History of Steam

History banner

Steam locomotives were first developed in Great Britain during the early nineteenth century and they were used for railway transport until the middle of the next century.

First Generation of Steam Locomotives

The first steam locomotives were a development of the stationary mine engines made by people like Richard Trevithick. The first passenger carrying steam trains appeared in 1825 on the Stockton & Darlington Railway with Locomotive No1.

The famous Rainhill trials to select locomotives for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway took place in 1829 and resulted in Rocket being the only one of five locomotives to complete the tasks. As a result Robert Stephenson was given the contract to produce locomotives for the line.

Pre Grouping in 1923 – Not  taken into the big four

The railway system in Britain spread very quickly with many companies springing up. There was fierce competition for routes. As time went on, smaller companies were absorbed by larger organisations or joined together to form a more viable company.

During the First World War, the railways were under State control and this remained the case until January 1923, when the 1921 Railways Act came into effect. This act effectively set up the big four companies – Great Western Railway (GWR), Southern Railway (SR), London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) and London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). A small number of joint railways remained, such as the Somerset and Dorset Railway which was owned by the LMS and SR and the Cheshire Lines Committee owned by the LMS and LNER.

Locomotives in the period from about half way through the nineteenth century were much different from the earlier locomotives. The loads and speeds which these locomotives had to handle were significantly increased, resulting in continual development in designs.

Not all locomotives built during this period survived until 1923 when the big four companies were set up. I have included a section covering preserved locomotives which were not taken into stock by the big four companies.

Post Grouping in 1923

This covers the largest group of preserved locomotives including those designed and built prior to 1923 which were taken into the stock of the big four companies.

During this period, designs tended to be standardised within each of the four companies, with some cross fertilisation as senior design engineers moved between companies. A famous example is the GWR influence on LMS designs, due to the engineer Sir William Stanier moving between the two organisations.

British Railways Locomotive Designs Post 1948

With the nationalisation in the Railway in 1948, new designs became “Standards” across all the regions of the Railway. The development of steam locomotives was curtailed following the publication of the Modernisation Plan in December 1954, which resulted in the electrification of major routes and the introduction of diesel locomotives.

The last steam locomotive to be built by British Railways (BR) was 92220 Evening Star, which was completed at Swindon in March 1960. It was the 999th steam locomotive built by BR.

New Build

In August 2008, the first main line locomotive, Tornado, built since the demise of steam moved under its own power for the first time.

Since then, a number of new projects have been established to create new steam locomotives. Some of these are using parts from a number of donor locomotives or are conversions of one class of locomotive into another.

Narrow Gauge

The GWR became responsible for two railways with gauges of less than the standard width of 4 feet 8½ inches. These were the Corris Railway and the Vale of Rheidol Railway.

Narrow gauge locomotives were also used on extensive track at railway works including Crewe and Horwich.

GWR Broad Gauge

The GWR laid railways to a gauge of 7 feet ¼ inches under the direction of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1836. The problem with broad gauge was the extent of the standard gauge network and its continual expansion. The last broad gauge service train left Paddington in May 1892, after which all trains were standard gauge.


Metropolitan Railway

This railway carried passenger and goods trains that served London from 1863 until 1933. Its first line connected the main line railway stations at Paddington, Euston and Kings Cross with the City.

The line was extended from both ends, and northwards via a branch from Baker Street. It reached Hammersmith in 1864 and Richmond in 1877. The most important route was the line north into the Middlesex countryside, where it stimulated the development of new suburbs.

Between 1956 and 1963 thirteen GWR 5700 class locomotives were sold to London Transport for departmental duties, where some of them remained working until 1971.

National Railway Museum

The National Railway Museum is a part of the Science Museum and is responsible for an extensive collection of steam locomotives.

The steam engines which make up the National Collection are included in the appropriate section but are also all listed separately, including the National Railway Museum Object Number.