The story of the West Country Pacifics goes back to before World War II, and the heyday of the Southern Railway during the 1930’s. Following the early electrification of many parts of the Southern’s network, the company was able to exploit their financial gain from these new services by enhancing the fleet working on the non-electrified routes, primarily to create powerful express locomotives to operate to the far west of England. At the time the humble branch lines of Devon and Cornwall were served only by ageing London & South Western Railway designs such as T9 4-4-0’s and N Class 2-6-0’s. The intention was to create a fleet of express locomotives to work these routes and their Summer Season diagrams, whilst also replacing/redistributing the older LSWR designs on vital freight operations elsewhere.
As such, in 1941, the Southern Railway placed an order with the Brighton Railway Works to create a class of twenty locomotives to fit the bill. Design was tasked to their Chief Engineer Oliver Bullied, who had previously designed the similar and much heavier Merchant Navy Pacifics. The design differences between the Merchant Navy and the West Country Class was, as mentioned, to be much lighter and therefore more flexible for different routes. It also required these engines to be allowed for mixed-traffic operations, so that they could double for both freight and passenger workings.
Initially, Bullied based his design on the earlier LNER K4 2-6-0’s that were used on the rural West Highland Line, but such a design would not have met the requirements of the higher speed Kent Coast Line. As such, he enlarged the design to become a 4-6-2 Pacific, but of a smaller size than the Merchant Navy Class. Many of the specifications he had placed on the Merchant Navy’s though he carried over to the West Country Class, including his unique Chain-Driven valve gear, which, although endearing, was difficult to maintain. It was however encased in an oil bath for constant lubrication to the moving parts. Styling was similar to that of the Merchant Navy Class, with an air-smoothed body and casing. These engines however were not officially dubbed as ‘Streamlined’ as they still sported flat fronts. As such, both Merchant Navy’s and West Country’s were given the affectionate name of Spam Cans.
To drive, the West Country’s were well equipped for the train crew, with electric lighting in the locomotive and footplate powered by a steam generator below the cab. Gauges were lit with ultra-violet light so they could be seen at night, and controls were positioned so that both the driver and fireman could access them with ease. The biggest problem for both the Merchant Navy, but more pronounced for the West Country Class, was adhesion, as the lighter weight resulted in a higher chance of wheelslip. As such, great care had to be taken when departing with a heavy train, otherwise sparks would seriously fly. At speed though, the lighter weight of the engine allowed for superior steam production and speed.
The first batch of 20 locomotives were ordered in April 1941, but this was delayed until 1944 due to World War II. In the meantime, boilers were built under contract by the North British Locomotive Company, and the order was increased to 30 engines. Eventually, 110 locomotives would be constructed between 1945 and 1951. The first of the class entered service in May 1945 with engine 21C101 ‘Exeter’, an early prototype, following which two locomotives a month were delivered. Upon their introduction, the class worked all across the Southern Railway, and later Southern Region of British Railways, network, to destinations in Devon and Cornwall including Bodmin, Exeter, Padstow, Ilfracombe, Barnstaple, Bideford, Okehampton, Bude and Launceston, whilst also working on the Kent Coast Line to Dover and Folkestone. The engines were originally dubbed the West Country Class, being named after valleys, towns and villages along the Southern’s western network, but after 1946, were named after RAF Squadrons and Airbases from World War II, and became known as the Battle of Britain Class.
However, over the following years problems with the original design would rear their head, and thus forced British Rail to act. The air-smoothed casing hampered maintenance and routine cleaning, whilst the Chain-Driven valve gear was also difficult to access. The aforementioned adhesion problems were a constant source of delays, and the engines were notable for their high fuel consumption, burning 47lbs of coal per mile in comparison to the 32lbs of coal per mile consumed by the T9’s they replaced. As such, between 1955 and 1961, 60 members of the class were rebuilt to remove these faults. The air-smoothed casing was removed, and their design was changed to resemble the Britannia Pacifics with smoke-deflectors. Chain-Driven gear was replaced with modified Walschaerts valve gear fitted both outside as well as between the frames. The result was a reduced repair cost of 60% and reduced fuel consumption of 8.4% on these locomotives, but an increased hammerblow effect on the track due to the Walschaerts valve gear, and an increased weight that reduced their route availability.
However, by this point the 1955 Modernisation Plan had been passed by the British
Railways management, and the 58 remaining locomotives were left in their as-built condition. Withdrawal of these engines began 1963, but not before many of their routes had been electrified, including the Chatham Main Line to Dover and Ramsgate in 1959. Work for these engines was gradually reduced as diesel traction and the closure of many routes saw their influence cut down. 34110 ’66 Squadron’, the last member of the class to be built, was withrawn after only 12 years in November 1963. The first rebuilt engine to be withdrawn was 34028 ‘Eddystone’ in May 1964, which had only been modified in 1957. Eventually, 21 members of the Class, 7 of which were unrebuilt, made it to the end of steam on the Southern Region in July 1967.
Following withdrawal, a majority of these engines were sent to Woodham Brothers’ scrapyard in Barry, South Wales. Thanks to the efforts of the late Dai Woodham, who found it more profitable to sell these locomotives to preservation groups rather than scrap them, 20 of these engines were preserved, 10 unrebuilt and 10 rebuilt. 11 of these engines are West Country Pacifics, whilst 9 are later Battle of Britain Pacifics. These locomotives are scattered about the country, with some being static displays whilst others remain operational. At present, only unrebuilt Battle of Britain 34067 ‘Tangmere’ and rebuilt West Country 34046 ‘Braunton’ are registered for mainline use, and are frequent travellers of the railway scene, reminding people of those fond family holidays were you’d take a train to the summer seaside!