The 100th anniversary of what many consider the start of Swindon’s golden age was celebrated this week.

It was on August 23, 1923 that the first of the Swindon-built Castle Class of GWR locomotives went into service.

That engine, called Caerphilly Castle, is now one of the jewels in the Steam Museum collection, but at the time it represented the cutting edge of world railway technology.

Designed to work passenger expresses, the Castles weighed 89 tons when fully loaded, were 65 feet (nearly 20 metres) long, and had a top speed of 100mph.

They were quickly established as arguably the sleekest of locomotives, and a total of 171 of them were built, all in Swindon.

They were also the most efficient express locomotives of the day, as official trials between the GWR and the LNER proved.

The Castles’ designer was Charles Collett, the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the GWR between 1922 and 1941, who coincidentally died 71 years ago on August 23.

Swindon Advertiser: Caerphilly Castle and a talk by railway engineer Bob Meanley, organised by the Friends of Swindon Railway MuseumCaerphilly Castle and a talk by railway engineer Bob Meanley, organised by the Friends of Swindon Railway Museum (Image: Graham Carter)

Although some railway historians give his predecessor, George Jackson Churchward, the credit for Swindon’s reputation for railway excellence between the wars, it was Collett who delivered not only the Castle Class, but the equally impressive King Class, four years later.

Both were based on Churchward’s Star Class engines, and the trend has been to give him most of the credit for the design, even though it was left to Collett to deliver them.

To use a football analogy: Churchward may have supplied the pass, but it was Collett who put the ball in the net.

The Castle Class centenary has been celebrated by the Friends of Swindon Railway Museum and Steam, with talks and commemorative souvenirs, including a mug bearing a specially commissioned new artwork showing a Castle in steam.

Geoff Davies, membership secretary of the Friends, said: “The Castles are an important part of Swindon’s heritage, and we felt we couldn’t let the centenary go without marking it.

“They cemented the GWR’s worldwide reputation for excellence, and were beautiful engines, so really look the part.”

Meanwhile, former railwayman and local historian Michael Roberts has been carrying out new research into Collett’s later life, and the death of his wife, Ethelwyn, whom he married in 1896.

Ethelwyn passed away in March 1923, when final preparations for the launch of the Castles would have been at their height, and Collett’s achievement is made all the more remarkable because of the devastating effect that his beloved wife’s death had on him.

Although Ethelwyn was born in London, both her parents were Welsh, leading to speculation that it was this that prompted Collett to name the first of his new engines after a Welsh castle.

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Michael also discovered that when Ethelwyn was taken ill, her cousin, Enid, came to Swindon to nurse her - from her home in Caerphilly.

The death of Ethelwyn, who is buried in Radnor Street Cemetery, was a hammer blow from which Collett never really recovered, and one of several major challenges he had to overcome, and yet he was able to deliver arguably the most impressive steam locomotives ever built.

However, apart from having a street named after him there is currently little in Swindon to commemorate this major figure in our history, and the considerable role he played in putting the town on the world map.

The king of the Castles

Charles Benjamin Collett was one of a series of Chief Mechanical Engineers of the GWR who were based in Swindon and proved to be leading figures in what was then a cutting-edge industry.

Born in London in 1881, he came to Swindon as a junior draughtsman in 1893, and worked his way through the ranks to become Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer of the railway company in 1919.

He was awarded the OBE to recognise Swindon Works’ efforts to produce munitions during the First World War, and became Chief Mechanical Engineer following the retirement of George Jackson Churchward in 1922.

Collett lived at 5 Church Place, one of the larger houses in the Railway Village, which faces on to the GWR Park.

His Castles and the King Class locomotives he introduced in 1927 are considered his main achievements, and the first of both classes - Caerphilly Castle and King George V - are now on display at Steam.

But he was also responsible for various other impressive designs, including the Hall Class (1928), Grange Class (1936) and Manor Class (1938). 

The most famous of those engines is Olton Hall, now revered worldwide as the real-life engine that appears as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies.

Swindon Advertiser: Olton Hall at Warner Brothers Studios. Photo: Graham CarterOlton Hall at Warner Brothers Studios. Photo: Graham Carter (Image: Newsquest)

But it is not the only Collett design that is a children’s favourite, because one of Thomas the Tank Engine’s friends is Duck, a proudly Swindon-built GWR tank engine, who is based on real-life engines introduced in 1929.Collett is also part of Swindon’s social history because of his role on a landmark day in 1924 when he guided George V on a tour of the Works, the king becoming the first reigning British monarch to visit the town.

His achievements are made all the more remarkable because of the challenges he faced while supremo of the Works. This started with overseeing the conversion of engines acquired by the GWR when it took over other railway companies in the 1920s - sometimes known as ‘Swindonising’.

He also guided the company through severe national and international recession in the last 1920s, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and he was still at the helm at the outbreak of the Second World War.

It was a huge responsibility as Swindon railwaymen not only played a key role in keeping transport networks running, but also produced a range of armaments and other machinery for the war effort.

Most biographies of Collett concentrate on his work on the Castles and other classes, often adding that he probably delayed his retirement too long.

By the end of his tenure he had become quite reclusive, and was aged 70 when he finally retired in 1941.

Local historian Michael Roberts’ new research has filled in some gaps in the story, particularly concerning what happened to him after retirement to Wimbledon, where he died on August 23, 1952.

Swindon Advertiser: The official GWR portrait of Charles CollettThe official GWR portrait of Charles Collett (Image: Newsquest)

He found that Collett shares his final resting place with two other people, a married couple called Henry and Blanche Cooper.

By piecing together the evidence, Michael came to the conclusion that they befriended him, soon after he moved to Wimbledon, and cared for the former engineer at the end of his life.

As a widower with no children and seemingly no contact with any blood relations, the Coopers seemed to be close friends of Collett, and a document discovered by Michael proved how close they were.

It is a hand-wriitten note, stipulating that the grave plot they had purchased in 1943 was also intended for ‘our mutual friend’, Charles Collett.

Michael, who trained as an apprentice sheet metal worker and coppersmith in the Works, said: “I have long been interested in the illustrious history of the GWR in Swindon, but was drawn to Collett’s story in particular.

“He was a truly remarkable man, and a very important figure in Swindon’s history, and I feel he deserves to be remembered more than he is.”

How Swindon-built engines left the Flying Scotsman standing

The LNER’s Flying Scotsman may be the most famous locomotive to have survived from the steam era, but the lesson from history is: don’t believe the hype.

The Doncaster-built engine has benefitted from a lot of PR over the years, but it was inferior to the GWR’s Castles - and that’s official.

In 1924, the LNER arranged performance trials, and borrowed Pendennis Castle to compare with their own A1 and A3 Class engines, of which the Flying Scotsman was the flagship.

The results proved conclusively that the Swindon-built engine was not only faster but more economical in its use of coal and water, despite running on Yorkshire coal, rather than the South Wales coal it was set up to burn.

The following year, Pendennis Castle became the centrepiece of the GWR’s stand at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, alongside the Flying Scotsman, and the engines being placed side by side proved an irresistible opportunity for GWR staff.

Possibly at the instruction of its designer, Charles Collett, but certainly with his blessing, a notice was placed on the engine, pointing out that it was the most powerful passenger locomotive in Britain.

Pendennis Castle still exists as part of the collection at the Didcot Railway Centre, and in 2021 it was steamed for the first time in 27 years. 

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But for a dramatic perspective of the first of the fleet, Caerphilly Castle, the place to visit is Swindon’s Steam Museum, where steps down to a unique walkway gives visitors the chance to walk underneath the engine.