The Days Of Those Iron Horses (3 October 1975)
The various TV programmes about the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway – the first public railway in the world – have been watched with peculiar interest not only by this district’s still considerable body of railwaymen and their families but by a growing number of amateur “fans” as well.
Indeed, some of the latter made the trip to Co Durham to see the unique parade of over 30 old-time steamers that was the main feature of the celebrations.
Once again, and maybe for the last time, we heard the sort of chorus steam whistles that used to herald each New Year from the precincts of the old Bletchley loco shed before electric traction finally took over a few years ago.
Those old steamers were noisier, filthier and harder on their crews than their modern counterparts. Nor were they as fast. However, there was always something about them that appealed. Perhaps it was because those snorting, panting iron horses seemed to have a life of their own. Each was the source of its own power and flaunted it unashamedly – as those of us who walked through clouds of steam over the old open footbridge at Bletchley station have cause to remember.
Yet, in their defence, I must admit there have been times, when, owing to deep snow, they have been my only possible means of getting from one place to the next.
The Stockton railway opened in 1825. Bletchley saw its first railway engine 12 or 13 years later when the London and Birmingham Railway Company’s permanent way, the ancestor of the present main line, was being laid.
The engine concerned was the “Harvey Coombe.” I first heard of it at a meeting of the old Bletchley Urban Council in 1946. The council were considering having a new seal. A circular one divided into four equal parts, each part to depict some aspect of the town, was decided upon. Naturally, the railway had to be represented, so the council asked the advice of the then LMS railway company.
The company replied that the representation of a modern engine would inevitably “date” the seal. Then they added:
“There is one engine and one engine alone imperishably connected with Bletchley. That is the ‘Harvey Coombe,’ the first engine employed on the London and Birmingham railway and the only engine on that railway with six wheels, all the others being ‘Bury’ four-wheelers.
“It was employed on the construction of the railway and at that time was as well known as the ‘Coronation Scot’ or the ‘Princesses’ and ‘Duchesses’ or(sic) today.”
So the “Harvey Coombe” was depicted on the council’s seal and that is the only picture of it I have seen, though I admit I haven’t looked very far. To our modern eyes it looks rather comic, but it must have seemed a monster nearly 150 years ago. In fact, it was not unpowerful.
I have a facsimile copy of the first edition of the Aylesbury News, now the Bucks Advertiser. It is dated Saturday, December 3, 1836, and among a number of paragraphs under the general heading of “Hertfordshire” is the following:
“Such is the extraordinary power of the locomotive steam engine, the ‘Harvey Coombe,’ worked by Messrs Cubitt, the contractors of the Berkhampstead length of railroad, that it will take on the common rails 40 loaded waggons of five tons each, at fifteen miles an hour.”
This was only six years after George Stephenson’s famous “Rocket” had proven itself on the Liverpool and Manchester railway by drawing its tender of three tons and two loaded carriages weighing altogether 9½ tons at an average speed of 14 miles an hour. The “Rocket” was by no means the first loco, but it introduced the principles on which all subsequent locos were based – the water tube-boiler and the forced draught caused by discharging the exhaust steam up the chimney, an invention that revolutionised the daily life of the civilised world.
George’s son, Robert, engineered the construction of the London and Birmingham railway. Almost simultaneously, he also engineered its first connecting railway, the seven miles from Cheddington to Aylesbury, which opened in 1839, only one year after the main line.
There was an interesting echo of those days at a Bletchley Council meeting in 1952. This was the presentation to the council of a large bronze medallion struck by the Aylesbury Railway Company in 1839 to commemorate the opening of the Cheddington line. The presentation was made on behalf of Mrs T Brandom, of Vicarage Road, whose grandfather, Charles Callon, drove the line’s first engine.
Mr Callon came from the north with the building contractors, then stayed to run the engine. It seems that at the time there was just one engine and one driver, for on Sunday afternoons Mr Callon used to stoke up and take his family for joy rides, stopping here and there to pick blackberries or to picnic!
The Cheddington line was closed many years ago, but I remember using it to get to county council meetings. I travelled with Bletchley’s then sole county councillor, Mr Harry Chandler, and we had to be at Bletchley station at 8.40 for a meeting at Aylesbury that did not start until 11.
I also used the old “Nobby Newport” from Wolverton for Newport Pagnell Rural council meetings. I see that that line is now a new city “walk.”
Ah well, tempus really does fugit, don’t it?