There’s always been a very British affection for the steam locomotive. The sounds, the sights, the smells - there is still, to this day, few people who cannot be stirred by the pounding of cylinders and a thumping exhaust as a steam engine hauls three hundred tons of carriages. We invented the steam locomotive, the characters based upon them and most of all, the preservation movement.
In many ways, we are the country the railways built. As a result, throughout their lifespan, steam locomotives often became personified. We saw personality as they struggled onwards no matter how difficult their load. We saw them whistle merrily as they finally shifted the train holding them back. We saw them greet eachother, help eachother, and strive to work.
These were often not glamorous machines - they were tough, down to earth workhorses paid in coal, polish and water. They were simple little things that only wished to work. They were, although it is now almost difficult to believe, commonplace - a typical machine, a typical species of British engineering. As common as a coalman’s horse.
Of all locomotives to be built in the United Kingdom, which must surely, now, reach well over two million, however, few ‘horses’ can claim to have the same status as the Lickey Banker - an 0-10-0 locomotive built in 1919 to help push trains up Britain’s steepest constant gradient. This engine, the only one of her type to be built in railway history, was known by a series of names, but only one stuck quite so beautifully.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is an obituary for the engine known as ‘Big Bertha’.
Big Bertha was born in the later days of 1919 when the Midland Railway found itself with difficulty on the Lickey incline - a ‘small engine’ company through and through, they found trains were often too weak to ascend the hill by themselves.
The Lickey is in many ways a masterpiece of engineering. For two miles the railway incline spikes suddenly at a 2.65% gradient (One in Thirty-Seven) with not a single chance to work up steam. To power an engine up the gradient one needs all of the driving skill found in Duddington and Casey Jones combined. At the time of the Lickey’s construction it was far too easily realised there would be problems - many considered cable assistance but this proved unlikely for a two mile stretch. The result, simply, was an adhesion hill. No assistance. Just steel on steel.
To combat problems climbing the hill, banking engines were kept at Bromsgrove shed. A banking engine is a locomotive that runs behind a train struggling uphill and pushes it - it provides extra power and assists in braking - but the Lickey’s case would be a complicated one. The first were of American design, built by Norris Locomotive Works. The railway acquired 26 of them, only 9 of which were British-built. They lasted just over twenty years and were quietly retired in 1856.
In 1845 a large 0-6-0 was built called ‘Great Britain’ - she was done so especially for the Lickey’s requirements. This particular engine seems to have disappeared from history itself and very few people know anything about the design or her running. To this day I am unable to find a photograph.
Following this was a large fleet of small locomotives, 1Fs and 3Fs predominately. But this was still not quite sufficient for running the steepest main line gradient in the country.
It was here that the Midland Railway ceased to be a ‘small engine’ company. In 1919 the then most powerful engine on British rails rolled out of Derby Works. She was a ‘whale of an engine’. A leviathan, especially built for slow, heavy duty running. With over 43,300lbf of tractive effort (roughly 192.6 kN), there was no denying Bertha’s solid build for her duty.
With a gigantic boiler, a decapod wheel arrangement (ten driving wheels, each with a diameter of 4 ft 7 1⁄2 inches - the only ten coupled engine in the country at the time and the second of such an engine to be built) and four enormous cylinders, there were few engines that could rival her.
Bertha lived happily on the Lickey among her smaller cronies. If a train was to find itself stuck on the hill, it would call for an engine - two blasts of the whistle meant two engines….or Bertha. The chosen engine (or engines) would slowly lumber behind the train and give a great big push - with a few blasts of smoke and a cloud of steam the train would soon be over the hill (normally in 15 minutes or so) and would be merrily puffing away - Bertha would then return to her roost to await her next port of call.
It was a blissful, easy life for an engine of her calibre and, with an interchangeable boiler available it was unlikely she was to fall from her perch of pride - and if she ever did, at 107 tons it’d likely cause more damage than one could imagine!
It was considered to build another ‘Bertha’ for mineral trains - with her massive power it was easy to see why it was a more than attractive option. Unfortunately, her low speed and complicated cross-over steam ports (for her middle cylinders) made her a specialised engine in every sense of the word and these plans never moved any further. Bertha was to remain the only one of her design.
A few years into her life, Bertha was awarded a grand electric headlight to assist her at night - she was now the best equipped banker in Britain, possibly even in Europe, and continued her sleepy little living in peace and quiet, co-operating with more than a hint of classic British work ethic - bursts of massive power followed by a gentle walk home. She was an enthusiastic worker.
However, despite her valuable service and her important role, Bertha’s time had come in 1956 and she left the Lickey for only the third time, never to return, aged 36. She was finally laid to rest only a few months later. The Bromsgrove Beast and most endearingly, good old Bertha, was scrapped. Her replacement was one of the biggest, strongest and grandest British locomotive classes, the class 9F - a testament to the relatively old lady’s impressive design.
As time goes on, this reliable beast of a locomotive becomes more legendary - and perhaps it’s only so long before somebody rebuilds her for history’s sake. Bertha was no mere engine, she was a staff member of her company, a proud workhorse and most of all, a personality in Bromsgrove sheds. She was as affectionately cared for as the grand express engines - and continues to find a similar amount of remembrance. Her throaty, four cylinder powered exhaust can still be heard echoing throughout the bank of Lickey and still rings in the ears of the railwayman whom heard her. The working girl of the Lickey is long gone - but her legacy is yet to lose a whisper.
Of all people to capture the sadness of Bertha’s passing, Dave Goulder, folk singer, has done so best in Bertha’s very own song. The song captures the naive innocence of the big engine and the sad circumstance of her eventual, albeit well regretted, demise. Bertha is no longer - this is nothing short of fact. But she is, and likely, always will be, the Lickey Banker.
The Lickey Incline is still in use today, and although many high speed diesels are capable of flying up the hill with no difficulty, a fleet of class 66 diesel locomotives are now housed for banking those that get into trouble - such is the legacy of one of the world’s most difficult gradients.
The Lickey Banker is dead. Long live Bertha.
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