Charles Benjamin Collett
Charles Benjamin Collett, the son of a journalist, was born on the 10th of September 1871. The family lived close to Paddington station and it is likely that the GWR trains running nearby had an influence on young Charles. He received his early education at Merchant Taylors School in London, before studying at The London University and later becoming a pupil at the works of Maudslay, Sons and Field of Lambeth, the famous marine engine builders. May 1893 saw Collett move to the GWR when he entered the Swindon drawing office as a junior draughtsman. Within four years he was given charge of the section responsible for buildings and a year later, in 1898, the post of Assistant to the Chief Draughtsman came his way. In June 1900 he was made Technical Inspector at the Swindon Locomotive Works and a few months later became Assistant Manager there. Another twelve years elapsed before the managership of the Works became his. During that intervening period and the succeeding seven years in the manager's chair, he developed an attitude towards the manufacturing side which was to play an important part in future Great Western locomotive production. Appointment to the post of Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer in May 1919 paved the way for him to follow G. J. Churchward.
It has been suggested that Churchward and Collett did not get on too well but that is difficult to prove. Certainly the men had different personalities and in fact the two men were as different as chalk and cheese, but they proved a valuable team. The Churchward standard designs met the companies foreseeable needs and so a locomotive designer was not required. A good works man would bring production facilities into the twentieth century just as Churchward had brought design. With his training and experience, Collett had to be the obvious choice.
In January 1922, Charles Collett took over the position of Chief Mechanical Engineer. It cannot have been easy following a man with the charisma of Churchward, but his attitude was milder than that of his predecessor and he was much less domineering though he still insisted upon high quality work and loyalty. Collett may not have been 'loved', but his fairness earned him respect. His rather aloof nature did not attract many friends but then he did not seek them.
Unlike all of his predecessors, Collett took very little interest in the affairs of the town and his only public post was that of magistrate from 1921 to 1928. He had received the OBE for his efforts of producing munitions during the First World War, but the troubles he had to endure and the behaviour of the Ministry of Labour whilst he was Locomotive Works Manager, influenced his later attitude. K. J. Cook, Works Manager during World War Two, suffered similar problems. Collett's memory did not allow him to forget his early treatment and when the second conflict broke out, he was very reluctant to allow the GWR workshops to undertake any munitions work. Eventually, under pressure from Paddington, he agreed to work being produced but made his displeasure known that if the GWR rolling stock fell into disrepair due to lack of facilities or materials, he would point the finger at others. In view of the appalling state of the railways at the end of the war, his cautious attitude appears to have been correct.
What Collett could not stand was pomposity from people especially certain directors. A number of individuals in the company had expressed a desire that locomotives should bear their names. At about that time, 1936/7, it had been decided to combine parts of the old 'Duke' and 'Bulldog' classes to form a renewed class, the 'Earls' or 'Dukedogs', to work on the Cambrian coast line. Even though they were a new class of locomotives, they were distinctly nineteenth-century in appearance. Collett decided that these 'new' engines should be given the names of those directors who were keen on the idea. The class was named after Earls in order to indicate the "respect" the CME had for those directors and the titled fraternity in general. When those directors assembled at Paddington to welcome the arrival of the first of the class, a deafening silence
descended on the group. Later, the name plates were fitted to 'Castle' class engines but Collett had had his joke.
There was a need during the early years of the 1920s for a more powerful locomotive than the 'Star' class and so Collett set about designing an updated version to the weight limit allowed on the West of England line. An enlarged boiler with a greater evaporative rate and increased diameter cylinders brought the nominal tractive effort to 31,625 lbf, making the 'Castle' class the most powerful British locomotive. Head office at Paddington was delighted and made the most of the coup when 'Caerphilly Castle' was displayed alongside Gresley's 'Flying Scotsman' at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.
The 'Castles' had been designed to the maximum permitted axle loading of 19½ tons and Collett considered such a limit to be a disadvantage, indicating to Sir Felix Pole that if the limit had been 22½ tons, a more powerful machine could have been produced. This was the conception of the 'King' class.
Criticism has been levelled at Collett's locomotive designs that they were generally extensions of the Churchward standard machines. That is true in some cases but the standard series had been produced to cover expectations for fifteen or twenty years and they did so admirably. Collett, however, made the designs better. He introduced good workshop practices which cut down manufacturing costs and through techniques such as optical alignment of the frames, he turned the Churchward engines into precision machines. The carriage side was not neglected either and many innovative features were incorporated. For example, the bogie greatly influences the smoothness with which a carriage will ride and Collett was particularly aware of that fact. When he took office, there were seven different designs of bogie in common use and he decided to test the riding quality of each type before producing a 'standard' bogie. A train of seven coaches, each with a coach having a different bogie design to the others, was run along various sections of track. It was known as the "whitewash" train because the lavatory tank in each coach was filled with whitewash of a different colour than the rest. An observer in each lavatory was instructed to release some wash whenever a bad lurch was felt. It was then possible, from the rainbow of colours on the ballast, to see which bogies reacted better to particular defects in the track. If all colours had been released at one spot, the track itself was considered to be in need of rectification.
People have also criticised Collett's decision to rebuild Churchward's Great Bear as a 'Castle'. By 1924, the 'Bear' had been in service for sixteen years and its boiler was worn out. Replacement of a 'one-off' boiler would have entailed unnecessary and unjustifiable expense, particularly as the locomotive had very restricted route availability, therefore from an economic and engineering point, Collett had little choice but to rebuild.
Just short of his 70th birthday, Collett retired from the GWR and moved to Wimbledon, but sadly eleven years later Collett died, on the 5th April 1952. His funeral was attended by a small gathering which included Hawksworth, Stanier and Pole.
Copyright © by John Daniel 2013.