On Saturday 19 May 1956, after 36 years, 5 months and 19 days in traffic, locomotive number 58100 was finally withdrawn from service. During that time 58100 had clocked up 838,856 miles (1,350,008km) of which more than 830,000 miles had been spent making return trips between Bromsgrove and Blackwell stations, a total distance there and back of about four miles (6.4km).
However, this is no ordinary stretch of railway. This is the Lickey Incline, and its continuous climb of 1:37.7 makes it the steepest gradient on a main line in Great Britain. Similarly, 58100 was no ordinary steam locomotive. 58100 was designed and built to perform one job: to bank (push from behind) passenger and freight trains up the Lickey.
The story of 58100 began during 1911 when the Midland Railway drawing office at Derby began putting forward several designs for a purpose-built banking engine powerful enough to do the work of two or three ordinary locomotives.
Under Chief Mechanical Engineer, Henry Fowler, the design began to take shape and during 1912 it coalesced around a 0-10-0 tender engine. In May 1914, the Midland Railway board finally gave the go ahead for the construction of one locomotive to be numbered 2290.
A few months later Great Britain was at war and in 1915 Henry Fowler was appointed Director of Production for the Ministry of Munitions. Fowler would continue to be employed in senior roles for the Ministry of Munitions until 1919 and during his absence from Derby, James Anderson was appointed acting Chief Mechanical Engineer. Anderson had a wealth of experience and had been the Midland Railway’s Chief Locomotive Draughtsman.
2290’s design was unusual in many respects. For a start, only one other locomotive featuring the 0-10-0 wheel arrangement had been built for service in the UK and that was in 1903, when the Great Eastern Railway constructed a tank engine. Also, 2290 would be fitted with four cylinders, a fairly recent innovation for UK locomotives.
The cylinders, two inside, two outside, were 16.75in x 28in (425.45mm x 711.2mm) and unusually inclined at 1:7 would be driven off the centre pair of wheels. This in itself called for a bit of radical thinking as lack of space precluded the inside cylinders from having their own piston valves and it is the piston valves that supply steam to the cylinders.
The problem was overcome by means of crossed ports, a technique whereby the outside cylinder piston valves could supply the inside cylinders with steam. Left outside supplying left inside, right outside supplying right inside. The concept was known about as it was in use in Italy on a class of 0-10-0 heavy freight locomotives and Derby Works just happened to be in possession of a complete set of drawings.
The wheels were 4ft 7.5in (1,409.7mm) in diameter, the five axles were equally spaced, and the locomotive was fitted with a specially designed superheated boiler.
In working order 2290 weighed over 105.25tons (95481kg) of which the six-wheeled tender weighed 31.5tons (28576kg). The tender held four tons (3629kg) of coal and 2050 gallons (9319.5litres) of water. 2290 was the largest and most powerful engine designed and built by the Midland Railway and quickly attracted the nickname Big Bertha.
In 1921 Big Bertha was equipped with a powerful headlight powered by a British Thompson & Houston steam turbogenerator. It was the answer to problems enginemen were experiencing at night in estimating distance when buffering up to the rear of trains.
There were set methods of working for banking on the Lickey. The load of each train was telegraphed in advance from Cheltenham. If, however, on consulting his loads diagram or because of weather conditions the driver decided he needed additional bankers there was a procedure in place.
On approaching Stoke Works signal box, the driver would give one blast on the whistle, pause, then give a number of short blasts indicating how many bankers he required. Big Bertha counted as two blasts.
The bankers never coupled to the trains or to each other. Instead, they waited until the train was at a stand then came out of their siding and buffered up. They then pushed the train up the incline and through Blackwell station before shutting off steam. If there was more than one banker, they would ease apart creating a clear distance between one another. Individually they would cross over to the other line, and in turn trundle down the incline back to their siding.
When British Railways was formed in 1948, Big Bertha was renumbered 58100.
March 1955, British Railways ran trials on the Lickey to access the need for retaining banking engines. The trains, without assistance, would attempt the climb from a standing start at Stoke Works Junction. A second trial would involve the trains coming to a stand part way up the Lickey and then restarting.
Jubilee class 4-6-0 45554 Ontario, hauling 252 tons comprising eight coaches plus the made it to the summit on the first trial but failed on the second and had to be rescued by bank engines.
Black Five 4-6-0 44776 hauling 222 tons comprising seven coaches, made it to the summit on the first trial, but took two attempts to get away on the second.
A dynameter coach, a laboratory on wheels, was positioned immediately behind 45554 and 44776 to measure their overall performance. The conclusion was that bank engines would remain on the Lickey for the foreseeable future.
Following withdrawal from service, Big Bertha languished at Derby Works for a few months though already minus the headlight, which had been removed and fitted to her replacement, the newly built heavy freight 2-10-0 92079. There was talk of preserving Big Bertha but in the end the decision was taken to scrap her, though the massive cylinder block was to be retained ‘as a special item of interest.’ However, scrapping was halted, and Big Bertha given a bit of a brush up in time for Derby Works 1956 Horticultural & Flower Show (Open Day). Big Bertha was finally scrapped during September 1957.