Selected Chronicles

1908 Ransomes & Rapier 36-ton Breakdown Crane – GWR No. 2

A brief history by Roger Cooke

The GWR No. 2 steam breakdown crane was built by the Ipswich firm of Ransomes & Rapier Ltd to Order No. B.4411 and entered service at Swindon in 1908.

GWR No. 2 represented a very significant landmark in British steam crane design, and when built it was not only the largest-capacity breakdown crane ever constructed for a British railway, but also was the first time that all the features of a ‘modern’ steam crane had been brought together in a single unit.  The crane established a format which was followed, with only very minor changes, right up until the end of fixed-jib breakdown crane manufacture in the 1960s (it was only with the advent of the telescopic jib cranes in the 1970s that any radical changes were introduced) and there can be little doubt that it is, in historic terms, the most important railway steam crane to survive in the world today.  It is also one of only three pre-1914 British heavy-lift steam breakdown cranes to have survived (there are two smaller cranes in the National Collection, a 1908 30-ton ex-LNWR crane from Cowans, Sheldon & Co of Carlisle and a 1907 25-ton ex-NER crane from Craven Bros of Manchester).  It is the only steam breakdown crane built to a GWR order still in existence.

GWR No. 2 was one of two 36-ton cranes which were ordered by the GWR in 1907, one of which was to be built by Ransomes & Rapier and the other by Stothert & Pitt of Bath.  The Stothert & Pitt crane was delivered in 1909 (after the Ransomes crane) and became GWR No. 1 (the original No. 1 crane, a 15-ton Cowans Sheldon machine, being renumbered 7 to allow this).  Two suppliers were used in order to allow comparative testing of the two designs.  The Ransomes & Rapier crane was considered superior to the Stothert & Pitt crane, and the next GWR crane to be ordered was another Ransomes and Rapier 36-ton unit, to all intents and purposes identical to No. 2, which entered service in 1912 and become Crane No. 3.

The No. 2 crane has a lifting capacity of 36 tons at 20’ radius, and runs on five axles.  It proved so successful that virtually identical 36-ton cranes were supplied to the London & North Western Railway in 1910 (subsequently numbered LMS No. MP7, scrapped in 1966), to the Great Eastern Railway in 1913 (GER No. 6A, withdrawn in 1965 and subsequently scrapped) and to the London & South Western Railway in 1918 (LSWR No. 6, scrapped in 1964).  The basic design of No. 2 was to be refined to reduce the axle loadings and to allow a greater lifting capacity, this being achieved by means of the introduction into later designs of a slightly heavier carriage running on four axles together with the provision of Stokes Patent Relieving Bogies, which gave a total of eight axles in travelling mode and thus allowed the crane to be heavier (i.e. equipped with more ballast) without exceeding the maximum permitted axle loads or reducing route availability.  The first such crane for a British railway was one supplied to the Midland Railway in 1916 (subsequently numbered LMS No. MP1, scrapped in 1967), but a further 20 or so similar cranes were built for the major British railway companies and the MOD by Ransomes & Rapier prior to 1950.

When built, the No. 2 crane was fitted with a boiler manufactured by E R & F Turner of Ipswich.  This boiler was unusual in that, although a vertical boiler, it featured a locomotive-style smokebox which projected backwards through the rear of the crane’s superstructure.  Evidence of this can be seen to this day in the form of the plated-over inverted-keyhole-shaped opening at the rear of the crane.  In about 1918 the Turner boiler was replaced with a Swindon-designed-and-built vertical boiler of conventional design with vertical firetubes which remains with the crane to this day.

Unusually, the Swindon boiler was designed so that it could be equipped with the appropriate boiler fittings to allow it to be used in either the Ransomes & Rapier cranes (Nos. 2 and 3) or the Stothert & Pitt crane (No. 1), with any unused bosses being blanked off when not needed.  It is not known how many of these “universal” vertical-firetube (VFT) boilers were built, but photographic evidence reveals that at least one Turner boiler was being used as a spare well into the 1960s.

The success of the basic design of this crane was such that most other crane manufacturers were quick to adopt and adapt the previously unique features of this crane.  As already mentioned, Ransomes & Rapier went on to make many further cranes of this type for most of the major railways in Britain as well as an even greater number for export until the firm ceased production of railway steam cranes upon being taken over by Newton, Chambers & Co in 1958.  Both Cowans Sheldon and Cravens adopted most of the features seen on No.2, with modifications where necessary to avoid patent infringement.

In 1925 the GWR contacted Ransomes & Rapier to obtain a quotation for the work necessary to upgrade the crane to allow the occasional lifting of loads of 50 tons.  Ransomes & Rapier replied that to the effect that no alterations at all would be necessary and that “if you are only requiring our crane to lift the 50 ton load under normal conditions … we beg to state that our crane will be quite suitable for this without any alteration or additional counterbalance”.  This correspondence has survived and is made more interesting by the fact that the letters are signed for the GWR, on behalf of C. B. Collett, by his assistant W. A. Stanier.

Most of what is known at this time about the working history of No. 2 has been pieced together from photographic evidence.  Unlike the majority of breakdown cranes which were allocated to running sheds, No. 2 was held at Swindon by the Central Workshops Authority but was made available for breakdown and civil engineering work when required.  No. 2 spent its entire working life based at Swindon, even after having been transferred into B.R. stock.  On the whole, the lifts it undertook fall into three categories: lifts for publicity or test purposes, lifts for civil engineering undertakings, and lifts for accident and derailment work. Many photographs exist showing it at work.

Amongst the posed publicity pictures are several showing Nos. 1 & 2 cranes lifting the unique and brand-new GWR Pacific-type locomotive “The Great Bear” at Swindon in 1909, and the Nos. 2 & 3 cranes lifting No. 4088 Dartmouth Castle in July 1925 (which pictures appear earlier in this website).  It is of interest that “The Great Bear” weighed in the region of 97 tons without the tender, yet is being lifted clear of the rails by two 36-ton capacity cranes.

The No. 2 crane was also used on virtually all of the major civil engineering works which required heavy lifting undertaken prior to WW2, and many of those thereafter (the GWR gained four 45-ton Ransomes & Rapier cranes on Government account as a war precaution, and these were used extensively throughout and after the war).  Fortunately it was very common for the GWR and later BR(W) to take photographs of major civil engineering projects for publication in staff magazines, and photographs exist showing the crane at work, usually in the company of either No. 1 or No. 3, on duties as diverse as:

Strangford Bridge

GWR cranes Nos. 2 & 3 assisting the reconstruction of Strangford Bridge in 1947

The GWR was fortunate to enjoy a reputation for having very few accidents, but some inevitably occurred and the No. 2 crane attended virtually all of the serious incidents prior to WW2 and many thereafter.  These include the disasters at Shrivenham (1936) and Norton Fitzwarren (1940), the collision at Reading (1914), and the Ledbury accident of 1915.  A particularly interesting sequence of photographs was published in British Railway Journal No. 39 (Christmas 1991) showing, in some detail, the operation to re-rail 2-8-2T No. 7224 which had run through trap points at Over Jct. near Gloucester in October 1947.  The recovery is being carried out with cranes Nos. 2 and 18 (a 1940-built 45-ton Ransomes & Rapier crane based at that time Cardiff Canton shed, and now also preserved).

There is also photographic evidence that No. 2 crane itself has overturned whilst working on at least two occasions, with evidence of this to be seen on the crane itself to this day.

No. 2 on its side at Swindon

No. 2 on its side in Swindon Concentration Yard in Sept 1962.  The crane had been moving parts of cut-up locomotives and it appears that the propping girders hadn't been deployed

After 67 years of service with the GWR and BR(W), the No. 2 crane was sold by BR to the Dart Valley Light Railway PLC and moved from Swindon to Paignton in Devon, arriving there on 25th November 1975.  The crane spent the next fifteen years working on the DVLR’s two lines, the Paignton & Dartmouth Railway and the Dart Valley Railway (the line from Buckfastleigh to Totnes, now known as the South Devon Railway), and throughout this period was maintained in ‘main line’ condition since stock transfers between the two lines entailed running over BR metals.  The crane is known to have made at least six journeys between the two lines.

During its time with the DVLR, the crane was also used a number of times on BR metals, both at Totnes and at Goodrington.  In 1989, the board of the DVLR decided to sell the steam crane and replace it with a pair of smaller diesel cranes; partly because the only qualified steam crane driver in the company intended to emigrate to Canada, but mainly because of the practical difficulties of having only a single crane to work two lines.  The crane was sold to a private buyer in spring 1989, but some time afterwards it made the record books yet again.

The crane’s last lift for the DVLR, which was also its last lift on BR metals, was made at 2.30 a.m. on Sunday 13th August 1989 at Goodrington when it lifted out the 3-ton gantry of what had been the last operational B.R. semaphore signals in Devon.  These had been taken out-of-use on Saturday 5th August 1989, and were being recovered for re-use on the Paignton & Dartmouth line.  By this time BR had withdrawn its last steam powered breakdown cranes, and as far as can be determined, this is the last occasion on which a steam breakdown crane operated on the mainline railways in Britain.  A fitting achievement for such an historic crane.

In the summer or autumn of 1990 the crane was moved by rail back to Swindon Works, travelling in company with D1023 ‘Western Fusilier’ which, together with the crane, was exhibited in the former No. 19 Shop at Swindon Works alongside the 1990 “NRM On Tour” exhibition.  Upon conclusion of the exhibition the crane remained stored at the Works for a short period, but then, with the impending final closure and clearance of the Works, was moved to the Rover car plant at Swindon, where it remained for a period of some five years, before finally moving to Cranmore in 1995.

At the time that the crane was moved from Devon to Swindon it was essentially in good working order, although it was in need of some minor boiler repairs.  Unfortunately, the years spent in store at Swindon were not kind to it and by the time it arrived at Cranmore it had been partly dismantled, several significant components had been mislaid, and its general condition had deteriorated significantly.

In 2004 the crane was again sold and a start was made on its restoration, although this is likely to be a very long process.  Most of the missing parts have now been located and recovered, however some are still unaccounted for.  In particular, most of the cast iron maker’s plates and other data plates are still sought, and any information leading to their recovery would be very gratefully received.

© Roger Cooke 2009,2012  All Rights Reserved