Sandy’s Garden ... Wreathed in Steam

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I managed to stay out of my garden this weekend, being deterred by a combination of heavy rain, dank and chill breezes, and general gloominess in the atmosphere.

I also had a wish to be elsewhere for at least part of the time for, as many readers will know, the world-famous steam locomotive “Flying Scotsman” was working Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) special excursions round what the SRPS terms ‘The Forth Circle’ – essentially, Linlithgow, Dalmeny, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Dunfermline, Alloa, Stirling and Polmont back to Linlithgow. Having emerged from Doncaster Works in 1923, “Flying Scotsman” is now in the care of the National Railway Museum in York: but, at the age of 96, she … can I still refer to a steam locomotive as ‘she’ in this age of political correctness? … is still, as one might say, economically-active.

However, this is not to be a paean of praise for one of the best-known steam engines in the whole world; no, this column is about something some of the many visitors who flocked to the SRPS’s Bo’ness base on Saturday may have noticed as they admired the green giant sitting over the preparation pit being made ready for her Sunday exertions. They may have observed that the engine working Saturday’s service trains … No. 19, an 0-6-0 tank engine built in 1954 by the Hunslet Engine Company in Leeds, since you ask … carried a floral wreath on her smokebox door – that’s the big round door on the front; and they may just have wondered why the engine was decorated in this way.

And I can only give part of the answer. I know that the engine’s wreath commemorated an SRPS stalwart, driver Bill Warren, who was a huge part of the family at the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway (B & K R) and will be sorely missed by all who knew him. And I know that it is a long-established railway custom to commemorate significant people in this way, both local people like Bill, who was so liked by his colleagues on the B & K R, and national figures like Queen Victoria, the locomotive of whose funeral train carried a magnificent wreath. But, although Queen Victoria’s funeral was in 1901, so we know that the tradition was well-established by that time, I don’t know where or when it actually started. So here is a piece of pure conjecture which would date the establishment of the custom to September 18, 1830. On that day, the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway’s grand opening took place, when upward of 1 000 passengers, mainly gentlemen, boarded about thirty gaily-decorated carriages forming eight trains drawn by exciting new steam engines in Liverpool and set off, amid much joyful celebration, for Manchester. William Huskisson, the MP for Liverpool climbed down from his crimson cloth draped carriage … as did a lot of other passengers … when the trains stopped at a then out-of-the-way place called Newton to allow the engines to take water. Huskisson, who had some mobility difficulties, fell on to the rails and was run down by, believe it or not, Stephenson’s “Rocket”, which shattered his left leg from knee to thigh. First aid was at hand: but the nearest skilled surgeon was eight miles distant; and one of the engines set off with the MP in his gaily-ornamented carriage to convey him to the surgeon. Sadly, it was to no avail, for the poor man died later that same day.

The SRPS invited all those who saw the wreath on their engine to think happy thoughts about Bill Warren. The rail industry-wide custom is to place commemorative wreaths on an engine, not funeral wreaths but wreaths to celebrate a now-ended life. Is it possible that William Huskisson’s last journey in a lavishly-decorated carriage is where this fine custom started?