Unique GWR numberplate in auction spotlight

By Geoff Courtney

ONE of the brass cabside numberplates from a unique GWR express locomotive that was described by a leading railway engineer and journalist as one of the few failures to emerge from Swindon and was even allegedly regarded as a ‘white elephant’ by its designer, is to go under the hammer on November 17.

The locomotive was The Great Bear, the only Pacific ever built by the GWR and also the first 4-6-2 to be built in Britain.

Unique but flawed: In a photograph that emphasises its bulk, No. 111 The Great Bear is seen in Old Oak Common shed, west London, on May 21, 1921, less than three years before the landmark GWR Pacific was dismantled and some of its parts used to build a Castle class locomotive that carried the same number but was named Viscount Churchill. The identity of the immaculate bowler-hatted gentleman posing with a walking cane is not recorded, but whoever he is, his attire and demeanour provide a sharp contrast to those commonly encountered in a vast working steam locomotive depot. One of the cabside numberplates from the unique Pacific is to go under the hammer at a GW Railwayana auction on November 17. NORMAN PREEDY ARCHIVE

Designed by chief mechanical engineer George Jackson Churchward, it emerged from Swindon in February 1908 as No. 111, and was the centre of what today would be described as ‘PR spin’ due to it publicity value to the GWR.

However, its axle loading of more than 20 tons meant its route availability was limited to the Paddington to Bristol main line, and its performance proved not to be a significant improvement on such Churchward-designed 4-6-0 classes as the Star and Saint.

Despite modifications, including to the superheating, No. 111 failed to excel, and its fate was doubtless sealed when the more powerful Castle class was introduced in 1923 to the design of Charles Collett, who had succeeded Churchward after his retirement the previous year.

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