Letters: Why a ‘Night Owl’ beats The Great Bear

You invited comment on a possible new-build of The Great Bear.  An intriguing proposition;  this was GJ Churchward’s experiment based on his view of probable future requirements for more powerful express locomotives.

As a departure from traditional GWR motive power design it didn’t do too badly.

The main drawback was a seeming lack of availability due to its high axle weight (this turned out to be largely a myth generated by the civil engineer’s failure to keep the traffic department ‘up to speed’, but that’s another story.)

A GWR postcard of Britain’s first Pacific, No. 111 The Great Bear. ROBIN JONES COLLECTION
A GWR postcard of Britain’s first Pacific, No. 111 The Great Bear. ROBIN JONES COLLECTION

Another problem was the trailing truck, which was prone to derailment when reversing on the substandard track to be found in yards and sidings.  The design, incorporating inside journals, caused overheating problems, too,  being susceptible to ingress of ash and grit.  So, in my view, not the best choice for a new-build.

In fact, The Great Bear might have survived but several factors militated against this.  Firstly, Churchward was a cautious man not given to hasty decisions so the Bear was very much on trial.  Secondly the First World War intervened, preventing further development.  Thirdly, in 1919, traffic officers pressed him for a fast, heavy freight design.  Rather than try to perfect the Bear, Churchward settled for tried and tested principles in his magnum opus, the 4700 class, a brilliant success once the No. 7 boiler was fully available.

Not long after, Collett took over.  He was unadventurous to say the least and, on May 1, 1924, gave a short presentation to the Locomotive Committee, which was simply a hatchet-job on the Bear,  laden with exaggerations and biased estimates. Shortly after he had the Bear rebuilt as a Castle No 111, Viscount Churchill.

By the bye, I’ve never considered Collett to be the ‘full shout’ since I learned about Tom Daniels’ encounter with him over the subject of a trial of Caprotti valve-gear.  Collett grudgingly allowed No. 2935 Caynham Court  to be tried, but killed any chance of success by stipulating that “no changes of any kind are to be made other than the sustitution of the valve gear”.

As an alternative to the recreation of The Great Bear I think we already have a contender in waiting: the 4709 Night Owl project at Didcot.  As a reminder of Churchward’s genius, what more could one ask?

Martyn McGinty,
Frome, Somerset.

Read more letters, opinion, reviews, news and views in Issue 220 of Heritage Railway

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