The Fletcher era: 1875-1885

By the late 1850's the Stockton and Darlington Railway was finding it increasingly difficult operating in a world in which the control of railway networks was consolidating into regional enterprises. The completion of the Stainmore route and their control of traffic on the line meant that the north east of England was effectively closed to outside competitors, and a merger with the larger North Eastern Railway to create a regional monopoly was an attractive option. The necessary Act of Parliament authorising amalgamation was passed in July 1863, but it stipulated that the operation of S&D business should remain under the control of a separate 'Darlington Committee' for ten years before full merger could take place.

398 Class

This arrangement meant that William Bouch retained responsibility for the provision of locomotives used for Stainmore traffic right up to his retirement in 1875, while Edward Fletcher, based in Gateshead, managed the locomotive requirements of the rest of the North Eastern system. After the retirement of Bouch work at Darlington North Road Works came under Fletcher's supervision and two projects in particular were modified on his instructions. The most significant in terms of numbers of locomotives concerned was the new and more powerful '398' class freight 0-6-0 design, with a larger firebox than the earlier 'long boilered' locomotives. The second concerned the introduction of a few smaller batches of passenger locomotive type, some of which were at first built as 4-4-0's later were converted by Fletcher into 2-4-0's, including the '1068' 'Gamecock' Class. Both these groups of locomotives were new motive power available for Stainmore operations.


Between 1874 and 1883 130 new 0-4-4BTP ('Bogie Tank Passenger') locomotives were built by Fletcher for branch line service, and some of these popular engines soon found their way to Kirkby Stephen where they were used on the Eden Valley line.
But in many ways the impact of the Fletcher era of locomotive design was felt on the Stainmore line more during the 40 years following his retirement than during his time in office. The organisational changes after 1873 inevitably led to new perspectives on the operation of railways in the region. In Stockton & Darlington days the South Durham and Lancashire Union was clearly the 'main line', but for the enlarged North Eastern Railway Stainmore became just one of three secondary cross country routes to the west. The main passenger artery of the Company was their section of the East Coast Main line between York and Berwick. This meant that the Stainmore line began to host a very varied selection of motive power, some of it already 'second hand' or comprising less successful designs like McDonnell's '38' class for which no specific work existed elsewhere on the North Eastern system. This tendency was reinforced as weight restrictions began to be applied to the iron viaducts around 1914, limiting the size of new engines that could be permitted to cross.

Fletcher 901 Class

As passenger train size and weight between Darlington and Cumbria increased there was a clearly a need for more powerful locomotives to handle them, and in 1885 comparative trials were held between three classes of locomotive. The locomotive chosen for future use was the Fletcher 2-4-0 '901' class, still at that time working London to Edinburgh expresses but soon due to be replaced by more powerful Worsdell engines. These '901's were very successful and handled Stainmore line passenger trains for nearly 40 years, the last survivor of the class being withdrawn from Kirkby Stephen in February 1925. During the summer of 2011 the preserved '901' No.910 will be returning to Kirkby Stephen East as a museum exhibit after an absence of 85 years.
Another locomotive survivor in this way, running in their 'old age' on less demanding cross-country services over Stainmore - were the 'Tennant '1463' class built in 1885. Once famous for their amazing performances on night expresses during the 1888 'Railway Race to the North' these beautiful engines had a second career as branch line motive power. After they were demoted from Anglo-Scottish express work in the 1890's they worked trains on many secondary lines and found their way to Kirkby Stephen after weight restrictions on Belah viaduct were lifted in 1923. As the '901's' were finally life expired they took over passenger train work at Kirkby Stephen, the last to go being 1464 in February 1929.


Edward Fletcher

Edward Fletcher

During his long life Edward Fletcher was closely concerned with the evolution and design of steam locomotives from the very earliest prototypes through to the sophisticated examples of Victorian engineering practice produced in the early 1880's.

Fletcher was born in 1809 near Otterburn in Northumberland, and as a young man was apprenticed to George Stephenson at about the time that 'Rocket' was under construction in 1830. Later in that year he drove the locomotive 'Invicta' supplied by Stephenson's company for the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, and his career during the decade that followed was spent involved as an engineer working on many of the new railway projects being promoted across England. Sadly for us no-one during his lifetime ever wrote a biography of Fletcher during this important and interesting period of railway history.

In 1845 Fletcher became locomotive superintendent of the Darlington and Newcastle Junction Railway, and then two years later of the larger successor company the York, Newcastle and Berwick Railway. In this role he was responsible for developing the Greenefield Locomotive Works on the banks of the Tyne at Gateshead, a place that became his home (his official residence being literally next to the works site!) and his operational base for the rest of his working life.

With the formation through further amalgamation of the North Eastern Railway in 1854 he became the Company's first locomotive superintendent, a position which he held for 28 years until his retirement in 1882. Fletcher's priorities throughout his career were quite different from those of later and better known locomotive engineers. He inherited an extraordinarily varied stock of older locomotives from smaller constituent companies and a crucial part of his job was to get the best value out of the enormous previous investment in engines that was available to the North Eastern. Standardisation of designs was not a priority for much of his time in office, and it was mainly towards the end of his career that he began to produce the robust designs like the '901' Class for which he is remembered today.

Edward Fletcher died in West Jesmond, Newcastle, on 21 December 1889.


Edward Fletcher 1809-1889
Fletcher 901 Class No.911 at Kirkby Stephen about 1920
Tennant '1463' Class No.1477 at Kirkby Stephen shed about 1925
Fletcher BTP 'Bogie Tank Passenger' at Kirkby Stephen East signal box about 1920
Fletcher 398 Class locomotive