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

The fame of Flying Scotsman

Few products of the industrial age have captured the imagination quite like Flying Scotsman. Completed in 1923 as the first locomotive of the newly formed London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), Flying Scotsman has, since 2004, been part of the National Railway Museum’s collection. An initial analysis would lead one to question why this particular locomotive enjoys a profile unlike any other. Flying Scotsman is not revolutionary in the way that George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket was, nor is it the largest, most powerful or fastest steam locomotive – all features that could be assumed to provide a unique significance. Indeed, Flying Scotsman itself was not even unique as an example of engineering excellence, being one of a class of some 79 such locomotives (Flying Scotsman was built to Sir Nigel Gresley’s A1 design but was rebuilt to his improved A3 design in 1947). Nor was Flying Scotsman the first of its class (it was the third to be constructed), and while it held for a short time the world steam speed record (set in November 1934) this was soon beaten (in March 1935) by a sister locomotive Papyrus. Yet Papyrus was scrapped without protest while Flying Scotsman has a well-founded claim today to be the most famous steam locomotive in the world.[2] The reasons for this are varied and complex – there was no certainty that Flying Scotsman would survive to become the cultural icon it is today. Passed over for preservation in the early 1960s, the locomotive was earmarked to be scrapped. That it wasn’t and instead has gone on to become arguably the most recognised railway locomotive ever raises questions as to how we view our past and what it is that makes objects – large or small – significant to museum curators, enthusiasts, and the wider public.

The rescue and restoration of Flying Scotsman in 1963 and its subsequent operation unquestionably increased its fame. In 1966 the locomotive was hailed by John Noakes as ‘the most famous steam locomotive in the World!’ on the BBC’s flagship children’s television programme Blue Peter.[3] Noakes’s feature was in response to the programme receiving ‘lots of letters’ from children distraught at the withdrawal and scrapping of steam locomotives. This was an era when Britain was emerging from post-war austerity into a world without Empire and a time where it has been argued that a wistful nostalgia for the past took root, enhancing, in turn, the power of symbols of past ages (Cannadine, 2002). On Blue Peter – then watched by an astonishing seven million viewers – Flying Scotsman became a symbol for a vanishing way of life.[4]

Prior to preservation Flying Scotsman had enjoyed periods of great fame so its profile was not solely a product of the 1960s. The foundations of the locomotive’s celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s owes itself to a number of factors, some deliberate, others accidental. The key first point stems from the misunderstanding surrounding the ‘Flying Scotsman’ name and popular confusion about the differences between a locomotive and a train. This confusion played into the hands of Flying Scotsman, which was deliberately named by the LNER after a long established train of the same name. The ‘Flying Scotsman’ had for long been the unofficial name of the flagship service on the east coast main line connecting London to Edinburgh. In fact, it was not one train but two with simultaneous departures traditionally leaving the respective capitals at 10am each weekday. The train quickly established a reputation for speed and was known from at least 1864 as the ‘Flying Scotchman’ due, as the Oxford Times explained, to ‘the rate at which it travels’ (The Oxford Times, 1864). Such popularity manifested itself in other ways too: as early as the 1880s the service gave its name to the popular ‘Flying Scotchman’ pen which, its makers boasted, ‘glides like an Express Train’.[5]

The ‘Flying Scotchman’ became popular with businessmen, soldiers, politicians and diplomats. There are, for example, two known instances of the celebrated novelist Charles Dickens travelling on it (Dolby, 1912).[6] In 1897 it even became the subject of an article sitting alongside the latest Sherlock Holmes instalment, ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, in The Strand Magazine (then enjoying a circulation of around 500,000) (Kitton, 1892). The train’s fame was justified as the southbound service opened up the London markets and helped cement Edinburgh’s role as a major financial centre; the northbound service gave access to Scotland as a tourism destination, a land recently popularised by Queen Victoria and the novels of Sir Walter Scott (it was no co-incidence that the ‘Flying Scotsman’ arrived into Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, which took its name from Scott’s most successful novel). Scotland’s increasing popularity as a leisure and tourism destination owed much to the popularity of this train.

Therefore, when the LNER named Flying Scotsman in time for her appearance at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, the name was already well known.

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of the Flying Scotsman steam train on display in the 1920s

Flying Scotsman first came to public attention at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.

This was an inspired act of marketing by the still fledgling LNER – it could both showcase its latest and most powerful locomotive type whilst simultaneously advertising the company’s flagship service. The exhibition attracted a huge audience and enjoyed worldwide press coverage with Flying Scotsman a star exhibit. By 1928 the ‘Flying Scotsman’ service was being advertised as ‘The Most Famous Train in the World’ and the eponymous locomotive was being used to publicise the company and its service.[7] In May 1928 the locomotive hauled the first non-stop run of the northbound ‘Flying Scotsman’ amid much media fanfare; the following year saw the locomotive and train star in one of the earliest British talkie movies (appropriately named The Flying Scotsman) (McLean, 2016). Later publicity photographs would be taken of the locomotive and its regular crew of driver William Sparshatt and Fireman Webster shaking hands variously with Sir Malcolm Campbell and Geoffrey de Havilland, respectively the fastest men on land and in the air. On 30 November 1934, Sparshatt and Webster took Flying Scotsman on the world’s first authenticated 100mph run by a steam locomotive, thus becoming the fastest men on rails (McLean, 2016).

Speed, for long associated with the ‘Flying Scotsman’ train, was also used to publicise the service in ever more ingenious ways: stunts were organised with the train racing pigeons, speedboats and aeroplanes. The media were always on hand to record the moment. Many of Flying Scotsman’s sister engines were named after celebrated racehorses and the travelling experience positioned the train in the world of glamour, speed and innovation. Cinema, television and radio were trialled on board. There were other innovations too – hairdressing salons, ladies retiring rooms, air conditioning, ‘health giving’ windows, all electric kitchens, a Louis XV-style restaurant and even a cocktail bar – all designed as one contemporary commentator noted to ‘beguile in various ways, the hours of this lengthy journey’ (Allen, 1946). This was all cemented by expert advertising and consistent branding including a headboard designed by Eric Gill (one of the earliest uses of his Gill Sans font).[8] The ‘Flying Scotsman’ locomotive and train were positioned as modernist icons famed for speed, style and service.

Figure 4

Illustrated colour poster from the 1920s advertising travel by the Flying Scotsman steam train depicting a boy looking up at the towering body of the train

The LNER aligned the ‘Flying Scotsman’ service with modernism as seen in this poster by A R Thomson from 1932.

The fame spread beyond the UK: the LNER advertised the service in North America through an agent based in New York, whilst it built on its already established movie fame through a significant role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps (McLean, 2016).

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the ‘Flying Scotsman’ had been regularly refreshed with new rolling stock, the latest locomotives and the most up-to-date on-board features, thus ensuring that the service remained at the forefront of the modern British railway system. This tradition continued in 1962 – the centenary of the service – when the ‘Flying Scotsman’ was reinvented once more as symbolic of a new and modern era.[9] The latest rolling stock was provided for the train, which was to be hauled by the new Deltic diesel, a truly transformative development being not only fast and powerful but futuristic in its styling.

But in 1962 the future of the locomotive of the same name was less assured. The British Railways (BR) modernisation programme launched in 1955 marked the beginning of the end for steam. When it was revealed that steam would continue into the 1970s, BR accelerated the programme of scrapping locomotives (Gourvish, 1986). The statistics are revealing: in 1953 there were still 18,600 steam locomotives operating on the British railway system; but by 1962, Flying Scotsman’s last full year in service, the number had more than halved to 8,800 and within six years that had dropped to zero (Gourvish, 1986 p 275). To ensure historic locomotives or relics survived a number of locomotives were identified for preservation. However, amongst the omissions was Flying Scotsman, which was earmarked for scrap. In 1962 the Gresley A3 Preservation Society was established to raise funds to save the locomotive but in the event they could not match the £3,000 asking price. 

Figure 5

A poster from the Cresley A3 preservation society requesting voluntary aid to help preserve the Flying scotsman steam train

Poster announcing a campaign to save Flying Scotsman from being scrapped, 1962.

However, a wealthy businessman by the name of Alan Pegler stepped in and acquired the locomotive. He secured a remarkable deal from British Railways allowing him to overhaul, repaint and stable Flying Scotsman at Doncaster Works as well as securing the rights to operate the locomotive on the main line (Pegler et al, 1970). 

Figure 6

Colour photograph of the Flying Scotsman steam train on track at London Kings Cross station with the restorer Alan Spegler standing on the front

Alan Pegler, saviour of Flying Scotsman, with his new acquisition, King’s Cross, 1963.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160507/002