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British Railway History Item


Charles Benjamin Collett

Charles Benjamin Collett (1871-1952)

Collett's early background was in marine engineering with Maudslay Son & Field, but a post in the drawing office at Swindon, which he took up in 1893, set him on course for an acclaimed career in railway engineering. He became assistant works manager in 1900, works manager in 1912, then deputy to the Chief Mechanical Engineer, George Jackson Churchward in 1920. He was CME from 1922-1941.

Like Churchward, Collett was a firm believer in standardisation wherever possible, but this proved a disadvantage when a large number of small railway companies - most of them Welsh - were absorbed into the GWR in 1922/23. Nearly 1,000 'foreign' (ie non-GWR) engines found themselves in Swindon Works for repair and refitting and it called for a great deal of ingenuity on all sides to bring these engines up to acceptable Swindon standards.

His locomotive designs were derived from Churchward's and included:

  • One of his first tasks was to design a new express passenger 4-6-0, keeping within an axle load of 20 tons over the same 14ft 9in driving wheelbase as the Stars. Later versions of the Stars had gone up to 19.4 tons axle load. Working on the 20 ton limit he produced the Castle class four-cylinder 4-6-0 express locomotive, of which 171 were built or converted between 1923-50, being an enlargement of the Star class with some constructional modifications. The first Castle class engine, called Caerphilly Castle, arrived at Paddington in August 1923. A month earlier had seen the introduction of a new express, the Cheltenham Flyer, heralded as 'the world's fastest train'. Originally hauled by the powerful Star class engines, the Cheltenham Flyer was now pulled by Castles, which provided 26 per cent more power than the Stars. Swindon even received its first ever Royal visit at this time, King George V and Queen Mary touring the Works before the King himself drove the appropriately named Windsor Castle to the station. In an echo of The Lord of the Isles, Gooch's engine which took part in the Great Exhibition of 1851, Collett's Caerphilly Castle also achieved great fame when it appeared at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. Also appearing was the London & North Eastern Region's larger engine, Flying Scotsman. The GWR claimed that their engine was the more powerful of the two and legend has it that this led to the 1925 trials, which appeared to bear out the GWR's claim.

  • 410 Hall and 79 Grange class 4-6-0 mixed traffic locos, which were derived from the Saint 4-6-0 express locomotives. Also 30 Manor 2-6-0s

  • By 1926 only four bridges on the Paddington-Plymouth route were unable to take an axle load of 22.5 tons. These were upgraded in the summer of 1927 and Collett went to work on on a larger and still more powerful express engine. This produced the King class express locos of 1927-30, and were the heaviest and most powerful 4-6-0's in Britain, made possible by a relaxation in permissable axle loading. The fact that they were working to a deadline seems to have spurred on everybody at Swindon Works. The new class had to be complete in time for the Baltimore and Ohio Centenary Exhibition as it was a matter of great prestige to the GWR that one of their engines should be Britain's standard-bearer. The result was the famous King class of locomotive of which the first was to be No. 6000, King George V, and the rest would be named after previous kings in backward chronological order. The tight schedule made it essential that everything went right first time and the King George V duly had its maiden trip on the Cornish Riviera Express in July 1927 before it was loaded at Cardiff Docks on a ship bound for America. Public interest both inside and outside Swindon was high and the new locomotive proved such a hit on the other side of the Atlantic that it returned with a specially-struck commemorative bell, which it carried on top of the front buffer beam well into BR days. Churchward had based much of his design theories on American practices, but the Americans - and everybody else - had been suitably impressed by Collett's extension of Churchward's theories. Swindon's reputation was now truly international.
    The golden age had arrived, but the question was how long it would last.

    The General Strike of 1926 and a protracted dispute in the Welsh coalfields crippled the GWR which relied on coal traffic for a large slice of its income. The more brief railway strike, meanwhile, demonstrated that the country was not entirely dependent on rail when roads proved an adequate replacement.

    Reductions in staff at Swindon were inevitable and the GWR as a whole never recovered, but there was no halting the continuing rise of Swindon Works under Collett.

    Socially, Collett took a far from active role in the town's affairs, being happy to delegate duties to William Stanier (later Sir William), his assistant since 1924. This was in marked contrast to his predecessors, particularly Joseph Armstrong, who saw their duties towards the welfare of both the Swindon workforce and the population of the town at large as an integral part of the job. Stanier proved a more than capable substitute and left a huge void when he was headhunted by the LMS in 1931 and left to become their chief mechanical engineer.

    Collett's managerial style was also in complete contrast with Churchward's. While Churchward was an almost daily visitor to the drawing office, it is believed that Collett never once visited there and remained detached from the vast majority of the workforce. But it has been noted that his manner was "quiet and helpful" was a great asset in his dealings with people.

    Despite the success of the Castles and Kings, it was easy to imagine, in 1933, that it was the beginning of the end for the golden era of Great Western steam. Depression caused a three-day week in Swindon and there was a foretaste of things to come as the first Swindon-built diesel railcar went into service. Days later the tragic death of Churchward seemed to hasten in the gathering clouds.

    In fact, Swindon, nor Collett, had yet reached a peak. Whereas 103 locomotives had been built in 1933, the output peaked at a colossal 150 in 1937. But that is only part of the picture because the same four years had seen output of carriage stock nearly triple to 478 while 5,340 wagons were made in 1937 compared with 1,392 four years earlier.

    Not for the first time had Swindon Works produced an engineer of exceptional ability. His greatest achievements in terms of locomotive design were certainly the Castles and Kings, but his Manor, Hall and Grange classes are also fondly remembered and lovingly preserved by enthusiasts to this day.

    He carried out a major program of workshop re-equipment and greatly improved locomotive construction methods. Greater engineering precision gave a large increase in mileages between overhauls. He extended the use of the GWR Automatic Train Control System to almost all of the important routes and was a member of the 1927 Pringle Committee studying the use of such systems in Britain. From 1926, he modernised the Swindon locomotive testing plant to absorb the maximum power of larger locomotives. His later locomotive policy was rather conservative. However, he was amongst the first to consider complete deiselisation.

    Collett is renowned as a quiet, aloof man (and is described in at least one book as a recluse) but he certainly had a sense of humour. When he became annoyed that certain directors of the GWR were pompous enough to demand that engines were named after them, Collett gave their names to new but old-fashioned-looking engines that ran on the Cambrian coast. Sadly, the same names were later transferred to Castle class locomotives, but Collett had made his point.

    The only thing that could bring down the curtain on Swindon's finest decade of railway industry was another World War, which also spelled the end for Collett. By 1941, with 20 years' service as chief mechanical engineer behind him, Collett finally retired at the age of 70. After his retirement from the GWR, Collett moved to Wimbledon where he died, 11 years later, in 1952. His small funeral was attended by his successor, Hawksworth, and Stanier, his former assistant.

    Collett's most famous locomotive, King George V, is now preserved in Swindon Railway Museum. Other Castles and Kings, along with many other GWR engines can be seen at the Great Western Railway Centre at Didcot, where they are often in steam.

    Last Updated : Friday 14th April 2006 05:46

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