Secrets of the Drawing Office (1)

Greetings everyone – Pickle S. Finkerbury here, railway historian and time traveller. As previously explained, I have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, which has provided me with unique insights into certain unknown aspects of GWR matters. Here is another extract from my files.

Farthing, early 1900s. It is well known that the GWR treated the workers at Swindon to an annual excursion by rail. What is less known is that the top management at Swindon Works also undertook an annual excursion, although that was of a much more exclusive nature. This year, the distinguished group are visiting the ever expanding Farthing station.

Their special train has been propelled into the sidings of the Old Yard, and the members of the prominent party are investigating the facilities. The First class coaches show early experiments with the garter crest livery, soon to become standard. The roofs won't stay white for long.

The official purpose of the excursion is to obtain a first hand experience of practical engineering matters. But - as the local staff are quick to note - the participants seem more interested in socialising.

This includes L.R. Thomas, manager of the Carriage & Wagon Department at Swindon Works. He has brought along the young and rather lovely Miss Estella Havisham, whom he has been courting since they met at a ball in Swindon a few weeks ago.

Being of a somewhat awkward and old fashioned disposition, Mr Thomas is struggling to keep the conversation going - until he spots a couple of wagons in the sidings. Sensing an opportunity to impress the young lady, Thomas decides to discuss the evolution of the GWR wagon brake.

Since he is talking to a woman, Thomas keeps it very simple: 'You see, Miss Havisham, this wagon uses our old brake design. You will note the large lever.'

Thomas continues: 'We have been using this brake design for a long time, but it can only be operated from one side, and is really a rather primitive arrangement.'

Moving on to the next wagon, Thomas becomes visibly excited:  'Now this wagon, by contrast, uses a much more modern and ingenious brake design!'

'In fact this brake is my own design, which I patented a few years ago. It is known, I might add, as the Thomas Brake'. 

'As you can see, Miss Havisham, my design has handles on both sides, rather than a single lever. By winding the handle the brakes are applied. Do you understand?'

Miss Havisham does seem to understand. 'Oh Mr Thomas, what an ingenious mechanism!', she exclaims, 'And such an interesting topic. I must confess that all this talk of handles and levers excites me somewhat!'. 

Now rapidly warming to the topic, Mr Thomas is about to go into further detail – but then Miss Havisham interrupts him:

'But I wonder, Mr Thomas, if a more convenient single-action arrangement could be developed? One might perhaps exchange the handle for a side lever with the end set downwards and connected via an adjustable link to a toothed quadrant which could be loosely mounted on a transverse shaft. Short hand levers could be fitted at either end of the shaft, with which the rack could be actuated via a projecting arm, thus engaging with a lug on the quadrant. A pawl could be used to retain the toothed rack when the hand lever is pressed down. When on, the side lever would lift and reverse the brakeblock shafts on the rocking shaft at the V-hanger. Would that work, do you think, Mr Thomas?'

Speechless and bewildered, Thomas just stands there.  What Miss Havisham has just described is not only highly ingenious, it is also a design very similar to one currently being developed by William Dean himself, with much input from Churchward. How on earth would a layman - and a woman at that! – be able to come up with something so advanced?

Just as Thomas is about to regain composure, an elegantly dressed man approaches them. Thomas’ heart sinks further. He knows exactly what is going to happen. What had seemed such a promising day is rapidly becoming a nightmare.

Who is the elegant man in the grey suit? Why does Miss Havisham know so much about wagon brakes? And what will it all mean for Thomas’ efforts to court her? Find out in part 2, which is here.