Captain W G (Bill) Smith VRD, RNVR, is not a name that many people, outside of the world of railway preservation, have heard of. But Bill, an important railway pioneer, is memorialised in two locomotives and a set of nameplates, one of which now forms part of the National Railway Collection thanks to a donation by a member of the Friends of the National Railway Museum.
So what did he do?
In 1959, the drive to ‘modernise’ Britain was sweeping all before it, including railway steam locomotives. One of the threatened locomotives was the “Top Shed” pilot, Class J52 No 68846, at Kings Cross, London. Designed by H A Ivatt for shunting and general freight work and built by Sharp Stewart & Company in Glasgow in 1899, it was due for the scrap yard.
For many years its role was to push and pull its big sisters such as the A3s and A4s that were not in steam around the shed yard at King’s Cross.
However, rather than allow this little engine to disappear into the scrap furnace of history, Captain Smith did something unheard of, he bought it. This was the first mainline locomotive to be bought by an individual for preservation and it made many people sit up and take notice – including Alan Pegler who later bought 60103 Flying Scotsman.
Bill had the locomotive repainted into Great Northern Railway livery with its original number 1247. He always spoke of her as “the Old Lady”.
In 1980 Bill found the cost of operating 1247 was getting beyond his means so he donated it to the National Railway Museum – the first donation of an operating standard gauge locomotive to our Museum. In recognition, Bill was made the first Honorary Life Member of the Friends of the National Railway Museum.
In 1993 British Railways named a Class 33 diesel locomotive after Bill – 33109, which is preserved and on the East Lancs Railway. The photo shows Bill beside the loco with the main nameplate and the supplementary plate which tells the story of 1247.
Bill’s initiative showed what could be done. The heritage railways movement took heart from this simple, yet groundbreaking act. David Shepherd bought two locomotives including 92203 “Black Prince” for preservation. From these early actions a heritage sector now worth over £250 million to the UK economy has been built up.
It is a strange irony that the locomotive that carries the other two nameplates is a class 33-diesel locomotive, the face of 1950’s railway modernisation.
1247, known as the Old Lady, is still a star of rail preservation and part of the National Collection. It or should I say she, is on display in our Station Hall.