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By John McGoldrick on

The Number of the Beast  

What's in a number? John McGoldrick explores the significance of locomotive numbering.

As part of the Trainspotting season, the curators have been presenting on-gallery talks looking more in-depth at the subject.  I have laid down a few personal thoughts on the meanings of locomotive numbers, nameplates and associated identifiers.  Along with these, I have picked out some examples of the more illustrious and unusual plates from the collections to illustrate the theme.

The smokebox door plate from British Railways, 9F class 2-10-0 No 92220 ‘Evening Star’, (1975-7024)
The smokebox door plate from British Railways, 9F class 2-10-0 No 92220 ‘Evening Star’, (1975-7024)

Experienced trainspotters are often able to tell from some distance the type of loco approaching their position.  However, within classes, even they had to rely on a menu of components to identify the exact locomotive.

From front to back of the locomotive:

  • Smokebox door number plate
  • Buffer beam number
  • Lamps – from the 1850s, the positioning of lamps was used to inform signalling and other railway staff of the type of train approaching.
  • Train reporting numbers – as used by companies like the Great Western Railway and British Rail to identify the exact train.
  • Nameplate – on smoke deflectors, on boiler side, on wheel splasher
  • Shed code plate
  • Builders’ plate
  • Cabside number
  • Tender – company name & (less commonly) loco number.

Just a Number?

For railway managers and staff, a rational numbering system became essential as locomotive fleets began to expand.  Early companies often just named locomotives.  As fleets grew, rudimentary numbering systems were introduced.  It is exactly the same for enthusiasts.  In order to manage a hobby or interest, a form of shorthand is required.  This shorthand unlocks a universe of knowledge and expertise.  Many spotters, enthusiasts and even employees of the National Railway Museum refer to locomotives just by their number.  By dint of their associations and history, the numbers themselves assume considerable power.

However, many locomotive numbers have a resonance of their own.  Obvious examples that come to mind include 4472, 4468 & 70013.  Once assembled together in an ABC or spotters note book, they take on the quality of binary, and have an almost tactile quality.  The information they represent and their interpretation provide access to those in the know, whilst often excluding those who aren’t.

Nameplate, London & North Eastern Railway, "Sandringham",1975-7567
Nameplate, London & North Eastern Railway, “Sandringham”,1975-7567

ABC Guides Data

In Ian Allan ABCs at the head of each class listing were biographical details of the class, including date introduced, dimensions and modifications.  For the inexperienced spotter, there was a whole universe of information and knowledge to absorb.  ABCs provided images of locomotives for easy identification, in a way almost akin to wartime aircraft identification guides.  In the guides, Ian Allan stated that just collecting numbers for the sake of it would quickly become boring.  Much better, he advised, to develop a fully rounded knowledge of the locomotives and railway practice, making the hobby much more rewarding.

Changing their Spots

Many locomotives changed their names over time.  For example LNER A4 6004 Pacific William Whitelaw had previously been named ‘Great Snipe’.

Locomotive frequently changed their numbers, for example on Nationalisiation in 1948 and with the introduction of the TOPS train numbering and control system in the early 1970s.

Examples from the Collection

Smokebox door plate, Duke of Sutherland (1966-348)
Smokebox door plate, Duke of Gloucester (1966-348)

71000 & Duke of Gloucester Nameplate

Nameplate and smokebox door plate from a one-off

‘The Duke’ was a one-off example of the class 8 4-6-2 locomotive built to replace the Princess Royal Class loco 46202 Princess Anne, which was involved in the Harrow & Wealdstone disaster.  It used a modified Caprotti valve gear, some of which is preserved at the museum.  The locomotive was regarded as a bad steamer with a heavy fuel consumption.  It only had an operating lifespan of 8 years, and was only saved from scrapping by a group of enthusiasts.  It was originally selected for preservation for the National Collection, but it was felt that only the valve gear was worthy of preservation.

British Railways, "Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory", ex Battle of Britain Class nameplate (1975-7593)
British Railways, “Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory”, ex Battle of Britain Class nameplate (1975-7593)

Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory

Nameplate dedicated to an illustrious historic figure

By the time of Normandy Landings, Trafford Leigh Mallory was Commander in Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, which made him the air commander of the Allied invasion of Normandy.  He was brother of the mountaineer George Mallory, and the most senior RAF officer to be killed during World War Two along with his wife and eight other when their plane  crashed in the French Alps in November 1944.

Detail of decorative wheel balance weight from “The Agenoria’. (1884-92)
Detail of decorative wheel balance weight from “The Agenoria’. (1884-92)

The Agenoria (1829)

Form & Function

This highly important early locomotive’s name is proclaimed on the wheel-mounted balance weights, a highly unusual practice.  Nameplates usually appear on boiler sides rather than individual components fundamental to the successful operation of the locomotive.  ‘The Agenoria’ was built for the Shutt End railway which served Lord Dudley’s coal mines.

‘The Agenoria’ is one of the earliest manifestations of a named locomotive existing in the collections. According to Michael Bailey’s book ‘Loco Motion’,  the name ‘The Agenoria’ is also thought to derive from the Greek for ‘valour’, a quality ascribed by Homer in the ‘Iliad’ to a lion being pursued by hunters.  According to Michael Bailey, “This is an interesting juxtapositioning with its contemporary ‘Stourbridge Lion’.  The driving wheels would seem to be original.  Although Bailey posits that the cast-iron nameplate covers may have been added later in its career, relatively early photographs show the decorative nameplate affixed to the balance weights.


An early GWR locomotive nameplate – when numbers were not  necessary

The name literally meaning ‘Leader of People’.  Built at Swindon in 1847 by the Great Western Railway, the broad gauge locomotive ‘Sultan’ was one of the first of the Iron Duke Class locomotives to be built.  These were 8-wheeled single drive wheel locomotives, many of which had exceptionally long lives.  By the end of its life, Sultan had provided traction over a million miles.  One of the nameplates was acquired by Joseph Wilkinson, formerly General Manager of the GWR.  The other plate is on loan to STEAM Museum at Swindon.

The ‘Thames-Clyde Express’ Headboard

The title of an important train rather than being attached to a particular locomotive

This is the headboard for the illustrious express service that ran from London St Pancras to Glasgow St Enochs.  LMS named the service thus in 1927.  A service from St Pancras to Edinburgh ran as the Thames-Forth express, which changed to The Waverley in 1957.  The train lost its title in 1974 on the completion of the West Coast Main Line electrification.  With the ‘Thames-Clyde Express’ running through some of the most densely-populated parts of the Midlands, it was a major part of the day’s passenger schedules and would have been spotted by many.

Smokebox number plate, No.36001, ex Southern Railway ‘Leader’ class prototype (1994-8836)
Smokebox number plate, No.36001, ex Southern Railway ‘Leader’ class prototype (1994-8836)


A locomotive that never saw normal service

This is a number plate from the only Southern Railway ‘Leader’ class locomotive ever to be fully completed.   Four others were started, some to near-completion, but work stalled on these.  The ‘Leader’ represented  Bulleid’s vision for ‘pushing the envelope’ in terms of what steam power could still achieve – he was attempting to extend the life of steam locomotives by introducing new designs and technology – some borrowed from early diesel traction.  This is one of only two known ‘mortal remains’ of the locomotive.  The other is a builders’ plate, intended for the locomotive, which was never fitted.  This never made its way into the National Collection and was sold at a private auction in 2008.

Loch Sheil

A nameplate named after a location or feature through which the locomotive bearing it passed

Loch Sheil was an LNER K2 class locomotive. From 1924, this class was used on the West Highland Line, in order to avoid the need for double-heading.  Between 1933 and 1934, all thirteen were fitted with curved nameplates over the driving wheel.  These were named after lochs beside or near to the West Highland Line.


One of the earliest nameplates in the collection

Completed in 1835 by R&W Hawthorn of Newcastle upon Tyne, this was the first locomotive to operate the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway.  It was withdrawn in 1858 and sold back to the Hawthorne Company. where it was used as a stationary engine.

Shed Code Plates

Shed code plates were key to identifying the home locations of locomotives – if you didn’t already know them.  Under British Railways, the numbers ran from 1A (Willisden) to 89C (Aberystwyth, Machynleth & Portmadoc etc).  Each region had its own ‘10’ in the number sequence, for example, Scottish Region sheds ran from 60-68E and Southern Region sheds ran from 70A-75F.

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11 comments on “The Number of the Beast  

  1. A very interesting article, the most surprising being that a number plate from 36001 has been preserved.

    May I be pedantic and point out one small error in the notes which I noticed. 71000 “Duke of Gloucester” built to replace “Princess Anne” was not 4-6-4 but 4-6-2. It might have been an interesting beast as a Baltic but that honour has to remain with Greeley’s W1 60700

    1. Does anyone know how much BR asked for nameplates and were any left on the locos when they went to private scrap yards and were just destroyed.

  2. so easy for a typo to occur.. the W1 4-6-4 was rebuilt from GRESLEY’s high pressure compound loco

  3. as many will know , 71000 was rescued from the scrapyard by a group of enthusiasts . the NRM had removed one of the cylinders and valve gear , and had it sectioned for display . the enthusiasts wanted a working loco so set about creating a replacement cylinder and gear . many reckoned it could not be done . but it was .
    the loco had always had a reputation for poor steaming . The original design required the fitting of Kylchap blastpipes , similar to that fitted to the Gresley Pacifics . that did not happen . it was sent to Swindon to correct the problem . Swindon evidently were not interested because they returned it fitted with a pair of blastpipes from a 19th C goods engine. so it was unwanted and unloved , mainly used on Euston to Liverpool trains when there was nothing better available .
    the enthusiasts gave it the Kylchap fittings that it should always have had . they also modified the ashpan to improve combustion .
    the result is an engine which is one of most powerful in the country , with little to choose between 71000 and a Duchess . it is now one of the most impressive locos in preservation , with some astonishing runs to its credit

  4. Trafford Leigh Mallory’s mountaineering brother was George Leigh Mallory, not Edmund as stated in the text. He was a member of the British Mount Everest expeditions in 1921, 1922 and 1924. He, along with Andrew Irving disappeared near the summit in 1924. His body was discovered in 1999 and many people believe he was the first to actually reach the summit of Mount Everest.

  5. Very interesting article, could you help please in identifying GWR reporting no, 085? thanks.

  6. Can anyone recommend a source to find the details of the loco from a smokebox door number plate?

    1. To find details based on the smokebox number plate, there are a number of websites that can help. I edit an international database on surviving locos with photos, sometimes a little history, location and notes on the loco’s current situation, should it have survived. the address is: Go to ‘search’ at the top of the home page, enter the number in the appropriate box and, if the loco’s still extant a result will appear. Then click on the search result to see the loco details.

      For locos that have been scrapped, try: On the home page go to ‘Quick Search’ then type in the loco number, then click ‘Go’ in the red box. Basic details of the loco will appear

  7. Is there still a way of finding out what locomotive had what number? My dad collected a few of the number plates and I would like to find out which ones he had. eg one says ‘LNER standard 12 tons 1937 Darlington 203155’.
    Do people still collect them?

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