Last year we had a whole bunch of railwayana through Bamfords, mainly authentic relics of the great age of travel, but amongst them the nameplate of a locomotive built by the Southern Railway just after the Second World War and known to enthusiasts (in my time at least) as a ‘spam can’. These were large mixed traffic semi-streamlined engines, partly called after places in the West Country (where they were intended to serve) and partly after matters connected with the Battle of Britain and destined for service in Kent. The particular item was Battle of Britain Winston Churchill – the very locomotive which had pulled the late prime minister’s funeral train to Bladon, Oxfordshire, where he was buried. I am old enough to recall seeing it (despite poor reception in mountainous North Wales) on a black-and-white TV that January day in 1965.
Such was the fame of this relatively short-lived machine that I knew that what we had was a full sized replica, and it duly sold for a couple of hundred pounds (non-replica) money, as it were. There are plenty of these around, although a new replica can cost you quite a bit more. Look out for one of the initial locomotive of the ‘Lord Nelson’ class (SR again) and you’ll have to shell out £790 for a solid brass copy in full size.
But it got me thinking. If you can pay nearly £800 for a replica of a nameplate of a famous – say an ‘iconic’ – locomotive, what might the cost of an original be?
Locomotives have borne names ever since Rocket and its rivals vied for supremacy at the Rainhill trials in 1829, so there are nominally a lot around. Yet 19th century survivals are fantastically rare most, sadly, were scrapped with the time-expired bearers of the name. Nearly everything now available for sale comes from the last generation of steam locomotives (I leave aside nameplates from diesel and electric locomotives: they are less sought after, usually of less good quality materials and commoner, despite still making relatively good money). Most engines with names were express passenger ones of various sizes. The handsomest were those on the locomotives of the old Great Western, cast in brass on heavy plates, often curved to fit over a wheel splasher. Modest Cobham Hall fetched £5,800 in 2010. Other companies used steel ones, usually smaller, although the Southern Railway did brass ones until the war.
Rarity is often an indicator of price, so one works out the number of a particular class of engines built and multiplies the total by two (there being a name plate on either side of the engine). Thus Derbyshire-born Sir Nigel Gresley designed the not particularly memorable ‘Hunt’ & ‘Shire’ class of 4-4-0 locomotives in the 1920s. The LNER built forty two of them, meaning there must have been 84 nameplates, mainly counties but also names of particular Hunts. I recall sitting with my father around 1961 when we learnt from his newspaper that British Railways were scrapping these engines and, by applying to BR one could acquire a nameplate of one’s choice for about £75 – scrap value plus cartage. As one of these machines had been called The Craven, I urged Papa to put in an offer for it, but when they told him the price (which in retrospect he could well have afforded) he demurred. Yet it would have made a splendid investment today, 57 years later, for one sold not so long ago for £15,100!
Another reason for them being scarcer than they are is that many were presented by BR to the institutions after which the engine had taken its name. Thus many ‘Battle of Britain’ class engines had their squadron number nameplates with their accompanying badges, enamelled onto a large attached oval, were presented to the relevant squadron HQs. Football clubs whose names had adorned LNER B17 class engines were presented with the relevant plates, and to all sort of stately homes received plates from Great Western Railway ‘Castle’, ‘Hall’, ‘Manor’ and ‘Grange’ class locomotives..
But to acquire these wonderful items, one requires fantastically deep pockets. Top price to date was a sister engine of world speed record breaking Mallard, called Golden Fleece. One plate alone went for £60,000 in December 2014, whilst another from its sister engine Golden Eagle fetched £31,000 two years ago. Mind you, less romantic names suffer price-wise: Another Mallard sister, prosaically named after a director of the company, Sir Murrough Wilson, only made a paltry £19,600!
The nameplates from the equivalent top-link locomotives on the rival LMS also make similar money, although neither are much to look at compared with one from a ‘spam can’ or a GWR engine: ‘Princess Coronation’ class Pacific City of Liverpool made £36,900 (place loyalty, no doubt!) whereas Queen Elizabeth from a similar engine, but from its days as a streamliner, made £51,500.
More affordable are brass nameplates of the Southern’s likeable but modest ‘King Arthur’ class engines, retailing at around £8,000 at present, although the obscure Malorian Sir Durnore made £8,600 not long ago, so heaven knows what King Arthur himself might command! In other words, it is fame and popularity which makes the big money. Take the sister engines of Flying Scotsman. Most were named after racehorses which had won classics in the forty years or so before the engines were named. This in itself resulted in some oddities, like Dandy Dinmont (survivor of a serious collision before the war), Call Boy and Galopin (geddit?). Thus, Minoru has recently sold for a very modest £7,000, but one of the more famous members of the class could add a nought easily – or very nearly.
Industrial locos also often carried names. They were usually simple little engines and accordingly had simple names, like Jane, Mersey, Powerful, Diamond or Colliery No. 1. These plates can actually be affordable, and start at something in the order of £250 rising to £1,250 for better known ones. The added pleasure for all is that one can research these engines and unite them with a sort of mechanical biography – even forgotten for industrial types – that can add much interest and also boost the resale price a great deal. Which can’t be bad.
But overall, if this area of modern collecting appeals, be rich. Be very rich!