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Observation Car, Royal and Directors' Saloons
Our four Special Saloons form a varied and important part of our collection. My thanks are due to Paul Kemp, then Secretary to the Howlden Group, for writing the section below on the Great Northern Saloon (although I have now updated the last two paragraphs). The Howlden Trust, consisting of the saloon's four former owners and a group of supporters, are entirely responsible both for its maintenance and its running on public trains on peak days each year.
Great Northern Railway Directors' Saloon No 706
This magnificent saloon was constructed in 1897, and refitted in 1933 by the LNER. It remained in the use of the GNR/LNER directors, then British Railways Eastern Region General Manager until 1969, when it was sold complete from Hornsey Carriage Sheds for the princely sum of £500.
As one of the last remaining privately owned coaches on the Bluebell, the Saloon has its own dedicated team of owners and friends, called the Howlden Group after the Saloon's designer, E.F. Howlden. They have lavished large amounts of time and effort over the years restoring the saloon to its GNR/LNER appearance. It has always remained available for special-traffic use since first arriving at the Bluebell in October 1971. During 2003 a new charity, the Howlden Trust, was established to take on the ownership and management of this vehicle, thus securing its long-term future.
Recent maintenance work has involved refurbishing the Edwardian hot-water boiler in the kitchen, as well as re-covering and painting the exterior of the fine clerestory roof, and refurbishment of the inner ceilings and fittings. Minor work has included some electrical wiring, repairs to the toilet door-lock and restitching of loose moquette on the seating. To prepare the saloon for its centenary it was decided to reinstate teak panelling where plywood was fitted in the 1950s, and also over the winter of 1996/7 the kitchen area has been refurbished and a new carpet fitted. The following year saw a major mechanical overhaul undertaken on the spare set of bogies, which will replace the current set this coming winter. All this work is tackled when funds and time allow, without removing the saloon from special traffic use for long periods.
The saloon's owners permit its running in public a few times a year, usually at Easter, some other bank holiday weekends, and on Gala days. The celebration of the saloon's 100th anniversary, which fell in 1997, included running of the coach with the GNR Saddle Tank belonging to the National Railway Museum.
This coach has almost certainly run the highest mileage of any on the Bluebell since its arrival in 1963. Apart from its overhaul between 1979 and 1982, it has been in almost continuous use, commanding a supplementary fare. Although a humble third-class vehicle, its intricate livery, reversible seating and panoramic windows make it one of the most unusual coaches in preservation. Between 1972 and 1978 it ran on the bogies from the LMS dormitory coach, formerly at Sheffield Park. Its overhaul (covered in detail in the Summer 1983 edition of Bluebell News) was (and remains today) probably the biggest coach overhaul project in UK preservation. The body of the coach was lifted from the underframe (which itself required major repairs, together with the refurbishment of the original bogies). An entire new floor, including the main structural bottom side members (with countless mortise joints), was constructed. New doors and windows were also fitted, and the vehicle repanelled in the original style.
Two years after its return to traffic in November 1982, it was "highly commended" in the first ARPS Coach of the Year competition, being beaten only by our own newly out-shopped Maunsell open third, No 1309. Subsequent work has involved the replacement of the headstocks and other repairs (in the first-half of 1991) after a minor collision with the North London Tank. The seats have been re-trimmed, and it has also received major attention to its paintwork, and the replacement of one defective bodyside panel. Subsequently it received still more attention, including the replacement of doors and more panelling, and spent a period running in LMS Maroon livery, pending further bodywork repairs.
During the first half of 2004 the vehicle again entered the workshops, with all the panelling being renewed, and the windows re-bedded, along with some minor structural repairs. The carriage has again been outshopped in full LNWR livery. This really is a coach which needs to be kept under cover when it's not being used. This would also help keep the sun off the upholstery, which has again being re-trimmed.
Built in 1903 with the same body style as the LNWR's two Royal Saloons for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, these Family Saloons (LNWR Diagram 1), with a day saloon and two small night saloons were frequently attached to the Royal Train for the use of royal staff, family or guests. The interior of the saloons is fitted out in the same "white naval" style as the two royal carriages which are preserved in the National Railway Museum. The corridors and vestibules are in polished timber, and the external doors are varnished mahogany, contrasting with the painted finish of the rest of the exterior.
The carriage is restored to its LMS condition. In LMS days it had remained, along with the other Royal Train vehicles, in LNWR livery but with LMS lettering. Privately owned, and restored at Tyseley in 1989 with the help of a MSC scheme, this exquisite vehicle was purchased privately by a Bluebell member in October 2000, and moved to the line to act as part of the Bluebell's dining train.
Before entering traffic on the Bluebell Railway in mid-November considerable work was required, including completion of one of the gangway connectors (which had never been fitted in its original overhaul), major mechanical maintenance, and work to complete the furnishing of the interior.
For much of the early part of 2001 the carriage received a major external overhaul, including new aluminium roof covering and a complete repaint, into wartime LMS lake livery; since the saloon is stored outside, and the bodywork timber surface is showing its age, this simpler paint scheme is very much easier to maintain.
In 2007 the carriage was relieved of much of its regular Golden Arrow duty by the restoration of Pullman Car No.64 ("Christine"), but continued to be used as a special saloon for special events, being retained as a spare back-up or the Pullman train, until leaving the Bluebell in 2014. In late 2015 it was sold by its owner.
It was used in a similar way to the Great Northern Saloon on special trains, and the public were able to take afternoon tea on what were dubbed (within the railway only!) the "Poison Tea Runs". It was withdrawn from traffic in 1977 for repairs then costed at £12,000, which could not be afforded. The structure of the coach is thought to be sound. It remained in the carriage shed for many years, and so has probably not deteriorated further, except that it sustained some damage during filming work.
The list of repairs required then seemed formidable, but to us now would not be a major problem. The metal window-frames were badly corroded and leaking. Glass and timber to make replacements to the original pattern were obtained, and this glass is still in store! The timber has, unsurprisingly, found use on other projects. Much of the exterior panelling required replacement. The roof required a new canvas, and the intricate inner ceiling was said to need restoration although this might now involve its partial or total replacement. The plumbing and cooking equipment required overhaul, as did the steam-heating. The electric wiring was condemned, and the running gear would require complete overhaul.
So why does the most important carriage in our collection lie apparently unloved (despite Bernard's frequent urging that we should consider its repair)? The C&W department currently is at full stretch restoring ordinary traffic vehicles, and with the GN Saloon and the Pullmans able to cater for special traffic, it is not required operationally. There is little enough work-space within the shed, and with one major carriage project currently being undertaken in the open as well, it would be difficult to fit it in, even if a team to carry out the work could be found without diluting existing effort.
Some work has now started on the carriage; it has been stripped of asbestos by contractors, and another contractor started making new windows to the original pattern. There is a tension between restoring the coach to close to its original condition, or modifying it extensively so that it might then enter service on the railway's Golden Arrow dining train, where it would provide a second kitchen in addition to two opulent saloons. The changes to the coach's structure to add passenger-rated gangway connections are, however, so major that it is unlikely to be countenanced, and the saloon therefore awaits volunteer-led input, and spare workshop space, before further progress is possible.
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Copyright © 28 January 1996 by Richard Salmon.
Last update 12 February 2023.