Early broad-gauge engines, Brunel’s disastrous specification.

In 1836, I.K Brunel drew up a set of locomotive specifications for the fledgling GWR. These specifications proved to be a handicap to the designers who produced some bizarre and less than successful locomotives. Brunel ordered nineteen locomotives from six different manufacturers. The manufacturers were mostly from the North of England. Finally, the locomotives were of the 2-2-2 wheel arrangement and looked very similar to each other. Below we look at the best and worst of the builders.

The specification

Brunel specified that the maximum piston speed be too low, in fact, it was half the normal speed. Next, the specified boiler pressure was 50lb per square inch. This was the same as Rocket and out of date by 1836. Another problem was the weight, he recommended a very low weight of 10.5 tonnes resulting in two chassis being needed, see below.

The R & W Hawthorn & Co. designs

Some of the Early GWR engines were a total disaster, barely running 10,000 miles before being scrapped. As a result of Brunel’s eccentric specifications, the engines Hurricane and Thunderer had the engine and boiler mounted on separate chassis. Designed by T.E. Harrison, these bizarre locomotives were a complete failure. Hurricane was more like a mild breeze, being underpowered and with too small a boiler.

Charles Tayleur & Co., Vulcan Foundry, Newton-le-Willows.

The Tayleur engines were more successful, although they were overweight at 18.5 tons. In fact, these engines were the first to run on the GWR in 1837.

Typical of this series was Vulcan, a 2-2-2 locomotive with 8ft driving wheels. Consequently, these also suffered from too small a boiler. In this early form, Vulcan ran until 1843 when it was rebuilt as illustrated with smaller carrying wheels and a back tank. There were a further four engines of similar design, that ran until 1867.

Mather, Dixon & Co, North Foundry, Liverpool.

The Mather & Dixon locomotives had larger driving wheels but lower weight. Consequently, they proved to be useless and lasted only a few years. Gooch considered them to be too expensive to modify into something useable, and most were scrapped by 1840.

Sharp Roberts & Co, Atlas Works, Manchester

Sharp Roberts & co were initially based in Manchester and became one of the more successful Locomotive manufacturers.

The three locomotives made by Sharps more closely followed current practice and hence stayed in service the longest, without being modified. They were withdrawn in 1847. The 2-2-2 Sharp singles became ubiquitous and 600 were made.


In the 1830s a lot of engineering companies wanted a piece of railway action. They went into locomotive manufacture, some not knowing what they were doing. These companies lasted but a few years, while others survived for decades.

The locomotive designs looked very similar to each other, mainly because most engineers were following the current design paradigm. In this case, set by the Stephensons. Brunel was also using the same paradigm but to an extreme degree, rather odd for such an innovative genius! Locomotive design was not Brunel’s strong point and he soon handed over to Daniel Gooch who redesigned most of the early contenders.

Subscribe to get an email when a new post is released.