Published: 19th June 2015
A small band of long-serving Severn Valley Railway volunteers gathered at Kidderminster on June 6 to celebrate a 40th birthday. The specially made cake they set about cutting was not in honour of one of their number (if pressed they admit long-serving equals ageing) but Churchward 4500 class 2-6-2T No. 4566.
No, they did not get their sums wrong – the loco was built in 1924 and that is not 40 years ago. The celebration was to mark the 40th anniversary of the Prairie first entering service after being saved from the cutting torch. In those four decades No. 4566 has clocked up 102,000 miles on the 16-mile Severn Valley and other lines.
"Our engine's current boiler ticket expires in 2016, so members of the '4566 Group' decided to have a party to mark the 40th birthday of its restoration whilst it is still in active service,” commented '4566 Group' member David Cook. “That way, we can all enjoy seeing it running, as many of us will probably not be around to see a fourth overhaul completed!”
No. 4566 was built at Swindon in October 1924 to Lot No. 226 (Nos. 4555-4574) and spent most of its working life based at sheds in Devon and Cornwall, being withdrawn in April 1962 while at Laira depot, Plymouth. The end seemed nigh when it arrived at Barry scrapyard the following August but, like so many other locomotives at the South Wales yard, it was destined to survive.
Bob Sim and the late David Rouse saw the engine at Barry, wanted to save it and in 1968 started an Appeal Fund. The Prairie had received a relatively recent (circa 1960) overhaul at Newton Abbot – actually being the last engine to be overhauled there and when completed it was driven out of the works by the Town Mayor, who was a Newton Abbot loco driver - and was considered (along with sister loco No. 4561, now preserved on the West Somerset Railway) the best engine at Barry.
The appeal was successful, its purchase completed from Woodham Brothers and it completed its escape by departing from Barry in July 1970 - just the eighth engine to leave Barry of the 200+ left there for scrap. Its destination for new life was the SVR’s Bewdley where it arrived (very unusually by rail) in August 1970.
Work commenced immediately, the first restoration team comprising: Bob Sim, David Rouse, Ian Whitlam, Brian Trigg, Columb Howell, Trevor Davies, Paul Burns, Paul Fathers, Dennis & Phillip Williams, Sid Anderson, Malcolm Weaver, Steve Whittaker, Paul Reed, Mick Yarker, Roy Poole, John Daniels, Pete Simpson, Keith Scott and David Cook. Numerous other people were also involved, but some contacts and names have been sadly lost over the last four decades.
The overhaul took nearly five years, undertaken in the open air in all weathers - as some of the early stalwart volunteers will readily attest! These were still pioneering days for standard gauge preservation and the restoration was quite different from the extensive overhauls undertaken today. Frankly, it was fairly basic with, for example, only part replacement of 91 boiler tubes, some steelwork on the bunker and a new ashpan. No. 4566’s first steaming in the preservation era took place on June 29 1975, with its first trip to Bridgnorth, double-headed with Ivatt 2-6-0 No. 46521, following a week later.
The loco, one of just three 'flat-top' small Great Western 'Prairie' 45xx’s in preservation (the others are Nos. 4555 and 4561), has received two further major overhauls at the Severn Valley.
The first came after it was stopped with a tube issue - not the new tubes fitted by the 4566 Group during their overhaul - after nearly five years in traffic. Its second preservation-era overhaul commenced in 1984 and No. 4566 returned to traffic in mid-1986 in BR lined green livery, the same as last out-shopped at Newton Abbot. In 1995 the loco was stopped on expiry of its 10-year boiler ticket with an overhaul commencing in August 2004 followed by a return to traffic in 2006.
In its 40 years of preservation, in addition to working at its SVR home No. 4566 has travelled around the country as a hire engine visiting other heritage and private lines: Port Sunlight (1988), Gwili Railway (1989 and 1994), Llangollen Railway (1991), Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway (1995), South Devon Railway (2009 and 2015) and West Somerset Railway (2010 and 2014). It has also starred on the small and large screens with appearances in ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’ (BBC), ‘4.50 from Paddington’ (BBC) and ‘Candleshoe’ (Walt Disney).
"We've achieved a lot over the last 40 years with our 45xx and have now owned the engine for 45 years, another notable milestone since that is seven years longer than the Great Western Railway and British Railways combined owned and ran it!”, observed David Cook. "It's a great little engine and long may it run - hopefully for another 40 years."