Doncaster's Railway Legends
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There is a proud history of locomotive building in the town of Doncaster and this book is a tribute to the famous locomotives built there and the men who built, maintained and operated them.
Known as Danum in Roman times, and Dona Ceastra (camp on the Don) by the Saxons, Doncaster’s first documented resident, the Praefectus equitum Crispianorum was a Roman military leader stationed in Doncaster at the turn of the fifth century AD. His unit was originally raised from tribespeople living near the town of Crispiana in Upper Pannonia, near Zirc in the Bakony region of western Hungary. That such a force should be stationed at Doncaster shows the cosmopolitan nature of Roman Britain.
The unit formed part of the forces under the command of Dux Britanniarum or the 'Duke of the Britons', commander of Roman forces along the northern border of the empire.
The fact that this is known, shows the importance of Doncaster, even to the Romans, as records were kept and have survived.
In more recent times, among Doncaster’s best-known contemporary residents is Lesley Garrett. Lesley was born on 10 April 1955 in Thorne, Doncaster. She studied music to A-level before training for six years at the Royal Academy of Music. Both of her grandfathers were musical, one was a classical pianist.
Doncaster has always been an important transport hub. Ancient trackways converged at the point where the river Don first became fordable. Later the Romans chose the same point to cross the river, building a number of important roads and ridgeways in the area. The north-south route developed into the Great North Road linking London with the north and Scotland. The Don was also improved for navigation allowing Humber Keels to travel far inland thus making the town an important inland port.
Doncaster was to make a contribution to Britain’s development totally disproportionate to its size and status. The coming of the railways transformed Britain, and many hitherto small settlements grew into major conurbations as a result of their railway-related industries. Crewe, Swindon and Doncaster; these are just three towns which will forever be regarded as ‘railway towns’ but Doncaster has a unique claim to fame. It took the art of railway engineering to new heights. Only one railway workshop is responsible for producing the steam engine that went faster than any other in the world, and it was Doncaster.
It was not an isolated occurrence, ‘The Plant’ as Doncaster’s locomotive-building workshop became known, had been at the forefront of the quest for power, economy, efficiency, and speed for many years, and while the record-breaking Mallard may have been the fastest-ever, there were many other spectacular achievements by Doncaster-built machines over the years leading up to its world record achievement in 1938.
Rail is not the only method of transport, but in the days of steam at least, it was the only method which relied on the sweat and toil of human endeavour not only to build the engines to the finest-possible quality, but to get the best out of them in daily service. A steam engine is an individual, it performs differently each day. An aircraft or a car lacks the individuality of a steam engine, only a ship can perhaps compare, but on a totally different scale.
It was the combination of the skill and expertise built up over many years at Doncaster, plus the hard work and determination of the men working the engines, inspired by the leadership of railway management, which produced the team effort required to make that world speed record in 1938, a record which still stands.
Where did Doncaster really stand in a hypothetical league table of Britain’s great railway workshops? To answer that question, we need to establish what sets one apart from another; it is not just about size or longevity, but about making the most significant contributions to advancing the technology of the day.
Crewe was a busier and more important station, and is better known as a railway junction than Doncaster. Although the latter built some of Britain’s fastest and most famous steam engines, such as Flying Scotsman and Mallard, a surprisingly small proportion now survive, and two of the streamlined Pacifics are in America. Surprisingly, ‘The Plant’ built hardly any diesels apart from shunters until the late 1970s.
Doncaster works only really had three significant chiefs during its heyday of steam locomotive construction, Stirling, Ivatt and particularly the third, Herbert Nigel (later Sir Nigel) Gresley. Of the others, Thompson had to contend with wartime conditions and Peppercorn’s reign was brief as Nationalisation took hold. Gresley undoubtedly produced among the top steam locomotive designs during steam’s finest hour, but how did these designs compare with contemporary design elsewhere?
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