Oliver - GWR 14xx Tank Engine

Sir Richard discusses Oliver the Western Engine – who won away to Sodor to avoid the cutter’s torch!

The engines on my railway have varied histories. Some are prototypes, sold off cheap, some are engines purchased expressly for a purpose, some are even simply trialled and end up 'sticking around' - perhaps most intriguing, however, are those whom 'escaped' from the 'Other Railway' during the turbulent years of modernisation.

 

There are a few of note, Donald and Douglas being the first that spring to mind (their story having being told in the March 2013 issue of UKHeritageHub), but the later addition, indeed, the last steam locomotive to arrive on Sodor, has an even more fascinating tale of 'cheating the system'.

 

Oliver, GWR No.1436, was built in 1934 by Swindon Works to the very successful design of Charles Collett.  He was not a great traveller during his career, remaining largely at Swindon over his career - temporarily moving to Weymouth and eventually travelling a greater distance to Southall in 1955.

 

His career was ultimately very uneventful, a simple Western existence. By the end of his career, however, things were beginning to change - an awful lot - around him.

 

It started with the closure of branch lines up and down the country thanks to one Doctor Beeching. Oliver was a naive little engine at this time - he'd never seen much of the world and the very idea of closing down these lines was a shocking reality to him.

 

As diesel engines arrived steadily, Oliver welcomed them - but slowly found his own work being reduced in favour of them. His paintwork suffered, as did his pride - and in 1958 he was informed he would be a working engine no longer, officially being withdrawn. He sat at the front of the 'cripple siding' at Southall shed for a few weeks, then to 'Swindon Dump', and then - penultimately - all the way to Caerphilly in Wales. 'Coincidentally', at the same time, his driver and fireman transferred to Cardiff.

 

This, according to British Railways' stock records, is where Oliver's story ends. Of course, we know different. This is likely to be the only time you'll hear of Oliver's escape in full detail...

 

The Western Region was a region of tradition, and many engine drivers would be eager to 'save' old friends - it was simply a matter of going against the network that was providing them a living. It would take more than a single crew - it would take a massive collaboration between driver, signalman and official.

 

This collaboration took place between 1959 and 1967.

 

In 1959, Oliver was struck off of the stock records as 'disposed', along with an old autocoach ('Isabel') and a 'Toad' brake van (Less creatively named 'Toad'.) In actual fact, all it took was a scrappie being in on the game, a quick promise of a few pints at the local and Oliver's crew, now living in Cardiff, picked him up - with number and build plates hidden in his cab, and a guard whom, too, was bribed with promise of a pint or two - as a 'ghost' engine, phoning ahead each time to explain the situation, and, in the dead of night, the plucky little engine travelled towards the ultimate of steam sanctuaries: Sodor.

 

It was some 280 miles from Caerphilly to Barrow in Furness. No short run, and the escape is far longer than you may realise.

 

Oliver's crew left him at the next available railhead, explaining the situation to friendly enginemen there and left him in cripple sidings as if he were 'junk'. Another crew, whom were available to work as far as the next major 'head', did the same, and so forth. Oliver met many a pleasant railwayman - and was reaching his goal.

 

It was like a game of stealth - sneaking past Control and past the increasingly large fleet of diesels surrounding the network. Steadily, working his way up from Wales to the East of England, through Crewe, Lancaster, Carnforth... all the way to 'mutual ground' at Barrow in Furness - all due to the goodwill of the signalmen ahead of them, engine drivers with good connections and, of course, batches of coal and water that were going...'missing' - growing increasingly difficult to source on the shrinking network.

 

This incredibly slow, difficult - and very risky - operation halted for a period when Control heard of the 'ghost engine' flapping away up North, and decided to investigate. A kindly signalman took pity on the situation and Oliver was hidden in a closed branch's cutting, which was blocked up with rubbish. Oliver stayed here until it died down. It was a long time, but after nearly eight years of travel, GWR No.1436 finally arrived at Barrow in Furness, the final railhead of his journey...and his final crew were unable to coax a member of yard staff to bring coal and water.

 

It was here that Douglas arrived with a 'Midnight Goods' - and found Oliver languishing under a covered platform. It didn't take long for a decision to be made - Oliver's fire was dampened, his funnel covered back over, side-rods removed, scrap written all over him, Isabel and Toad, and papers were forged to say the Western Engine was to travel to Sodor to be cut up.

 

Just as they were leaving, the yard foreman stopped them. A Western Engine in Barrow was odd enough - as was the very concept of a scrap engine travelling to Sodor of all places. But the papers were in order, and he cleared them to leave - with Oliver's final crew of the journey hidden inside Isabel.

 

As they finally reached Crovan's Gate, Oliver's crew left, comfortable they had saved the little engine, and booked into a hotel before the return trip to their home railhead of Carnforth. The message went down from head to head, signalbox to signalbox, all the way back to Cardiff, Southall, and Swindon - where cheers and celebrations seemed to echo around the entirety of the Western Region.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the tale of a most heroic escape and one of the most powerful stories you will ever hear about my railway. Oliver, in his prototype, is not an extraordinary locomotive, and indeed, he is not particularly unusual in personality. What is unusual about him is the courage he can show in the face of adversity. One little tank engine, travelling almost 300 miles, with several crews, all the way to an island off the coast of Barrow-in-Furness, against all logic, the Control of his owning railway network and even those whom believed steam had no place in the world - purely because it was the only option he could say.

 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is quite unbelievable!

 

Oliver will always gain a special kind of respect on my railway, and indeed, in my mind. There are few who can beat such a story.

Find out more about Toby and his origins on the internet's definitive Awdry Railway Series website - The Real Lives of Thomas The Tank Engine.

The LNER Encyclopedia gives a greater insight into the old tramway that Toby and Mavis' prototypes used to work on - the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway.

Click the link above for relevant books and products about Oliver and other GWR Tank Engines