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Great Western Railway Engineers: Churchward, Gresley, Maunsell, Bulleid and Holcroft

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From building extensions, braking systems, coal handling plants and catering facilities to water towers and weed-killing trains, Harold Holcroft’s railway engineering career spanned almost five decades. Cataloguing the archive collection papers of Harold Holcroft has revealed an insight into this man’s life.

Photograph of Harold Holcroft aboard a ship. [Ref: HOL/6/1]

Holcroft’s passion lay in steam locomotives and during his childhood he was introduced to the railway world by Joe Armstrong, a family friend and the assistant to the Chief Locomotive Engineer at the Great Western Railway (GWR). Inspired by this friendship, he began a five-year apprenticeship at the age of 16 at the Great Western and the Stafford Road works in 1898.

Moving to GWR’s Swindon Works Drawing Office in 1906, Holcroft assisted in the design of George Churchward’s locomotives, including the National Railway Museum’s own GWR 4003 “Lode Star”, in the Great Hall.

During his time at Swindon, Holcroft designed and patented his conjugated valve gear for three-cylinder locomotives, an idea that he continued to be interested in throughout his career. A trip to Canada and the United States in 1909 provided further inspiration from the 2-6-0 “Mogul” arrangement locomotives, which led to the arrangement being used on GWR 4300 Class locomotives.

Patent for Holcroft’s improvement to valve gears, 1909. [Ref: HOL/3/2]

Holcroft moved to the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) in 1914 and immediately set to work influencing Richard Maunsell’s designs – assisting in the design of the N-Class, which once again used Holcroft’s favoured “Mogul” arrangement. In 1919, Nigel Gresley requested a meeting to discuss their ideas regarding three-cylinder locomotives. Following their collaboration, Gresley incorporated some of Holcroft’s ideas into his three-cylinder designs. Gresley inquired as to the possibility of hiring Holcroft, but Maunsell refused to allow it.

Letter from Nigel Gresley, requesting a meeting with Holcroft. [Ref: HOL/5/3]

In 1923 Holcroft moved to Maunsell’s new office as Chief Mechanical Engineer, when SECR became part of the newly formed Southern Railway. He continued to work on locomotive design, and participated considerably in the design of the U-Class locomotives and the Lord Nelson class locomotives (the last of which is now in the NRM collection).

Southern Railways E850 “Lord Nelson” during indicating trials. [Ref: HOL/6/4]

In 1936, he travelled to Germany for the summer meeting of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, which he documented in a scrapbook. Holcroft describes the journey including the trains on which they travel and the places and people they visit. He recounts discussions on the tense political situation with German colleagues, and is clearly taken aback by some facets of the country at the time. His scrapbook, rather shockingly to us now, incorporates the Institution of Locomotive Engineers 1911-1936 (Silver Jubilee Year) logo and a Swastika.

Photograph of Holcroft standing in front of Deutsche Reichsbahn-Gesellschaft’s 05 002, the locomotive that held the world speed record for two years prior to Mallard’s record-breaking run. [Ref: HOL/4]

Photograph from the album Institute of Locomotive Engineers, Summer meeting in Germany 22nd May to 1st June, 1936. Streamline engine 05 001. [Ref: HOL/4]

Maunsell retired in 1937 and Oliver Bulleid took over the role. He took a more hands-on approach, giving Holcroft slightly less free rein. Holcroft and Bulleid became good friends, and after Holcroft’s retirement in 1946 they remained in touch. Holcroft wrote various books, journal articles and papers, he was finishing a manuscript entitled ‘Life with Locos‘, at the age of 90, although it was never published.

The collection was catalogued and the blog written by Robert Hillman, a student on the Master of Archives and Records Management (MARM) course, Liverpool. The Papers of Harold Holcroft are available to search via the National Railway Museum’s new online archive catalogue. The archive collection is available to view at Search Engine.

Written by Charlotte Dennard

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