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A web-site by Rob Speare


British Railway's Last  Steam Locomotive Design.

In researching a project like this web site, ocassionally a real gem can emerge, and one is the story below.  I was told about a short series of articles that appeared in Model Engineer in the late 1960's, describing the building of a seemingly unique Merchant Navy locomotive, with full chain driven motion, in 3½" gauge.

After many months trying to track down further information, eventually, through a series of chance connections,  I managed to find the story behind the story . . .

Deep in the old ways of British Railways it was the general custom in the various locomotive works to present visiting dignitaries with a model, generally cast in aluminium about 00 gauge size, of the latest product from the works.

After just such a visit by a certain Western Region manager to Derby Loco. Works, who happened to be a 'live steam' enthusiast, he was presented with a model of a 'Peak' class 45 diesel which was currently being built at the works.

The presentation was carried out by T.F.B. ‘Freddie’ Simpson, the Works Manager, who was somewhat taken aback to be told by the dignitary that he had no use for a static model of a diesel, but would much prefer a working steam engine !

Freddie was one of the old school thinking, whose general attitude was that there was nothing that the facilities within the Works couldn't produce.

Remembering that his Training Manager had just recently authorised the formation of the 'DLW Society of Model Engineers' – a group of apprentices interested in making live steam models - with typical largesse, he promised the dignitary that 'his wish was his command, and a working model would be forthcoming – what would he like'   !!

The said dignitary must have had his tongue-in-cheek, for the next day two of the apprentices were hauled into the training school, and asked if they could do the drawings and make a 3½" gauge Merchant Navy model – fully working of course.

After a stunned silence the reality of this somewhat unique opportunity for two young apprentices dawned on them, and the answer was an obvious ‘yes’.

Henceforward matters moved swiftly and Ron Jarvis was contacted to send up all relevant drawings from Brighton, and two drawing boards were made available in the Jig & Tool drawing office.

The hierarchy had no idea what was involved in such a project, ‘TFB’ retired a little time later and the dignitary must have forgotten what was promised; but the two apprentices managed to beaver away for another 18 months before they eventually came out of their time and took up other duties.  By this time most of the drawings were complete and Crewe foundry had kindly made a set of castings for the engine !

Officially produced at the Works, it can be genuinely claimed that actually,
'this'  was the last steam locomotive designed on British Railways !     Quite a coup for these two apprentices . . .

And what became of the drawings ?  Well, independantly, as described in the published articles, their friend N. Simkins had started on a M.N. build in the same scale, and showed them a wheel he had been machining.

He was able to incorporate a lot of the design work done by two apprentices, including the complex chain driven valve gear, into his own model.

The part built model was taken along to an open day at Brighton Works, where it caught the shocked eyes of Ron Jarvis, the man responsible for the rebuilding of the full size class.  While being bemused at the model, he commented that the full size originals needed much more attention that is was ever possible to afford.

The M.N. was eventually completed, and Neil and Richard took it to the Urmston track for a steam up.  After moving some 30 feet under steam the loco stopped, and refused to go any further.

They retreated to Richard's flat, and found that one of the driving chains had slipped a cog (1 out of 13) meaning the gear was out by some 27 degrees.  They stripped it down and fixed it, while continuing with a bottle of scotch, finishing at 04:30 am !

Back on the Urmston track the next day, the locomotive performed very well, and was found to be a free steamer; the design worked !

Clad in tin-plate, all that could be afforded on a draughtsman's wage of 12 shillings a week, and finished in malachite green with two yellow lines, 'Blue Star' was said to have look stunning . . .

To my disappointment, only the one locomotive was ever built, the one Neil orignally started, though I had imagined several of these would have been built by others members of the Derby Society;  but it was the end of time for main-line steam, and of a whole Railway era.

The experiment having been proven, the M.N. 'Blue Star' was sold though a model engineering auction to raise funds for the next project, and sadly its whereabouts today is unknown.

The loco was described to me as a bit 'LBSC' - perhaps, compared to today's fine scale models - but designed from original Southern drawings by B.R. staff,  it was surely quite unique and special.


Footnote:  Of the characters involved, Neil Simkins and one of the apprentices, Richard Coleby, later teamed up for a number of years to build larger miniature locomotives, until going their separate ways.  Neil carried on building, plus other full size design work; while Richard went into designing packaging machinery, but he has maintained his involvement in steam engine design, and was involved with the 5AT project  [ ], and helps to run the 10¼ gauge Stapleford Miniature Railway.

The 3 original articles can be found in the M.E. from October 1968.