A hundred years ago, the West Coast route was operated by the prestigious London & North Western Railway, the ‘Premier Line’ as it was called, and north of Carlisle, by the Caledonian Railway. About 100 years ago another transformation of West Coast railway travel was beginning. The LNWR was about to begin a programme of new locomotive and carriage building that would transform motive power and passenger carriages on this route from Victorian to early 20th century standards. It began in 1904 under the auspices of chief locomotive engineer, George Whale, and continued under Charles Bowen Cooke who took over in 1909, until he died in 1920.
Francis William Webb, a great, innovative Victorian locomotive engineer, was a major exponent of compounding as a means of reducing costs. Trouble was his impressive-looking express locomotives, with tall chimneys and large rounded domes, liveried in highly polished ‘blackberry black’, lined out in scarlet, cream and grey, were increasingly obsolete. His Victorian fleet of locomotives included small ‘Jumbo’ 2-4-0 engines and, dating from the 1890s, imposing compound 4-4-0 and 2-2-2-2 locomotives. With the exception of the amazing 'Teutonics' and 'Dreadnoughts' most of these were unreliable and sluggish and had to be coupled together in pairs to haul increasingly heavy and well equipped trains on the West Coast route. In the late 19th century the loadings of express passenger trains increased by the provision of better train heating, electric light, dining cars, tea cars, corridor stock, and so on.
Bigger engines were needed to pull them. In 1904 following Webb's retirement, the LNWR embarked upon a massive programme of locomotive and carriage building that was to transform this railway and bring it into the 20th century. The newly appointed Chief Mechanical Engineer, George Whale, undertook a whole new generation of locomotives. His handsome 'Precursor', a relatively simple, compact but
powerful 4-4-0, basically a much enlarged 'Jumbo', was the first of a succession of locomotives that would be streets ahead of its predecessors.
Then in 1910 and 1911 respectively, the brilliant Charles John Bowen Cooke, following Continental European and US practice, superheated these locomotives and modernised their front ends, calling them the Fifth George the Class after the first built (LNWR practice). British locomotive engineers at that time were keenly interested in the latest steam engine technology from Germany, France and America. The 'George the Fifth'