John Speller's Web Pages Ajax & Mars

John Speller's Web Pages - GWR Broad Gauge: Locomotives

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"Ajax" was a broad gauge locomotive built by Mather, Dixon & Co., for the Great Western Railway in 1838. As originally constructed it had 10 ft. driving wheels and appears to have ceased work in 1840. It was in use as a stationary engine in Swindon Works a decade later and may in the mean time have been rebuilt with 8 ft. driving wheels. The drawing from the English Mechanic and World of Science, September 1895, purports to show "Ajax." It may indeed show the engine in its rebuilt state, but it is by no means certain whether it shows the locomotive in any state in which it ever actually existed. According to one report it seems that "Ajax" was rebuilt as an 8 ft. locomotive with its original wheels iron plate wheels reduced in size and that a nut or bolt was accidentally allowed to remain inside one of the wheels. Years later, when the locomotive was used as a stationary engine in Swindon Works, this caused a cacophany every time the engine was fired up.

Even more astounding is the suggestion that "Ajax" or more probably its Mather, Dixon sister engine "Mars," as originally constructed, may have been the world's first streamlined locomotive, being fitted with a "wind-cutting" device, and nicknamed "The Grasshopper" because it resembled that insect in shape.

Nokes wrote in The Evolution of the Steam Locomotive, We now have to deal with the two locomotives with 10ft. driving wheels, constructed by Mather, Dixon and Co. for the Great Western Railway. Fortunately, one of the people who assisted in the construction of these engines is still living, and in the Engineer for January 3rd, 1896, he gave a detailed account of the building of the locomotive, and also a drawing of the "Grasshopper" (a nickname for the "Ajax" or "Mars"), which is ... reproduced [below]. The gentleman in question has favoured the writer with the following particulars concerning this engine:—"The engine was designed by John Grantham, draughtsman at Mather, Dixon, and Co.,. North Foundry, Liverpool. The outside view resembled a steamer, the driving-wheel splashers like a paddle-box, and the handrail plates, brought to the buffer planks, shaped like the stem of a vessel, and intended to take the wind pressure off the front end of the engine. The great diameter of the driving wheel shows that Brunel had something to say about it — perhaps ordered it to be made twice the size of any other then made. The staff employed in the works then were: John Grantham, principal of drawing office, afterwards partner; Robert Hughes, manager of the marine department, afterwards of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, and inspector of steamships; Mr. Banks, locomotive foreman, well known at Derby on the Midland Railway; Mr. Buddicomb, first locomotive superintendent of the •Grand Junction Railway, and of the locomotive works at Rouen, France; Josiah Kirtley, first locomotive superintendent of the Midland Counties; George Hnrrison, first locomotive superintendent Scottish Central, and manager at Brassey's, Birkenhead; Mr. Potts, afterwards of the firm of Jones and Potts, Newton-in-the-Willows, locomotive builders, where the first solid locomotive wheel was made by the wheelsmith Frost. All the above-named were apprentices and journeymen with me in my time. William Tait, of the firm of Tait and Mirlees, Scotland Street, Glasgow, was the erector of the 10ft. wheel locomotive; I worked as mate with him on the same engine. Tait was manager of Neilson's Hyde Park Locomotive Works, Glasgow, in 1845, and his mate — John Wilson — was manager from 1864 to 1884 under Mr. James Reid, sole owner of Neilson's Works. James Smith Scarf welded the 10ft. tyres. The crank axles were forged at the Mersey Forge, when Mr. Norris was manager, and turned by Charles Ackers. Ned Bursing turned the rims and tyres on a large lathe, driven by the gearing of the boring mill. I remember, having worked on the same lathe, that they had to cut a curved piece out of the shop wall for clearance." The "Ajax" and "Mars", the 10ft. wheel engines supplied by Mather, Dixon, and Co., had the driving wheels of peculiar construction. Instead of the usual spokes, the circumference and the centres were connected by means of iron plates, bolted together in segments, and slightly convex in form. These disc wheels were constructed under a patent granted to Mr. B. Hicks, of Bolton, in October, 1834. The primary object of Mr. Hicks's patent was not, however, the disc wheels, but a three-cylinder engine, with the cylinders placed vertically above the crank axle. Steam was only to be admitted at the top of the piston, so that the force of the steam was always pressing downwards; by this method Mr. Hicks expected to considerably augment the adhesive properties of the engine. We cannot discover that an engine with three such cylinders was ever constructed, although the disc wheels were used in the "Mars," "Ajax," and other locomotives. As will be seen from the illustration of the "Grasshopper," these two 10ft. wheel engines had a projecting front, and the splashers covering the wheels above the frames were made to represent paddleboxes of a steamboat. For these reasons, Dr. Lardner says, they were generally known as the "boat engines," and he goes on to remark that they were found incapable of working the passenger trains (probably in consequence of the time lost in starting and stopping the monsters), and were used to haul the ballast trains during the construction of the Great Western Railway. Mr. Brune1 gave the following evidence relative to these 10ft. wheel engines before the Gauge Commissioners in 1845:— "Three engines were made with 10ft. wheels. The idea did not originate with me, but it was proposed by certain manufacturers, and although I expressed some fear of the feasibility of constructing 10ft. wheels, I thought it worth the trial. They were made, and it so happened that the three engines to which they were applied totally failed in other respects, and the whole engine was cast aside The engines to which I refer were a pair made in Liverpool by a maker there, who was also making other engines for us. I take the whole responsibility, of course, of having allowed the 10ft. wheel to be made; but the engines, from other circumstances, were not successful, and the construction of the wheels was one which we should certainly never again adopt. It was an entire plate, and that with such a diameter is heavy, and offers such an enormous surface to the side wind that it certainly would not do to adopt it. In the other engine ('Hurricane'), which was tried with a 10ft. wheel, the wheel worked very well, but accidental circumstances threw the engine out of use; the wheels got broken by an accident which would have broken any wheels, and no further attempt was made to use it."

As in the case of "Hurricane" there were reports that this locomotive had reached 100 m.p.h. W. M. Acland, The Railways of England (1900), p.269 says: When I entered the Swindon shops," writes a gentleman, a former member of the engineering staff, referring to the year of 1847, " experiments were still going on. I remember seeing in the shed an engine called the 'Grasshopper.' The generally accepted report in the sheds was that this engine had never taken a train, but was built to see what speed could be attained—she had 10-foot driving-wheels—and that Brunel himself had driven her, and that she had attained 100 miles per hour."

In another little snippet of information, Nokes quotes Mr Bucknall, the locomotive superintendent of the Weymouth district, as saying "The ten-foot wheels of the Ajax and Hurricane were lent to convey the statue of the Duke of Wellington to Hyde Park Corner." All this goes to show just how little we know about early GWR locomotives. Perhaps the truth with emerge sooner or later ...
"Ajax" as it may have been rebuilt with 8 ft. diameter wheels
"Ajax" or more probably "Mars" as a 10 ft."wind-cutter" (streamlined) locomotive
Method of construction of the driving wheels of "Ajax"
Another suggestion regarding the original state of "Ajax." In my opinion the most plausible
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