Let me introduce you to a couple of special guests that recently visited the museum; Eric and Marjory Littler. They share a rather unique connection to the museum’s collections.
Eric’s connection goes back 86 years. In 1935, aged 12 years old, he saw the massive KF7 class locomotives outside Vulcan Foundry works in Newton-le-Willows waiting to be exported to China. In awe at the engine’s size, Eric resolved to pursue a career building engines at Vulcan. One of those KF7 engines returned to the UK in 1983 and can be found in the museum’s Great Hall.
A few years later, Eric started working in the drawing office at the Vulcan works as an apprentice draughtsman, the start of a long career at the locomotive manufacturers in which he produced thousands of drawings for the company. The Vulcan Foundry later merged into the English Electric company, building diesel and electric locomotives used by both British Railways and exported to railway companies around the world.
As Eric’s career progressed he became chief draughtsman, managing the team of draughtsmen that produced locomotive designs at Vulcan Foundry. Later he was promoted to project manager, travelling the world with the locomotives to hand them over to their customers. Eric recalled fond memories of his visit to Seoul for the delivery of trains for the city’s metro system.
The General Electric Company (GEC) archives, which includes over a hundred thousand drawings from GEC and its predecessors like the Vulcan Foundry in Newton-le-Willows, is one of the largest collections in the Search Engine Library and Archives. Hunting through a few rolls of drawings from Vulcan Foundry on his visit, Eric was very pleased to find some of the drawings he had made decades before. One of the drawings that Eric found was this general arrangement drawing for a 1000HP diesel locomotive:
*There’s a little more to the history of this drawing – read on to the end to find out.
However, Eric was not the only member of the family hunting for their drawings during the visit to the museum. Marjory started working for Vulcan in 1947 when she was fresh out of school at the age of 16. Whilst Eric was a draughtsman, Marjory was a tracer.
Tracers had an important role in the operation of drawing offices. Before the designs produced by engineers could become reality their drawings needed to be given to workers across many different parts of the locomotive works. The instructions in those drawings would then be used to produce the thousands of components that make up a locomotive. Of course, this required many copies of the drawings to be made and distributed. This was the role of the tracers.
In the 1860s drawing offices began adopting the process of blueprinting. This process took advantage of early advances in photography to make copies of drawings. Paper which was soaked in the light sensitive chemicals ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide would turn blue when exposed to light. When a bright light was shone through a drawing onto the light sensitive paper, that paper would turn blue except where the ink in the lines of the drawing blocked the light, producing a negative copy of the drawing that could be sent to whoever needed it. However, for this process to work, the work of the draughtsmen had to be traced onto a translucent sheet, usually made from tracing paper or waxed linen. These traced copies could be used repeatedly to make blueprints whenever needed. Therefore, it was these master-copies that were retained, whilst the draughtsmen’s original work was often disposed of after a short while.
The role of a tracer was highly skilled, but perceived to be less technical than the draughtsmen’s work. Just as secretarial work became a female dominated profession due to misogynistic attitudes, women also began to be employed as tracers, a process that was accelerated by the First World War. However, since it was the tracers that produced the master-copies that were retained by the drawing offices, it is worth remembering that the majority of the drawings that now survive in the museum’s collections were penned by women and not men.
When Marjory started working at Vulcan, she was one of 10 girls working as tracers in the office. She still remembers her first day, 4th August 1947, and meeting Eric, sat with two of his friends in the canteen. Her friendship with Eric bloomed and in 1958 they were married. Whilst Eric’s career was progressing, Marjory was also promoted to Head Tracer, managing the rest of the office.
Back in the museum’s archives, it did not take long for Marjory to find one of the drawings that she had traced decades earlier. It was a pipe arrangement for a pantograph on an electric locomotive for RENFE and exported to Spain. The pantograph was the equipment used by the locomotive to collect electricity from overhead wires, and the pipes drawn by Marjory were used to control its position so that it could be raised and lowered.
For two centuries, drawing offices were the centres in which every facet of Britain was designed. From railways and buildings to furniture and kitchen appliances, everything began its life as a design on a piece of paper. It’s easy to understand the significance of drawing offices to the story of a nation but much harder to see the hidden significance they held for the people that worked in them. For Marjory and Eric, the Vulcan Foundry drawing office was not just the place that they made their careers, it’s where they found their love from which they created their family. Not only do their drawings now reside at the National Railway Museum, so too their granddaughter Caroline now works at the museum too.
If you’re interested in the history of railways and engineering drawing, check out the book Railways: A History in Drawings by Christopher Valkoinen and published by Thames and Hudson in association with the museum.
*And finally, a little more about Eric’s drawing. Unfortunately Eric does not remember if that locomotive was actually built or who it was for. Nor have we been able to find any references to it. The style of the design suggests it was for export, for example, some features like the porthole windows were common on English Electric engines that were sent abroad but were rare on engines for British Railways. However, some of the engine’s technical features (it is standard gauge, it fits the UK loading gauge and it has vacuum brakes and steam heating) suggest it might have been designed for use in Britain and never built. At the moment we cannot be sure what this engine was for, but if you have any ideas, please share them in the comments.