Sir William Arthur Stanier: lifelong railway man

Gosh! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do a new Swindon sons and daughters post. But thanks to a bit of help from Chris Eley, here’s William Stanier (Jr) – Swindon born and lifelong railway man. With a bit of mention of Stanier senior for the craic.

William Arthur Stanier – F.R.S. (27 May 1876 – 27 September 1965) Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.

William Stanier Railway Man - in the GWR magazine in 1913
William Stanier Railway Man – in the GWR magazine in 1913

When William Stanier entered the world in Swindon on 27 May 1876, he was born into a railway family. His father was William Dean’s Chief Clerk at the GWR. So it came as not much of a surprise to anyone when, in 1891 young William followed his father into the GWR. First as an office boy before serving a five-year apprenticeship in the Swindon Works.

Stanier Snr paid the massive sum (in the day) of £150 to get his son onto the premium apprentice scheme – this comprised much more than merely making the tea. The system went like this: the first apprenticeship awarded to a family came free. But subsequent children cost £100. It’s no surprise that a many missed out because their parents couldn’t afford to pay. Thus some joined the Swindon works having trained or worked elsewhere first.

So Stanier junior started his apprenticeship and worked his way up. And in 1904 he achieved promotion to the post of Assistant to the Divisional Locomotive Superintendent in London. He returned to Swindon in 1912 as Assistant Works Manager and in 1920 became the Works Manager.

William Stanier Railway Man - in the GWR magazine in 1920
William Stanier Railway Man – in the GWR magazine in 1920

It appears that William Arthur Stanier had a rather cool nickname. His black hair and suit and uncanny ability to appear out of thin air in the workshops earned him the moniker the black arrow.

Headhunted by the LMS – the London, Midland and Scottish Railway

In 1931, the London, Midland and Scottish Railway headhunted Stanier to become their chief mechanical engineer. The LMS wanted him to use the knowledge he’d gained in Swindon to design bigger and more powerful locomotives for their network.

There, Stanier oversaw the design of a range of locomotive including the 8Fs, the “Black 5s,” and the Princess Coronation Class.

A record and a near miss

A Princess Coronation class locomotive, No 6220 Coronation, hauling a train of invited guests set a new speed record of 114 mph just south of Crewe on 29 June 1937. It held that record until the Mallard beat it (of arch rivals the LNER) in 1938. Things didn’t go quite to plan as the brakes got applied a bit late and the train hurtled round the station’s reverse curves at 57 mph. The speed limit was 20 mph!

The locomotive design was super stable with the only casualty being the crockery in the dining car. There’s little doubt that the success of these locos was attributable to Stanier spending the early years of his apprenticeship in the Swindon Work’s drawing office, under the guidance of GJ Churchward. He took some of Churchward’s genius with him to the LMS.

It’s testament to Stanier’s design that the locomotive was able to head back to London on the same day.

World War II, retirement and honours

During WW2, Stanier acted as a consultant for the Ministry of Supply.

He received a knighthood in 1943 and election to the Fellows of the Royal Society in 1944. That made him the only engineer, George Stephenson excepted, to receive that honour.

The final Princess Coronation class locomotive built before natonalisation, No. 6256 was named afer him, Sir William A. Stanier FRS.

Another Swindon link

Sir William has another Swindon connection. He married Ella Elizabeth, daughter of Levi Lapper Morse in 1906. They had a son and a daughter.

He died in Rickmansworth in 1965. A school in Crewe, another railway town, bears his name.

A bit about the Stanier family

Hailing from Staffordshire, WH Stanier Snr (William Henry) joined the GWR at Wolverhampton in the early 1860s. 1871 saw Stanier Snr move to Swindon and take up a role as confidential clerk to William Dean, chief mechanical engineer to be. Able and versatile, Stanier Snr soon became Dean’s right-hand man. It’s after this guy that Swindon’s Stanier Street was named.

He it was who initiated technical education in Swindon by introducing evening classes for apprentices at the Mechanics’ Institution. He conducted these lectures himself for twenty years until the Wiltshire county educational committee took them over in 1891. For more of this go here. Stanier Snr became Swindon’s first ever mayor.

William Stanier Snr Railway Man taken in August 1904
William Stanier Snr – taken in August 1904 – photo courtesy of Swindon Local Studies

For a little about Levi Lapper Morse go here:



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