tons.
Platform end observation in 1937-9 revealed the very high standard of locomotive work in those days. The advent of the V2s, however, meant that these engines rather than pairs of N.E. Atlantics worked relief trains off the N.E. section. This working was more efficient but photographers grumbled. Mallard’s record aroused intense local interest but the secret had been well kept and few lineside observers saw the event. The only witness I ever met was a boy working on a farm near Bytham. His description of the speed of the train was graphic but unprintable.
Rumours of super A4s and even bigger engines would have made 1939 a year of joyous expectancy had we not been living under the shadow of impending world catastrophe. Finally our fears became reality, and the railways we loved vanished overnight never fully to be restored.
The glamorous streamliners with their speed records gave place to a grimy procession of crowded 18 to 20-coach trains. At times there was good locomotive work. The war-time disorganisation makes it difficult to trace the men responsible in every case but Grantham men were partly responsible for Silver Link’s twenty-four coach 850-ton epic run to Newcastle. No. 2549 Persimmon hauling 860 tons ran up from Peterborough in 96 minutes and No. 2557 Blair Athol with 750 tons ran up from Grantham in a net time of 124½ minutes. Both these 180lb. Pacifics had been Grantham stalwarts before the war though it is uncertain which men were responsible in the 1940s. As the railways served the national cause by moving the munitions of war, railway travel became uncomfortable to the point of undermining the competitive position when peace returned.
The war and the aftermath brought back the old practice of engine changing at Grantham and to deal with this Grantham received a considerable stud of A4 class Pacifics. Maintenance problems made these sad days for the East Coast route but in 1948/9 some of the Grantham A4s were performing well as, for example, No. 60030, Driver Brownsell and Fireman Musson, with 510 tons, running from King's Cross to Grantham in 107¼ minutes net with a 62 m.p.h. average from Tallington to Stoke. Some of the Peppercorn A1s reached Grantham and they promised to be the best of the post Gresley Pacifics but when O. S. Nock published the results of his first footplate trips on the new engines in 1950 they displayed good steaming but rather lifeless running. Nationalisation had brought alien ideas of locomotive organisation to the East Coast route and Grantham lost most of its Pacifics. The result was that King's Cross was saddled with more engines than it could possibly maintain and by the end of 1950 the service had almost disintegrated. Grantham men carried on as well as they could with other people’s engines and somehow dragged through the summer of 1951.
With the winter service of 1951 there came a great improvement. Grantham received a large allocation of A1s and the reputation of these engines rose. One was turned out each day in immaculate condition for the northbound 'Scotsman'. Driver Marshall and Fireman Pickard left Grantham 19 minutes late with 60156, they were stopped for six minutes at Doncaster but by running from York to Darlington in 39 minutes pass to pass they reached Newcastle on time. Driver E. Smith and Fireman Hughes with No. 60148 and 460 tons recovered time lost by a brake failure at St. Neots and ran Peterborough to Grantham in 28 minutes 44 seconds start to stop with an average of 73.4 m.p.h. from Tallington to Stoke. Good as this was, as an example of sustained d.b.h.p. [drawbar horsepower] it is only fair to record that it has been surpassed by A4 class engines. Shortly afterwards Driver Smith reached 97 m.p.h. at Tallington with 450 tons and followed it with 73 minutes up from Peterborough.
Further reorganisation took place and Grantham again lost some of the crack trains
though they still performed much useful work. The A1s began to be transferred away and they were replaced by ageing A3s. Some of the men were dismayed, but as double chimneys were fitted opinions changed and with these engines Grantham men wrote the final brilliant page in the history of their shed. Details are fresh in the minds of our members. A personal experience, typical of the general standard, took place on a Saturday evening in August 1959 when No. 60063 Isinglass on the 6.35 p.m. ex-King's Cross ran to Huntingdon 58.9 miles in 59 minutes 9 seconds (57 minutes net) with 425 tons and twice attained a maximum of 85 m.p.h. Such a run was of no more than average standard for a Grantham A3 at that time. Latterly, the grimy condition of many of these engines, however, underlined the difficulty of recruiting labour for dirty maintenance duties and this was perhaps the most valid reason for replacing steam.
Many Grantham people believed that the G.N. loco works might easily have settled there rather than at Doncaster. Proof of this lacks evidence, and it was in the building of traction engines, portable engines and perhaps a few traction engine type shunters at the works founded by Richard Hornsby, and steam rollers from Aveling Barford Ltd., that Grantham contributed to the age of steam. It was by the merest chance that Richard Hornsby and Sons Ltd. failed to anticipate the engine ascribed to Rudolf Diesel. Had the railways been 'Hornsbyised' rather than 'Dieselised' it would have remained a fact that the internal combustion engine benefitted competitors rather more than the railway industry. The adaptation of the diesel to railway service may have been inevitable but in view of the excellent schedules prevalent today on the East Coast route we may regret the fact that the maturity of modernisation has not been accompanied by a better harvest.
The desolate wilderness that once was Grantham Locomotive Yard is haunted by
the ghosts of generations of men and engines from curiosities absorbed from the Ambergate line to the incomparable A4s. Although it fell to the lot of others to write the most exciting chapters of the story of East Coast steam, Grantham’s contribution has been invaluable. Having lost its shed Grantham now faces the prospect of losing its branch lines. If this takes place few main line trains will deign to stop. Enthusiasts rarely visit the place now and the diesels drove their way through largely unheeded by the townsfolk who nevertheless will continue to expect the railway to be there should their cars break down during a bus strike.
The following letter appeared in a subsequent issue of The Railway Observer, Vol. 66, 1966, page 372:
To the Editors,
The Railway Observer.
How nice it was to read John F. Clay’s tribute to Grantham in the June and August issues. The excellence of Grantham’s locomotive work on the East Coast Route has never received the recognition it so richly deserved and Mr. Clay has gone a long way towards redressing the omission.
Even in the darkest days of the war and its aftermath, it was rare indeed for a Grantham man to fail en route and in the halcyon years before 1939 it was unthinkable !
The Grantham driver responsible for Silver Link’s epic 850-ton run from King's Cross was Bill Carman. Some years later Bill was sitting quietly in the mess room at King's Cross waiting a return trip and listening to a never-ending tale of woe about finding engines for the day’s work from the foreman. At last Bill could stand it no longer and he up and says ‘‘ Garn—you don’t know what it’s like to have trouble. You are a
one way shed—working northwards. You should come to Grantham where we work
four ways, north south east and west!”
It was good too to see my friends Jim Marshall and Jack Pickard mentioned. These
were one of the finest crews ever to work the East Coast Route. It was their proud
boast that however late the “Scotsman” was at Grantham it reached Newcastle on
time. It was a proud day when Grantham were given the task of running this train
non-stop over the 163 miles from their home station to Newcastle. All concerned saw to it that Grantham traditions were preserved on this job and a very fine job they made of it too.
Those of us who knew the enginemen on the G.N. line retain very happy memories
of the Grantham men and their engines. Together they set a standard comparable to any in the British Isles and in no small way they played their part in the success of the express passenger engines designed by Stirling, Ivatt and Gresley.
Eric NEVE (R.C.T.S. 382).
An Short Afterword
Things were never again going to be the way they were on the railway before the 1960s but, considering today's electrified East Coast Main Line and the cross country rail services available to and from Grantham, albeit only for passengers, perhaps they haven't turned out quite as badly as John and others writing at the time feared they might.
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