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By Russell Hollowood on

6229 Duchess of Hamilton: a fireman’s tale

Hear first-hand from one of our visitors what life was like as a fireman on Duchess of Hamilton.

The re-streamlined Duchess of Hamilton draws many admirers here at the museum. But few, if any, can boast as deep an understanding of Stanier’s masterpiece as the visitor I showed onto its footplate last week. The visitor in question had over 50 years of footplate experience, and his memories brought 6229 back to life.

Climbing onto the footplate was an emotional moment. Tired by the effort of climbing up, he stood staring at the mass of gauges, handles, leavers and wheels.

“Do you want to sit down?” I asked.

“No, no,” he assured me – he was just taking it all in. It felt strange after so many years to stand where he had stood as a young fireman (and later driver), and he needed a moment to gather his thoughts.

Thoughts gathered, he explained how the ‘mileage’ men hated the streamlined casing. How it rattled, banged and crashed like an ill fitting tin hat, as they raced at 90 miles an hour along the West Coast Main Line. Worse, you could not find leaks, as the boiler was hidden by that damn casing. Why have we put it back?

Not convinced by my explanation, he picks up the fireman’s shovel and laughs. “No man could wheel this for six hours.” The shovel is wrong, too heavy. “These engines were veracious monsters, with an endless need for coal. It was like feeding the fires of hell trying to keep them fed.”

He explained the drivers chose their fireman and then you worked as a team, even taking turns firing: it was the only way the beast could be fed. You carried an extra shovel – your hands were so wet with sweat, the shovel could fly out of your hands into the firebox. It was back-breaking, gut-wrenching work.

So why did he do it?

You got extra money, and there was some pride in working the top services. Only twelve Polmadie drivers, known as ‘mileage men’, were chosen – and you wanted to be one of them. Imagine: you’re just a working bloke, and you’re put in charge of something like this. And paid to do it.

We talked on for another 15 minutes. Then, clearly tired, he climbed down to rejoin his family. I closed up the footplate and returned to my desk, reflecting on the powerful insights first-hand experience throws on this wonderful collection.

10 comments on “6229 Duchess of Hamilton: a fireman’s tale

  1. So – NOT as good as the A-4’s then!
    The LMS streamlined casing was designed for show.
    Gresley’s was wind-tunnel tested (at least a bit) – and they kept them, and needed them.
    The comment on coal-consumption is interesting.- but a re-reading of Cecil J. Allen’s book on the Locomotive Exchanges confirms that not only did the A-4’s use less coal, it was also used more efficiently …

    1. Hi Greg,
      Cannot comment on the coal consumption, other than to say these locomotives where designed to pull heavier loads over far more testing routes. The Stanier casing was designed in a wind tunnel, at the LMS test centre in Derby. However, Stanier never bought the streamline idea, regarding the non-streamlined Duchesses as ‘proper locomotives’. Stanier took almost no part in the Streamline design, leaving this to his Chief Draftsman, Tommy Coleman and Dr F. C. Johansen, Head of the LMSR Design Engineering Research Department.
      Johansen calculated the LMSR design would save £220-£300 per locomotive a year on coal consumption and was 20% more efficient than the A4 locomotives of the LNER.

      Russell Hollowood Associate Curator (Railways)

  2. Which is why the steam-speed record over Shap is held by a preserved A-4 I presume ……

    1. Could be!

      We will never know what these machines could have acheived given the right conditiones, all we know is that they were the most powerful express steam locomotives ever to operate in the UK.

      Russell Hollowood
      Associate Curator (Railways)

    1. Can’t say Greg,

      Thats the realm of speculation, like possible speeds for Dutchess. However, in February 1939 Duchess of Abercorn set the UK record for horse power out put of UK steam by registering 3,330. The record was set, whilst hauling a twenty coach train over Beattock at a steady 63mph.

      Its intresting to note that two firmen were employed to feed the beast and engineers at the time thought more could have been achived. If only it had been oil fired, or at least been fitted with a mechanical stoker! but we can only speculate, the record remaines and confirms these locomotives as the most powerful steam locomotives ever to operate in the UK.

      Russell Hollowood Associate Curator (Railways)

  3. We could argure for days about the relative merits of an A4 over a P2 or a Duchess verses a King. The fact is we will probably never know. Surely what is more important now is to capture the memories of the guys who worked with these machines day after day.
    For me it is the stories these men can tell and the memries and emotions these stories evoke within them that tell the real story of the railways and the engines we all love to admire and dream about. Thanks for sharing your experince Russell.


    1. Thanks Andy ,

      Your right on every count.

      Glad you enjoyed it.

      Russell Hollowood Associate Curator (Railways)

  4. Bit of proofing needed:
    handles, *levers* and wheels.
    No man could *wield* this for six hours
    These engines were *voracious* monsters

  5. The “King” is nowhere in the race.
    Out-dated even when they were built.

    P-2’s achieved some remarkable haulage feats on test, and I’m sure the Vitry records should be available, somewhere?
    And, yes, I’m ignoring nominal “Tractive effort” since an Ivatt atlantic was supposedly less-or-equal in haulage to a Midland compound – which, as H.A.V. Bullied said, is nonsense …..

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