By Adam Robinson, Research and Interpretations Assistant
To ask when precisely the naming of locomotives began, you would have first to ask when the naming of boats, horses, carts, and coaches began. Perhaps even when the naming of things even began itself, I will leave to onomastics (the study of names). Rather than looking for some Adamic language to solve this curiosity, we should perhaps look to the first recorded instance of a named locomotive. The first would most likely be Trevithick’s called Catch-Me-Who-Can in 1808, regarding its astounding speed at the time. Of course, we have the other famous first steam locomotives to consider, such as Stephenson’s rather audaciously for the ‘Rainhill Trials’ named The Rocket (1829)
and Hedley’s comic appellation of Puffing Billy (1814). These names are personal, sentimental, perhaps even cute.
Fundamentally, locomotives need names. It would be impractical not to catalogue them without some form of identification. Of course, serialised numbers would do for this need for identification.
“In order to identify and organise locomotives, railway companies usually give each one a
number. These numbers are usually unique within the confines of the railway system and
period. But they are not globally unique and not unique across time. Two locomotives on
two different railway systems might share the same number. And a single locomotive
might have many numbers over time. The Flying Scotsman, for example, has carried four
numbers over its lifetime – 1472, renumbered 4472, renumbered 103, renumbered 60103.”
– Michael Smethurst (2010)
After 1973, British Rail introduced the Total Operations Processing System (TOPS), named after a computer system used to design this system, which gave each locomotive a unique number to that machine comprising 5/6 numbers. Even after British Rail disbanded due to the wave of denationalisation between the 1980s and 1990s, TOPS is still used today. And many named locomotives have numbers. There were exceptions where railways only ever used names and not numbers, and some other railways would use numbers and never names. But the desire for names, a very human desire, sticks while the numbers, disposable and convertible, wash away from memory once they are used. Steam locomotives could not escape the nineteenth century’s ferocious desire to catalogue, name, and tabulate everything and anything that moved or existed.
Names are reflective and symbolic. Little pockets of reality are neatly tied with a ribbon of a unique combination of words, sounds, and images conjured up when the name is spoken aloud. The Victorians had a predictable spasm of Romanticism in their time, which came to the fore when they named things. These names could be glorious and noble, Pegasus or Lancelot; be downright divine with the naming revolving around a local praxis of Arthurian myths or local wonders of nature, of castles, of saints, of royalty, of knights, antiquity, empires, and of poets. Sometimes they were even just named after values and morals of the era: Courageous, Perseverance, Indomitable, and Impregnable. Even the Ribble Steam Railway and Museum have diesel locomotives that inherited previous locomotive’s names on the Preston Docks, the Sentinels: Energy, Progress, and Enterprise. Names such as these became commemorative titles in their own right.
Yet names could also be demeaning and droll with often spooky connotations or be utterly fantastical: Ghoul, Bat, Bin Liner, The Misery, Lancashire Witch, or, even, Pixie. As her name suggests, Pixie was a small industrial 2-foot gauge 0-4-0ST locomotive built by W.G. Bagnall in Stafford 1919. Even though she was little, she was mighty and worked at Cranford iron-ore quarries until 1962. She was later saved from rusting in her shed by Reverend ‘Teddy’ Boston, who then took her to Cadeby Light Railway, where she rode tourists in and out of the church garden. In 2019, she was bought by the Richmond Light Railway who intends to restore her to working order. Uncomfortably, there were locomotives named to commemorate war campaigns. A locomotive was named Zulu after the Zulu War in 1879 when British colonial troops invaded Africa and laid siege to its indigenous people. A name system that is now, thankfully, out of circulation.
Rather than just slipping wholly into the realm of imagination, there was a streak of contrived magnanimity in the naming when, egotistically, some trains were named after the railway’s directors. There was a habit of naming trains after places for a time, but this was quickly stopped when it caused too much confusion on the platform as to which train is which. After mistakenly boarding a train with the name of where they were going, angry people rushing to the wrong platform cursing under their breaths as they do so would do nothing but stimulate unadulterated rage against train companies, one would expect. By the 20th century, when modernism and industrialism had fully entrenched themselves into the world, the naming got blander and rigid. Names were to be constructed following strict guidelines. And for a time, the popularity of names subsided as the novelty wore off. However, it continued on industrial lines and narrow-gauge lines.
In the 1920s and 1930s, names became more imperial and traditionally ‘British’ with castles, rivers, birds, and warships being used often.
“The express passenger locomotives of the LNER, from 1923, especially classes A3 and
A2, were typically named after famous speedy racehorses of the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries (e.g., Brown Jack, Hermit, Victor Wild, Pretty Polly, Tagalie, Hyperion,
Airborne), a relatively unusual case of continuing a tradition of commemoration grounded
in essential metonyms which continued into the British Railways diesel era.”
– Richard Coates, “Railway Locomotive Names and Train Names” in The Oxford
Handbook of Names and Naming, Edited by Carole Hough, 2016, p. 651.
Names moved away from their more ‘essential’ nature as time marched on, moving from more symbolic and primordial symbols to more modern and commercial lexicons. By the mid-century, with dieselisation firmly on the belt of command, there was an effort to continue the naming of locomotives onto the latest Diesel engines in the bid to raise public interest.
“Naming since then has been largely haphazard, for short-term publicity. Little glamour
and impact has been obtained from naming engines after newspapers, television
programmes, and trade associations, except for a class of freight locomotives named after
mountains and famous Britons, while some owners of preserved locomotives have
impoverished naming as a reliable identification by allowing engines to masquerade as
scrapped members of the same class, again for short-term publicity.”
– Andrew Dow, The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, 1997, p. 336.
Industrial locomotives were various, with different names and numbering systems. The public rarely got to see locomotives used in industry because they were usually confined to sheds or behind fences and buildings. If they were strutted out for the people, they would quickly be given a name. As Richard Coates points out, “There is no compelling reason why locomotives should be named at all.” Freight train locomotives very rarely had words at all. Yet the naming continued, often alluding to the power of the locomotive itself (via noises: hissing, roaring, thundering), excellence (via values: Perseverance, Success, Victory), or even the name/function of where they worked. Richard Coates postulates that “…the most modern trend of all has been the naming of freight locomotives after commercial firms who have presumably paid for the privilege.” Usually, the names boringly reflected where locomotives worked. Agecroft Power Station near Manchester had three steam locomotives, named Agecroft No.’s 1, 2 & 3, respectively by the Salford Corporation Electricity Department. However, unusually they were all painted differently, one red, one green & one blue. Agecroft No. 2, built-in 1948, is currently housed at Ribble Steam Railway and shunted coal wagons from the power station to the coal tippers. It suggests a level of fondness or vanity when it came to explicitly name industrial locomotives, perhaps named after petitioning by the workers who used them or just as a softening of the demanding work schedule they and their workers were put through.
In turn, nicknames play an equal part in the nomenclature found in British railway history and have always crept up in every corner like some over-flowing vine. Nicknames were used often and with meanings simple enough that it could even be considered a stupid question to ask what it meant. Take the pole used for coupling and uncoupling wagons, a process called shunting, what would that be called? It was called a ‘stick.’ Now, while to the average eye, this may seem like a ubiquitous word, it concealed a large amount of danger. Shunting was dangerous and deadly en route if you did not know what you were doing. There were also many rules and shunting types: loose shunting,
shunting via a horse, gravity shunting, fly shunting, tow-roping, propping, and hump shunting. And it doesn’t stop there. Locomotives built in Darlington, Durham, gained the nickname of ‘Quakers’ simply because of an oblique connection to a business owned by a family of Quakers. Navvies, itself a derogatory epithet, was given to the predominantly Irish immigrant workers who were responsible for building much, if not all, of Britain’s first railways, who were fed on a diet of beer, tobacco, and meat and had enough bodily-power to move metric tons of earth every day were also maniacs with nicknaming. It was amazing that they found the time at all:
“The names of navvies are very suddenly given and are almost immovable… A gentleman
– an engineer – once walked through his engine-shed and saw three men by the furnace,
apparently asleep. He hurried towards them to see who they were…[someone] warned the
men, and they ran off too quickly for him to get a sight of their faces. “Who were those?”
he demanded of a man who was near the spot. Of course the man interrogated declared
at first that he did not know, but finding his superior very much in earnest, he admitted
that he knew them: that they were the Duke of Wellington, Cat’s Meat, and Mary Anne;
preposterous as it may sound, he knew them by no other names. The nose of the first, the
previous profession of the second, and the [sound of] the third, gained these attractive
– F. S. Williams, Our Iron Roads (1888), p. 141.
Even non-rail institutions joined in, with the London Stock Exchange calling shares of the Great North of Scotland Railway ‘Haddocks’. 4-4-0s of the 1265 class were bizarrely called ‘Ginx’s Babies.’ The list goes on: Gobblers, Garratts, Royal Scots, Crabs, Paddleboxes, Miner’s Friends, Birth Controllers (why?), and Little Egberts (a Lancashire born name for 0-8-2 tank engines designed by George Hughes in 1908 for very steep inclines) were all names for locomotives or parts of railways with many more not listed here.
Trains were no exception either. As the earliest records show, the first-ever named mainline train was the ‘Irish Mail,’ an official name given at the Chester & Holyhead Railway opening ceremony in 1848. It was called Irish Mail because, quite simply, it carried mail to Ireland. Sometimes a name needs to be a designated symbol for a job and not a gilded metaphor. The naming of said trains, carriages, and even platforms added to the pervasive character of railways. From station entrance to the platform to corridor and then to seat, you could meet many characters and people in memorial on your journey. The naming of trains continues to this day. Close to home in Liverpool, Sir John Betjeman, the poet laurate between 1972-1984, and a known Railway lover, had a train named after him in 2006. And recently, after the death of Captain Tom Moore, it is happy to remember that an Intercity Express Train 800025 was named after him in April 2020 by Great Western Railway for his contributions to the NHS.
The naming of trains and locomotives fascinates many people because of their provenance and fantastic and whimsical nature. Naming machines is a longstanding tradition, and while it is not as colourful as it once was, it nevertheless continues.