Recalling the clans

Clan MacLeod, number 72008, at Crewe's North Shed

Clan MacLeod, number 72008, at Crewe’s North Shed

It burst out of Harrogate Station in a fury of dark smoke. Luckily I had a clear view of the intervening 400 yards from my embankment stone wall perch. The impressive looking engine headed in my direction, Knaresborough bound. There was no one else around – not even a pedestrian on the adjacent narrow footbridge. I had the experience all to myself.It was June, 1957.1 was an eight-year-old train-spotter and in for the shock of my young life. The train passed right below me, barely 15 yards away. I read the nameplate and took the number. It was Cion Fraser, number 72003.

I ran the short distance home, hardly able to contain my excitement. But my older brother was out and my moment of triumph delayed. When he returned, after what seemed an eternity, I blurted out my news. He was not impressed. “You must have got it wrong. It’s a Scottish engine. It doesn’t operate in Yorkshire,” he declared.

Sadly my train-spotting pals reacted in the same way. At school my claim was treated with contempt. I alone had seen the engine. Perhaps it had travelled through over their teatime, although 1 can’t remember the time of day my miracle occurred.

Three years later, my family moved to Hull and the sighting of Clan Fraser was consigned to memory. I turned away from train-spotting to other interests and concerns.

About 30 years later I made a half-hearted attempt to find a photograph of the engine at the National Railway Museum in York, but without success, so the Clan Fraser incident remained the nostalgia of childhood.

A visit to the museum’s 2004 Railfest changed all that. I was idly thumbing through a book with the catchy title A Detailed History of British Railways Standard Steam Locomotives and suddenly found myself staring at a photo of Clan Fraser. That was definitely the beast at the back of my memory, and I felt compelled to buy the book.

Back home I was reading the relevant chapter on the Clan Class when, lo and behold, I came upon: ‘…another unusual working was of 72003 from Blackpool to York, via Blackburn, Colne, Skipton, Filey and Harrogate on June 30th, 1957’. When my brother visited a few weeks later I showed him the extract. It had taken 47 years, but I was vindicated.

I suppose to a schoolboy train-spotter, the engine’s name held an exotic attraction. Scotland seemed a long way from Yorkshire in 1958. The locos received their romantic names from engineer Ernest Stewart Cox. He was simply recycling names that had once been used by the Highland Railway. As the Clans were initially allocated to run on Scottish rails it was an obvious choice.

My Clan Fraser was one of only ten such locomotives built at Crewe in 1951 and 1952. Railway enthusiasts would know them as British Rail Standard Class 6 Pacifics. The Class 6 referred to their power designation (6P). As such they were designed by Robert Riddles to fill a niche in British Rail’s scheduling. Not as powerful as their better known cousins, the Britannias (7P), the Clans could run on routes unsuited to heavier engines. They were also expected to thrive on a diet of lower quality coal, making them cheaper.

As they looked so similar to the Britannias, unfair comparisons were made by both enthusiasts and some crews. The Clans had smaller boilers, fireboxes and marginally smaller cylinders. Some finicky enthusiasts obsessed with tables of performance statistics were not impressed by them.

Yet crews who regularly operated the Clans were favourably disposed towards their charges. The Clans were quite capable of meeting the challenge of Britain’s main railway inclines, such as Shap and Beattock banks, often without the need of a supporting banking engine.

The age of the Clans – sadly all too short – began in a blaze of publicity on January 16th, 1952. The Lord Provost of Glasgow presided over the official naming ceremony for Clan Buchanan at the city’s Central Station.

The first five Clans (72000 to 72004) were allocated to the Glasgow Polmadie sheds with the rest going to Carlisle Kingsway. The engines were to spend most of their working lives in Southern Scotland and North West England.

My fellow spotters in Carlisle, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Perth would enjoy many sightings. The Clans were also frequently used on the Dumfries to Stranraer boat train service. These reliable and hard working engines were particularly suited to this long and winding way.

A particularly satisfying job for the crew of Clan Cameron (72001) must have been the run from Glasgow Queen Street to Spean Bridge on June 16th, 1956. It formed part of the Clan Cameron rally. It was even stipulated that the crew must be Camerons. A huge circular sign with the legend Clan Cameron Gathering was placed on the front of the engine.

Eventually the Clans roamed further afield (thus my sighting in Harrogate) but their fate was sealed. A further batch of 15 engines had been planned with work to commence in May, 1954. Unfortunately, a severe international shortage of steel delayed the work. A year later, British Rail’s modernisation plan signalled a wholesale switch to diesel traction. Although work on Hengist, the next of the class, had already begun, the order was cancelled.

Over the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Clans ventured further south. Ironically, they were sometimes substituted for failed diesel units. But progress could not be halted. The first of the Clans (72000 to 72004) were withdrawn from service in December, 1962. The last of the class to be withdrawn was Clan MacLeod (72008) in April, 1966.

But perhaps that is not the end of the story. A group of enthusiasts called the Standard Steam Locomotive Co. Ltd. was formed in 1996, with the aim of building a brand new Clan locomotive, Hengist. It was originally scheduled to be built over 50 years ago as the first of a new batch destined to operate in the south of England, hence its name; Hengist was the leader of the Jutes, a tribe who settled in Kent in the 6th century.

Work on the new Hengist is underway at the South Devon Railway at Buckfastleigh. One day the phoenix will rise again and I will be able to spot my second Clan class Pacific locomotive.

Colin Allan