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Little Willie Steam Engine

Clives Curiosities

Little Willie – Railway History

Discover our lost railway history, Little Willie, and the role Gorton played for this engine that could!

During 1924, Beyer Peacock & Co of Gortonbuilt its first Garratt standard gauge articulated steam locomotive for use in the UK. However, the customer wasn’t one of the country’s major railway companies, it was if fact Vivian & Sons Hafod Copper Works near Swansea.

Keen to sell Garratts into UK industry, Beyer Peacock came up with a 0-4-0+0-4-0 weighing 61.5 tons. Designed to tackle steep gradients and traverse tight curves, the small size of its water tank (950 gallons + 550 gallons in rear tank) and coal bunker (twelve tons) marked the engine out as one that wouldn’t be straying too far from home.

According to a letter written by Vivian’s managing director Sir Hugh Vivian on 1 January 1925, he was ‘entirely satisfied’ with the way the engine (number 10 in their fleet) was performing and that it could do the work of two 0-4-0 tank engines. Sir Hugh also noted that the number 10 brought with it operational savings when compared to two 0-4-0 tank engines. It consumed 25 per cent less coal as well as saving the wages bill of one engine crew.    

Despite proactive advertising, Beyer Peacock sold just three more of these Garratts into UK industry.

During 1931, Sneyd Colliery, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent was Beyer Peacock’s second customer. The Garratt’s tractive effort of 27,884 pounds (12,648 kg), enabled it to make light work of the Sneyd Colliery line’s gradient of 1 in 20 (5 per cent).

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During 1934, Guest, Keen & Baldwins Iron & Steel Co, became the third customer ordering one for their East Moors Works, Cardiff.

Little Willie Steam Engine
William Francis, better known as Little Willie, in action at NCB Baddesley Colliery in the early 1960s. – Clive Hardy

The fourth and final UK industrial Garratt was supplied to the Baddesley Colliery Co, Atherstone, Warwickshire, during 1937.

It was named William Francis after the son of the founder of the colliery Sir William Francis Dugdale and was the third engine at the colliery to carry the name. Given its length and weight William Francis soon attracted the nickname Little Willie.

However, money was not lavished on Little Willie. Where the other three locomotives sported polished brass boiler bands and dome, Little Willie had to make do with plain steel.  

Little Willie earned its keep replacing two conventional engines over the numerous gradients, the steepest being 1 in 23 as the colliery line rose nearly 240 ft (73.1 metres) in under two miles (3.21 km) from its connection to the main line in the Trent Valley.

As well as the gradients, Little Willie had to tackle a curve with a radius of just 97 ft (29.56 metres).

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During 1956 Little Willie was sent back to Gorton for a general overhaul.

However, in 1963 the National Coal Board (NCB) decided Little Willie’s days were over and ordered a new diesel locomotive as a replacement. There is a story that on the day the shiny new diesel was officially handed over and was supposed to show off its capabilities before an invited audience, it struggled to get up Baddesley’s notorious gradients then failed completely.

Thankfully Little Willie was in steam and was put back to work. By 1966, the engine was effectively worn out. It was leaking so much steam that an extra lookout had to be posted to stand in front of the smokebox. Lookouts were nothing unusual at Baddesley. The inclines were such that locomotives pushed wagons up hill with a lookout standing in the front wagon. When it came to going downhill, the locomotive was always on the front of train to provide braking power should it be needed.   

At this time, Little Willie could manage eighteen wagons whereas the NCB’s more modern 0-6-0STs at the colliery could haul/push sixteen. 

When Little Willie was finally withdrawn from service it was the sole survivor of its

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little gang of four, the other three having already been scrapped.   

Within the railway enthusiast movement there was a flurry of activity. Enthusiasts interested in industrial railways were well aware of William Francis’s existence whilst many of those solely interested in British Railways had never heard of the machine.

Guest Keen & Baldwins No.12 working at the East Moors Works, Cardiff, in September 1951. - H C Casserley, collection Clive Hardy.
Guest Keen & Baldwins No.12 working at the East Moors Works, Cardiff, in September 1951. – H C Casserley, collection Clive Hardy.

As Little Willie was the only surviving standard gauge Beyer Garratt in the UK, it came as something of a shock when the news broke that a group of Canadian railway enthusiasts were interested in buying the engine. Even more so when Beyer Peacock never managed to break into the North American market for these locomotives.

The engine was eventually bought by a Mr J R Price and by 1968 Little Willie was at the Bressingham Steam Museum, Diss, Norfolk. 

Bressingham was the brainchild of Alan Bloom, a horticulturist and railway enthusiast who’d developed the 220-acre estate from the early 1960s. In 2023 Little Willie is still at Bressingham, though in 2009 it visited the Manchester Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester, as part of the centenary celebrations of the construction of the first Beyer Garratt.

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Written By

Clive is our Transport and Railway writer, with years of experience he is a fount of knowledge on all things transport nostalgia.

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