A debate in the railway scene is whether is a steam locomotive is classed as a ‘she’. Steam locomotives are thought to be alive, and drivers would know that to generate the power and the speed. Drivers are always thought to have a connection with their steam loco, due to driving them every day, and this carries over to the preservation era. Joe Duddington was the driver of Mallard on her world famous speed run, and spoke of ‘her’ as a she, a living creature, who spoke to the BBC in 1944.
“It was one Sunday in July 1938. That was the day the grand streamlined engine Mallard, that I’d driven ever since it came new from the shops in March that year and looked upon almost as my own property, made, with me driving her and Tommy Bray as my fireman, the world’s record for high speed steam running. The record hasn’t been equalled to this day. We made it between Grantham and Peterborough on the LNER main line. I’d taken expresses along as well – 60, 70 or 80 mph but this day we were going to see just what we could do. When we drew away from Grantham, we had besides the train a dynamometer car containing a speed record and other instruments. I accelerated up the bank to Stroke Summit and passed Stoke box at 85. Once over the top I have Mallard her head and she jumped to it like a live thing. After three miles the speedometer in my cab showed 107 mph, then 108, 109, 110 – getting near Silver Jubilee’s record of 113 I thought – I wonder if I can get past that – well, we’ll try, and before I knew it the needle was at 116mph and we’d got the record. They told me afterwards there was a deal of excitement in the dynamometer car and when the recorder showed 122 mph for a mile and a half it was at fever heat!”
“Go on old girl, I thought, we can do better than this. So I nursed her and shot through Little Brythan at 123 and in the next one and a quarter miles in the needle crept further – 123 – 124 – 125 and then for a quater of a mile, while they tell me the folks in the car held their breaths, 126 miles per hour. That was the fastest a steam locomotive had ever been driven in the world – good enough for me, though I believe if I’s tried her a bit more we could have got even 130.”
My opinion of the matter is that the steam locomotives are a ‘she’, and this is because of how much they have formed the backbone of the industrial revolution and soon became the transport of choice for everyone in the UK, from royalty, to politicians, to the middle and lower classes. The strong lines of the design of the locomotive, enhanced by the range and variety of liveries that adorned them. They were celebrities and household names, like “Mallard”, “Flying Scotsman”, and “City of Truro”. They inspired children to become steam locomotive drivers, and from then on, crews were known for having some form of relationship with them, knowing their temperament, and how to coxes them up a steep incline or pulling out of the station with a long train. This varies from the large express tender locomotives to the industrial tank engines, which played a similar role just not as high profiled. They have all had to endure the great wars, the threat of the scrap man, and the long waiting line for restoration. Over time, we can now relate to them more as if they were alive. They are, with the steam emitting from the funnel, and around the boiler, to the screeching of the whistle, and the bark as the loco leaves the station. They have a personality, which with modern diesels and electric locomotives, is non existent.
But, let’s see what other enthusiasts have to say on the matter.
Marcello ‘Jintyman’ Gabrielli, who has a fascination with the LMS 3F ‘Jintys’, and is the founder and project manager of the 47357 Appeal, said;
“A locomotive is the nearest thing to a living being, all machines are she’s. A locomotive is alive breathing and awake with power. Calling a Locomotive “IT” is an insult to history”
Oliver Morgan, who volunteers at the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, and is the Chairman of the Asperger’s Fundraiser, had this to say;
“Steam locomotives represent so much of British life. When conceived, they were ugly and misfits much like society in the early 19th century. By the turn of the 20th century, locomotives had graceful lines soft barks or ‘voices’, and wore a wide variety of liveries. All these things became metaphors for women and steam. The progression represented the growing role of women in society so naturally, the metaphor has stuck”
Andy Ashton, who is restoring Blackpool Brush Car 634, for display at NELSAM in Sunderland said;
“Yeh, it is a simple answer… all modes of transport are considered a ‘she’ because they carry, so not just steam locos but any train, ship, car, lorry, plane”.
However, it is not always seen in this light;
Bradley Jones, known for his up to date photos of the world famous Blackpool Tramway, had this to say;
“No they aren’t they are machines not ‘she’s’ they’re its”
Chris Callen, who is also a tramway enthusiasts, had this to say;
“‘it’, I am not riding a she. On a serious note the only ‘She’ is when referring to (Blackpool Balloon 706) Princess Alice or similar. Other than that I tend to stick to ‘it'”
I suppose in the end it is a personal preference. If you work with a steam locomotive all your life, you form a bond with them, you know their temperament, how they drive and the little things that make ‘her’ special. Classing a steam locomotive as a she is an old fashioned term. Then, most, if not all of steam locomotive drivers were actually, male, which meant that the on today’s political correctness, I suppose they should be gender neural.
Thanks for Reading.
6 thoughts on “Are Steam Locomotives Females?”
I normally consider steam locos to be female, though I make an exception for locos named after men, otherwise it feels a bit odd.
I’d go for she’s every time, even if it has a male name. I suspect many will and have for instance referred to the new P2 project “Prince of Wales” as a she. I would disagree that it came about due to women growing in society, in fact the opposite, it was an entirely male dominated culture, and as such, all the men of course called their locos she’s as they were his girl, if you see what I mean. it’s the same with ships.
Then there are the thomas the tank engine series to consider. This can also be looked at by thinking about male dominated culture, the boys doing all the hard work and the girls (coaches) following on behind, maybe having a gossip! I believe there was an article in the telegraph a while ago talking about sexism in the thomas the tank engines. the reason that these locos ended up being male was because they were stories for the children, who being not perhaps sexually mature wouldn’t understand drivers referring to locos as “she” as of course at that age, to small boys, girls are simply an annoyance.
There are contrasts worldwide.
I remember being quite surprised to learn that Russian sailors describe their ships as ‘he’.
I personally prefer ‘she’ for a loco but I’ve never read especially into it and I certainly don’t consider it a pejorative.
That said, perhaps a rugged freight engine such as a soot encrusted WD should perhaps be a ‘he’ in the Russian manner! 😊
Having spoken with engine drivers of the past over the years, they all called their locos ‘she’. I was told, “Locos at times had to be seduced into doing what was asked of them, exactly like a women ! TLC is what engines need to get the best out of them, same goes for the wife…” Now I’m not being sexist in any way, it’s just what I was told by many.
Funnily enough, whether it be a locomotive, car, truck or motorbike, most males do call their prized pocession, ‘She’. Is it simply because the male puts a lot of attention and TLC into their pocessions…?
Most of my experince with this subject is in relations with Ships and they have always been called “she”. The tradition does seem to be dying out as the new Type 45 destoryer arent being called “shes” but rather “it” and “lego ship” but the older Type 42 destoryers were all “old girls” “ladies”. I personally dont think it will be long before the newer ships develop a personality and get referred to as a “she”.
Thank you for all those who replied to this article. I wanted to see what was the reasoning behind this common thought. Each of you have given great feedback, and maybe in a few months I will be able to come back to this and see what the outcome is.
Thanks again guys and gals.
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