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George Churchward

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1903. Steam motor coach.
1904. Express loco.
1904. Six-coupled tank engine.
1954. County class locomotive.
1954. Atlantic locomotive "Albion".
1959.Bird class Locomotive, Chafinch

George Jackson Churchward (1857-1933) was chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway (GWR) from 1902 to 1922.

1857 January 31st. Born at Rowes Farm, Stoke Gabriel, south Devon, on 31 January, the second son of George Churchward, a farmer, and his wife, Adelina Mary Churchward, who was his cousin.

1873 became a pupil of John Wright, the locomotive, carriage, and wagon superintendent of the South Devon Railway.

Churchward completed his pupillage at Swindon under Joseph Armstrong, the locomotive superintendent of the Great Western Railway.

From 1877 Churchward gained experience in the locomotive, carriage, and wagon drawing-offices at Swindon

1880 Worked with Armstrong's son on the development of an improved automatic braking system

1882 Became assistant carriage-works manager at Swindon

1885 Became carriage-works manager. Involved in the design of the first British train with corridor connections between carriages as well as the conversion of passenger carriages from the broad gauge to the standard gauge. He also designed new and much improved axle bearings, largely eliminating overheating.

1895 Appointed locomotive works manager at Swindon

1897 His job was combined with the position of chief assistant locomotive superintendent, with the intention that he should succeed William Dean, whose health was failing. Churchward was effectively in control of the locomotive, carriage, and wagon departments from 1899.

1902 Appointed locomotive superintendent. He created a large new workshop complex in a single building of 1½ acres, where boilers and other locomotive components were made and erected. Replaced existing machinery driven by shafts and belting by electric powered machines.

In the 19th and early 20th century railway companies were fiercely competitive: speed meant revenue and speed was dependent on engineering. The brilliant engineer G. J. Churchward delivered a series of class-leading and innovative locomotives. Churchward's greatest technical achievement was the introduction from 1903 to 1911 of a series of nine standard locomotive types, of which over 1100 were built by 1921. Of advanced design, these were based on detailed studies of the latest practice in Europe and America. Arguably from the early 1900s to the 1920s the Great Western’s 2-cylinder and 4-cylinder 4-6-0 designs were substantially superior to any class of locomotive of the other British railway companies.

Churchward preferred locomotives without trailing wheels, to maximise adhesion on the South Devon banks of Dainton, Rattery and Hemerdon on the West of England mainline to Plymouth, then the Great Western’s most important route. Due to the weight and dimensional restrictions required to pass over all the GWR’s lines, he designed narrow fireboxes, but with good circulation. Combining high boiler pressures with superheat made efficient use of the high calorific-value steam coal from the mines in South Wales. Other refinements included feed-water distribution trays beneath the top-fitted clack boxes to minimize boiler stress and large bearing surfaces to reduce wear.

By 1912 Swindon was the most modern locomotive works in the country.

1916 Churchward was given the new title of Chief Mechanical Engineer.

1922 Churchward retired, and Charles Collett inherited his legacy of excellent, standardised designs. These were also influential on other railways; major classes built by the LMS and even British Railways 50 years later are clearly modest developments of Churchward's basic designs.

Although Churchward had retired in 1922, he continued to live in a GWR-owned house near to the line at Swindon and he retained his interest in the company’s affairs. On 19th December 1933, now with poor eyesight and hard of hearing, he spotted a defectively-bedded sleeper on the down through line and walked over to check it. A fast express struck and killed him.

The first class of locomotives with which Churchward won success and world-wide recognition was the 4-4-0 'City' class, which soon became well known as the most powerful passenger locomotive. One of them, City of Truro, became the first engine in the world to haul a train at 100 miles per hour in 1904. He went on to build the 'County' class and the 'Star' class.

1933 December 19th. Died

1933 Obituary [1]

GEORGE JACKSON CHURCHWARD, C.B.E., whose tragic death occurred on 19th December 1933, will be remembered for his outstanding achievements in locomotive design on the Great Western Railway. His bold departures from tradition led to the construction of some of the most efficient locomotives in Great Britain, and their conspicuous success has perpetuated his great influence in locomotive matters.

Mr. Churchward was born at Stoke Gabriel, Devon, in 1857, and became a pupil on the South Devon Railway. On the amalgamation of that railway with the Great Western, he completed his pupilage at Swindon under Mr. William Dean, M.I.Mech.E. He was then appointed inspector of materials, and in 1882 assistant to the carriage works manager, becoming manager in 1885.

In 1895 Mr. Churchward became assistant locomotive works manager, and in the following year he was promoted to be locomotive works manager. He was appointed locomotive, carriage, and wagon superintendent in 1902. In the nineteen years during which he held this position, Mr. Churchward effected far-reaching changes in the design of the locomotives and was responsible for notable extensions at Swindon works. His most successful work was probably the development of the four-cylinder locomotive. He was the pioneer in introducing the 2-8-0 and 4-6-2 designs into this country, and he was responsible for the adoption of boilers carrying a pressure - 225 lb. per sq. in. - not before in general use in this country. He was the first, and for many years the only, British locomotive engineer to appreciate the advantages of the long-travel piston valve, and he also introduced superheaters, the "top-feed" system for boilers, the automatic "jumper" blast pipe, and many other improvements on the locomotives of the Great Western Railway.

In 1916 the title of his position was changed to that of "chief mechanical engineer."

He had been a Member of the Institution since 1894, and was the author of several important papers read before the Institution, notably that on "Large Locomotive Boilers," presented in 1906. He served on the Council of the Institution from 1905 to 1915. He was also a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

1957 Commemoration of his birth[2]

Last week, British Railways, and the Western Region in particular, commemorated the centenary year of the birth of a great engineer, one of the greatest railway engineers of all time.

G. J. Churchward, born at Stoke Gabriel in September, 1857, came of yeoman stock. But Brunel had lately carried the South Devon Railway near to his birthplace on its way to the West, and whereas Churchward's ancestors had for centuries past farmed rich lands on the banks of the Dart, young George was apprenticed as a railway mechanical engineer at Newton Abbot. How, subsequently, he went to Swindon, how he rose rapidly through many posts until he became principal assistant to William Dean, is a story in itself. Even before he succeeded to the post of Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent of the Great Western Railway in 1902, he had put forward a scheme for standardising locomotive design, and reducing the number of classes to a minimum; this standardisation proved to be one of his greatest achievements, not merely for itself, but for the manner in which the scheme proved capable of extension and continuance for more than twenty-five years after his retirement.

As a locomotive designer his great contributions were the tapered boiler (the amazing capacity of which is still being exploited by his successors at Swindon in their latest development of the "King" class locomotives), and the long-lap, long-travel piston valve.

In carriage design, with the famous 70ft stock, he succeeded in making a major reduction in coach weight per passenger, since his "thirds," having a tare weight of 33 tons, provided very comfortable seating for eighty persons.

But Churchward is remembered as much for his personality as for his engineering achievement. Many men who have been great designers, or great inventors were individualists to a degree. On the other hand, one of Churchward's greatest qualities was his leadership, and his ability to develop qualities of leadership in others. Many of the more successful details on Great Western locomotives were the work of members of his staff, to whom problems had been put by the chief. He liked nothing better than to spend an hour or so in the drawing- office discussing a problem, not only with the seniors but with the younger men on the job. And as men were marked out for promotion to the higher posts they served in both locomotive and carriage sections of the Swindon works, at the divisional outstations, and in the drawing-office, so that their ultimate experience should be as wide as possible.

Churchward's work at Swindon proved a fount of inspiration for locomotive engineers in many parts of the world. It greatly influenced the work of R. E. L. Maunsell, first on the South Eastern and Chatham, and later on the Southern Railway, while the way in which Sir William Stanier carried the banner of Churchward triumphantly from Euston to John o' Groats needs no emphasis from us.

The locomotives of Churchward's generic design will "see steam out" on the Western Region; his dynamometer car and his stationary testing plant, both throroughly modernised, have played a great part in recent locomotive development on British Railways.

One day recently, when we were privileged to travel in that car and were witnessing a Churchward boiler steaming as never before, a senior member of the staff said: "Wouldn't the Old Man have loved this!" His spirit indeed lives on.

1933 Obituary[3]


The tragic circumstances of the death on Tuesday, the 19th inst., of Mr. G. J. Church¬ward, at Swindon, will come as a shock to many engineers to whom his person and name are well known the world over. In crossing the line, Mr. Churchward appears to have been knocked down by the Fishguard express, one of the services whose reputation he did so much to establish. In many ways the position Mr. Churchward held in the railway world was unique, and the work of his department on the Great Western contributed very largely to the high reputation the line has for many years had with the travelling public, while contributing something quite distinctive to British practice.

Mr. Churchward was born on January 31, 1857, at Stoke Gabriel, Devonshire, and after early education was articled as a pupil in the locomotive department of the South Devon and Cornwall Railways. In 1876 this line became part of the Great-Western system, and Churchward was moved to Swindon, working in 1877 in the drawing office, but later was appointed inspector of materials. In 1882, he was appointed assistant manager of the Carriage and Wagon works, and three years later, on the position becoming vacant, was promoted to the position of manager. In 1895, he was transferred to assistant locomotive works manager, and in 1896 to the post of manager of the Locomotive Works at Swindon, retaining this position for only one year, when he was made chief assistant to the locomotive superintendent. His promotion to the position of chief mechanical engineer of the railway was dated May, 1902, and he retained this post until the end of December, 1921, when the amalgamations taking place at that time made it desirable, as in many other cases, to retire some of the older men in order to ensure the prospect of continuity of control during the heavy reorganisation rendered necessary.

During Mr. Churchward’s regime at Swindon, he devoted a great deal of attention to the development of locomotives of adequate power to cope with the heavy work necessary on the system, at the same time revising all designs on lines which resulted in wide-reaching standardisation and simplification. At one time it was the custom on our railways to consider each demand for additional power as a thing by itself, with the result that classes multiplied inordinately. Although other particular instances of large individual classes may be found, it is probable that credit for the adoption of the first general standardisation scheme at home belongs to Sir J. A. F. Aspinall, whose work on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway in this connection was particularly thorough. To Mr. Churchward is due credit for early appreciation of the advantages offered, and the persevering application of the principles on a very large system involving many different types of traffic, while still retaining elasticity sufficient to permit of meeting further developments. The task was no light one, and, of course, was of a kind which can never have actual finality, but the work was so successful that the public even became quite familiar with the characteristics of Churchward engines, &c. One of the principal units which Mr. Churchward early took in hand was the locomotive boiler. In this connection one of Mr. Churchward’s strong characteristics exerted itself. As a member of the then Master Mechanics’ 'Association, of America, Mr. Churchward was intimately acquainted with locomotive practice as developed in the United States, and in the course of his work did not hesitate to blend ideas derived from this with progressive British thought. Bis introduction on the Great Western of the tapered boiler, already common in America, was much discussed, but Mr. Churchward persisted in contending for its advantages, and it became the standard form on the line. In 1906, he read a paper on the subject of large locomotive boilers before the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which was accorded a discussion, as was the wont in those days, in which all the prominent railway mechanical engineers in the country took part.

Another feature in which Mr. Churchward joined in American practice rather than British was the adoption of 225-lb. steam pressure. This was a good deal higher than was customary here when he made this his standard, from 160-180 lb. being much, more usual. Again Mr. Churchward’s front end arrangements resembled American practice, carefully adapted to British ideas. His departure from the conventional smoke-box built on to a vertical smoke-box tube plate bolted, by a straight horizontal joint to the cylinder casting, and his adoption of the cylindrical smoke-box forming a continuation of the boiler barrel, was accompanied by what was, virtually, American practice, in the .combined cylinder and saddle arrangement. As regards mechanical arrangements, Mr. Churchward had great faith in four cylinders, and adopted a stroke of 30 in., which was much longer than that common in British practice. This short recital of details cannot be closed without some reference to the “ Swindon ” superheater, which Mr. Church¬ward developed and successfully applied when this subject was still being only tentatively dallied with on other lines. It is quite impossible to go into all the features which made his designs distinctive. Bis years of office were notable for trials in this country of the De Glehn compound, while many will remember with interest the production of the Great Bear, then regarded as a demonstration of the ultimate possible limits of design, but' not now so far divergent from the normal for certain classes of service.

It' was in Mr. Churchward’s time that the regular non-stop run to Plymouth (225-7 miles) was introduced, a trip of no little difficulty, since the characteristics of the first and second halves of the journey are so different. In many other directions, Mr. Churchward’s work did much to put the Great Western in the forefront in the minds of the travelling public.

As is well known, there exists at Swindon a locomotive testing plant, employed for running in locomotives after repair, &c. This plant is the only one of its kind in this country; it followed the installation of the plant at the St. Louis' Exhibition, later put down at Altoona, and on which so much research work has been accomplished. It has always been a matter of regret that it was not possible to utilise the Swindon plant for corresponding work on British locomotives. This plant has several times been referred to in our columns.

To go into great detail into Mr. Churchward’s work is not possible in short compass, and sufficient matter is probably already on record. A retrospect covering his years of office gives a picture of great activity of a strong nature, intent on thoroughness all through his department, and although subsequent years have shown that others can maintain practice at an equally high, or perhaps even higher, level, the railway world undoubtedly lost an important figure when Mr. Churchward retired. When the conditions he had to face on his appointment are properly realised, it will readily be admitted that Mr. Churchward’s accomplishments were undoubtedly of a high order."

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1933 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  2. The Engineer 1957/02/08
  3. Engineering 1933/12/29
  • Biography of George Churchward, ODNB [1]