I blame my Dad. He instilled in me a love of the British steam locomotive and a suspicion of its overseas equivalent, with (as he put it) a load of dustbins and plumbing hanging on the outside. It certainly seemed to an impressionable, youthful me that continental locomotives did carry a lot of ugly protuberances which the engineers of the LNER, LMSR, SR, GWR and their predecessors managed to conceal. My later study of design at college gave me a deeper appreciation of the visual form of their engineering masterpieces, and subsequent research into overseas railways for some of my other Amberley books has, for me, confirmed many of those paternal suspicions!

Built in 1898, No. 990 Henry Oakley had the distinction of being the only named locomotive on the Great Northern Railway until Gresley’s first Pacifics of 1922.

The book was always going to be subjective, for my opinion of what constitutes aesthetic elegance in engineering will differ from that of many people. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. The simple premise of this book is that, to my mind’s eye (and that of my late father), the majority of British steam locomotives, particularly of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, successfully combined the latest engineering innovation with graceful proportions and a clean, uncluttered outline. In short, they were beautiful pieces of machinery. The same cannot always be said for contemporary overseas locomotives, which often seemed to lack that touch of elegance, their engineers perhaps being more concerned with mechanical efficiency or ease of maintenance. I am not for one moment suggesting that there were no ugly British locomotives whatsoever, or that no objects of mechanical beauty ever turned a shapely wheel in other countries!  

Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) coined the phrase “form follows function”, and he could easily have been referring to any number of British locomotives of his era. The classic Victorian express passenger engine featured large-diameter driving wheels concealed beneath gracefully curving splashers. The lovingly polished boiler would be surmounted by an ornate chimney, sculpted dome, and safety valve cover. Many companies embellished their machines with brass and copper ornamentation and the whole would be lavishly painted in a distinctive, often colourful livery with intricate lining, numerals and lettering with painted shadows or on cast plates, and ostentatious coats-of-arms.

Another classic 0-4-4T in the shape of Caledonian Railway No. 419, the sole survivor of a type introduced in 1900. The photograph was taken on 21 October 2007 on the Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, home of the Scottish Railway Preservation Society. (Ian J. Robinson)

As well as the myriad shades of green favoured by so many companies, others chose a more distinctive livery, such as the rich blues of the Caledonian Railway and the Great Eastern, the Midland’s famous Crimson Lake or Mr Stroudley’s ‘improved engine green’ on the London, Brighton and South Coast. This colour was, of course, a fairly bright shade of amber!  

Moving parts were usually discreetly concealed, which would make maintenance difficult, but these wonders of the machine age were an aesthetic triumph. In contrast, many locomotives built overseas were, to some British eyes, less attractive, with a clutter of visible pipework and auxiliary equipment (my Dad’s ‘dustbins’!) attached to the boiler cladding and frames.

The practice was not restricted to top-link express locomotives, for the majority of British goods engines, shunting tanks, industrial locomotives and even narrow-gauge engines were also usually of pleasing outline and proportion, and were sometimes equally ornate in decoration.

The brilliant father and son team of George and Robert Stephenson designed the legendary Rocket for the
Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

The earliest locomotives consisted of a primitive boiler mounted directly on the running gear, with no frames to speak of. Robert Stephenson’s ROCKET was perhaps the first locomotive to which any aesthetic attention was given. Her bright colour scheme and flared, fluted chimney was purely for cosmetic purposes, no doubt to make an impact at the Rainhill Trials.

Perhaps reflecting the modesty of Victorian dress, subsequent locomotives began to hide their vulgar reciprocating motion between the frames that were now carrying their boilers. Indeed, following on from the ROCKET, most locomotives were built with inside cylinders, until the advent of three and four-cylindered engines necessitated the mounting of cylinders outside the frames.

As locomotive development entered the Victorian era and traffic increased, locomotives became larger and more powerful. This evolution continued until the 1920s when the British loading gauge restricted anything larger. As boilers grew in diameter, chimneys and domes had to reduce in height to fit within those constraints. The aesthetic beauty of the locomotive was not compromised by this growth, though, and it could be argued that some of the most beautiful and imposing machines ever built emerged in the period between the two World Wars.

The British 2-6-4 tank locomotive was usually of very handsome proportions, perhaps never more so than in its ultimate form, Robert Riddles’ BR Standard 4MT, introduced in 1951.

The Second World War brought new ideas, and a shortage of manpower led to a need for locomotives that were easier to maintain, with increased accessibility to the parts that required regular maintenance. Although this gave many post-war locomotives a more austere appearance, some would argue their very simplicity gave them an elegance all of their own.

Thankfully, much of Britain’s engineering elegance is preserved for posterity, with many locomotives in working order, and many restored in their original ornate liveries for all to appreciate. As well as preservation, the book highlights some of the remarkable new-build projects which have recreated full-scale working replicas of locomotive types that were lost to scrap, beginning with Peppercorn A1 no.60163 TORNADO.

Colin Alexander's book Elegance in Engineering is available for purchase now.