|If you lived in Gloucestershire
between 1990 and 1992 you might remember a weekly
newspaper called The Gloucester Journal. In The
Gloucester Journal was a feature called Railspot, which I
wrote. Each week, Railspot would include a picture, 500
words describing it, and often some pub quiz type
questions about railways.
SOUTHERN RAILWAY CLASS N15 "KING ARTHUR" 4-6-0S
|From the archives of Gloucester
railway photographer Norman Preedy comes this picture of
ex Southern Railway Class N15 4-6-0 30786 "Sir
Lionel" resting on Eastleigh Shed in May 1953.
The N15s were the first express passenger locomotives introduced by the Southern Railway after Grouping and had their roots in its largest constituent, the London & South Western Railway. Stretching from Waterloo to Cornwall, the LSWR had employed Dugald Drummond as its Locomotive Superintendent from 1895 to 1912. Formerly of the Caledonian Railway, he had excelled at designing 4-4-0s such as the famous two cylinder T9 "Greyhound" class, but the performance of his four cylinder 4-6-0s - made necessary by the increasing weight and speed of trains - was disappointing.
In an attempt to improve this, Drummond's successor, Robert Urie, rebuilt one of the 4-6-0s with two outside cylinders and so established a number of new trends for LSWR express passenger design. These led to his N15 class of 1918, numbered 736-755 and easily distinguished from Drummond locomotives by the high running plate and short stovepipe chimney atop a large tapering boiler.
The boiler only worked at 180 psi however and the N15s were found not to maintain steam pressure on long journeys over the steeply graded lines to the West Country. As a result R.E.L. Maunsell, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Railway from 1923, improved their firebox draughting arrangements and increased the boiler pressure to 200 pounds per square inch. Then, by rebuilding five more Drummond 4-6-0s, Maunsell produced his own version of the N15. Using only the tenders and a few of the mechanical parts from the old four-cylindered ten-wheelers, these boasted new 200 psi boilers allied to smaller fireboxes, 20 1/2" bore cylinders ( as opposed to 21 inches on Urie's N15s ) six inches of extra piston valve travel, better air flow through the dampers to the grate and an improved steam circuit with outside pipes linking superheater headers and valve chests direct. Stovepipe chimneys were also replaced by new 5 1/8" blast pipe caps and Maunsell's N15s became the first British locomotives to be fitted with smoke deflectors. Some also had a wider route availability than the Urie engines with cabs modified to fit the SR Eastern Division's narrower loading gauge.
Ten locomotives built to Maunsell's N15 specification and numbered 448-457 were turned out from Eastleigh Works in the first half of 1925 while another batch of 30 units (763 - 792) were constructed by North British in Glasgow. The Urie N15s were brought up to the new standards as they were inshopped for servicing and between 1926 and 1927 Eastleigh built another 14 examples (793-806) with six wheeled tenders. These were to work the Central Division of the Southern Railway ( formerly the London Brighton & South Coast lines ) which was considered too lightly laid for the weight of a Drummond or North British eight wheeled bogie tender.
Impressed by the new Pacifics on the LNER and "Castles" of the Great Western, Sir Herbert Walker, Manager of the Southern Railway, had asked one of his public relations men named John Elliot to find a set of names for Maunsell's N15s that would capture the public imagination. Elliot, realising that SR lines ran close to Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, suggested that they should commemorate characters from the Court of Camelot. The N15s became "King Arthurs".
On one occasion in 1936 777 "Sir Lamiel" - one of the NBL built "Scotch Arthurs" reached what railway timer Cecil J. Allen called "probably the most astonishing example of King Arthur ability" when it hauled a 10 carriage 345 ton train the 83 plus miles from Salisbury to Waterloo in 72 minutes 41 seconds, thereby arriving just over 17 minutes early at an average speed of 69.2 mph.
Although displaced by Bulleid and British Standard motive power from 1945. the N15s continued to serve on most parts of the Southern Region although paradoxically never along the Western Division lines around Tintagel from which they drew their names.
Scrapping of the "5P" 4-6-0s began in 1955, with 30770 "Sir Prianius" the last to go in November 1962. Happily however 30777 "Sir Lamiel" was preseved as part of the National Railway Museum collection and from the start of the 1960s a number of British Standard Class 5 4-6-0s kept the Arthurian names alive until the end of Southern Region steam in 1967 and in some cases into preservation.
|John Elliot's idea of naming the
N15 4-6-0s after Knights of the Round Table was, of
course, neither the beginning or the end of the Arthurian
legend. Since the nameplate on 448 "Sir
Tristram" was unveiled, moving pictures as diverse
as "Camelot", "The Sword in the
Stone" , The Oblivion Boys TV commercial for Carling
Black Label and 2008's BBC1 drama "Merlin" have
been made about King Arthur. There is even a Camelot
theme park in Lancashire with funfair rides, jousting,
falconry and "Merlin's magic show" while more
serious historians have argued the merits of Tintagel,
Glastonbury, Winchester and Edinburgh as the true home of
the mythical monarch. One hotel in Tintagel even serves
drinks from its "Excali-bar" but beneath all
this and the countless books and other merchandise two
questions still remain. Who was Arthur - if he ever
existed - and why is he so enduringly popular?
The first clue lies in the House of Lords. Following the destruction of the Palace of Westminster by fire in the early 19th Century it was rebuilt from 1837 by Sir Charles Barry and Welbec Pugin. Both Barry and Pugin were Medievalists - looking back on the Middle Ages as a golden time of romantic chivalry - and their ideas were expressed in the Royal Robing Room of the Upper House with its Arthurian images and carved, painted armorial bearings of the Knights of the Round Table.
These in turn derive from the Winchester Panels - illuminated descriptions of each knight in Chaucer style verse - that are preserved along with what is believed to be the Round Table itself at Winchester Cathedral. The panel of Sir Lionel for instance tells us that he was strong, fast and that fire burned inside him - a suitable namesake for engine 30786 if not so well controlled! In fact Sir Lionel personifies the folly of blind unthinking violence and unforgiving revenge in the tale that the Winchester Panels tell.
Just because Sir Lionel's brother Sir Bors rescued a damsel in distress rather than save his sibling from danger Sir Lionel tried to kill him, and slew both a hermit and another Round Table Knight when they tried to intervene. Only a thunderbolt from Heaven made Sir Lionel stop, and then he showed little remorse.
30769 "Sir Balan" with a full head of steam on former London Chatham & Dover Railway metals in 1959.
More positively however Sir Lionel - named after the lion shaped birthmark on his chest - fought so well for his cousin Sir Lancelot that he was rewarded with the Kingdom of Gaunes in Brittany. He continued to serve loyally with Sir Bors and Sir Lancelot in the conflicts that followed the break up of the Round Table but was slain by their foe Melehan, son of the evil Sir Mordred.
Like Sir Bors and Sir Lancelot, Sir Lionel was also the son of a Breton King : brought up by Vivian. Lady of the Lake, to avoid capture by the witch-like Morgan Le Fay. Some sources of the legend go further and say that the Lake was just an illusion to disguise Vivian's true home of Chateau du Comper in Brittany ( another Arthurian site for historians to debate ) but all are united on the family connection between the shields of the Knights. Lancelot, Bors and Lionel share four diagonal red stripes on a base of silver but while Bors has "portoit d'ermines" ( or stoat tails ) Lionel has six "etoiles de sable" - black hearted silver stars which look dangerously like bullet exit wounds!
In contrast King Arthur at the top of the Round Table had a blazon of 13 crowns upon his shield - one for each of the kingdoms he eventually ruled. Son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine of Cornwall, young Arthur was brought up by Merlin the magician with a buoyant idealism that was to bring peace, security and serenity to Camelot, his court of knightly excellence.
However, as the knights grew restless, desired to seek new goals and argued amongst themselves the fellowship of the Round Table broke up. In the wars that followed Arthur killed Mordred - his own illegitimate son and a Knight of the Round Table - before being mortally wounded himself and shipped away to Avalon.
All a bit unlikely? On the same dimensional plane of history as William the Conqueror, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Josef Goebbels and Christine Keeler perhaps, but the Winchester Panels do suggest some deeper, more abiding and universal truths. Not only does Avalon sound like the Viking idea of Valhalla ( and looks a bit like it if the Roxy Music album artwork is to be believed!) but the image of the Round Table reflects in some of the religions of China, India and Tibet.
Life, they believe, resembles a wheel of many spokes. Individually these spokes have their own characteristics which oppose one another and must be kept in balance if the whole is to survive. This applies as much to the good and evil inclinations of each individual as to the members of a group where opposing factions must be reconciled for progress. Indeed, the alternating black and white Round Table sign is now most commonly associated with the movement of the same name who " adopt, adapt and improve" for the good of others. Ironically, among the projects completed by their branch in Appleby, Cumbria, is a water tower for visiting steam locomotives - including 777 "Sir Lamiel", the only preserved "King Arthur"!
The "zoe diak" or "life wheel" has also been compared to Christ and his 12 disciples sitting down to The Last Supper with Mordred in the role of Judas Iscariot, and it is from an obscure sect of Medieval Christianity that both the Winchester Panels and later Arthurian pundits such as Thomas Malory gained their inspiration.
At the end of the 12th Century, Catharism spread across Western Europe from the south of France, where it was patronised by the nobility. Also known as the "Good Christians", the Cathars were opposed to violence and espoused the concept of of masculine strength protecting feminine virtue. In this way women were elevated from the status of mere feudal chattels to one of noble grace that would uplift and transform their male protectors through chaste love. Indeed a knight pledging this type of courtly allegiance to a married lady was considered most noble as the object of his veneration was firmly out of reach.
Many women of high standing were elevated to the Cathar priesthood, including Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France between 1122 and 1204. Along with her daughter Maria she encouraged the spread of Catharism through troubadors, the wandering minstrels who were among the few sources of news and entertainment in those times. As Catharism moved north toward Brittany it began to encounter tales of Arthur, leader and hero of the Britons who was also linked to Arthus, the ancient Celtic bear god. It is possibly this fusion of recent reality with ancient myth that has given King Arthur so many putative homes across the Celtic lands, but for the singing, story-telling troubadors Arthur's legend of selfless love, courage, nobility, weakness and deceit illustrated Cathar philosophy perfectly. Eight centuries ahead of Marshall McLuhan, the medium became the message and the Arthur myth was born. It included many important elements of Medieval story telling.
As a Classical allusion there was the tale of the Trojan War, fought between 1194 and 1185 BC and resulting in the diaspora of the defeated Trojans from what is modern Turkey to the corners of the ancient World. Then, after many generations, Geoffrey of Monmouth records that Uther Pendragon landed at Totnes in Devon to bring the Arthurian legend to Britain.
In an age of superstition meanwhile the idea of Merlin the shape-changing wizard fired popular imagination just as the doomed love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere is a tale that still finds resonance today. This particular theme was definitely popular with the Cathars as it warned of what love without discipline could lead to. Even Merlin with all his magic powers proved a better example of courtly love when he humbly called the Lady of the Lake "the most subtlest woman in the world."
Christian tradition and more specific Cathar ideology also fused in the quest for the Holy Grail. Troubadors sang of how the drinking cup of Christ appeared to Arthur and his knights hovering in a shaft of light seven times brighter than the Sun and filling Camelot with sweet fragrance. Just as suddenly however it vanished and the Knights of the Round Table vowed to find it. Although the hunt for the Grail was one objective of the Medieval Crusades, in Cathar terms it became translated into the quest for maturity and fulfilment.
Following the death of Queen Eleanor the tide of religious opinion turned against Cathars. Their backing from European aristocracy disappeared and on 16 March 1244 two hundred Cathar priests were dragged from thei castle at Montsegur in the Pyrenees and burned alive by iconoclasts.
Catharism was dead, but the legend of King Arthur was to survive for the very reason that the troubadors had seized upon it in the first place. He was at the same time an embodiment of noble goodness and yet flawed and human too - the very essence of a hero.
Similarly the tales of his world remain popular today because at their best they are a lasting commentary on human nature. Had Arthur not existed - even in a very nebulous mythical form - it would have been necessary to invent him.
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