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By Anthony Dawson on

Beattie Well Tank returns to its birthplace

In June 2017, Beattie Well Tank no. 30587 returned to its birthplace of Manchester for three weeks to work trains on the demonstration line at the Museum.

It is now one of the oldest operational locomotives in Britain, and had a working life of more than 80 years. While visiting the Museum, 30857 was manned by our railway volunteers and provided steam train rides on the demonstration line.

Beattie Well Tank no. 30587
Beattie Well Tank no. 30587

A working life of 88 years

Built for the London and South Western Railway in 1874, this locomotive is one of two surviving members of its class of 85 engines designed by William Beattie, and primarily built in Manchester by the world-renowned firm of Beyer, Peacock and Co. After 20 years’ service in and around London, 30587 found its way out to Cornwall, where it worked on one of the oldest railways in Britain, the Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway, which opened in 1834, only four years after the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

More modern locomotives were found to be too long and heavy for the tightly curved line, while Beattie Well Tanks with their short wheelbase were well suited, resulting in them continuing to work for the next 67 years until being replaced in 1962—a whopping working life of 88 years! When finally retired by British Railways, these locos were the oldest design still in use by the national operation.

Many changes

Having had such a long working life, 30587 has gone through many changes over the years. It was originally built without a cab, as many Victorian engine drivers were against having them fitted to their engines, considering the fitment as ‘sissy’. 30587 also sported the characteristic straight sided ‘stove pipe’ chimney of Beyer, Peacock along with a large brass dome, in the top of which were mounted the safety valves. As a typical Beyer, Peacock product, the wheel splashers had decorative brass trim, which also acted as the builder’s plate.

Originally designed to burn coke, they were converted to coal burners in the late 1880s and early 1890s when they received new boilers with a different design of firebox.  By the early1920s, the engines were almost worn out, but because of the very tight curves of the Bodmin and Wadebridge line, instead of being scrapped, were rebuilt again—this time with cabs—and put back into service.

Well proportioned

But what is a ‘well tank’? Like our resident engine Agecroft No. 1, 30587 carries all its fuel and water onboard, rather than in a separate tender as Planet does. Agecroft carries its water in a tank on top of the boiler called a saddle tank, whereas a well tank carries its water in a tank underneath, between the wheels and frames. The idea of a tank engine goes right back to the earliest days of railways; Novelty, built by John Braithwaite and John Ericsson (of Sweden) is considered to be the first tank engine. A replica of Novelty can be found in our Power Hall, which is said to contain the wheels and one cylinder of the original loco that ran in the famous Rainhill trials of 1829.

Feather in their cap

Richard Peacock
Richard Peacock

Beyer, Peacock and Co. was founded in 1854 at Gorton, Manchester by Yorkshireman Richard Peacock and German immigrant Carl Friedrich Beyer. Peacock, born near Leeds and educated at Leeds Grammar School, was appointed Locomotive Superintendent of the Leeds and Selby Railway when it opened in 1834 at the precocious age of only 18! From Leeds he moved to Manchester as the Locomotive Superintendent of the long-winded Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester Railway, which was then building the famous Woodhead Route from Manchester to Sheffield. It was Peacock who established the first railway works in Gorton in the 1840s, before setting up in business with Beyer in the next decade.

The former Beyer, Peacock and Co. works in Gorton
The former Beyer, Peacock and Co. works in Gorton

Even after he became a very rich man, Peacock lived quite modestly in his adopted home of Gorton at Gorton Hall.  He was a well-liked employer, and a generous philanthropist. His personal staff were easily identified through the wearing of a peacock feather in their cap.  He was a Unitarian and paid for a new church for his congregation—Brookfield Unitarian Church on Hyde Road—in 1871. He also donated the fine organ and the peel of eight bells, each of which is named after one of his children.

Brookfield Church
Brookfield Church

Peacock also established a free school, a library and Mechanics’ Institute in Gorton. A local myth speaks of a competition between Peacock and Beyer over who could build the finest church—the winner receiving the peel of bells, reputedly cast at Gorton Foundry. He was also Liberal MP for Gorton, and did much good for his adopted community; when he died in 1889 the whole town turned out for his funeral at Brookfield Church, where he is buried in an impressive family mausoleum.

Richard Peacock's mausoleum
Richard Peacock’s mausoleum

Records preserved

By the time Beyer, Peacock and Co. closed down in 1963, the firm had built over 6,000 railway locomotives. Many of the buildings of the old works still stand in Gorton. Luckily, Rev. Dr Richard Hills, the founding curator/director of the North Western Museum of Science and Industry—the antecedent of MSI—rescued the Beyer, Peacock archive and many records can now be searched via the Science Museum Group’s online collection. Like Brookfield Church in Gorton, these records stand as a lasting legacy of the company who were ‘Locomotive Builders to the World’.

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