GWR Locomotives: The King Class



April 14th, 2022

After the Castle Class 4-6-0 the game of motive power top trumps moved into another gear with the Southern Railway’s introduction of the Lord Nelson 4-6-0 tender engines.

In 1927 the GWR directors agreed to settle the tractive effort question with other railways by introducing what was heralded as the Cathedral Class 4-6-0 which was to be an even larger engine than the Castles. But these were to be produced in double quick time as the GWR had already been invited to display their latest wares at the ‘Fair of the Iron Horse’ at the centenary of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad which was to take place also in 1927.

Sir Felix Pole the GWR’s General Manager had his marketing antennae fully extended when he formally requested of His Majesty King George V that the first of the new locomotive class be namd after him. King George V agreed and of course the publicity material almost wrote itself. The King of locomotives, power, majesty were all phrases that begged to be used. Sir Felix Pole realised that a GWR engine at the B&O celebrations was representing not just the GWR but Great Britain as there was to be no other British railway present. The Sir Felix Pole publicity antennae were fully extended when he also realised that a class name change from Cathedral was necessary and desirable. King George the Fifth was consulted and readily agreed that the prototype locomotive be named after him and that other Kings would also be similarly honoured with names from Royal ancestry. The first locomotive was to cost £7,546, a hefty increase from the first Castle but there were additional tooling costs as well as the non-standard driving wheels and bogie.

Before King George V went to Maryland it was exhibited at a series of events on the GWR system as the most powerful locomotive in the land and it attracted large crowds. A small entrance fee was charged and the proceeds were put towards the ‘Helping Hand’ fund which would typically support widows and children of GWR employees who had died in service. The engine was turned out as the last example to use the 1922 livery of the garter crest and that year all succeeding engines would have the 1927 livery of the twin heraldic shields on lined out locomotives.

Just before despatch to the US, King George V was fitted with a Westinghouse pump on the right hand side of the smokebox to brake US coaching stock. Westinghouse pumps and braking systems were common on the GE section of the LNER but not used on the GWR. In the few months between the Sir Felix Pole edict and the finished engine being shipped to the US all stops were pulled out at Swindon to ensure the locomotive would acquit itself with distinction across the Atlantic.

The engine upheld the proud tradition of the Stars and Castles on the Cornish Riviera Express on the 20th July 1927 but by the 3rd of August the boiler was off the frames and the engine was loaded onto the Steam Ship ‘City of Chicago’ at Roath Dock Cardiff for the almost three week journey to the United States. Whatever Sir Felix Pole’s expectations were as to the engine’s reception, they were to be exceeded by the hyperbola generated even before the engine landed on the eastern seaboard by the New York Tribune newspaper. This article was printed whilst 6000 King George V was on the high seas.


“This Great Western Railway of England will send as an exhibit to the Baltimore and Ohio centenary this fall the first of its new ‘King’ class locomotives. Breathes there a man with no soul so dead that he doesn’t thrill a little at such news? Especially when he learns that this engine, now under construction will be capable of a speed of eighty miles an hour, the most powerful locomotive ever built for an English railway.

Somewhere in the breast of every normal homo sapiens there stretches a chord that vibrates only to the sight of a fine locomotive. Even now, with aeroplanes and motors to bid against it in its own field of romantic interest, the steam locomotive retains its fascination. There are probably a number of reasons for this. We can think of at least two – its unusually demonstrative nature and its extraordinary beauty.

Man has devised no other machine that expresses its feelings so frankly and so unmistakably. A locomotive sighs, it pants, it coughs, it barks; it emits empassioned (sic) shrieks and mournful toots; it puts forth staccato protests at hauling a heavy load or climbing a steep grade; it purrs ecstatically as it romps along the rails at a mile a minute; it can hiss and throb and snort and tinkle. And in addition to all these auditory forms of expression it has its visual signs, its plumes of steam spelling surplus energy, its belchings of black smoke denoting determination, its sparks at night registering passion.

This new English locomotive that is coming over, the first of its race to pay us a visit since the Chicago World’s fair in 1893, will bear the name King George V and be one of twenty, each bearing the name of an English monarch.”

Despite several inaccuracies in the text and the omission that a good deal of the GWR was in Wales, the article created widespread interest which was only surpassed when the engine took to the rails across the pond.

The quality and fineness of the finish and the sewing machine like progress of the engine impressed all as much as the clear exhaust indicating complete coal combustion. The engine, although small by US standards, impressed all who saw her and some railways even modified their own engines to resemble the Swindon product.

As Britain had been pioneers in commercial rail travel, King George V was given the honour of leading the procession of the exhibits. Driver Young of Old Oak Common, London, who had distinguished himself in the Castle locomotive exchanges of 1925 and 1926 was the natural choice as driver.

After the B&O exhibition the King class engines set to work on the major routes of the GWR for the next 35 years. Throughout that period 6000 King George V carried the two gold commemorative gold medals presented by the B&O which it carries to this day in preservation.

All pictures by the author Allen Jackson except where indicated.

001-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 1. – 6000 King George V is in its final condition as an exhibit in the GWR Steam Museum in Swindon. The eagle eyed will notice a double chimney and perhaps the blister on the smokebox of the 4 – row superheater. Both of these features were a symptom of the GWR getting left behind by the end of the 1930s in that the type and quality of coal was not what it had been. The GWR was originally blessed with Welsh steam coal which, with its high calorific value, meant that the steam would be of a high temperature and super heating would not be necessary. Also it was found, using a dynamometer measuring coach in later years, that some GWR engines exerted a high back pressure which would restrict the outflow of exhaust gasses which would act a choke on the engine and restrict the top speed. The double chimney would allow free flow of gasses and get the exhaust away efficiently. The bell on the footplate above the front buffer beam was presented by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the same time as the commemorative gold medals on the cab side. It is a legal requirement in the US that locomotives warn of their approach. The locomotive has a shed plate of 82C which was Swindon shed and whilst the Kings were never allocated there it is rather a homage to its current home. 14th September 2017.

002-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 2. 6022 King Edward III near Southcote Junction Reading with a down express. This is probably the Cornish Riviera Express as the coaching stock is the 1935 built Centenary stock. These coaches occupied the full width of the loading gauge as can be seen by the recessed doors and were limited to certain routes as a consequence of their size. Centenary stock were the last word in luxury and design with a signature art deco effect. c1936. (courtesy of the Great Western Trust)

003-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 3. 6003 King George IV arrives with an express at Kingswear. Kingswear is the single track terminus of the line from Paignton and is the current terminus of the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Heritage Railway. The turntable, carriage sidings and signalbox have not survived into preservation. 1938. (Courtesy of Steam, Museum of the Great Western Railway)

004-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 4. 6023 King Edward II drifts down Hemerdon Bank near Plymouth with a stopping train. Kings habitually headed up slower trains when running in after overhaul from Swindon Works, however this is a more routine occurrence possibly using a King to get the engine to its next major working start point. No two vehicles are alike with an inside and outside frame SIPHON G parcels vans, a MONSTER, sometimes used for motor vehicles, and an 1890s clerestory coach and others. 28th August 1937. (by courtesy of the Great Western Trust)

005-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 5. 6028 King Henry II about the time of the Abdication Crisis in 1936. King Edward VIII scandalised the British Monarchy with his desire to marry an American divorcée. He was forced to abdicate and give up the throne in favour of his younger brother. He married Wallis Simpson and they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and lived in Paris after World War II. Within a few months the locomotive would carry the name King George VI, Edward’s younger brother. The location is thought to be between Taunton and Bristol. There is a horsebox between the engine and coaches. (by courtesy of the Great Western Trust)

006-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 6. 6021 King Richard II on an express passenger train at Knowle and Dorridge station heading for Paddington from Snow Hill. This loco has a slotted front bogie cross member which some class members sported to bring additional cooling air to the front bogie assembly. There was a fatal crash at Knowle and Dorridge station in 1963 involving a shunting goods train and a diesel hydraulic of the Western class. 31st March 1962 in which year was the final one of King operations. (by courtesy of the Great Western Trust)

007-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 7. 6009 King Charles II in early British Railways blue livery at Leamington Spa. The train is headed for Paddington from Birmingham Snow Hill. The fireman would periodically have to rake coal down to the tender floor whereas some more rough running engines would vibrate so much at speed that the coal trimmed itself without persuasion. The blue livery didn’t seem to suit the engine as much as GWR green but has become fashionable in preservation recently.The coach is in post-war GWR livery. 11th July 1948. (by courtesy of Steam, Museum of the Great Western Railway)

008-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS *Figure 8. 6024 King Edward I at Chippenham on a running in turn from Swindon works. The stopping passenger turn from Swindon to Bristol and return was an ideal testing ground for a locomotive fresh out of the works. Loco crews would be vigilant for overheating bearings which could sometimes occur after an overhaul. Chippenham is the site of the original office from which Isambard Kingdom Brunel planned the construction of the GWR. The office has been restored externally. Chippenham is also the location of the British offshoot of the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company. There appears to be small FRUIT van followed by a Hawksworth coach followed by some Collett coaches. 28th November 1957. (by courtesy of Steam, Museum of the Great Western Railway)

009-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 9. 6024 King Edward I survived into preservation but it was found that many of the King’s fittings were ‘out of gauge’ on some lines which limited its availability with main line train travel. The loco was modified dimension-wise on a subsequent overhaul. 6024 has an Old Oak Common London shed-plate but is on shed at Didcot (81E), Great Western Society. 2001.

010-GWR-KINGS-RAILFANS Figure 10. 6023 King Edward II with 83D Plymouth Laira shedplate and cut down boiler mountings on the running line at the Great Western Society, Didcot Railway Centre. This engine, as with 6024, has had several modifications to enable it to run on the main lines. The visitor rides are included in the entrance ticket price at Didcot. August 2017.

stars-book GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY STARS, CASTLES AND KINGS is available from The Crowood Press via the link below. https://www.crowood.com/products/great-western-railway-stars-castles-and-kings-by-allen-jackson

©2020 Dovetail Games, a trading name of RailSimulator.com Limited (“DTG”). All trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners. All rights reserved. Developed and published by DTG.