Over 40 editions of our magazine SHRUB have now been published, with nearly 60 articles on aspects of Sandy’s history in the last 10 editions alone. Back numbers of all past editions of SHRUB are available from Richard Barlow (firstname.lastname@example.org). The article displayed in this section will be changed over time to give a taste of what is contained within our SHRUB Magazine.
SHANNON OR JANE?
By Richard Barlow
In this article, Richard Barlow looks at the career of the Shannon locomotive used on Captain Peel’s railway between Sandy and Potton. The locomotive spent only four years in Sandy, but nearly ninety years in Wantage, Oxfordshire, where it was affectionately known as Jane.
On 17 June 1857 the 0-4-0 WT locomotive built by George England & Company for Captain Sir William Peel VC of the Royal Navy was formally named Shannon by Julia, Lady Peel, widow of the former Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. The locomotive was named after the steam screw frigate Shannon commanded by Captain Peel, and had been built for his private Sandy and Potton railway at a cost of £800. Sadly Captain Peel never saw his locomotive or his railway in action; he died of smallpox on 27 April 1858 while still away on active service in Cawnpore, India.
The Shannon locomotive was designed and built by the Newcastle born engineer George England (1812-1885) at his Hatcham Iron Works in New Cross, Lewisham, Surrey, founded in 1839. His company also built the first “double ended” locomotives designed by Robert Fairlie for the narrow gauge Ffestiniog Railway in Wales; Fairlie took over George England & Company in 1869 and sold the Hatcham premises. Only five George England locomotives still exist; one, the only standard gauge example, is the Shannon; the other four are on the Ffestiniog Railway. The Shannon was of 0-4-0 WT design ie it had four driving wheels on two axles, no bogies, no tender (so it could carry only half a ton of coal), and water was stored in a “well tank” beneath the boiler. It was suitable only for short distance light railway or shunting duties.
The Sandy and Potton Railway was a single track light railway, which required no Act of Parliament as it passed only through Captain Peel’s land. Construction began in 1855/1856, triggered by the opening of the Great Northern Railway (GNR) station in Sandy in 1850. The line ran for just over 3 miles, journey time was 10 minutes, and the construction cost was £15,000.
Goods traffic was conveyed from 25 June 1857 (a week after the naming of the Shannon), and passenger traffic from 9 November 1857, and the line made an operating profit. After Captain Peel’s death, however, his brother Arthur (later Viscount Peel) sold the line in 1861 for £20,000 to the Bedford and Cambridge Railway, which soon came under the control of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). Under these new masters, the route was extended (to Cambridge), the tracks relaid and doubled, a new LNWR station was opened alongside the GNR station at Sandy (on 7 July 1862), and Potton station was relocated.
There was now no obvious role for the Shannon locomotive (which passed into the LNWR stock in 1862 and was allocated the number 1104 – without a name) around Sandy or Potton, or indeed anywhere else within the LNWR network. There was an unsuccessful two week trial use of Shannon on the Cromford and High Peak Railway, a mineral line in the Derbyshire Peak District, and the locomotive was then allocated to shunting duties at the Crewe railway works, where in 1872 the engine was renumbered 1863 and renamed Shannon (after 1870, the LNWR used numbers over 1800 for locomotives which were no longer part of its frontline stock but were not completely time expired).
Salvation for Shannon came with sale in 1878, for just over £365, to the Wantage Tramway Company. The two mile Wantage tramway had been opened in October 1875, initially with horse drawn transport, as a roadside line linking the town of Wantage in Oxfordshire with Wantage Road Station (outside the town) on the Great Western Railway (GWR). The locomotive moved under its own steam from Crewe to Oxford to Wantage, where the number 5 was allocated. No nameplate was now carried, but the engine became known unofficially as Jane. As Jane, our Shannon had a lengthy, successful, and popular life for over 60 years, pulling both passengers and freight until August 1925 (when passenger services were withdrawn), and then freight and minerals only until December 1945 (when the costs of track repair following wartime damage by heavy road vehicles were considered too high and the line was closed). During this period, Jane was derailed at least twice, in 1921 and 1925, and was repaired at least five times, either at Swindon or Bristol, in 1882, 1896, 1921, 1929, and 1939. British Pathe filmed the locomotive at work as Jane Jollity in 1936.
Following closure of the tramway, the future of Shannon (or Jane) was again in doubt, but there was strong Wantage interest in preserving the engine. On 8 April 1946 the Times newspaper published a letter from local author R L P Jowett and a leading article supporting this, and a little later F W Hawkesworth, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the GWR, agreed that the locomotive be purchased for £100 and preserved locally by the GWR to commemorate the long association between the railway, tramway, and town. Renamed Shannon (rather than Jane), and withdrawn from service, the engine became a static exhibit in a glass case on the down main platform at Wantage Road Station from April 1948 until June 1965, when the station was closed.
The future for Shannon now again looked grim (hundreds of steam locomotives were being scrapped at this time), especially when an appeal for £2000 to fund further preservation by Wantage Urban District Council apparently raised only £10, and in November 1966 the engine was moved to temporary storage at the UK Atomic Energy Authority laboratory at nearby Grove Airfield. The UK National Collection of rail vehicles/ National Railway Museum (established under the Transport Act of 1968) and the Great Western Society, formed in 1962, now came to the rescue. The Society had taken over the redundant Didcot engine shed (only 9 miles from Wantage) in 1967; this became the Didcot Railway Centre, and Shannon was moved there in January 1969 on loan from the National Collection. Repairs to bring Shannon back to life proved surprisingly straightforward (the engine had not been used since 1945), and the locomotive steamed and operated again on 11 October 1969.
Further repairs and live operation took place until 1975 when the engine (painted and numbered as Wantage Tramway number 5) took place in the grand steam cavalcade at the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (the first public railway to use steam locomotives). Shannon was the oldest participant in the cavalcade, and at that time was probably the oldest locomotive in the world still capable of regular steaming. Unfortunately cracks were discovered in the firebox in the 1980’s and Shannon had to be retired again. In 1986 the engine featured on an 80 cents stamp from the Pacific Ocean nation of Tuvalu. There was an appeal in 2010 for further funds to repair Shannon (to which SHRG contributed £50, subsequently returned), but after inspection it was decided by the Didcot authorities that too much original metalwork would need to be replaced if Shannon was to be brought back into working order (ie effectively a new locomotive would be created rather than the original Shannon restored). Subsequently Shannon has been on static display, with cab access, at Didcot Railway Centre, where it is the oldest railway locomotive stored. The name is commemorated in Sandy in Shannon Court and in Shannon Close, and by the Shannon Express male barbershop chorus based in Potton.
The author acknowledges the use of information from the Didcot Railway Centre website, and Vale and Downland Museum Trust website, in preparing this article. Thanks are also due to SHRG member Peter Hall for checking some of the dates. There is an excellent set of photographs of Shannon/Jane in an article from the Museum Trust (search for “Jane of the Wantage Tramway”), while the film of Shannon/Jane in 1936 can be accessed under “British Pathe Wantage Train on Sleeve”.