The original purpose of the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway, on the mid-Wales coast, was to carry slate from the Bryn Eglws quarry near Abergynolwyn down to the railway station at Tywyn..
It was also the first such railway which, when its operational life was over, attracted the attention of a Preservation Society. There was no period of disuse. The line has operated continuously since 1865. Even in its days as a slate railway, the line also carried passengers. Visitors liked to ride the railway from Tywyn to its terminus then walk in the hills for a while.
All the steam locomotives belonging to the Talyllyn Railway have an interesting history. One has been with the railway since it opened; another, over 120 years old, has spent all of its working life here. One came from the Corris Tramway, and another was designed and built by volunteers from the Society in its sheds at Pendre as recently as 1991.
But the most travelled locomotive is probably a Barclay Class E well-tank engine, which carries the number 6 and the name Douglas. It’s had a long and eventful career; half of its working life so far has been spent in the service of … the Royal Air Force!
In 1918, Douglas rolled out of the factory of Andrew Barclay, Sons & Co. in Kilmarnock, Scotland. It was one of six locomotives ordered by the Admiralty Air Service Construction Corps for transporting contractors’ materials at various Royal Naval Air Service airfields being built around the country. Naval custom of the day was that ships were the only inanimate objects to have names, so it was simply known as Locomotive 1431.
Temporary railways for carrying materials around airfield construction were used in many places, including Manston, in Kent, where L1431 was assigned. When the building work was completed, the tracks were taken up, and the engines placed in store at the Air Ministry Works & Buildings Department’s depot at West Drayton.
By this time, the Royal Air Force had been formed, and ‘inherited’ the engines from the Navy. Work was soon found for some of them.
In 1913, the RNAS had established a flying-boat and sea-plane base on Southampton Water, at Calshot Spit. Since this site was almost inaccessible by road, the contractor building the facility brought his materials from Southampton by barge. They would then be transported along the Spit by means of a temporary two-foot gauge railway to the domestic site, which was situated almost two miles away from the technical site, and the flying-boat slipway.
Because of the spread-out nature of the base, it was decided to retain the railway as a permanent fixture. It would be operated by AMW&B staff, and would be used for internal movement of personnel and stores.
In1921, 1431 was brought from West Drayton to work on the line. The rolling stock consisted of open wagons for coal and stores, one closed wagon and several passenger carriages. Most of the carriages had open sides, and were intended for use by the sergeants. There were two carriages with closed sides for the officers; the airmen marched to work behind the Station band!
The end came on 15th August 1945 – VJ Night. The sergeants lit a celebratory bonfire outside their Mess, and when the fire died down, it was suggested that some of the wagons on the nearby railway might be used for fuel. Some of the wagons had already been overturned when reason prevailed, and the proposed arson was abandoned! But, when the workmen arrived on the following morning to right the wagons, their undersides were found to be so rotted and corroded as to be dangerous.
The Station Commander ordered that the train was to run no more. The drivers were told to prepare the engines for storage and disposal and the workmen were to finish the job on the rolling stock started by the Sergeants’ Mess on VJ Night.
The two locomotives, however, were still serviceable, and came up for auction in 1949. A Birmingham engineering firm, Abelson & Co. Ltd. bought them for £60 each, intending to refurbish them before selling them on to a copper mine in India. Unfortunately, they failed to meet Indian Government specifications. So, upon hearing of the recent formation of the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society, Abelsons’ decided to present 1431 to them.
Douglas, as 1431 had been named, after one of Abelson’s directors, started work at Talyllyn in the Spring of 1954, and continued right through until 1992, when it was withdrawn for a major overhaul, including replacement of its original boiler. Returning to service in May 1995, Douglas was ‘recalled to the colours’ over the winter of that year. To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the end of WW2, it was painted in its original AMW&B livery, and placed on display at the RAF Museum at Hendon.
After a short appearance at Calshot, Douglas was returned to Talyllyn, where it continues to give pleasure to thousands of holidaymakers … probably for at least the next 90 years!