Mr Burkitt's Engine

Chesterfield in the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria was a fine place to grow up for boys fascinated by machinery. Coal mines, iron works and stone quarries were springing up, and the North Midland Railway from Derby to Leeds was opened through the town in 1838.

Two such boys were William Burkitt, who was born in 1825 as the oldest of six children of William Burkitt, a maltster and his wife Ellen, and his friend William Oliver. They were always talking about the latest mechanical inventions, and that on one such occasion William boasted to his friends that he would one day travel from the east coast to Chesterfield and back in a single day on his own railway engine. He grew up and prospered in his subsequent career and moved in due course to West Norfolk, retaining close connections with the family firm in Chesterfield.

In 1892, William Burkitt remembered his youthful ambition to travel on his own engine, or perhaps was reminded of it by his friends, and as one of the wealthiest men in West Norfolk was well placed to fulfil it. It is not certain what prompted his action at this time, but it may be significant that it was in 1892 that work began on the central section of the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway. Planned as a route from Boston to Warrington, to link the coalfields of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to deepwater ports, only the central portion from Lincoln to Chesterfield, together with various branches, was ever built. Williams brother Samuel not only ran the Chesterfield business but also farmed 385 acres on the route of the new railway, and so William Burkitt would have taken a close interest in its progress, not only as an enthusiastic amateur but also as a prospective customer

William Burkitt (1825- 1906)

Alfred Dodman (1832-1908)

The ceremonial cutting of the first sod of the new railway at Chesterfield was on 7 June 1892. Among those recorded by the local press as witnessing the event were William and Samuel Burkitt, William as a guest at the luncheon at the Stephenson Memorial Hall after the ceremony, and Samuel as one of a group of prominent local citizens who gathered on the platform of the Midland Railway station to welcome the distinguished guests as they arrived from London by special train.

Did William Burkitt decide to have an engine built for himself for any reason other than the whim of a wealthy man? Modern references to Gazelle have given the impression that she was intended for business travel around East Anglia - the nineteenth century equivalent of the company car or even the executive jet. There is some contemporary support for this view; the Lynn Advertiser refers to Gazelle as being "intended for the owner's use between Langwith and Mansfield", and the Derbyshire Times to her having "been specially designed by himself for use in his extensive works and docks on the Eastern coast".

Nonetheless, it is doubted that Gazelle was seriously used in this way. While travel on the open footplate might have been exhilarating on the occasional pleasure trip but the novelty would have quickly palled for a man of nearly seventy, even if he were an enthusiast, in the vagaries of East Angolan weather. If Mr Burkitt had wanted a private train for travel on business, he would surely have ordered something more along the lines of the Duke of Sutherland's Dunrobin and its carriage, or more practically a private saloon to be hauled by a GER engine.

Again, inspection of the board minutes of the GER and the M&GNJR for the period has failed to show any reference to an agreement with Mr Burkitt. While a private locomotive might be allowed to make occasional test runs under the personal supervision of a senior official of the company, as a special favour to a valued customer, its regular use would surely have called for official approval and an agreed scale of charges.

Finally, when Mr Burkitt advertised his engine for sale, it was described as having made "two trial trips". In short, William Burkitt wanted an engine that was capable of occasional demonstration trips with a few passengers, but with no more refinements than were necessary, and that is what he got.

local engineer and ironfounder in Lynn. Alfred Dodman (1832-1908) had been apprenticed to the well-known engineering firm of Clayton & Shuttleworth of Lincoln, and in 1850 set up his own business in King's Lynn. He built his first traction engine in 1872, and was also a manufacturer of engines for marine purposes. In 1875 he moved to the Highgate Works, adjacent to Highgate Bridge and with a siding connection to the dock railway. The firm was reorganised as a limited company in 1897, and in fact long survived its founder's death, continuing to trade until 1975. Dodman seems to have been working on the designs for Gazelle, as the engine was called, as early as March 1892, and in August 1892 Mr Burkitt paid him £150 on account.

Dodman's had considerable experience with road traction engines and occasionally repaired shunting engines for local companies such as the West Norfolk Farmers' Manure & Chemical Co. Ltd. However, Mr Burkitt's was the first, and probably the only, order they received for a new railway locomotive. For the general design and proportions, advice was sought from a Mr S. Stone of the GER's Stratford locomotive works, while the details, apart from the wheels, were worked out by Mr Dodman himself, who made use of traction engine components wherever possible. Rodney Weaver, writing in the Industrial Railway Record of December 1969, makes the interesting suggestion as that Dodman's also supplied fairground equipment, and Frederick Savage, a neighbouring King's Lynn engineer, was well known as a builders of the tiny asymmetrical steam locomotives that used to run on small circular tracks as fairground amusements in the late 19th century.

This might have been another source for some aspects of the design of Gazelle. Whatever its origin, the result was striking. Gazelle was very small, such that contemporary accounts often describe it as a toy, model or miniature engine. Mr Weaver has disputed that it was the smallest standard gauge locomotive ever built citing "Novelty" and "Perseverance" of the Rainhill Trials of 1829 and the original engines of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway as smaller. Be this as it may, Gazelle looked quite well proportioned, the effect being aided by the fact that the buffers were set considerably lower than the standard height. The single driving wheels and the leading and trailing wheels were of the Mansell type with polished teak segments, "to ensure the engine running as noiselessly as possible and to minimise annoyance from dust". The chimney top and the dome casing over the firebox were of polished brass. The inside cylinders drove a crank axle located behind the firebox and Stephenson valve gear was used. The boiler was of steel, with a copper firebox, copper stays and brass tubes, and had two Gresham & Craven injectors. There was a water tank beneath the footplate, which was entered from the back and on which up to six people could be accommodated in rather cramped and completely exposed conditions, two seated on either side and two standing. There are some variations in the dimensions quoted in various contemporary sources, but those generally accepted are listed in the table following.

Driving wheels, dia

Leading and Trailing wheels, dia

Wheel base

Cylinders, inside (2)

Height of centre of boiler from rail

Height to top of chimney from rail

Water capacity

Weight in working order

3ft 9in

2ft 3in

10ft 6in

4in x 9in

3ft 11in

7ft 9 in

120 gallons

5t 10cwt

Gazelle when new at Kings Lynn, as a 2-2-2WT

By mid-January 1893, Gazelle was complete, and could be seen standing at King's Lynn GER station, where it attracted much attention. A trial trip was run on Sunday 5 February 1893, from Lynn to Downham Market and back, with Mr John Wilson, the District Locomotive Superintendent of the GER at King's Lynn, as driver. The eleven-mile trip was run in 30 minutes, including two stops to check the machinery. The return was non-stop. The average speed of 45 mph claimed for the return is likely to have been an exaggeration, although there is better evidence for a mile covered at an average speed of 43 mph, still very good going for an engine as diminutive as


On her arrival back at Lynn, Gazelle was again photographed, this time in the yard of the GER locomotive shed. The cameraman was Dr Tice F. Budden, who had taken up railway photography as an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1889, and had evidently been tipped off that there would be a chance to record an unusual event. In one of the photographs "Gazelle" is posed alongside No. 0706 of the Great Eastern, a rebuild of a Sinclair compound 4-4-0 and a regular performer on the Cambridge main line at that period.

Following this test, Gazelle seems to have returned to Dodman's for some small modifications. William Burkitt paid Dodman a further £100 in March 1893, which was perhaps the balance outstanding after the successful completion of the test run. The firm's daybook then records 'Extra work to new locomotive Gazelle on 24 May 1893. This was costed at £10-18-6d in total, and included "two buffer beams and alterations" at £4-15-0d, "new bright hinges to smoke box door" at 19-6d, and "new door, joints, fastenings, hand rail and step to tender" at £5-4-0d. An illustrated description of Gazelle was published in the Railway Engineer for August 1893.

She seems to have been little used for the next four years. Mr R.H. Clark has suggested that she was used on the King's Lynn to Hunstanton branch, and perhaps even as far afield as Cambridge, but no details of any such trips seem to have been recorded. Surprisingly, Gazelle"was offered for sale "on account of death" in The Engineer of 16 February 1894. There were evidently no takers, and the engine seems to have passed out of public attention.

However the time had now come for William Burkitt to realise his boyhood dream .The first part of the LD&ECR opened for goods in December 1896, and with the official opening throughout to Chesterfield on 8 March 1897. William Burkitt was able to undertake the epic journey, which he promised some sixty years before.

After this feat, Gazelle again left the limelight. Samuel Burkitt died in 1898, and William evidently decided that he was unlikely to use the engine again, as it was advertised for sale once more in the Locomotive Magazine of September and October 1900 in terms similar to those of the 1894 advertisement "to railway superintendents, inspectors, &c. A beautiful and highly-finished locomotive engine, 4-inch cylinders, with car to hold four persons, on six wheels.... Two trial trips of 80 miles, running perfectly smooth and remarkably steady. Highest speed 45 miles per hour. To be sold on account of a death. For further particulars apply by letter to Gazelle, c/o Locomotive Magazine...." The reference to a "car to hold four persons" has been taken to mean that Gazelle hauled a separate passenger carriage, but it seems clear that the advertiser was in fact referring to the footplate area. The interest aroused by the advertisement led to the publication of a short illustrated description of Gazelle, with some details of the Chesterfield trip, in the May 1901 issue of the Locomotive Magazine, but no sale resulted.

Mr M.G. Greenacre, who worked for Dodman's from 1903 to 1910, recalled seeing a locomotive of the Gazelle type in use in the sidings of the West Norfolk Farmers' Chemical & Manure works at South Lynn. Gazelle would not seem well suited to be an industrial shunter because of its small adhesive weight and non-standard buffer height. Perhaps tests were being carried out to assess the feasibility of rebuilding "Gazelle" or of building a new locomotive to suit conditions at the works, but further details are lacking. Mr R.H. Clark, historian of the M&GN Joint Railway, has suggested that a second locomotive of the "Gazelle" type was built by Dodman's and ended up in Australia, but there is no evidence of this in the records of the Australian Railway Historical Society.

William Burkitt himself died at the age of 81 on 7 June 1906, leaving an estate valued at £219,501, a very substantial sum in those days. The business was taken over by his nephew, William Burkitt junior, who was also the principal executor of the will. The fate of Gazelle was evidently not his first concern, for it was not until about 1909 that the locomotive that had been his uncle's pride and joy was sold to the machinery and scrap dealer Thos. W. Ward & Co. of the Albion Works, Sheffield.

Writing in the Winter 1977 edition of the Tenterden Terrier, R.S. McNaught recalled a story he had heard from an old M&GN driver. When a fireman, he had been sent one Sunday from Spalding to King's Lynn with a senior driver to "bring back" an engine. They went to Lynn by pony trap as there were no trains on a Sunday, and to their astonishment found it was Gazelle they had to fetch. She kept running out of steam, and what with the necessity of opening the crossing gates themselves, they had only reached Sutton Bridge by nightfall, and they had to leave "Gazelle" on a siding for a few days. Two other men subsequently brought her into Spalding, and after an overnight stay Great Northern men took her on to Lincoln. It would be tempting to suppose that this episode was the first stage of the move from Norfolk to Ward's, but as in so many other aspects of the "Gazelle" story, the true facts are elusive.

Colonel Stephens' Engine

Ward's advertised Gazelle for sale in January 1910 and in February 1911 she was purchased by H.F. Stephens for the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway, which he was then reconstructing. Reputed he paid £80 for it and it was brought from a site at Barry Dock. She was used as an inspection engine during the work in more or less her original state - a small temporary windshield was fitted - and she was photographed in the locomotive shed at Kinnerley by G.M. Perkins of Knighton on the occasion of the official reopening on 13 April 1911.

Gazelle newly arrived at Kinnerley 1911 before rebuilding as an 0-4-2WT

She was then rebuilt with smaller driving wheels coupled to the leading wheels and other alterations so that she could be used on the Criggion branch. This work was reported in the 1920s as done by W.G. Bagnall of Stafford but recent research is of the opinion is clearly taht  it was done at Kinnerley, perhaps with some modified part supply by Bagnall's. That companies records show only that a replacement whistle was supplied for the locomotive in March 1916.

The Shropshire & Montgomeryshire main line from Shrewsbury to Llanymynech had reopened in July 1911 and the branch line from Kinnerley to Criggion followed in August 1912. This provided an opportunity for Gazelle to play a new role. Traffic on the branch was rarely substantial and Stephens thought that Gazelle could provide an adequate service when loadings were particularly light. The vicar of Criggion, Rev R Brock, thought otherwise as his letter of complaint of 23 November 1912 to the government shows.

Gazelle newly arrived at Kinnerley 1911 before rebuilding as an 0-4-2WT

"I booked today my fare by the 3.57 train from Abbey Gate Station to Criggion on the Shropshire & Montgomershire Railway. I rode o Kinnerley Junction by a properly equipped train. Proceeding to the branch to Criggion, I was put with another man and two women into the back part of an engine with only a screen between us and the fire - no roof and sparks falling over us. One spark nearly got into my eye - with danger of being blinded - my clothes too injured by the same. I wish to know whether passengers can thus be treated and deceived - for the last time I came about a fortnight ago I was conveyed in a carriage as I have hitherto been. I had occasion to use the railway for my wife and daughter and friends from London and of course I cannot subject them to such risk and barbarous treatment".

"If they cannot, or will not, serve proper accommodations throughout the journey they should not be allowed to advertise it - there were carriages at the station (Kinnerley) and as an engine ran a carriage could, and should, have been on the back."

Stephens replied to the Board of Trade explaining the situation. "I reply to your communication of 30 November and find that it is usual, owing to the slight traffic on the branch in question, to utilise the services of the inspection engine for the afternoon train as the occasion arises, windscreens are provided and in view of the smallness of the traffic it is considered that the action is justifiable." The Board of Trade did not agree and replied "... It is considered that a proper carriage for the conveyance of the passengers should be run on the train in question."

Stephens was not to be dissuaded so easily but as a compromise Gazelle returned to W G Bagnall for the fitting of a cab and the enclosing of the passenger 'compartment'. Neither fitting was a thing of beauty. The cab was distinctly utilitarian with a shallow curved roof and was bereft of all ornamentation. The passenger cabin had all the welcome appearance of a portable prison cell. It was fitted with round spectacle glasses at the front and two small square windows at the rear. The original waist high rear doorway was retained but the rest of the doorway remained open to the elements - very bracing when running backwards. Baggage could be carried on the roof which was surrounded by an incongruously ornamental set of luggage rails. None of this did anything for Gazelle's appearance since the passenger cabin was more than a foot lower than the driver's cab and the roof curved at a much smaller radius.

There appear to have been no more letters of complaint from the vicar presumably because by July 1913 Gazelle was accompanied by  a more acceptable solution to passenger carrying through the purchase and adaptation of a horse tram. This is reputed to have come from the London County Council and was originally a double-deck vehicle. The top deck, stairs and end platform were removed and running gear was provided for operation on railway track. This made an ideal light trailer for Gazelle. Although the tramcar was fitted with brakes these were operated by hand wheels and it is likely that they were only used as parking brakes. Entrance was by means of end doors and steps were provided between the buffers to assist access from the track bed.

Gazelle and the tramcar continued to operate branch passenger services until the late 1920s. By October 1928 a service only operated on Saturdays and by October 1932 this was only running as far as Melverley because of subsidence to the piers of Melverley Viaduct. By now Gazelle and the tramcar were out of use and it is likely that services were provided by the line's Ford petrol railmotor set. By May 1932, Gazelle was partly stripped down in Kinnerley yard. In 1936 W H Austen decided to reinstate it as an inspection engine and in June 1937 it emerged from Kinnerley repair shop in a smart green livery. To accompany it, the old Selsey Tramway Wolseley Siddeley railmotor body was fitted to the under frame previously used by the tramcar to form a new inspection saloon.

Gazelle thus survived to serve the Armed Forces when they took over the railway in 1941. It was particularly useful for running early morning patrols to confirm that points were correctly set and to detect possible acts of sabotage on the line. Gazelle was last officially steamed on 7 April 1942 and finally taken out of service i when the army's Wickham petrol trolleys took over all its work.

Gazelle newly overhauled with rebuilt trailer at Kinnerley in 1937

During the army period, Gazelle seems to have become something of a mascot for them. In May 1950 the remaining Shropshire & Montgomeryshire rolling stock was transferred to British Railways. Nearly everything was immediately condemned but Gazelle was saved and placed on permanent loan to the War Department. It had previuosly been despatched to Bicester works for a repaint and then to the Longmoor Military Railway arriving for their open day in  September 1949.It was subsequently placed on display by the parade ground, where it was laterly painted in Longmoor blue. After the closure of that railway in 1970, Gazelle was reclaimed by its custodians, the Science Museum, and for the next twenty-five years was displayed at the National Railway Museum, York and the Museum of Army Transport at Beverley.

This unlikely engine and its remarkable travels were not however at an end and speedy action by enthusiasts on the closure of the Beverley museum brought it to a most appropriate home. It has become a prized exhibit in the Colonel Stephens Railway Museum, its longevity a tribute to its original builder. On display at Tenterden, it is a fitting memorial to those two "bustling individuals" of nineteenth century King's Lynn, Alfred Dodman and William Burkitt, the opportunism and enthusiasm of Colonel Stephens and William Austin and the affection of the army and enthusiasts for such a wonderful English eccentricity.

This article is an edited combination of articles by Tom Burnham and Stephen Garrett in the Tenterden Terrier, The House Magazine of The Tenterden Railway Company Limited. If you would like to join in and help with the Colonel Stephens Railway Museum or restore the Kent and east Sussex Railway more details can be found on