32473 is the only ex LB&SCR preserved locomotive not to be designed by William Stroudley.
473 Birch Grove was completed at Brighton works in June 1898 at a cost of £2,000. The name relates to a small hamlet just north of Horsted Keynes. In 1911 it was reboilered by Marsh with an I1 type boiler.
It entered service a New Cross.
In 1912 the engine was rebuilt with a similar boiler to it had initially fitted but had a new smokebox mounted on the saddle. Despite the boiler fitted at this time being subsequently used on eight other locomotives it was again on 32473 at the end of its service with BR remains so still.
By the time of Grouping in 1927 the engine had moved to Brighton.
After being re-numbered B473 and 2473 under the Southern Railway, in 1948 it was one of the first Southern locomotives to receive BRITISH RAILWAYS sunshine lettering, and ran as s2473 until finally renumbered as 32473 in 1951.
The engine was initially allocated to New Cross in London but also spent time at Brighton before Grouping in 1923.
During BR ownership it was based at Norwood Junction until October 1959 when it was transferred to Bricklayers Arms where it stayed until moved to Nine Elms in June 1960. The move away from the Central Section of the Southern Region of BR followed the electrification and the introduction of the BR standard class 4 and class 2 tank engines. From Nine Elms 32473 was employed on yard shunting duties and working empty stock between Clapham Yard and Waterloo.
It was withdrawn from service in October 1962 and it ran from there under its own steam to Horsted Keynes after being purchased by the Bluebell Railway that month.
It was the largest locomotive the railway had at the time, but also the one in poorest condition and needed to be retubed in 1967 but worked until late 1971. It had shown signs of uneven wear and in September 1971 in an attempt to overcome this the locomotive was loaded onto a road vehicle to allow it to be turned to face Horsted Keynes. Shortly afterwards it failed a boiler test and hence it was taken out of service.
The engine it was taken out of service because of the poor condition of the boiler and the mechanical parts. At that time there was no prospect of repairing it, because the railway had neither the money nor the facilities to attempt the work which was required. In the late seventies the boiler tubes, which were only three years old, were removed and shortened for use in Baxter’s boiler, for which we had no money to buy new tubes.
Repair work started in 1983. On dismantling it was found to be in poorer condition than had been expected, and after about two years work was shelved whilst another locomotive was repaired. The reason for this was that firstly Birch Grove could not have been repaired within the timescale required to allow for other locomotives finishing their boiler certificate periods, and secondly when completed the poor condition of its cylinders and frames would not permit it to work the kind of trains then being envisaged for the coming extension of the line to Kingscote.
As explained above, Birch Grove was then put aside for a time. During the following years only some occasional jobs were done on the boiler.
In 1994 the opportunity arose from the late Bernard Wright’s legacy to employ contract boilersmiths, and they were directed to proceed with Birch Grove’s repair.
As was noted above, extensive work had been done some years ago on these parts. The frames of the E4 class were prone to cracks and corrosion, and 473 required a great deal of arc-welding to repair this. The cylinder block has suffered corrosion on top from the acid water formed in the smokebox by condensation of water in the ash. The corrosion had affected the live steam manifold, which had been repaired with a patch screwed over the hole, and which was then covered by the concrete smokebox floor. A further remaining feature is that all the axle journals had worn down below the normal size for scrapping, although this is not a great concern at the low speeds at which the engine will be running.
In view of these faults it is planned to restrict Birch Grove to loads of about 140 tons, and whilst it is expected to perform good work during its ten-year boiler certificate, it is quite likely that at some future repair it will require new frames and cylinders.
Birch Grove returned to steam in 1997 a year before its centenary in 1998.
Following withdrawal from service in 2008, the locomotive was taken into the Bluebell workshops for a fast track overhaul, including a repaint into 1920s Southern Railway green to match much of the line’s coaching stock. This was completed and the engine operational again in January 2010 carrying 1920s Southern Railway olive green livery. In May 2016 it was taken out of service and requires major replacement of copper plates forming the inner firebox as part of its next overhaul.
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