Go back to article: Flying Scotsman: modernity, nostalgia and Britain’s ‘cult of the past’

The conflict of preserving the past

Given that the preservation of operational steam locomotives was in its relative infancy in the 1960s there were no clear guidelines in place to help owners address the conflict of conservation over restoration – the big debate that, as we have seen, erupted in the late nineteenth century concerning historic buildings. As a private owner Alan Pegler enjoyed complete freedom over how to present Flying Scotsman as a preserved locomotive. The Railway Magazine was quick to recognise this: ‘The pros and cons of the preservation of this particular Pacific do not enter into this case, as this was one man’s personal choice, and who can question it? When the famous locomotive steamed out of Kings Cross on Monday, January 14, it was a sad day for many but at least it was not heading for the scrap heap’ (Railway Magazine, 1963). From the nineteenth century steam locomotives had largely – with some notable but only occasional exceptions – been preserved as static objects but Pegler, who as a member of British Railway’s Eastern Region Board had inside knowledge of the railway system, wanted to ensure that Flying Scotsman would both remain operational and – despite the impending steam ban – continue to run on the main line. He was open about his intentions: ‘I intend to preserve it in working order. In a way, it will be a monument to the skill of the local [i.e. Doncaster] craftsmen’ (The Times, 1963).

As with many forms of nostalgia Alan Pegler’s rationale was rooted in his own childhood when he had first seen Flying Scotsman as a static object at the 1924 Wembley Exhibition and then again a few years later, in 1928, at speed hauling the new non-stop ‘Flying Scotsman’ train:

Looking back I sometimes wonder whether this was what first forcibly brought home to me the difference between a cold steam locomotive and a hot one; a dead one and a live one. There seemed to be no connection between the showpiece inside an exhibition hall and the beautiful piece of machinery with its huge, striding wheels, flashing rods and plumes of smoke and steam at the head of the train (Pegler, 1970).

Pegler’s determination, inside knowledge and negotiating skill saw him secure a deal from the British Railways Board to run Flying Scotsman on the main line until 1966, an arrangement subsequently extended until 1971 (Pegler, 1970). This was to prove crucial in further enhancing Flying Scotsman’s profile, as Pegler explained:

Suddenly, therefore, it appeared as though 4472 was going to be the only privately-preserved main-line steam locomotive anyone was going to be able to see or travel behind… In fact when British Railways had themselves run their own last main-line steam tour on August 11, 1968 it became a fact that 4472 was the one and only in Britain (Pegler, 1970).

Alan Pegler’s motives were ones with which many clearly empathised but not everyone approved. One outspoken critic came from an unexpected quarter. Marjorie Gresley, daughter of Flying Scotsman’s designer Sir Nigel Gresley was quoted in The Times as saying she ‘would prefer to see the locomotive given a dignified retirement than exploited on runs to Scotland. I feel sure this is what my father would have wished… It is a personal thing with me. I have been invited to go on these jaunts, but have had to refuse.’(The Times, 1968) The conflict of preserving an object that was designed to be operated is one that has troubled museum curators for many years. This was due largely to the problem of conveying the significance of an item when the context of its very existence had changed completely. Questions of practicality, cost, maintenance and, ultimately, authenticity were, and are, key factors also. As Professor Jack Simmons would later write: ‘’Restoration’ is itself a term of controversy, often involving delicate and difficult decisions. Locomotives, for example, seldom remained entirely unaltered throughout their working lives. When one comes to be preserved, should it be kept exactly as it was when taken out of service, or should it go back as far as possible to its original condition?’ (Simmons, 1981).

Pegler’s treatment of Flying Scotsman is contrasted by that of another star LNER locomotive, the world steam record holder Mallard. Upon withdrawal from service in 1962 Mallard became part of the National Collection and was restored to her appearance at the time of her world-beating run in 1938, including full repaint in LNER colours, replacement (or more accurately replication) of sections of her streamlined casing that had been removed during the Second World War and renumbering to her original number of 4468. Shortly after her 1938 record was achieved Mallard’s original tender was replaced by one of the different connecting corridor type. In restoration she was to be reunited with a restored non-corridor tender, but not the original. Mallard’s mechanical parts, including boiler, were retained in their ‘as withdrawn’ condition. However, externally the locomotive, intended as a static museum piece, had a restored, rather than conserved, external appearance. Apart from a brief return to main line steam in time for the fiftieth anniversary of her most famous feat in 1988, Mallard has remained a static museum object. Indeed, it was only in 1988 that the NRM first took the decision to conserve rather than restore a rail vehicle accessioned into the collection.[14]

With the operation of Flying Scotsman being Alan Pegler’s declared aim the question of how to present his locomotive was also addressed. As with Mallard many other preserved locomotives by this stage had been restored to the look that they had at the time of their greatest achievements.[15] Similarly, it was believed that Pegler’s intention was to restore Flying Scotsman – a locomotive which had undergone numerous alterations in the forty years since she was constructed in 1923 – to its most famous condition. What that condition was would be hard to define given the various notable events in the early history of that locomotive, which had been interspersed with changes to its appearance. The popular view on Flying Scotsman was that she would go back to her classic LNER appearance (despite no-one pinning down exactly what that should mean). This aim was clearly believed by railway media and enthusiasts, the Railway Magazine for example noting that it was ‘being restored…to its earlier condition, as L.N.E.R. “A1” No.4472’ (Railway Magazine, 1963). This was certainly the popular perception. In Awdry’s Enterprising Engines, Flying Scotsman tells Gordon: ‘I had a rebuild…and looked hideous. But my Owner said I was an Extra Special Engine, and made them give me back my proper shape.’[16] However, at the time of Alan Pegler’s acquisition Flying Scotsman looked considerably different to how she appeared in her various pre-War guises. Such have been the changes that in her lifetime Flying Scotsman has had three different classes (A1, A10 and A3), three different styles of dome and chimney, four different liveries, six numbers (1472, 4472, 502, 103, E103 and 60103), nine different tenders and fifteen different boilers (McLean, 2015). When Alan Pegler acquired the engine he also acquired spare parts from other A3 Pacifics, notably a locomotive named Salmon Trout and many of those parts are now in use on Flying Scotsman itself (Coulls, 2015). It was common practice for parts from other locomotives to be removed and put to use on other engines during routine overhauls – Flying Scotsman was no different to any other locomotive in this respect.

It would have been extremely difficult and costly to return Flying Scotsman to one of her various appearances from her 1920s and 1930s heyday. Pegler recognised the fact stating that it was ‘out of the question to consider trying to convert the locomotive to her original condition’. Instead he settled for a more ambiguous solution which he called ‘a typical LNER A3 of the 1930s’ (Pegler et al, 1970). Pegler may have been a nostalgic but he was practical too. With numerous changes in appearance over the years, and the desire to have something approximating its 1930s appearance recreated, inevitably it meant that Pegler’s 1963 ‘restoration’ was something of a compromise. Further changes were made during the 1960s – some subtle, such as variations to the apple green livery, others less so, most notably the addition of a second tender to carry extra water on longer journeys (a response to the removal of the infrastructure that enabled steam locomotives to operate on the main line). The consequence has caused confusion ever since with people associating the 1963 restoration with Flying Scotsman’s original appearance, encouraged further by the huge popularity of the Hornby model of the preserved Flying Scotsman that was on sale in the 1970s.[17]

However, as we have seen, the principles of conservation were already well established concerning the restoration of historic buildings. Such principles did not concern the railway preservation movement and restoration to an idealised state has been for many years the accepted practice. This was equally true of Flying Scotsman which had its later 1920s-style single chimney and LNER apple green colour scheme restored along with being united once again with a corridor tender, a style it had last used in 1936. However, all other aspects of Flying Scotsman’s 1947 and 1953 rebuilds were retained thus giving the locomotive an appearance it had never before carried. For Pegler a compromise was enough as long as certain core elements of his locomotive’s pre-Second World War appearance could be restored.

The significance of the number 4472 was key to Pegler also. Flying Scotsman may have carried several different numbers in its career but for its key achievements up until that point – the Wembley Exhibition, the non-stop runs, the Flying Scotsman movie and the 100mph speed record – she had carried the number 4472. For Pegler this number was synonymous with the locomotive and when talking about his engine he would typically call her ‘4472 Flying Scotsman’, the number always preceding the name. Again he harked back to his youth, to the time when he first fell in love with this engine. ‘The first non-stop “Flying Scotsman” run,’ he would reminisce, ‘got a great deal of publicity, and every photograph that was published seemed to show the same engine as if there were no other – No.4472.’ Pegler’s recollections were accurate – although other locomotives would be used in the LNER’s publicity none appeared as frequently as Flying Scotsman. To Alan Pegler this number was special: ‘Nationalisation after the war,’ he wrote, ‘seemed to me, at the time, to be the ultimate disaster as even magic numbers like 4472 disappeared’ (Pegler et al , 1970). Ironically, Flying Scotsman had already lost the number seven years before nationalisation.

With compromises made Flying Scotsman underwent a full overhaul at Doncaster works and re-emerged resplendent in its new guise on 26 March 1963, just three months after being withdrawn by BR.

Figure 7

Black and white photograph of the Flying Scotsman steam train after restoration in the 1960s

Flying Scotsman as restored at Doncaster Works in March 1963.

The following day Beeching’s report The Reshaping of British Railways was issued leading to a fierce reaction and much public opposition, such was the sentimentality ‘attached to the railways as the symbol of Victorian enterprise’ (Sandbrook, 2006). The timing of Beeching’s report must have been fortuitous for the success of the now preserved Flying Scotsman, which became an immediate and spectacular success. Flying Scotsman’s first public passenger carrying run on 20 April 1963 from London’s Paddington Station to Ruabon attracted great public and media attention despite heavy rain, with several thousand turning out at Birmingham’s Snow Hill station to see Flying Scotsman’s debut as a preserved engine. So dense were the crowds that one of Pegler’s inner-circle Trevor Bailey compared the scene to resembling ‘the terraces of Wembley Stadium on Cup Final day’ (Bailey, 1970). As the popularity of the locomotive surged so too did its ‘old’ (but actually new) appearance cement itself into the public consciousness as the way that Flying Scotsman was meant to look.[18]

Figure 8

Black and white photograph of the Flying Scotsman steam train after restoration in London Kings Cross station in the 1960s

The restored Flying Scotsman attracted huge crowds in the 1960s such as these seen here at King’s Cross.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160507/004