The genesis of the GER was the Eastern Counties Railway, which besides having been the first railway east of London, also proved to be the dominant company in the region. In time it absorbed, leased, or worked most of the other railways that sprung up in the area, and it became the Great Eastern Railway in 1862. The system had a difficult birth and a delinquent adolescence, but from the time of the reformation as the GER the company strove hard to redeem itself, and by 1900 had reached respectable middle age. However, it was never a prosperous company, a fact that was reflected the development of its locomotives, as much as in other areas.
To some extent, this lack of money drove much of the innovation displayed by the various incumbents of the post of Locomotive Superintendent. Indeed, the GER had more than its fair share of these worthies in the early years, for many were enticed away to larger salaries elsewhere after only a few years' service. However, in this way the ECR and GER had the services of several of the Victorian era's most prominent locomotive engineers, such as J.V. Gooch, S.W. Johnson, William Adams and T.W. Worsdell. 'Home grown' engineers who either started their apprenticeships on the GER, or who worked for it for a period included W.F. Pettrigrew and the Whitelegg brothers. From 1862 until 1885 the GER had no less than five Locomotive Superintendents, but then things changed when James Holden took charge, for he held the reins until the end of 1907, and thus lasted as long as all of his predecessors put together. His son Stephen took office from 1908 to 1912, when he was succeeded in turn by A.J. Hill, the Works Manager, who held the position until the GER was absorbed into the London & North Eastern Railway in 1923. Biographies of GER Locomotove Superintendents can be found here.
Prior to the advent of Holden, highlights of GER locomotive development included the first compound-expansion locomotive in the world, in the 1850s, and the first 2 cylinder Worsdell-von Borries compounds in 1884. S.W. Johnson built the first 0 4-4 side tank engines, and introduced the inside cylinder 4-4-0 to England (the type having appeared in Scotland three years earlier). William Adams had of course invented the locomotive bogie with controlled side-play which became standard throughout the world. He also designed the first 2-6-0 locomotives in Britain for the GER, the first of which was named Mogul, becoming the generic name for the type. It is not usually recognised that the clean outlines of the late Victorian British railway locomotive is due largely to T.W. Worsdell. His G14 2-4-0s for the GER of 1882 created something of a sensation, and greatly influenced a number of other engineers. Among them was Adams who, having transferred to the London & South Western Railway, transplanted a number of GER practices there.
The contribution of Robert Sinclair should also be noted. He held the dual posts of Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent as well as that of Engineer to the ECR from 1856, and continued these functions under the GER. At the time that he took office, the locomotive stock consisted of some 300 machines, most of which had been so heavily-modified that it would have been difficult to find two alike. He introduced five new classes for different types of work, one of which, the Y class 2-4-0s totalled no less than 110 engines. By the time that he was succeeded by Johnson, in 1867, these locomotives formed something like a quarter of the GER's stock. Sinclair resigned the post of Locomotive Superintendent so that he could concentrate on the 'Metropolitan Extensions' of the GER, which included the extension from Bishopsgate to Liverpool Street, and the new line from Bethnal Green to Clapton, via Hackney Downs.
It was James Holden who laid the foundations of GER locomotive design that lasted until the 1923 Grouping. He had previously been Principal Assistant to the mercurial William Dean on the Great Western Railway. His experiences in dealing with the wide range of disparate locomotive types on the GWR - both for the Broad and Standard gauges - must surely have impressed upon him the need for standardisation in locomotive types and their components. It must be remembered that the GWR was far from standardised at the time - the ascent of G.J. Churchward lay fifteen years in the future.
Holden saw no benefit in imposing his own tastes in locomotive aesthetics on the locomotives that he produced for the GER and, besides, as has been noted, Worsdell had laid an excellent foundation in this regard. His first two new designs were an 0 6-0T for shunting, and a 2-4-0 for express passenger work. Both were to some extent developments of earlier GER classes, but with detail improvements, and down to 1900, both types were developed into further classes sharing the same boilers, cylinders and motion details. The 0-6-0T boiler was a development of an earlier GER pattern, whilst that of the 2-4-0s and later large engines was that used on Worsdell's Y14 class 0-6-0s, which he continued to build, the class eventually totalling 289 examples.
The first fifteen years of Holden's superintendency saw a rapid growth of the GER locomotive fleet, which practically doubled in size from some 650 to 1200 engines over the period. As a result of work carried out under Bromley, and completed by Worsdell, Stratford Works had been re-equipped so that it was capable of building all of the new locomotives required. Its peak years of production were in 1891/2, when 81 new locomotives were built in both years. Indeed, in 1891 it set the un-broken World record for building a steam locomotive and tender in 9 hours, 47 minutes. This included painting and steaming the engine, which immediately entered service! By the mid-1890s, the average age of the whole locomotive stock was less than ten years.
Over this period a great 'weeding out' of the older types took place, whilst the more useful existing engines were reboilered and modernised. During this time, only five standard boilers were produced - apart from those for about 20 small shunters and the P43 4-2-2s. These were the Y14 type boiler and 0-6-0T boilers already noted, plus three others, all of the same 4ft. 2ins. diameter. By 1900, more than half of all of the GER locomotives used the Y14 boiler alone, and another quarter the 0-6-0T type.
One of the first innovations that Holden was responsible for was the development of oil-firing for locomotives. This came about just after he became Locomotive Superintendent, when the market for the waste oil-tar produced by the GER's carriage gas works collapsed, and it could not be disposed of. Holden was instructed to see if there was a way that it could be burned as fuel. Following experiments with stationary boilers and furnaces at Stratford Works of various types, the equipment that Holden designed was fitted to the Works shunting engine. It was then further tested on a number of other locomotives, and then more widely used on the T19 class 2-4-0s from the end of the 1880s.
Mindful of the fact that the waste oil market might revive, the equipment was designed so as to be easily fitted and removed. All that was required to fit an engine to burn oil was to provide two holes in the boiler back-plate, below the firehole and above the grate, to take the burners. A wall of firebrick was added to the firebox throatplate, below the brick arch, and a removable oil tank fitted to the tender. The equipment was further refined over the years, principally in that the air supply to the burners was pre-heated by passing it through heat-exchangers in the smokebox. At its peak in the 1890s, some sixty GER locomotives burned oil.
By 1900, train weights were increasing, and more powerful locomotives were required for the express passenger traffic. Thus, Holden - and his brilliant ex-apprentice F.V. Russell - produced the immortal Claud Hamilton 4-4-0s. These fine engines positively bristled with innovative features, including compressed air operated water scoops, sanding gear and reversing gear. The sanding gear could be operated by a rotating sleeve on the regulator handle, the forward or reverse sanders being automatically selected by the position of the reversing gear. The air-powered reversing gear was the most reliable ever developed, and simple in operation. It was, in fact, superimposed on the conventional manual gear, and could be operated by either method at whim. Once a particular cut-off setting had been achieved, the gear locked in position and did not 'creep' - something that O.V. Bullied's gear of forty years later was notorious for. Furthermore, unlike most other power-operated reversers, it could still be operated when the engine was out of steam, or if the brake pump (which supplied the compressed air) was not working.
Concurrently with the new 4-4-0s an 0-6-0 goods engine version was built, the F48 class. These had the same boiler, cylinders and motion and - like the express engines - were an immediate success. It is interesting - and perhaps surprising - to note that each of the three new 0-6-0 goods engine types built by the GER between 1900 and 1920 were nominally the most-powerful 0-6-0s in Britain at the time of their introduction, the D81s of 1920 holding this record until 1942.
The other main highlight of James Holden's Superintendency was the construction of the 'Decapod' 0-10-0 tank engine in 1902, the sole purpose of which was to prove that a steam locomotive could equal electric power in accelerating a 300 ton train to 30 mph in 20 seconds.
By the end of James Holden's Superintendency, the Great Eastern's locomotives were extremely efficient. For example, figures published in 1907 showed the costs of locomotive coal for each of the major British railways, and their average consumption in pounds of coal per train mile. These figures make interesting reading, and demonstrate that the highest consumption was by those railways that had the coalfields 'on their doorsteps'. There was no incentive to be particularly frugal, as the cost of the coal was cheap. At the other end of the scale, the lowest consumption was by those railways furthest from the mines, as they paid the highest price. The figures for the GER - both the cost of the coal and for its consumption - were in the middle of the range. However, if one extrapolates from these figures the cost of the coal burned per train mile - which, after all, is what the accountants were most interested in - the GER performed the best of all.
James Holden retired at the end of 1907 and was succeeded by his son Stephen. His term of office only lasted four years, during which period new locomotive design was largely undertaken by the Drawing Office. The highlight of this era was the introduction of the S69 class inside cylinder 4-6-0s of 1911 for express passenger work. Although externally an enlargement of the Claud Hamilton 4-4-0s, the cylinders were fed by piston valves of a generous ten inches diameter, and superheaters were fitted from the outset. It is often claimed that these were the finest inside-cylinder 4-6-0s to be produced in Europe. An equivalent 0-6-0 goods version was not produced until 1920, but in the interim, the standard F48/G58 class 0-6-0 design was revised to incorporate the S69 piston valve cylinders as the E72 class.
A.J. Hill - formerly Stratford Works Manager - replaced Stephen Holden as Locomotive Superintendent in 1912. Hill's term of office was somewhat frustrated by the Great War and its aftermath. On the eve of the War he produced two prototypes of a new 0-6-2T design for suburban passenger work, the L77 class. These had modern piston valve cylinders and, for comparison, one engine of the pair was additionally fitted with a superheater. Unfortunately, the War prevented further development, and it was not until 1920 that another ten engines could be constructed of what was to become an LNER standard class in due course.
The legacy of the Great Eastern Railway was that in 1923 it handed over to the new LNER an efficient, modern and highly-standardised fleet of some 1343 locomotives. To those who hold the all-too-common view of the GER as a somewhat eccentric and antiquated line, this statement seems a little hard to believe. But consider the facts: Ninety-seven percent of the locomotives had one of only five standard cylinder and motion arrangements. There were only six standard boiler types in use on 88% of the stock. The average number of locomotives per class was higher than any of the other major constituents of the LNER. Of the thirty individual GER locomotive classes in 1923, only four were eliminated down to 1948 by withdrawal, and three others were eliminated by rebuilding to another existing class, specifically, the round-topped boilered D-14 and J-16 4-4-0s and 0-6-0s were reboilered with Belpaire boilers and became identical with the D-15 and J-17 classes, whilst the leading frames of the J-18 0-6-0s were shortened so that they became members of the J-19 class.
By 1923 the GER was one of the top ten railways in the country in practically all categories except financially. The company made a profit, but dividends were low. Otherwise, it carried the most passengers of any railway in the country, mainly due to its enormous suburban traffic. It also had the largest number of passenger carriages - for the same reason. In terms of numbers of locomotives, it ranked eighth nationally, and fourth in the LNER group.