THEFT OF BRISTOL CASTLE'S NAMEPLATE
Two events have got me mind reflecting on times gone by.
Firstly I was reminded by Adrian Booth that the iconic rock album "Rumours" by Fleetwood Mac had been reissued and secondly the recent death of train driver Jack Saunders.
Unlike Sir Edward Elgar’s masterpiece "Enigma Variations" many of the theories behind the songs in "Rumours" have been explained and most confirmed as being true. So what of the many rumours making the rounds of Worcester Royal Grammar School in the 1960s. I guess every large school spawns its fair share of rumours, many perhaps just the produce of fertile young minds. The one enduring rumour that perhaps will never be explained is the disappearance of one of the nameplates of ‘Castle class’ locomotive No.7013 ‘Bristol Castle’ whilst it was on shed at Worcester. The theft was discovered shortly after a one day strike on Wednesday 1 st May 1963.
The first most of us knew about it was when we saw the locomotive on shed without one of its nameplates. The local press was soon on the scene and the story featured in a lengthy article but despite investigations the nameplate has never been found.
A rumour soon went round the school that the thieves had panicked and dumped the nameplate in the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Jack Saunders is quoted in the "Worcester News" as saying "There was a lot of talk at the time about the nameplate, but no one was ever caught for it". A very succinct and accurate comment.
Unfortunately there is no information in the public domain as to where within the shed area the locomotive was when the disappearance of the nameplate was noticed which complicates an analysis of how the heist was done. It is for certain that access to the main sheds at Worcester was very difficult at the best of time and well neigh impossible most of the time. All the possible means of ingress such as walking up the "Vinegar Works" line or via the "Coal Drop Sidings" brought you out into plain view of a signal box and an area where railwaymen had mess facilities. The only other means to get in was trying to sneak part the side of the Forman’s Office without being spotted. It was easier to gain access to the Repair Shops as there was an official set of steps that led from Tolladine Road to the railway from where it was but a short walk, but to gain access to the depot itself meant crossing the main line.
Normally the "Castle class" locomotives would if necessary turn on the triangle in order to go on shed with the smokebox facing the London direction and would first go the disposal section where amongst others things the tender would be filled with coal. If due out again it would then find itself in or near the Passenger Shed, but this is not evidence that the robbery took place in that location. It is quite possible that the locomotives was on the "dead-lines" in the middle of the yard or at the Boiler Washout shed near the Foreman’s office.
I have never carried a "Castle class" nameplate but all the pictures I have even seen suggest it is a job for two able-bodied men so presumably more than one person conspired together to carry out this daring raid. This suggests a major element of pre-planning which would therefore rule out an opportunist thief on the prowl to see what he could thieve. If this is so then the theory that the nameplate ended up in the canal would seem to be unfounded.
To remove a nameplate from a locomotive requires careful thought especially if you are not authorised to remove it. Firstly the two people, equipped with the right size spanners, have to get onto the locomotive and balance precariously whilst removing the bolts. Then they need to get back to ground level whilst holding the nameplate to ensure it does not drop to the ground with a massive force and presumably loud noise.
At this point the job is still only half-done as now the thieves have to carry their heavy prize back out of the shed, possibly by the same way they got in. Even then they are not clean away as they have to have a safe means of escape. The canal is a considerable distance from any of the exits to the sheds, even getting there, panicking and throwing it into the water would be fraught with the danger of being caught. What indeed would be the motive for pre-planning such a difficult robbery if the only reasons for doing it was to throw it in the canal?
No, on balance, I think the rumour, which persists to this day, that it will be found in the canal is not a plausible one.
In the period 1963/64 the rundown of steam on the Western Region of British Railways was almost complete and fewer and fewer iconic Swindon built locomotives were still running. The "Castle class" were seeing out their last few days as substitutes for failed diesels and the best examples were to be found at Worcester. I think it much more likely that this was a professionally thought through heist and that the intention all along was to steal a nameplate for a private collection. The thieves probably had a vehicle close-by in which to load their stolen booty.
Steve Widdowson writing in the "Worcester News" in 2005 concurs as he states "this obviously involved inside knowledge".
Andrew Smith, Malvern, August 2014