Alexander Allan

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Reed: Allan was born at Montrose in 1809 and served an apprenticeship with a millwright, Gibbs, at Lochside. In 1832-33 he was at Stephenson's Newcastle works as an artisan, and then went to Forrester's new locomotive works at Liverpool, where he claimed to have worked on Swiftsure for the L&MR. He spent some 12 months in Ireland 1835-36 for Forrester in charge of the re-erection and preliminary running of locomotives supplied to the Dublin & Kingstown Railway, and on his return he became a foreman at the Forrester works. In February 1840 he was selected by Locke and Buddicom as foreman of the Edge Hill shops of the GJR and took up his duties in March. He oversaw the locomotive fitters at the Birmingham end of the line. He moved to Crewe in 1843, and though his official title to the end of his time on the GJR was chief foreman of locomotives he was in effect the works manager.

Though a stronger disciplinarian and a more decided character than Trevithick, and a capable works man for the time, there is no record of him (or Trevithick) making any real effort to implement Locke's aim to have standard locomotive parts. Allan, too, came under the lash of Veritas Vincit for viciousness as well as incompetence, but then most railway men did; John Herapath in The Railway Magazine described him as "the intelligent foreman at Edge Hill."

Allan was well thought of as chief foreman by the members of the Crewe Committee, and in 1847 he came to an arrangement with them for regular increases in salary up to 1852, when he was earning £500 a year. After a passionate action following a row with Trevithick, and which led to him being strongly reprimanded by the Crewe Committee, the position for all parties was eased in the same month by Allan getting the vacant locomotive superintendency of the Scottish Central Railway, to begin in September 1853. On the SCR he introduced Crewe-type passenger engines and other types of 0-4-2 goods engines. While on that railway he was allowed to act as consultant to the Inverness & Nairn Railway and to provide drawings and specifications for 2-2-2 and 2-4-0 Crewe-type engines for that railway and its successor, the Inverness & Aberdeen Junction, of which his nephew, William Barclay, was locomotive chief. These engines were built by Hawthorn of Leith. Ahrons (p. 166) notes that Allan was an early user of steel fireboxes..

When the SCR was absorbed into the Caledonian in 1865 no place was found for Allan. The next year he became manager of the Worcester Engine Works (see Lowe) and held the position during the four years of that firm's locomotive-building activities. The works closed in 1870, and about the same time Allan is believed to have been in an accident near Birmingham that partly disabled him. He went to Scarborough in 1872 and lived there until his death (2 June 1891), acting from time to time as a consultant and making one or two inventions. He was responsible for several railway inventions from 1847, but only his straight-link valve motion of 1855 had any commercial success. In the mid-1840s he evolved a balanced slide valve that was fitted to two LNWR engines, and according to F. W. Webb, writing many years later, the only reason for failure was the lack of rigidity of the valve chest cover. Allan was an original member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1847.

A letter of Allan's to the Crewe Guardian on 17  October 1882, following an account of the new iron foundry in Crewe Works, purported to give the early history of the Crewe-type locomotive, and its reproduction in The Engineer for 25 May 1883 has been accepted by generations of railway writers, and still is. Only from this publication in The Engineer did the great but quite erroneous 'Allan tradition' arise, yet the letter was full of the mistakes and confusions of old age, if nothing more, and gave a view much perverted from that shown by contemporary, documents and drawings.

Letter in Backtrack Volume 9 page 509 by Rutherford refers to "potted biography" by Hunter (same journal page 451) of Alexander Allan. Rutherford refutes Hughes' claim that Allan was the prime instigator of the 'Crewe' type.

Much of the factual matter in Allan's letter was wrong: it was 40 years after the event; he may well have believed that he was the father of the type and undoubtedly contributed his experience and knowledge to Buddicom. However, Hunter is wrong to state that the Forrester locomotives had inside frames with outside cylinders — they had outside frames. They were also unsatisfactory as Buddicom explained in a letter to GJR director, Hardman Earle. He also wrote to Locke on 12th February 1841, "More crank axles breaking. I have a glorious scheme for straight axles — you will like it I'm sure." This is undoubtedly the germ of the new type.

They were built in Sotteville, France, for the Paris & Rouen Railway (another Locke-Buddicom exercise) and became known as 'le Buddicom' in France. Whilst I would not wish, in any way, to disparage Allan's career and work, at Edge Hill he was 'foreman of the work shops'; Buddicom was locomotive superintendent and it is unlikely that he would allow anyone to forget it! There are no records showing Allan's contribution and certainly no reason why when he was running the GJR repair shops at a critical time, he would would be spending his time on a drawing board.

All surviving documentary material of the period was used in the preparation of Locomotive Profile No.15: in The Crewe Type D.H. Stuart and Brian Reed demolish the Allan myth comprehensively. The large-scale use of the 'Crewe' type in Scotland was initiated by Robert Sinclair who had been one of Locke's 'high-flyers'. Curiously, if any locomotive design could be considered as Allan's own, it is the rather ungainly outside cylinder 0-4-2 tender engine design that was used by a number of Scottish lines.

Although Reed was well aware of of D.K. Clark's Railway locomotives examination of this work makes it abundantly clear that Clark considered Allan to have been the instigator of the Crewe type: does one trust a contemporary commentator and practicing engineer, or commentators of a century later?

Counter-pressure brake

Carling (Trans. Newcomen Soc., 1983, 55, 1) In 1859 Alexander Allan on the Scottish Central Railway, devised a form of combined counter-pressure and steam friction brake, in which a leaky shut-off valve was placed in the blast-pipe and a connection provided from the blast-pipe below the valve to a brake cylinder applying brake blocks to the wheels of the carrying axle or axles. When the valve was closed, the regulator still being at least slightly open, pressure rapidly built up on the exhaust side of the pistons so that a retarding effect was produced without reversing the valve gear. This arrangement was certainly fitted to one, perhaps more, of the six 2-4-0s built late in 1857 by Fairbairn & Sons and to one or more of the 2-2-2s rebuilt between 1854 and 1859, originally dating from 1847-49, as Allan definitely refers to the brakes on the leading and trailing axles and as shown in one of his diagrams. The trials included the descent of an incline of 5 miles of 1 in 80. Carling had not discovered for how long or to what extent this device was used.

Patent Hambleton mentions several but does not quote numbers

1206/1856 Piston valve with T. Hunt. 21 May 1856.
Is this Thomas Hunt, sometimes Locomotive Superintendent of the North Union Railway?


Locomotives of today. Proc. Instn mech. Engrs, 1856, 7, 70.
Described his straight link valve gear.

Description of a feed-pipe connexion for locomotive engines. Proc. Instn mech. Engrs,  1861, 13, 88-90. Disc.: 90-1. + Plates 30-1.
A simple brass or copper tube elliptical in section. The connexion had been fitted to several locomotives on the Scottish Central Railway, including some large goods engines, and had been subjected to severe tests over twelve months, and had given satisfactory service.

Contributions to other's papers

Ramsbottom, J. On an improved locomotive boiler. Proc. Instn Mec. Engrs., 1849, 9
Allan had tried engines fitted a ½inch iron rod fixed in the centre of each tube and as long as the tube, but had found no effect on coke consumption between Liverpool and Birmingham


Hambleton, F.C. Alexander Allan. Loco. Rly Carr. Wagon Rev., 1941, 47, 31-6.
Written prior to the comprehensive rethink by Reed et al
H.M. Le Fleming (Concise encyclopaedia).


McEwan, James. Locomotives of the Caledonian Railway. Loco. Rly Carr. Wagon Rev., 1942, 48, 33-7.
Page 35: Scottish Central Railway No. 7 with Alexander Allan on footplate.

See Marshall: Biographical dictionary

Updated 2018-06-13