Danum Museum provides a dramatic surprise when visitors walk through a small door to be confronted by two full-size steam locomotives, parked in an exhibition hall to mark Doncaster’s geographical importance at the centre of England’s transport arteries.
Doncaster was a bridging point on Ermine Street, the Roman road to the North, and a stage stop on the Great North Road that became the highway to Scotland from the Middle Ages onwards.
It was an obvious site for a railway junction when the Great Northern Railway forged its way north from King’s Cross, joining end-on with its partner the North Eastern Railway south of York in 1852 to form what is now called the East Coast Main Line.
The Great Northern acquired acres of flat land around the town for goods yards, locomotive stabling and its locomotive and carriage works, a huge complex that became known as “the Plant”.
From its opening in 1853 until 1867 the Plant undertook repairs and maintenance only, but after the arrival of the great locomotive engineer Patrick Stirling (1820-1895) Doncaster became the birthplace of some of the finest and most famous steam locomotives in Britain for the Great Northern Railway and its successor, the London & North Eastern Railway.
The Stirling Single, Great Northern No: 1, built in 1870, is an elegant express engine with single driving wheels 8ft 1in in diameter. It broke records in the hair-raising Races to the North in 1888 and 1895. The first of its type, it’s the only survivor.
Stirling’s next-but-one successor, Nigel Gresley (1876-1941; knighted 1936) designed his A1 Pacific locomotives, of which the most famous example, Flying Scotsman, claimed the first authenticated 100mph speed record in 1934, and his streamlined A4 Pacific, Mallard, took the ultimate speed record for a steam locomotive, 126mph, in its construction year, 1938.
Danum Museum’s current exhibits from the National Collection are a matching pair of unique survivors, both the first of their class. The C1 Large Atlantic, the unnamed no: 251, built in 1902, was the first of a long-lived and powerful class of express locomotive designed by Henry A Ivatt (1851-1923), who served as locomotive superintendent between Stirling and Gresley.
Its companion is LNER no: 4771 Green Arrow, built in 1936 as an express mixed-traffic loco, equally capable of handling fast passenger and freight trains.
To stand close to these beautiful giants side by side, resplendent in their apple-green livery, evokes the railway tradition that generations of Doncaster workers built and maintained at the Plant.