Retro: Cock o’ the North, pride of Doncaster railways

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A little over 80 years ago, an exhibition staged at Doncaster Plant Works during the weekend of 26-27 May 1934, displayed the latest LNER locomotives, rolling stock and other vehicles, signals and point working.

The show provided an opportunity for Doncaster and district people to view what was produced by the town’s most important industrial unit, in existence since 1853.

During the 1930s approximately 7,000 hands were employed at the Plant site and around 40,000 people visited the exhibition over that May weekend. Arrangements for the exhibition had been made by a committee of railway officials and representatives of the townspeople.

Hexthorpe, where many of the Plant employees lived, appeared in holiday mood, and the short Kirk Street, leading on to the Crimpsall siding, was a bright spectacle, with bunting suspended from the houses on either side.

Among the spectators none were keener than the youngsters and many schools brought large numbers of pupils.

Sunday’s crowd was different. In the morning it was noticeable for the number of railway employees who brought their wives or children but the afternoon was marked by the number of motor cars, bringing those from a distance.

There was a short opening ceremony on Saturday, presided over by Ronald Matthews, a director of the LNER, the ceremony being performed by the Mayor of Doncaster, Coun Ranyard, who was accompanied by the Mayoress, Lord Lonsdale, members of the Doncaster Corporation, and leading officials of the Plant and railway.

Takings over the weekend event reached around £1,000 and while the employees gave their services as stewards, the employees’ wives helped with teas.

Funds from the event were to be distributed to the local infirmary (70%) and railway charities.

Every spectator was extremely eager to see and admire the main attraction which was the Plant’s latest product – the locomotive Cock o’ the North.

Significantly, when Lord Lonsdale and the opening party arrived, they made first for this exhibit.

Lord Lonsdale, in his familiar long jacket, mounted the steps on the footplate, where the intricacies of the monster engine were explained by Mr Thom, the chief of the Works.

Lord Lonsdale then leaned on the rail of the cab with his head out of the window, like any experienced driver, and bowed to the crowd.

Class P2 steam engine no 2001 Cock o’ the North was built to the design of eminent locomotive engineer H N Gresley, later Sir, at the company’s Doncaster Works.

The engine was equipped with number of new and experimental features and this created quite a stir in the railway world and with the wider public. These features included a Kylälä-Chapelon (Kylchap) double blastpipe and chimney, Lentz poppet valves and rotary cam valve gear, ACFI feedwater heater, V-shaped cab front, streamlined steam passages and a 50 sq ft firebox grate area.

No 2001 also had a 2-8-2 or Mikado wheel arrangement and, while it was not the first engine in Britain to have such an arrangement – the Gresley P1 Class locomotives of 1925 were the pioneers – Cock o’ the North was the first engine intended for use on express passenger traffic to be built as a Mikado.

The 2-8-2 arrangement may have been a novelty for British railways but it had been widely employed in America and in Europe since the turn of the 20th century on both passenger and freight locomotives.

A Mikado locomotive appealed to Gresley because the trailing axle supported a large firebox and the eight-coupled wheels created better adhesion to the track for the transmission of the locomotive’s power.

This latter was a definite advantage as when the locomotive was completed it was the most powerful passenger engine in Britain.

Cock o’ the North was constructed to work in Scotland, between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, on the LNER’s sleeping carriage traffic, which had been growing increasingly heavy during the summer months and was placing a strain on the locomotives assigned to work it.

The route between the two cities was also particularly tortuous, having an abundance of sharp curves, steep gradients and speed restrictions and requiring a powerful engine to keep to the scheduled times.

Before being dispatched to Scotland, no 2001 underwent a number of trials. On one run between King’s Cross and Barkston, Lincolnshire, Cock o’ the North produced one of the most impressive performances by a locomotive in Britain at the time.

Early in December 1934 Cock o’ the North travelled to Vitry-sur-Seine, near Paris, along with wagons of coal from Yorkshire Main in Edlington, to undergo trials at the recently constructed locomotive testing station.

This was to obtain data about the engine’s performance. Gresley had advocated that such a facility should be provided in Britain, but this did not occur until 1948.

However, the locomotive encountered a number of problems at the station, namely hot axle boxes, and the tests were cut short.

Cock o’ the North did run some relatively successful trials on the French line between Tours and Orléans.

Later, Cock o’ the North was joined in service by no 2002 Earl Marischal in October 1934 and then by a further four – no 2003 Lord President, no 2004 Mons Meg, no 2005 Thane of Fife and no 2006 Wolf of Badenoch – in 1936.

After Gresley died in 1941, Edward Thompson was made chief mechanical engineer of the LNER and, as a result of a number of mechanical and operating problems, decided to rebuild all the P2s as 4-6-2 Pacific locomotives.

Cock o’ the North was altered in September 1944, bringing to an end to a great period of innovation in locomotive design on the LNER.