01 January 2014
In 1996 it became necessary to restore the Earl of Merioneth to traffic as expeditiously as possible owing to the failure of the boiler on Merddin Emrys. The Earl had been out of traffic and totally dismantled for four years but fortuitously its boiler had been repaired and was immediately available for use, although some parts had been robbed for use on the David Lloyd George. During the reconstruction period it was realised that we have a new generation of footplate crews who had never even seen it running before, and the disparaging comments alluding to its appearance invoked memories of 1979. I thought I would try to explain some of the reasons behind the design and building of this slightly bizarre locomotive but it quickly became clear that to do so would be impossible without going back to the beginning in order to unravel the incestuous history of the FR Fairlies.
Livingston Thompson was completed in 1886 to represent the final development of Old FR motive power and Percy Spooner must have been sufficiently satisfied with the styling that efforts were made to standardise the fleet in appearance during the next fifteen years or so. The only significant alterations to LT were smokebox handwheels in place of straight handles and filling in of part of the cab cut-outs as protection against the weather. In this condition the loco remained for the rest of its career. By 1921 LT was in a very sorry state and was withdrawn for overhaul. The FR of the ’20s was becoming stretched by economic circumstances, later made worse by assuming operation of the Welsh Highland Railway. This was translated into the lack of proper maintenance attention afforded to the motive power stock, although it also resulted in the survival of four of the England engines which otherwise might not have lasted so long.
The overhaul of LT was a very protracted affair, with the boiler eventually sent to Avonsides for repair. To what extent it was a repair is questionable; if it was actually new, as has been suggested, why did it only manage about 20 years’ further work before being laid aside in 1971? Another factor against returning the loco to traffic was that the bogies needed more than a little work as well. They had obviously suffered from the wheels coming loose for some years judging by the efforts which had been made to bodge repairs, so the wheel sets couldn’t be used again without new axles. After the Merddin Emrys had come in for repairs which were to last three years, 1931 saw James Spooner the only Fairlie in operable condition, although ‘operable’ is a matter of interpretation since most attempts to run it ended in ignominious failure as its boiler was effectively unserviceable.
In 1932 Livingston Thompson emerged from the works, but with the name Taliesin affixed instead. The single Fairlie of that name had succumbed to its boiler a few years previously, and clearly the name held more affection for the staff than that of a company chairman of the last century. This Taliesin sported the ‘bogies from Merddin Emrys, and was doubtless a great relief to the railway with a fleet that, having been largely renewed during the 1890s, was all wearing out at the same time.
That Boston Lodge was by now a skeleton of its former greatness had become obvious, with a small staff and equipment which was probably regarded as obsolete even then. Attempts at introducing internal combustion had been to say the least half hearted, with a few lightweight war-surplus petrol tractors, and those steam engines whose boilers had expired were nevertheless retained in the forlorn hope of better days and more money. Contractors were brought in to weld new pieces to the underside of James Spooner’s boiler barrel where it was carried on the cradles; it must have literally worn through with the movement caused by expansion and contraction. How sad that this attempt ended in failure, as with the modern methods available to us nowadays it should have been possible to salvage it.
With James Spooner out of the frame, its wheelsets became available for Merddin Emrys: the bogies themselves were no use as they were two inches shorter in wheelbase. These wheels were fitted to LT’s old bogies and Merddin re-entered traffic in 1934, providing some respite to the loco position which subsequently remained steady until the end of passenger services in 1939. The new Taliesin continued until 1940 when it was partially stripped for boiler repairs, but since there was nobody left to do them there it stayed until closure.
The new administration inherited a worn out system and must have had immense difficulty knowing what to do first. Insofar as paintbrush wielders outnumber skilled engineers by about fifty to one, no doubt things were the same then as now, but the total number of bodies involved was much smaller as the Jolly Good Fun element had not been invented and railway restoration was very much a minority sport. As anyone involved in volunteer-assisted preservation knows, the spiralling of pet projects can become millstones round the neck of a struggling enterprise. The FR installed Allan Garraway as manager in order to keep a focus on priority, and quite rightly Prince was restored to traffic first. Later, engineers from the Vulcan Foundry were brought in to repair the boiler on Taliesin, and it returned to traffic in 1956. Meanwhile everything that couldn’t be used was disposed of as scrap to raise funds, most notably Moel Tryfan but also what remained of James Spooner, Taliesin and Little Giant, although some components survive still.
It would be quite wrong to review the efforts of our pioneers with the hindsight of today without considering the raw materials they had to work with. There was no money to buy any new parts, and the surviving locomotives were patched together with components from the remains of the others; Palmerston, for instance, supplied many bits for Prince and as recently as 1982 a spare cylinder was pressed into use on Merddin Emrys. Taliesin and, later, Merddin Emrys were regarded as being under challenge from a seven-car load while boiler problems, particularly involving leaking crownstays, were ever-present. After their initial recommissioning, Taliesin and Merddin Emrys both lasted only six years.
In 1961, for reasons which only those in power at the time can reveal, it was decided to rename Taliesin after the hitherto obscure Earl of Merioneth, this being one of the myriad courtesy titles of the Duke of Edinburgh. At the end of that season another major boiler overhaul was required and the engine was absent until 1967 undergoing a rebuild of considerable thoroughness, albeit hampered as usual by the level of staffing available.
The rebuilt Earl was just in time to take over from the Merddin Emrys whose boiler expired at the end of 1966 with cracks, having been ailing ever since being rebuilt in 1961. The Earl worked the first train to Dduallt in 1968 and was the mainstay of traffic that year but the old bogey of firebox crownstay leakage reared up in 1969 and although repaired it was clear that its days were numbered.
The decision was made to order two new double boilers from Hunslet, justified on the growth in traffic being experienced at that time, and which showed no sign of slowing down (indeed, it continued until the mid 1970s). What is not so easy to understand was the decision to base their design on a back-to-back version of the Penrhyn Hunslet boilers; these boilers were giving good service on the single engines but did not possess the mechanical rigidity, when in double form, of the Spooner wagontop. What they probably did possess was a lower price that in those days influenced policy.
The new boilers were constructed in 1969 and one was fitted to Merddin Emrys immediately upon delivery. At the same time its bogies (originally from LT) were sent to Hunslet to have new cylinders and steam chests fitted. So when the semi-finished loco was pushed into service late in 1970 it certainly proved a revelation in terms of raw power and steaming but its appearance disappointed many people.
This engine had returned to traffic in 1961 with crudely made welded tanks over which the old cab could not be fitted but otherwise was of reasonably attractive proportions. The new boiler was longer but the tanks were not, and the graceful tapered chimneys were perched on much smaller, inverted U-shaped smokeboxes (one of which had the hinges hung the wrong way). Nobody had got round to fitting a cab roof so a bit of tarpaulin dangled across the void. For all that, the firemen at least thought it was their birthday because it seemed to steam without the inconvenience of needing to put coal on, in marked contrast to the Earl whose waterfalls in the fireboxes conspired to put the fires out.
It had been presumed that the Earl would follow this pattern once its current boiler gave out but the traditionalists started pointing out that the old FR appearance would be lost for ever if the components of an engine with a much smaller outline were hung around the incongruous new boiler. A fund was raised by a group of contemporary volunteers and staff calling themselves the ‘Active Forty’ to compensate the Company for not using the remains of the old Earl, nearly all of which was original 1885/6, but to build a new superstructure instead. The old Earl of Merioneth duly made its last run in October 1971 and retired to the back of the long shed, only to be visited the next year for the loan of a bogie when Merddin broke an axle at Harbour station. The new Earl boiler, having waited for a new erecting shop to be built, duly became the first occupant of that shop where it was to remain for six years, subject to the usual vagaries of staffing levels as to whether any work was done to it or not.
Meanwhile completion of the bogie swap gave Merddin its original bogies back: the LT ones, one of which needed substantial rebuilding following its broken axle, were set aside for the new Earl. The old Earl, now renamed back to Livingston Thompson, was placed on slab-wagon ambulances and taken to the old Maenofferen slate shed at Minffordd yard where it languished until 1985. The ‘Active Forty’ had not shown themselves to be particularly active since their initial success, so in that year it was taken up to the new shed at Glanypwll in a burst of publicity by a group calling itself the ‘Active Four’. This served only to highlight its plight as no restoration work was done until 1988 when a contractor was engaged to do it and LT was brought back to Minffordd yard again for this work to be carried out.
The all-new Earl of Merioneth emerged from Boston Lodge in 1979 and in no time earned the nickname of ‘The Square’. The opportunity had been taken to introduce some design innovations which produced a rather startling machine, thought by many to compare unfavourably even to Merddin Emrys in its current guise. Happily though, the Earl was to mark the end of the Philistine design era.
Most noticeably, the tanks were enormous in order to carry enough water for a round trip, since the Tan-y-bwlch supply was prone to failure in drought. This was a problem with the summer service to Dduallt with frequent short trains, a service now abandoned with the building of this engine and the extension to Tanygrisiau. Intermediate water supplies had been introduced at Minffordd and Dduallt as well, so the effect of the large tanks was just to add weight. It carried enough fuel for two trips, but if you didn’t top up each trip then filling up at the end of the day was good for overtime. The tank bottoms were set higher than before to accommodate a proposed design for outside piston valve bogies which of course never saw the light of day, although this feature made oiling up a lot easier.
New solid cast wheels were provided, without tyres, and with wide bosses in the centre to give a longer seat for fitting to the axles. This was a response to the perception that the old design suffered from the wheels coming loose, a problem already obviated on the Merddin in 1977 simply by fitting new axles. The diameter of the wheels was increased to 2ft 9½in, but later reduced to 2ft 8in. The journal size was larger, which would have been good practice, but with the existing horn gaps this made the axlebox side walls weaker and prone to breakage. With the wider wheel centres the crankpins, and therefore the rods, were further out and not balanced correctly. This resulted in the ride of the loco being most peculiar and the wheels wearing triangular, thus needing reprofiling every two years.
The cylinders, which had been new in 1970, now had to be provided with packing plates to bring them out to the new connecting rod centres, but the crowning glory was the provision of new valve gear, with launch expansion links, to the top end (C bogie) while retaining the old gear with locomotive links on the bottom end (D). This made it impossible for the two engines to synchronise when working. However much tinkering was attempted with reach rod lengths, invalidating the main advantage of the double engine. Experience with operation proved initially very disappointing. The fuel consumption was prodigious without good steaming and became such a problem that the loco was kept in the works for the 1980 summer season when the Prince became available and underwent a series of modifications to the fireboxes and draughting. This was the time at which it was realised that Spooner had good reason to reduce the designed wheel diameter- a literal case of reinventing the wheel.
The cab roof was provided with large sliding vents which, as the wheels started to wear out of shape, rattled with the general vibration so badly that one driver likened it to ‘driving a dustbin with a loose lid’. The awkward layout of the controls capped an experience which most engine crews decided they would prefer to avoid, and because of a chronic shortage of fittings in the stores great ingenuity had been required to bolt it all together, causing subsequent unpopularity with the maintenance fitters. However, it is equally true that the Earl had its fans who actually preferred it.
At the end of 1985 the Merddin Emrys came out of traffic for a major rebuild. This was partially financed by a sponsor who required it to be turned out looking like the traditional old FR engines which meant the tanks had to be extended proportionately, drumhead smokeboxes fitted along with a new cab, and the brass domes and chimney caps discarded. Most importantly, new bogies were built, ‘incorporating only the wheels and motion from the old ones’. The frames were fitted with fabricated rear assemblies carrying the steam brake cylinders and fabricated hornblocks which allowed much beefier axleboxes to overcome the shortcomings of the old arrangement but in essence they were constructed to the original 1879 drawings. This resulted in the most complete overhaul achieved to date by the present administration and the performance was as good as its appearance would suggest.
The old bogie frames made redundant by the rebuild were married with the surviving James Spooner wheel sets and a collection of old rods, which also included some from James Spooner suitably lengthened. These were given to LT and the resulting hybrid was sent to the National Railway Museum for display.
As far as the new EofM was concerned, gradually its teething problems were overcome as the crews developed their ways round them, but a notable turning point came in 1988 when the valve gear fell out. This obviously meant a temporary withdrawal, but as luck would have it the Merddin’s boiler developed cracks at about the same time and so her brand new bogies were quickly swapped to the Earl. That this provoked a transformation is an understatement; even long-term sceptics found performance that at least equalled that of the ex-works Merddin Emrys.
There was now however a major problem looming. The fact that the ME boiler had throatplate cracks after less than a year from overhaul suggested the unsoundness of the design. On a conventional single engine the barrel is fixed to the smokebox and held down by brackets on the outer firebox sides, but not so tightly as to prevent it from sliding back on the frames as it expands. With the Hunslet raised-top firebox, as found in all the quarry shunting engines, this will not put undue stresses on the upper throat plate connecting the barrel to the outer wrapper because the structure is given sufficient support by the mainframes. The double Fairlie does not possess a rigid mainframe, but is suspended between the bogie pivot fabrications under the middle of each barrel. This leaves the considerable weight of the double firebox assembly free to bounce up and down, and although surrounded by a cradle frame, on which the tanks are mounted, this is in effect held up by the boiler rather than the other way round.
It follows that, if the boiler requires to flex, all the stress will be on the part where it changes section; this is the throat plate which is trying to be a diaphragm. The Spooners recognised that, after experience with Little Wonder and James Spooner, which had parallel boilers, a higher steam space was needed, and came up with the wagon top design. In this the change of section was accomplished with a tapered oval ring, heavily stayed, and of course quite expensive to make but regarded nonetheless as essential. It also kept the regulator valves well clear of the water level, and because it was the same width throughout gave enough room in the cab to swing the shovel.
At the time that Merddin’s boiler first cracked it had been in use for seventeen years, but with far harder work in the last ten. It was duly repaired and cracked again twice more before the insurers refused to sanction further repairs. Although the same age, that on the Earl had only run for ten years but it was obvious that the same problem would occur and when the scheme to build David Lloyd George was hatched the opportunity was taken to design out this defect.
The Earl’s bogies duly had new valve gear built for both ends, to the original design, and when they returned to the engine the following season the improved performance characteristics were maintained. The wheels had been tyred to a diameter of 2ft 8in, the extraneous bosses machined off and balance weights fitted. The appearance had also been enhanced by the provision of the chimneys and domes removed from Merddin at its major rebuild, and a new lined livery with repositioned nameplates. In this guise it continued in unremarkable service until a boiler overhaul became due at the end of 1991, after thirteen years’ service. On testing, the expected cracking at the throatplates was found to have begun and design work was undertaken to modify the internal staying arrangements (ie to provide some) in order to take the strain away.
It was not realised at this time that the Earl would disappear for four years, but the works was preoccupied with a major grant job at this time, the building of a new double Fairlie, which came to be named David Lloyd George after the Mancunian politician with local connections. This featured the finalised design of boiler, returning to the wagon top principle but, in order to avoid cross staying required with the oval section and to accommodate larger fireboxes a conical section was substituted. This is mechanically very strong but results in a wider wrapper and thus restricts room in the cab which would militate against a return to coal firing for crew safety reasons. The working pressure was raised to 200psi and the superheating was doubled resulting in considerably more power being available than ever before. This is fine for those who use it wisely, but to get it running on schedule this new engine procured the Earl’s bogies, which have wilted somewhat under the strain. A pair of new bogies were in fact under construction but could not be completed in time. The surviving wheelsets from Livingston Thompson and the first Taliesin were investigated for use in these, suitably re-axled and tyred of course, but in the event this was not proceeded with and new wheel castings were obtained instead. It was interesting to find that, although Boyd states that Taliesin was fitted with solid wheels, the ones we have were definitely tyred.
Merddin Emrys, restored to its own bogies, returned for the 1989 season after the boiler cracks were welded up and was thereafter annually tested by magnetic particle inspection. If cracks were apparent the tanks had to come off for them to be welded up again. This happened at the end of the 1995 season but the insurers would not sanction further repair on the grounds that the affected area would have been made brittle by the welding process.
As luck would have it the Earl’s boiler repairs and modifications had gradually been progressed over the intervening four years and in March 1996 reassembly began. There was much searching for parts which at times proved futile as they had been used on DLG so replacements had to be made. There was some temptation to rob from ME but that is anathema to this writer, and the only bits borrowed were the oil control valves and the blastpipe stanchion fabrications (oh, and the bogies). The loco entered traffic on Bank Holiday Sunday, 27 May.
This brings the boilers and musical bogies story more or less up to date (to 1997). The Earl of Merioneth’s bogies, in use under the DLG, have had a major overhaul including cylinders rejointed and bored, with new pistons. Earl of Merioneth continues with the bogies from Merddin Emrys and a boiler of uncertain long-term future. Merddin Emrys is dismantled awaiting funding for either a new boiler or, less realistically, repairs and modification to the old one. Of the bogies that were started for the DLG, one is under the Taliesin 2000, and the second is nearly complete. Parts exist for a third, with the exception of the frame plates, so some work is still needed to return to a position of having three working double engines for the first time since the First World War.
I hope this makes things clear. I look forward to the observations that I suspect others will wish to contribute.