The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

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An Evening With ...

Sir William McAlpine

10 October 2011

It was a great pleasure for another full house to be able to welcome one of our Vice-Presidents, Sir William McAlpine, together with Lady McAlpine (Bill and Judy to their friends) to our meeting.

Bill held us in rapt attention for over an hour with his account of his rail-related activities, beginning with a little known fact – that there was a cycle track on the flat roof of the Great Central Hotel, just opposite our meeting room, which was intended to give guests the opportunity for a “work-out” before dinner. Mind you, if you came off the bike, it was a long way down…………………..

Bill reminded us that he had been a member of the Transport Trust that was given the task of finding a replacement for the Clapham Museum: after searching diligently they found a suitable site at Crystal Palace, only for Ministers (the Heath Government) to decide that the new Museum had to be outside London……..with the result we all know and love.

Prince Philip was invited to open both the North Road Museum at Darlington (built by Bill’s firm) and the new NRM on the same day (27 September 1975); Bill’s problem was that he had to be at North Road when HRH left and at the NRM before he arrived – on the Royal Train. Bill tried to cadge a lift on the Royal Train but “security” disallowed it, so he called in the firm’s helicopter: on a misty day flying was a bit of a problem, but he made it just in time. Only to discover that the train bringing the other dignitaries from London was 90mins late……….. No wonder the Tories privatised the railways!

Bill reminded us that he had been approached to buy up the Dart Valley line with the intention of lifting the track and laying a narrow gauge line. He and some friends hired a BR DMU for £100 and went for a look-see. They came to the conclusion that the railway would be best left as standard gauge and we should all be grateful that they did!

He has acquired various coaches in his career, notably about 200 when he and Pete Waterman bought out the BR Special Trains Unit – quite a train set! His love in coaches is probably GE No.1, the Directors’ saloon that for many years Bill was able to attach to mainline trains being hauled by 4472. It is unusual in that it boasts an American style verandah at the back. On one occasion Bill was able to take all the ex-Chairmen of BR for a jolly (see photo – how many can you name?).

Speaking of jollies in saloons, Bill reminded us that when senior officers went out for a line inspection it was not unknown for there to be a little intoxicating liquor on board. It really wouldn’t do for “dry” staff to see their betters drinking on duty so a junior member of staff was posted to warn “signal box coming up” – at which point glasses and bottles disappeared under the table!

At one time, Bill owned both 4472 and 4079 Pendennis Castle and kept them at Market Overton where it was hoped to establish a steam heritage centre. Unfortunately BR made life difficult by realigning the ECML and mainline access became impossible – so they were transferred to Carnforth and Bill established “Steamtown”. Interestingly, the workshops at Market Overton did the sectioning work on 35029 Ellerman Lines which is, of course, in the NRM. A little bird tells me that various parts were missing and were cannibalised from another Bulleid Pacific in NRM ownership – and we are now trying to raise the money to put them back!

(I understand that in fact the new bits will be fitted to 35029 and 34051 will have her bits restored to their rightful owner).

Bill is still very much involved with the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, of which he also led the rescue in 1972 by getting 20 friends each to contribute £5,000 to buy enough share capital to get the railway back on its feet – again with the success we see today. As Bill commented, preserved railways are now big business and have to be approached in a business-like way. (Members may like to know that we are planning a trip to the RHDR and the Kent & East Sussex Rly on a day to be decided next year).

And the elephant in the room? Well, very little was said about 4472 as the story is probably well known to all. Bill paid tribute to the late George Hinchcliffe, who sadly died on 20 September, for not only masterminding the rescue from San Francisco but then taking on the job of managing Steamtown and the 4472 operations in this country for the 23 years that she was in Bill’s ownership.

And just to reinforce Bill’s connection with 4472, one of our members, Jim Baldwin, presented him with the first of a new “4472 pack” that includes “the definitive book” on the loco, three DVDs and a set of reproduction ephemera such as loco record cards, drawings, timetables and period photos. These will be available in the shops in about 6 months’ time. (Jim has also produced a pack called “The Greatest Steam Locomotives” that is available now in major high street outlets).

And finally…..members will know (and some have visited) that Bill has his own train set at home – it just happens to be standard gauge! It happened because he chanced to learn that the last McAlpine steam loco (Hudswell-Clarke 0-6-0 No31, used for shunting around construction sites) was about to be scrapped and as the scrap price was minimal he said “take it home”.

As some may know, Fawley Hill lives up to its name and the only way in was across a neighbour’s field. The low loader got stuck in the mud and as it was needed elsewhere, the loco was unloaded onto a track panel, of which Bill had two. So over the next two weeks, the loco was edged forward by pulling the track panels one in front of the other with a bulldozer. Nothing is ever simple in running a railway!