Between March 1936 and July 1937, the London and North Eastern Railway built a tranche of 25 B17 mixed traffic 4-6-0s (the “Sandringham” class) and named them after top football sides.
The railway preservation movement that emerged in Britain in the late 1950s is an underestimated phenomenon – the Bridgnorth-based Severn Valley Railway made such a success from the little branch line they took over from British Railways that it is rumoured they were considering bidding for one of the major rail franchises under the Major Government in the 1990s. Anyone but Connex, of course, and at least the Severn Valley wouldn’t have stood for running dangerously undermaintained trains in the way Connex did.
But the movement came too late for the B17s, and now the term means an aircraft. All of the nameplates survive, however. It’s probably the best-preserved bit of cashing-in on football of its time.
The names they chose are interesting. First out of the works was Arsenal, league champions and the premier club of the day. No surprise there. But second came Sheffield United, at that time deep in Division Two. Wednesday can’t have been pleased: they’d come third in the top division, and had to wait until June for their locomotive.
Next up was Grimsby Town. Grimsby were going through a golden period at this point, and had just finished a good fifth in Division One, their highest ever position. Their locomotive nameplate, embellished as were the others with a brass football, remains as concrete evidence that they were once an elite club. They remain the most successful of the four Lincolnshire league clubs, and with Alan Buckley back as manager, can look to the future with at least some optimism.
Ignore the locomotive named “Darlington” – it was called that because Darlington was home to the North British Works that built the locomotives.
The other sad echo is “Huddersfield Town”. As 2853 rolled out in April 1936, it was only a little more than a decade since Huddersfield had collected the last of their hat trick of titles. And only a little longer since Chapman had left for London.. I have a photograph beside me of Huddersfield’s outspoken captain, Clem Stephenson, wheeling away having scored – he, and the whole team, visible behind him, have that gloss and glory on them, that bright expectancy about the body language, that shines off champions.
They’d hang on in the top flight for most of the next twenty years, give or take one relegation and World War II, so they’d last longer as headline fodder than the LNER. They’ve got their nameplate now. What did the LNER get? A brief moment’s publicity – to add to all of the other publicity they were busy gathering in the 18 months before Mallard’s 126 mph speed record. Favour with fans? I wonder – the B17s didn’t work football country, running East Anglia instead (the company did have the nous to name one of the class “Norwich City”). Whatever it was for, can’t have been for long.