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O.V.S. Bulleid - A Biography

Bulleid was an engineering genius, an innovator on the railway scene, best known for the 'Bulleid Pacifics', power of the legendary 'Atlantic Coast Express' that carried holiday-makers to the South West, and the non-stop 'Bournemouth Belle' Pullman service from Waterloo to the sea.  But who was the man behind these enduring locomotive designs ?

His family routes can be traced back to Eggesford and North Tawton in mid Devon in the 1800s, and Bulleid's father William lived for a short time in Teignmouth before emigrating to South Island, New Zealand in 1875.  William met up with Marianne Pugh, a friend from years before, while on a business trip to London; they were married within a month, and he took his new Welsh bride home to Invercargill in the autumn of 1878.  And so Oliver Vaughan Snell Bulleid was born in New Zealand on September 19th 1882, and set about a happy childhood there.  However shortly before Oliver's seventh birthday, his father contracted pleurisy and died in August 1889.  Less than a year later, Oliver, his younger brother and sister, and their inconsolable mother reluctantly started on the long journey home to Wales.

As he grew up in Llanfyllin, Oliver was an astute student and was also well known among to the local trades, coppersmith, joiner, blacksmith, and the small gasworks; and yet also happy with his own company.  He excelled at Accrington Technical college, and was adept at using the tools and lathe in his Uncle William's workshop.

The family made plans for Oliver to return to New Zealand to study for the Legal profession, and was it not for the swift intervention of the Rev. Edgar Lee who was Oliver's cousin, he would have been despatched on a ship.  Lee had no wish to see his young cousin sent off to the care of his sister, but instead Lee had a firm friend in one of his parishioners, the locomotive Superintendent Henry Ivatt.  Following an interview Oliver was offered a place as a Great Northern Railway Apprentice starting in Doncaster on Jan 21st 1901, aged 18 (2 years older than normal); the £50 fee paid for by Lee.

After a successful 4-year apprenticeship spent absorbing all he could, and a year as assistant to the railway's Locomotive Running Superintendent, Oliver was promoted to be personal assistant to the Works Manager at Doncaster.  In 1908 he left to work with the French division of Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Paris, and also that year he married Marjorie Ivatt, the youngest daughter of H. A. Ivatt.  The young couple then spent a few years living in France, before moving to Turin where Bulleid was appointed engineer for the 1911 trade exhibition.  In a good career move he rejoined the Great Northern Railway in 1912 as the Personal Assistant to Nigel Gresley, the new Chief Mechanical Engineer of the railway, only 6 years his senior.  Following WWI, Mr. Bulleid became Manager of the G.N.R. Wagon and Carriage Works.

Grouping in 1923 saw the G.N.R. integrated into the new London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and Gresley who was CME of the amalgamated railway brought Bulleid back to Doncaster to be his assistant, a post that was to last until 1937.  During this period Gresley produced the majority of his famous streamlined locomotives, and Bulleid had a hand in many of them.  Among these projects were the LNER Class P1 2-8-2 and LNER Class U1 2-8-0+0-8-2 Garratt freight locomotives, and the LNER Class P2 2-8-2 express locomotive.

Meanwhile, on the Southern Railway, a decline in the health of R.E.L. Maunsell saw a suspension of new loco design work.  In 1937, Bulleid received an unexpected invitation, and accepted the appointment as C.M.E. of the Southern Railway, aged 55.  In post, initially he was involved in improving existing stock, and inherited Maunsell's 'Q' class which were rolled out from 1938.  But the time was right for new express locomotives, and Oliver had brought with him many of the best Gresley ideas; among these were a superb free steaming boiler along with a fast three cylinder layout.  In 1938 he gained approval to build a class of modern 4-6-2 'Pacifics', inspired by his L.N.E.R. experiences but updated with new ideas.  But this was a bad time to embark on building a new express locomotive, and construction was delayed by the need to support the War effort, and many Railway Works were being used by Government Ministries to produce Admiralty, aircraft and munitions parts, as well as keeping the railway supplied with many other locomotives, and thousands of wagons.

Despite this, the first Bulleid Pacific, 21C1 'Channel Packet' of the Merchant Navy class was completed in 1941.  Bulleid's experience of working closely with Gresley showed in creating such an ambitious loco, containing many new innovations.  The 30 air-smoothed Pacifics featured chain driven valve gear running in a sealed oil bath, intended to reduce maintenance.  After initial troubles they, along with their 110 smaller sisters, the ubiquitous 'West Country' and 'Battle of Britain' classes built from 1945, were the mainstay of steam in the south and south west of England until the end of mainline steam.

From late 1939 the Southern Railway suddenly found itself close to the front-lines of the Second World War.  Now a British strategic war asset, the railway needed some new freight locomotives and Bulleid was called upon to produce a new loco.  His new 0-6-0 design stripped away all surplus features to save precious resources, and whilst sharing many mechanical components and layout of the Maunsell designed 'Q' Class outshopped just a few years before, it contrasted starkly with the earlier design principles.  The new Q1 class of 1942 emerged as the most powerful 0-6-0 steam locomotive ever to run on Britain's railways and formed the backbone of the Southern's heavy freight capability, enabling the War effort, then continuing in service until the mid 1960s, although their stark looks were always controversial.

But Bulleid's job was not confined to steam locomotives; he was responsible for the development of electric multiple units, coaching stock, along with the electrification and infrastructure.  Liaison with the Electrical Engineer A. Raworth produced the 1941 design Co-Co electric 'booster' locomotives, the principles of which were carried over to the later class 71 locomotives built by British Railways.

The Southern also called on Bulleid to design some prototype main-line diesel-electric locomotives, which were started before he left.  The three locomotives 10201-3 subsequently became the basis of several major diesel classes for British Railways.

His final steam design for the Southern was the ambitious 'Leader', appearing just after Nationalisation.  It was forward looking and should have been his crowning design, pulling together many aspects of his other designs.  Radical for Britain, this encased the boiler, coal and everything else in a smooth double-ended body, and sat on two steam powered six-wheel bogies.  Sadly 'Leader' was too innovative for the time and after some difficult trials, Nationalisation effectively killed the project.

Bulleid worked briefly as C.M.E. of 'British Railways Southern Region' but this was never going to be a happy alignment, and in 1949 he took a post in Ireland with Irish Railways as their Chief Mechanical Engineer, this being the death knell of the Leader program.  In Ireland Bulleid was responsible for much modernisation of Ireland's locomotives and rolling stock, but he still managed to develop a further twin bogie locomotive along the lines of the 'Leader', though smaller and designed to burn peat, but this was not put into production.

He retired from CIÉ in 1958, moving first to Okehampton where he celebrated his Golden Wedding anniversary, then to warmer Exmouth with a view towards Teignmouth.  Around 1967 he moved to Malta, where he died in 1970 aged 87.

Oliver Bulleid was a clever and far thinking man, and contributed much towards the modern railway, even if technology could not quite keep pace with his vision.  Several of his classes are represented by dedicated preservation groups, but what a sadness that examples of his other designs were not also kept for later generations.