South Eastern and Chatham Railway L class – 4-4-0

SECR L Class 4-4-0 - A781Having picked up another Southern Railway postcard at Medstead and Four Marks (click here to see previous blog post on the LBSCR K class), I decided again to look into the locomotive type illustrated on it – yet another locomotive from a now extinct class.  The picture shows Southern railway no A781, an example of the South Eastern and Chatham Railway (SECR) L class.

The type were intended to take on the duties of the SECR D and E class 4-4-0’s that were struggling with heavier loads.  Due to weight restrictions, another 4-4-0 was chosen for these duties and so the L class design by Harry Wainwright.  However, at the time of the development of this class, Wainwright was heavily criticised for producing something so basic at a time when the railway was desperate for more powerful motive power.  The L class design played a significant part in the forced retirement of Wainwright in 1913 by the company’s Directors.  This was not an especially fair apportion of blame however, that in reality was mainly down to the Directors forcing the early closure of the Longhedge Works without increasing production capacity at Ashford works.  When Richard Maunsell took over at the SECR as Chief Mechanical Engineer, he completed the design, making a few alterations (mainly to the cab and chimney) and subcontracted the construction work.

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the L class.  The locomotive pictured here was the last member of the class constructed in 1914 and a point of interest here is that it was built in Germany by A Borsig of Berlin.  Indeed it was one of ten members of the class to be constructed in Berlin and assembled in Ashford by Borsig workers.  They were completed just before the hostilities began and the First World War started.  These ten were the only British express steam locomotives to be built in Germany.

The shape of the L class is characterised by  its Belpaire firebox and the major difference between the British and German types were their superheaters – British (Beyer Peacock) built examples having Robinson superheaters, Borsig versions having Schmidt superheaters.

In reality, the class were little more suitable for mainline workings by the 1920’s than the locomotives they were built to replace.  Maunsell modified the design to create the more powerful L1 class in the 1920’s and with the far more powerful schools, King Arthur and Bulleid light pacific classes developed through the 30’s-40’s, there was little left for the L class by the 1950’s.  Withdrawals took place from 1956 to 1961 and all were scrapped.

It goes to show that it is well worth looking through old book’s and postcards, especially when at a heritage line.  Purchasing something not only helps the railway, but you might find something really unique.  I never expected this picture to be both the reason for the end of Harry Wainwright’s career (and therefore the reason for Maunsell to make his name) plus the last of only ten UK express steam locomotives to be built in Germany!  This was quite a find, I’m sure you’ll agree!