The Duchess of Hamilton and the story of 1930s streamlined luxury trains

By Catherine Farrell, National Railway Museum, York | 16 June 2009

In celebration of the National Railway Museum's Art Deco locomotive Duchess of Hamilton, Catherine Farrell recalls the elegance of 1930s locomotive design

a photo of a train speeding through a landscape
Passenger Train hauled by 6229 Duchess of Hamilton in the Lune Gorge, Cumbria circa 1934. © NRM

The Golden Age

For many the newly streamlined LMSR locomotive Duchess of Hamilton, the star in a new exhibition at the National Railway Museum (NRM), represents the glory days of steam. As the storm clouds of war began to gather across Europe, steam was enjoying a golden age in 1930s Britain.

London North Eastern Railway (LNER) ran the east coast main line between Kings Cross and Edinburgh, with its famous flagship express train The Flying Scotsman. Its archrival was the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMSR) which operated the west coast main line from Euston to Glasgow with its top performing service, the Royal Scot.

The top business men in the country had to travel frequently between the capital and the North, so both companies had to prove themselves to be the finest railway in the world to get their share of this influential marketplace.

From 1896, right through the formation of the Big Four by the Government in 1923 and beyond, LMSR and LNER and their predecessor companies had agreements not to compete on speed for the Scottish run. Both trains took a leisurely 8 hours 15 minutes to cover the 400 miles.

However, in the early thirties the two companies realised that road travel was beginning to threaten the railways' monopoly on long distance journeys. LMSR and LNER acknowledged they had to invest in speed in order to stay ahead and abandoned their earlier agreement. The gloves came well and truly off and an epic duel for the speed crown began in 1932.

The duel would be led by two figures – Sir Nigel Gresley, chief mechanical engineer for LNER and his LMSR counterpart, Sir William Stanier.

Although LMSR sat at the top of the railway tree, running over 9,620 route miles and employing 233,000, it had many problems inherited from its constituent companies, the main one being the small locomotives favoured by the Midland Railway.

a poster showing a streamlined locomotive speeding along the tracks

A 1930s poster for the Coronation Scot. © NRM

When Stanier was appointed as Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1931, LMSR locomotives still tended to be underpowered. The former Great Western stalwart soon made a persuasive case for a new passenger express locomotive that would be the answer to everyone’s prayers. His brief was simple; a machine that could run non-stop between London and Glasgow, improving journey times and saving money.

His first attempt at creating a super-machine, the ‘Princess Royal’ class ruled the route until 1937.

However Stanier and his designers were soon forced back to the drawing board when LNER and Gresley laid down the gauntlet in 1935 with a new breed of super sleek, super speedy locomotives – the A4 Pacifics.

Well before Mallard became the fastest locomotive of all time, the A4 Pacifics swept away the competition and made the LNER’s Silver Jubilee service the pinnacle of railway travel. They were fast and looked fast. On 29 September 1935, one of the locomotives, Silver Link, made its inaugural journey from Kings Cross station to Edinburgh. It reached 112 mph, breaking all previous records.

LNER journey times were slashed and there was a sense of style and glamour about the Silver Jubilee that was winning business. By comparison the LMSR looked old-fashioned and slow.

LMSR were under intense pressure to retaliate and in 1936 the decision was taken to run a new flagship train between London and Glasgow called the Coronation Scot. This was named to celebrate the coronation of King George VI in 1937 and, to run such a high profile service, the LMSR needed to develop a new express engine that would be more powerful and more reliable than anything currently on the rails.

Stanier and his team, chief draftsman Tom Coleman, Stanier's personal assistant Robert Riddles and Crewe works manager Roland Bond, went back to the drawing board to devise the Princess Coronation class locomotive. The Coronations differed from their predecessors, by having bigger boilers and larger driving wheels.

However, keeping ahead of the opposition was not just down to speed. Style and luxury were also key factors when trying to impress the movers and shakers of the age. Even the names of the locomotives and services at LMSR imparted a sense of sumptuousness with their royal connotations.

Art Deco was a popular international art design movement from 1925 until 1939, affecting all spheres of society, from art to architecture. A parallel movement within Art Deco, Streamline Moderne was influenced by the modern aerodynamic designs emerging from a variety of fields, including aviation.

a photo of men cheering a locomotive as it emerges from a shed

Coronation leaving the Crewe Works in 1937. © NRM

Part of the LNER A4s’ appeal was their fashionable appearance. Gresley had paid homage to the 1930s passion for Art Deco with his sleek outer casing and so his new locomotive was seen as elegant, glamorous, functional, and modern, along with the service it hauled. LMSR had to respond to the appetite for streamlining with the Princess Coronation or risk looking behind with the times.

Back in 1931, LMSR had commissioned research into streamlining, but Stanier wasn’t convinced of its usefulness, having visited the US and Germany to study it first hand.

However, he was soon overruled by the marketing team, who realised the importance of image with regards to commercial success. Thanks to the overwhelming need for positive publicity, Stanier and his team were then forced to design the decorative streamlined casing which became an icon of the era.

With a typical no-nonsense attitude, Stanier is supposed to have said ‘I have decided it is better to please a fool than tease him; they can have their bloody streamliners if they want them but we will build five proper ones as well’.

If LNER’s A4s were the sports car of their day, the Princess Coronations were the larger and more luxurious muscle car. The first Princess Coronation Class locomotive, Coronation, was completed at Crewe on 1 June 1937 – an Art Deco vision of curving silver stripes against a blue background.

On 29 June 1937, waved off by staff involved in her construction, Coronation made its inaugural run, reaching 114 mph. LMSR had finally entered the competition – and in fine style. The way was paved for Coronation’s successors including the most famous of them all in latter years, the maroon and gold Duchess of Hamilton.

The Coronation Scot service reached unparalleled levels of luxury, not only were the locomotives visually stunning with their rounded bodies and metallic Art Deco stripes, the carriages also were an Art Deco fan’s dream.

Different timbers were used in each carriage, varying from English oak to Australian maple and walnut. Furnishings and trimmings were blue, green and brown, each train being completed in one colour. The floors were covered with Wilton carpeting. Fitting in with the Art Deco themes were the metal fittings, finished satin matt chrome in the first-class carriages, and oxidised Venetian bronze in the third-class.

Each nine-coach train seated 82 first and 150 third-class passengers, with a firm emphasis on dining with two kitchen cars included in the make-up of each complete set.

From its launch on 5 July 1937, the Coronation Scot ran five days a week and proved extremely punctual. It was a worthy response to the LNER’s challenge and spectators lined the platforms at Euston and Glasgow to watch the new sinuous streamliners.

a photograph of young couple having their tickets checked by a railway inspector

A young couple wait to board the Coronation Scot. © NRM

Streamlined stardom

In 1939, No. 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, now the star of a new exhibition at the National Railway Museum, became the most famous Princess Coronation of all time when she was shipped to America to take part in the New York World‘s Fair, renamed and numbered as Coronation.

Art Deco was strongly adopted in the United States during the Great Depression for its practicality and simplicity, while still portraying a reminder of better times and the ‘American Dream.’

The 1939-40 Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was Streamline Moderne's finest hour. Many countries around the world participated, and over 44 million people attended its exhibitions in two seasons. Here, the ‘World of Tomorrow’ showcased the cars, kitchens and cities of the future, along with a robot and a remarkable new device called the television. Everything was streamlined, from the Chrysler Airflow car, to radios and fridges.

The Fair was divided into different zones, including a transportation zone. As railroads were a major form of transport for both passengers and freight in 1939, as airlines are for passengers today in the United States, this was a major global showcase for the rail industry. Many visitors to the Fair would have arrived in New York by railroad, and most visitors had at least a moderate interest in the subject.

As the latest locomotive to come out of the Crewe workshop, it was decided that Duchess of Hamilton should be the LMSR flagship at the World’s Fair. As Coronation had already achieved international recognition thanks to the breaking of the speed record and the association with the Coronation Scot service, the Duchess took on her class mate’s name and number.

To wow the world, the LMSR came up with a new maroon and gold colour scheme as a change from the blue and silver livery used on the first generation of Coronation Scot locomotives and carriages. Seven coaches and a first class sleeping car were painted Crimson Lake with gold speed lines and sent across with the matching Duchess of Hamilton at the head, complete with the bell and electric headlight that were mandatory on the American railroads.

Duchess of Hamilton shared the stage along with important historical objects displayed by the various railroads and manufacturing companies, such as the Tom Thumb (locomotive) engine. The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) had their S1 engine on display. This engine was mounted on rollers under the driver wheels, and ran continuously at 60 mph (97 km/h) all day long.

The Americans took Duchess of Hamilton to their hearts, on a tour around the US in the lead up to the World Fair, crowds lined the tracks to see her pass and on arrival in New York the crew was greeted by a welcoming committee.

Beginning of the End

When war broke out in 1939, it spelled the end of the line for the glamorous streamlined trains. The LMSR was ‘temporarily’ nationalised and a speed limit of 45mph was imposed on the railways, effectively bringing about the end of the fast expresses.

Once the austerities of World War II kicked in, Art Deco slowly lost patronage in the West. The style which had represented such hope and optimism began to be derided as gaudy and presenting a false image of luxury.

The war effort came first, and in the UK, luxury travel was abandoned and the special coaches were put into storage. Locomotives were stripped of their streamlined casings to ease maintenance.

Instead of coming home to a hero’s welcome after the success of the World’s Fair, Duchess of Hamilton was stranded in the US, eventually returning in 1942 to a very different Britain to the one she’d left behind.

Like the other less well-known LMSR streamliners, she was painted black, and some years later her now out-of-date decorative casing was removed – she became a functional workhorse for harsher times.

After the war, the process of nationalisation and the advent of diesel and electric technology gradually put an end to the age of steam. The streamliners had had their day and many ended up on the scrap heap.

Resurgence of Streamline

In 1964, none other than Sir Billy Butlin came to the rescue to save two of the Princess Coronation class locomotives Duchess of Sutherland and Duchess of Hamilton by using them as children’s climbing frames and activity areas for his holiday parks.

Duchess of Hamilton, the once proud giant of the tracks, still had the potential to draw the crowds even without the streamlined casing that had wowed the world back in the glory days of Art Deco.

In 1976 the NRM started a 20 year loan agreement with Butlins which then turned into the full purchase of Duchess of Hamilton in 1987. The locomotive was returned to steam in 1980 and hauled frequent excursion trains until her last boiler ticket ran out in 1996.

The main significance of the Princess Coronations lay in their Art Deco streamlining and to tell the story of the quest for style and speed the NRM needed to show the public the sensational spectacle that was the LMSR streamliner.

The decision was made to re-streamline the Duchess of Hamilton at Tyseley Locomotive Works in Birmingham and restore what post-wartime austerity stripped away. This complex project is now complete and the locomotive is set to take centre stage along with a classic 1934 Chrysler Airflow car in an exciting free exhibition at the NRM opening on 20 May 2009.

Streamlined: Styling an Era uses a combination of display panels and video footage to explore the links between 1930s society, engineering and design: Streamlining is about to enter a new glorious era.

Duchess of Hamilton: Streamlined - Styling An Era runs at the National Railway Museum, York until December 31 2010.

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