(Rover Homepage)



Complete story taken from The Rover issue 1658 April 6th 1957


Two giants of the iron road fight a tremendous duel

To decide a “war” between rival railway companies.


It was a clear, frosty night, and the ground was like iron under foot. Christmas 1848 was only three days past, and the whole country was in the grip of an Arctic winter. At three o’clock in the morning of the 28th December, Superintendent John Craven of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway completed his tour of inspection and started back towards his headquarters, situated in the waiting room at Havant Station, near Portsmouth.

He had just reached the end of the platform when he was confronted by a giant of a man. “Well, Mr Crompton?” Craven asked. “You know your task for tomorrow?” “Ay, sir,” the big man answered, in a broad south-country accent. “I’ve been told my job for the morning. And I don’t like it, sir. Not a bit do I like it! No. 99’s my engine. The foreman says it’ll probably get smashed to pieces ‘fore the day’s out. I don’t like it.” “There are big issues involved, Mr Crompton. Craven said in his even voice. “If the South Western succeed in breaking through on to our line at Havant, No. 99 may be called on to play a vital part tomorrow. That’s why I picker it—and you, Mr Crompton—because I know that if the job has to be done, you and your engine will do it!” He led the way to his makeshift office in the waiting room. At one end was a big map, lit by two oil lamps. In the year 1848, the whole of England and most of Scotland were covered with a network of railway lines. But unlike the situation that was to develop later, almost all the small lines were independent. The companies that owned the lines schemed and planned to extend their territory—at the expense of their neighbours and rivals! It was war to the knife between the companies. The London, Brighton & South Coast Railway were busily engaged in fighting the South Western. And the prize for which they fought was the traffic to the large naval base at Portsmouth. “You know how things are arranged,” Craven explained to the big driver. “Until now we’ve shared the traffic with the South Western. We take goods and passengers to Portsmouth via Brighton and along the coast. The South Western do the same, but round through Wickham and Gosport.” He stared at the big map and suddenly his finger stabbed at a bright red line running from London to Portsmouth. “But there’s the trouble!” he snapped. “The South Western have broken their agreement and built a direct line to Portsmouth.” “I did hear tell of something like that,” Crompton growled. “Well, they’ve built their line,” Craven went on. “But by Act of Parliament, they’ve got to run their trains over our line for the last section. That’s the section from Havant to Portsmouth. And we’re not going to let them!” “I don’t hold with them as breaks promises,” Crompton said. “We’ve had our spies out!” Craven continued. “We’ve learned that they plan to run a goods train over our line from Havant to Portsmouth today.” “What do they want to do that for, sir?” the big man asked. Craven explained. By Act of Parliament, if the South Western could get a train through to Portsmouth over the direct line by the end of 1848, they would establish a ‘right of way.’ And continue to run trains over the L.B. &S.C. line without payment. But if they could not get a train through before 1849, they would have to pay the other company for using the last section of line. “And so you see why we’re going to stop them tomorrow, Mr Crompton,” Craven concluded. “That’s why I’ve assembled every ganger, platelayer and linesman, not to mention clerk and porter on the South Coast Section, here at Havant. Tomorrow we’re going to do battle for our rights. Your job is to block the down line with your engine—old No. 99—so that if they get on to our tracks, they’ll be obstructed.” “Just let ‘em try, sir!” Crompton bellowed.

He buttoned his uniform coat about him and went out again into the night. A hundred yards down the line from the station, No. 99 waited on a siding for sunrise. She was a handsome steam engine, with her name—Margaret Murdoch—in brass letters on the driving wheel splasher. She was known as “Maggie” to every driver on the L.B. & S.C. The chimney was three feet high, and behind it was a massive pressure dome. The big driving wheels, set behind a pair of bogies, with another smaller pair under the tender, were over six foot in diameter. There was no cover on the footplate—just a windshield with two windows in it. But the drivers were tough. They were the aristocrats of the railways; big men with big ideas. They were highly paid, and out of their wages they hired their own firemen. Their engine was theirs alone. No one else could drive it—or for that matter would think of doing so. Such a man was George Crompton, and no greater pain could wound him than the thought that within a few hours Maggie might be smashed into a useless wreck for the sake of a battle between the two companies.


Back in the waiting room on Havant Station, Superintendent Craven allowed himself to relax on an upholstered bench for a few brief moments. He could not sleep. Through his mind buzzed his plans for meeting the threat from the South Western.

The trouble was that there were certain rules to the game which he had to follow. For instance, he would like to have torn up a couple of hundred yards of the South Western track where it came in from the north and linked with his own rails. But the rules would not allow him to do this—yet!  If he had done so before the enemy train tried to go through, the South Western would scream blue murder and their lawyers would have a wonderful case against his own line. No, he must wait until the last minute, until he actually saw the intruding train approaching. Only then could he whip out a few sections of line on the pretext that the junction with the Brighton-Havant Line was incorrectly made. That meant some pretty timing, and fast work! His spies told him that the goods train was lying in the yards at Petersfield, and was scheduled to make a dash for Portsmouth at 8.58 the following morning. He closed his eyes, but sleep would not come to him. It was getting bitterly cold in the waiting room, and he was already half decided to get up and make the rounds again when someone dashed into the office. It was Bob Jacob-Hood, the Chief Engineer of the South Coast Section. “Just had a message over electric telegraph!” he panted, “They’ve tried to catch us on the hop! The train’s already moving. According to the message, it’s reached Rowlands Castle and is picking up water for the next stage. It won’t take very long for it to reach the junction, John!” “You’re right, Bob!” the Superintendent cried, leaping to his feet. “Come on, we’ll get the gangs out and along the line. Where’s that bugler?” Craven realised that the events that lay ahead would be in the nature of a battle. What better method of conveying orders across hundreds of yard of open ground than by bugler? So he had “borrowed” a bugler from Chichester Garrison, who was prepared to act as his alarm system for the day in return for a hard-earned two silver shillings. “Sound the alarm!” the Superintendent shouted, as the smartly uniformed soldier came out of the refreshment room in the company of half a dozen engine drivers. Next moment the frosty night air was split by the shrill notes of the bugle. Now from every shed and warehouse round Havant station, big burly men tumbled and commenced racing each other towards the point where the South Western rails linked with those of the L.B. & S.C. As they rushed madly along, they heard a shrill whistle screech through the cold air. It was the enemy train chugging slowly past Eastleigh House. “Right lads!” Craven yelled. “Let’s have as much of their rails off the permanent way as we can!” There was a tremendous rush from the straight length of Brighton to Havant line, as all the men raced to be first on to the curved rails of the South Western! Some had crowbars, others sledge hammers. Many had billets of 4 by 4 timber. With a will they went to work. By the time that the South Western engine came into sight, twenty yards of double-headed rail had been prised loose from its chairs and hurled down the side of the slight embankment. As the rails clanged and crashed together on the frosted grass at the bottom, another cheer went up from the South Coast men. And in answer came a tremendous toot from the approaching engine. Night was fast giving way to day, and in the clear light of a frosty winter morn, Craven saw what he was up against. He recognised at once that the South Western had sent down one of their latest and best engines.

Like Driver Crompton’s Maggie, it had a massive six foot diameter driving pair of wheels, but with an even taller chimney, and a heavy dome set far back along the boiler. The train was named Mars after the God of War, and looked a more powerful and rugged engine than Maggie. Slowly the opposing train slowed down, with steam escaping from the safety valve immediately behind the big dome. It came to a rest, belching clouds of white vapour, only four or five yards from the interrupted track. A figure jumped down from the footplate. It was a man in a tall, stove-pipe hat and a frock coat and as he walked grimly forward, John Craven recognised Sidney Belcher, in charge of the new direct line from London to Portsmouth. “What is the meaning of this, Mr Craven?” the man in the tall hat demanded. “You realise you have committed a trespass on our lines, and damaged them? Our lawyers will deal with that.” “We are not satisfied that the rails were properly laid,” Craven retorted. “They were unsafe. Your train might well have upset, and blocked our route into Havant Station.” “We propose to relay them at once,” Belcher snapped. “This train is scheduled to be in Portsmouth by ten o’clock.” “Then it had better fly there!” Craven shouted. “It won’t be travelling today, Mr Belcher!” Belcher did not answer, but with a wave of his hand, signalled to the engine driver. Immediately the latter yanked open the whistle and sent a piercing scream across the tracks. The waggons emptied themselves with remarkable speed, and at least a hundred men began to advance down the line towards the interrupted rails. “For the last time, Craven, withdraw your men!” Belcher cried. “I mean to go through to Portsmouth today!” “Then you’d better start looking for a horse!” John Craven retorted. A roar of laughter went up from the South Coast men. At that moment an unknown hand in the ranks of the South Western picked up a chunk of granite from the permanent way and hurled it with deadly precision at the Superintendent. It caught him on the temple, and his senses reeled. As he sank down he heard a roar of anger from his men, and dimly saw them hurling themselves forward to the attack.


When he came round a few moments later he was in the shelter of a line of waggons on the far side of the tracks. He could hear a tremendous hubbub going on from the junction of the two lines, and despite the efforts of two of his clerks to restrain him, he fought his way to his feet.

“How are we doing?” he asked at once. “From what I hear we’re hot doing too well,” one of the clerks mumbled. “We’re outnumbered and they brought an army of navvies.” This news made Craven eager to get back into the battle. He raced across the tracks towards the area where the rails came in from the north. When he got there, he stopped short. It was worse than he’d imagined. The forces of the South Western had forced his men back over their own rails. With half his men following up the retreating South Coast men, Belcher had put the other half to work hoisting the rails out of the grass at the foot of the permanent way. “Bugler, sound the rally!” said Craven, and the soldier, who had carefully kept out of the fisticuffs, jumped to attention and sent the crisp notes through the air. The South Coast men, bruised and weary, withdrew into a compact knot near the end of Havant up platform. “Well, Chief,” Craven said, turning to the engineer at his side. “The next round is up to George Crompton and Maggie. You’d better get him up as quick as you can.” But George Crompton, standing on the footplate of No. 99, had the situation well summed up. He had stationed the engine at the Portsmouth end of Havant station, right under the water tower. For Driver Crompton was putting his money on one, basic fact. A good driver always kept his engine supplied with water! The way George Crompton saw it, the South Western engine, Mars had filled up at Rowlands Castle. He reckoned that would be the best part of an hour ago. Pulling the heavy train of goods trucks, laden with men, would have used up quite a bit of his available water. He would have only a small supply left. That meant that Driver Crompton must somehow hold Mars until all its water had been used up.


“Bring up your engine, man!” It was the Chief Engineer bellowing at Driver Crompton from the end of the platform. “There’ll be time for that yet, sir!” Crompton replied. “When I go, I’ll have a full tank!”

He was watching the progress of the South Western men with a sharp eye. They were hauling the last rail into position, and gangers were directing a team with sledgehammers. Now the rail was in position, and the points swung over to accept the South Western train. A dozen navvies guarded the points as Mars began to puff and pant and haul the waggon train round the curve on to the Havant to Portsmouth line. Now it was up to Crompton and No. 99. He moved his controls, and Maggie began to roll. Like two knights fighting a tournament, the mechanical monsters approached each other! They met with a colossal crash that strained and distorted their buffers and carried away some of fancy work. Now each driver fed steam into the pistons, and the firemen fed more and more coal to the hungry fireboxes. Buffer to buffer the mechanical giants strained, and both disappeared in the clouds of steam that came from the escapes. But now the outsiders tried to take a hand. A posse of South Western men swept down the rails and by-passing their own engine, stormed about Maggie. Their orders were to dislodge Driver Crompton from his footplate and sabotage his engine. But the same instant as the first of the party fell back before a savage blow from the giant engine driver, the shrill notes of “Charge!” throbbed through the air. With a shout of jubilation, the South Coast men, led by John Craven, raced to the aid of their courageous driver. Their first rush cleared either side of Maggie, and for a moment it seemed as though they might reverse the table and capture Mars. But they were soon checked by a wall of muscular men who protected the South Western driver and Sidney belcher who raved and shouted from the footplate. But even the South Coast men held their own now. George Crompton knew his engine was no match for the powerful locomotive that opposed him. Slowly, Maggie began to move—backwards. He dared not apply his brakes. The superior weight of Mars with the train of heavy waggons behind it would batter him off the line in a few minutes! Better to give inch by inch than risk a sudden end to the battle. Mars reached the eastern end of the Havant up-platform. Seventy-five yards to go—and they would be at the water tower. Then, with victory almost within their grasp, and the shining rails curving away ahead of them into Portsmouth—the inevitable happened.

The last steam of water ran into the boiler, was turned into steam and fed to the straining pistons. Mars gave one final despairing thrust—and then the pressure began to fall off. Immediately Driver Crompton knew that victory was won. Not a moment to be lost. He opened the valves to their limit, urged his fireman to new efforts, and slowly, gradually, retreat turned into advance. The South Western driver knew he was defeated. Under the curses of Belcher, he calmly began to draw his fire as Maggie pushed him backwards. No good putting on the brakes. Unable to answer back, the front of the engine would be battered into uselessness by the repeated attacks of Maggie. “We’ve done it!” John Craven cried in a great voice and all about him South Coast men were hurrah-ing and throwing their caps into the air! George pushed Mars and the waggons as far as Eastleigh House and then stopped. He ran back into Havant Station and immediately he was over the points all available hands jumped to pull up a hundred yards or more of South Western track and throw it to the bottom of the embankment. “A good day’s work, Mr Crompton,” the Superintendent said to the triumphant driver. “You’ve earned the company’s thanks today all right. They won’t come back before the first of the year—if then. And when they do, we’ll be waiting with a nice big bill for running over our lines.” “It ain’t me as deserves the credit,” Driver Crompton said slowly. “It were No. 99 here as did it. And look at all that smashed fancy work! And those buffers—and me lamps! If the company wants to show thanks, Mr Craven, let ‘em put the front end of my engine back as it were before—nay, better. They’ll never own a finer engine than No. 99—not if their railways run a hundred years!”!



© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007