John George Robinson, William Rowland and R.A. Thom

Jackson has written one of the best biographies of any locomotive engineer and readers should consult this. Nevertheless, Marshall notes that Robinson was born in Bristol on 30 July 1856, where his father was Matthew was Divisional Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Superintendent. His father Matthew had worked for the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway and knew the Hackworths and Robert Hawthorn (Jackson). John was educated at Chester Grammar School and served a six-year pupilage under Joseph Armstrong and William Dean at Swindon. Robinson's first important appointment was that of Assistant Locomotive Superintendent to the Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway in Ireland. Four years later he became chief of the department, and in 1900 went to Gorton as Locomotive Superintendent to the Great Central Railway. He took over the Carriage and Wagon Departments in 1902, being then re-designated Chief Mechanical Engineer, and he remained in that post until the Great Central lost its identity in the LNER in 1923.

However much enthusiasts may extol the lineaments of this or that railway's engines, the author has never yet met anyone who will deny that Robinson's locomotives possessed good proportions or symmetry of outline. His engines were, in fact, always abreast of the times and often far more imposing than contemporary designs on bigger and wealthier railways. Yet, with all their modernity, Robinson gave them almost as many rich curves and flowing lines as the Venus de Milo. He was, indeed, to the Edwardian and early Georgian locomotive era what Johnson had been to the Victorian, although he gave his engine- men far greater cab comfort than Johnson did.

Under Robinson the Great Central rapidly became a line famous for 4-4-2s and 4-6-0s, the latter also being used for fast freight traffic. He introduced the first 0-8-4 hump shunting tank engines in this country and they were one of the first British locomotives to be provided with three high-pressure cylinders. One of his most successful and numerous types was the 2-8-0 heavy freight locomotive. They first appeared in 1911, and no fewer than 130 came over to the LNER which also purchased 273 of the 521 built by various contractors and the Great Central itself during WW1, for they were selected by the Government as a standard type for overseas use. Several Robinson designs, notably the Director class 4-4-0, were built for the LNER during the early years of that railway.

Robinson was a prolific inventor besides being a great C.M.E. (Jackson lists some the patents, but without their all-important numbers). The superheater that bears his name is used on locomotives all over the world. There is a very extensive list of patents on this topic below and Jackson notes that his work on superheating brought him into contact with Charles Wakefield (the highly successful manufacturer of lubricants). His other innovations included the 'Intensifore' lubricator, apparatus for using pulverized and colloidal fuel in locomotive fireboxes (briefly described by Michael Rutherford in Backtrack) and anti-collision fittings for passenger rolling stock.

Dow describes how "Attired impeccably, complete with silk topper, Robinson would stalk critically round Gorton Works on Saturday mornings." Dow (Plate 11) contains the wonderful portrait of Robinson wearing a square bowler chatting to one of his drivers at Marylebone (both men have Edwardian moustaches). He lived to see the development of the Pacific era and one wonders what his designs in this direction would have been like had he accepted the post of CME to the LNER when it was offered to him at grouping. There is little doubt but that they would have lived up to his reputation. He died in 1943 at the ripe old age of 87 and it is to be hoped that this designer of lovely-looking locomotives was spared seeing the Southern Railway Q1 'Austerity' 0-6-0's, which were then beginning to appeatr. But as he spent his last years in Bournemouth and took a great interest in locomotive affairs to the end, it is, perhaps, unlikely that he was. On the question of the LNER offer Tuplin noted that: He retained his position till the Great Central was merged into the LNER in 1923 and he was then so highly esteemed that he was invited to take charge of the motive power of that very large group. Then 66 years of age, he not unnaturally felt that he cotud hardly face the difficulties and hard work of such a position and his suggestion .that Gresley of the Great Northern would be a better man for it was accepted by the LNER.

J.G. Robinson appointed as director of Beyer Peacock & Co. Ltd. Locomotive Mag., 1924, 30, 46

Dow is the authority on the Great Central, but both Tuplin and Westwood had their own views: the latter was critical: one of the most successful designers of the British hit-or-miss school, Robinson was locomotive superintendent of the Great Central Railway from 1900 to 1922. At first he built new versions of his predecessor's 4-4-0 and 0-6-0 designs, but he subsequently favoured larger machines. Some of the latter were very successful, others less so, largely because their designer never quite understood the importance of the relationships between different dimensions; that is, in common with most of his contemporaries, getting proportion right was a matter of luck more than judgement. Thus his 2-8-0, later adopted for wartime service overseas and commonly known as the R.O.D. type, was outstandingly successful because its boiler proportions happened to be excellent while its general lack of sophistication meant that it was virtually immune to poor maintenance. His Atlantics, which carried the same boiler, were also good machines. However, his 4-6-0 types were a mediocre collection, partly because there was poor air access to their grates. His well-known Director 4-4-0s were reasonably successful and, like all his designs, very handsome machines. The Robinson chimney was a triumphant blend of aesthetics and functionalism, while his superheater design was quite successful.

Carpenter, George W. biography Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Dow, Andrew biography Oxford companion to British railway history
The new Locomotive Superintendent, Great Central Railway. Rly Mag., 1900, 7, 82.
Portrait and brief account of career of John George Robinson, formerly of the Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway.

Nock, O.S. Railway enthusuast's encyclopedia
Piston valves. Locomotive Mag., 1922, 28, 37.


9432/02 headstock springs
21,641/02 headstock springs
17,053 Applied 5 August 1903, Published 19 May 1904. Improvements in apparatus for picking up water for feeding locomotive engines and tenders whilst they are running
steam operated water pick up scoop.
3523 Applied 20 February 1905, Accepted 14 September 1905. Improvements in and in connection with the steps of railway and tramway carriages and other like vehicles
Footboards and steps; lowering device (presumably for railcars) brakes
5875 Applied 9 March 1910. Published 10 November 1910. Improvements in apparatus for heating water for use in lavatories in railway carriages
7715 Applied 28 March 1911. Published 28 September 1911. Improvements in connection with automatic vacuum or air brakes for railway vehicles
9755 Applied 25 April 1911. Published 28 May 1912. Improved buffing means for railway vehicles
Includes rubber
9962 Applied 25 April 1911. Published 25 April 1912. Improved means for absorption of excessive shock and the prevention of mounting of railway carriages in the event of collision
16,686 Applied 2 July 1911, Published 18 July 1912 Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other boilers
16,687 Applied 20 July 1911. Published 18 August 1912. Improved apparatus for disconnecting circulating tubes from the headers of steam superheaters employed for locomotive and other boilers
24,174 Applied 31 October 1911. Published 31 October 1912. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other boilers
24,659 Applied 6 November 1911. Published 26 September 1912. Improvements relating to steam superheaters for use in connection with locomotive and like boilers
25,656 Applied 17 November 1911. Published 10 October 1912. Improved piston valve for locomotive and other steam engines
26,033 Applied 21 November 1911. Published 21 November 1912. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other fire tube boilers.
28,708 Applied 20 December 1911. Published 20 December 1912. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and like tubular boilers
997 Applied 12 January 1912. Published 14 November 1912. Improvements in and relating to tube expanders
6774 Applied 19 March 1912. Published 9 January 1913. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other boilers
8141 Applied 4 April 1912. Published 28 November 1912. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and like tubular boilers
9098 Applied 17 April 1912. Published 13 February 1913. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for marine and like tubular boilers
13,762 Applied 12 June 1912. Published 12 June 1913. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other fire tube boilers
15,039 Applied 27 June 1912. Published 23 December 1912. Improvements relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other smoke tube boilers
23,652 Applied 18 October 1913. Published 19 October 1914. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for marine and like tubular boilers
10,720 Applied 30 April 1914. Published 15 April 1915. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive, marine and like fire tube boilers
10,817 Applied 1 May 1914. Published 29 April 1915. Improvements in piston valves for locomotive and other engines
20,676 Applied 7 October 1914. Published 7 October 1915 Improvements in steam superheaters for marine and other fire-tube boilers
14,657. Applied 16 October 1915. Published 16 October 1916. Improvements in steam superheaters for locomotive and like tubular boilers
15,615. Applied 5 November 1915. Published 1 June 1916. Improvements in lubricators
102,827 Applied 7 January 1916. Published 4 January 1917. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters for locomotive and other similar fire tube boilers
107,394 Applied 31 March 1916. Published 7 March 1917. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters of the multiple smoke or fire tube type with Superheater Corp Ltd
109,063 Applied 26 May 1916. Published 27 August 1917. Improvements in and connected with the employment of pulverised fuel in the furnaces of steam generators
111,055 Applied 12 June 1917, Published 15 November 1917 Improvements connected with the brakes of railway waggons with Industrial Appliances Ltd
120,141 Applied 17 December 1917, Published 3 October 1918. Improvements in draught excluders for the drop lights of railway carriages with Industrial Appliances Ltd
121,172 Applied  3 December 1917, Published 3 December 1918. Improvements in and connected with the ventilation of railway vehicles with Industrial Appliances Ltd
121,328 Applied 8 December 1917, Published 9 December 1918. Improvements in or relating to steam superheaters for locomotive, marine and other boilers
127,736 Applied 13 June 1918, Published 12 June 1919. Improvements in and relating to steam superheaters
130,486 Applied 16 August 1918, Published 7 August 1919. Improvements in and connected with the employment of pulverised fuel in the furnaces of steam generators
130,954 Applied 16 August 1918, Published  14 August 1919. Improvements in and connected with the furnaces of steam generators for the employment of pulverised fuel
145,275 Applied 10 July 1919, Published  2 July 1920. Improvements in and relating to the furnaces of locomotives with Industrial Appliances Ltd
152,406 Applied 10 July 1919. Published 11 October 1920. Improvements in and relating to the furnaces of locomotives with Industrial Appliances Ltd
160,897 Applied 19 December 1919. Published 21 March 1921. Improvements in or relating to burners for liquid fuel or a mixture of pulverised fuel and oil usually known as colloidal fuel with Robert Absalom Thom and Vectis Engineering Company Ltd
163,506 Applied 25 February 1920, Accepted 25 May 1921. Improvements in or relating to burners for use with liquid fuel or a mixture of pulverised fuel and oil usually known as colloidal fuel with Robert Absalom Thom and Vectis Engineering Company Ltd (Patent of addition to 160,897 of 19 December 1919)
159,257 Published 14 February 1921 Improvements in and connected with the use of pulverulent and oil fuel for the furnaces of locomotive boilers with Vectis Engineering Company Ltd
176,938 Applied 8 January 1921. Published 23 March 1922. Improvements in and relating to headers for use in steam superheaters with Gilbert Somerville Lynde, William Alexander and Superheater Corp Ltd
194,055 Applied 7 January 1922, Published 8 March 1923. Improvements in and relating to collision buffers for railway and like vehicles with Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance Co. Ltd.
207,278 Applied 29 August 1922. Published 29 November 1923.Improvements in oil fuel burners with United Oil and Coal Corp Ltd and Robert Absalom Thom


On modern locomotives. Min. Proc. Instn Civ. Engrs., 1873, 37, 1-58 (paper 1369)

Contributions to discussion

Sauvage, Edouard.
Compound locomotives in France. Proc. Instn mech. Engrs., 1904, 327-80. Disc.: 380-467.
Pp. 398-400: Disc.: 380-467.
Robinson described  a run with a 350 ton train at an average speed of 58.8 mph which he stated was "hard to beat in this country" [England]. He commented adversely on the 2 metres driving wheels, and the problems of firing a long grate. He also wondered about the tightness of the Serve tubes.

Association of Railway Locomotive Engineers (via Hughes)
Meeting November 1910: McIntosh raised the topic of superheating:Robinson reported that the previous year he had incorporated a Schmidt superheater into a 0-6-0 locomotive, allowing the firm to make what alterations they wanted. He supported Marsh in pointing to savings in firebox costs arising from the reduction in steam pressure from 180 to 160 lb/sq in, and said he would build some 0-8-0s which would work at the lower pressure.

Illustrated interview. No. 46. Mr John George Robinson. Rly Mag., 1902, 10, 289-99.
Very brief historical sketch of the GCR; less brief survey of locomotive development thereon (Robinson had not long been appointed – in June 1900); covers mainly Pollitt designs. Line drawings of 4-4-2T, 0-8-0 and 4-6-0. Illustrations of Gorton workshops.

Retirement of Mr.J.G. Robinson, C.B.E., Chief Mechanical Engineer, Great Central Railway, 1902-23. Rly Mag., 1923, 52, 480-1 + folding plate. f .p. 431. 16 illus. incl. port.

Obituary notices

John G. Robinson. Rly Gaz. 1943, 79, 603; 620. illus. (port.)
John G. Robinson. Rly Mag., 1944, 90, 2.
The late Mr. John George Robinson. Loco. Rly Carr. Wagon Rev., 1944, 50, 3.

His grave is at Bournemouth North Cemetery see Humm J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc.,, 2015, 38, 252..

Matthew D'Alton Robinson (son of John George)

Born in Limerick in 1892. he was apprenticed at Gorton under his father, but did not appear to shine. His military service in WW1 was terminated by rheumatoid arthritis. David Jackson's J.G. Robinson notes (pp. 136-7) that in "July 1919, a post was created for Matt, that of assistant locomotive running superintendent to Maclure. If there were any problems in finding a suitable role for the CME's son then fate intervened. A.W. Robinson (no relation), the district locomotive superintendent at Neasden, died in May 1922 and his position was filled by Matt. Neasden district really was a plum posting, only the DLS's at Gorton and Mexborough received a higher salary than their counterpart at Neasden, and of course the northern Districts had a far greater workload. Neasden District, when Matt arrived there, had but three locomotive sheds; Neasden, Aylesbury, and Woodford. There had been a small, one road, shed at Marylebone but it no longer serviced engines and had been out of commission and unused before being taken over in 1910 by the GCR Rifle Club as a shooting range. Locomotive allocations in the Neasden district, and at the parent shed in particular, had to be the envy of any similar establishment on the GCR. Nearly all of the engines were only a few years old and of the latest design. They were kept in a beautiful condition by footplate and maintenance staff alike, most of whom had been hand -picked by Maclure for the opening of the Extension. They were dedicated to the Robinson locomotive, everyone was on top of their jobs and the working diagrams ran easily and smoothly, and had done so for years. Altogether it was a most favourable situation for the CME's son. Matthew settled in Northwood and came to work each morning by train, alighting at Neasden station and walking to the shed from the end of the station platform. Bill Harvey, who worked at Neasden remembered he had a partiality for light grey suits and a flower in his buttonhole. 'A Christian gentleman, a complete introvert, inaccessible and protected in a sheltered existence by his father, and on most occasions through the ministrations of his chief clerk, A.J. Sayer'. The latter was a most unpopular individual amongst the men and had been at the shed from its earliest days.'" Died 1974.
Harvey, D.W. Bill Harvey's 60 years of steam. 1986. page 109.
Bill Harvey "spent much time at Neasden deputising for Matthew Robinson during his long speels of illness that led to his early retirement."

Robert Absalom Thom

When examining Thom's patents it became clear that he was very much Robinson's right-hand man and was involved in both the "Robinson superheater" and his experiments with uncoventional fuels. He was even briefly a locomotive superintendent of the Lancashire Derbyshire & East Coast Railway. He was also a remarkable engine builder as he must have been responsible, when at Doncaster, for producing the A4 streamlined Pacifics within a very brief time span. Although short in height his rotund figure is clearly visible in several key pictures of the Pacifics, notably at the naming ceremony of Sir Nigel Gresley..

Thom was born in Aberdeen on 14 June 1873; apprenticed at Kittybrewster (according to Cupit and Taylor as a boilermaker) (GNoSR), appointed Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Superintendent Lancashire Derbyshire & East Coast Railway in 1902 (see Backtrack, 2028, 32, 206). had been responsible for design of M1 class 0-6-4T at Tuxford. (Atkins questions this: Backtrack, 2013, 27, 218) LD&ECR absorbed by GCR in 1907 when he went to Gorton. Appointed by LNER to be Scottish Area Mechanical Engineer, but appointed Mechanical Engineer at Doncaster in 1927. Retired in 1938 and died in Ilkley on 2 November 1955. He is a very obvious figure (in spite of his shortness of stature) in group photographs featuring Gresley. Obituary J. Instn Loco. Engrs, 1955, 45, 450-1..

Beavor was interviewed by Thom, who was then Mechanical Engineer of the Southern Area (served in this capacity between 1934 and 1938: Loco. Rly Carr. Wagon Rev., 1955, 61, 221), when starting his apprenticeship at Doncaster. Beavor noted the portly stature, but also that he was "every inch a man of authority", but put the boy at his ease. He asked to see Beavor's hands and Beavor noted that Thom had thick tough fingers. Harvey also encountered him at Doncaster Works who confirmed that this "rotund little Scotsman" was a boilermaker..

Atkins records (Backtrack, 2013, 27, 218) Green Arrow name whilst he was shaving

Built-up crank axles for modern express locomotives. Rly Gaz., 1935, 62, 510-17. 10 illus., 8 diagrs., table.
The manufacture of monobloc cylinders for 3 cylinder locomotives: details of the practice applied at Doncaster Works of the London & North Eastern Railway. Rly Engr. 1932, 53, 340-3. 6 illus., 2 diagrs

Contribution to discussions
He made an extensive contribution to the discussion of Institution of Locomotive Engineers Paper No. 205 by C.H. Robinson Debatable features in the design of some locomotive details. J. Instn Loco. Engrs, 1926, 16, 936.

162,886 Improvements in steam superheaters. Applied 22 March 1920. Accepted 21 May 1921

See also 160897, 163506 and 207278.

William Rowland

William Rowland came from Liverpool (born in about 1869?), won a Whitworth Scholarship while working in the City's engineering trade, before going to the LNWR at Crewe and then the L&YR at Horwich. From Horwich Rowland progressed to the Drawing Office of Beyer, Peacock and took a leading role in the firm's development in the late 1890s. At the age of 31 he was appointed Works Engineer at Vulcan Foundry and six years later, in 1906, Robinson brought him to Gorton 'Tank' in one of those infrequent occasions where a major railway ventured outside its own domain. Aside from overseeing new design at Gorton, Rowland undoubtedly contributed a good deal to the development of the Robinson superheater; he was a gifted mathematician and some record of Rowland's ideas can be found in his contribution to the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, as well as the monumental series of articles published in The Railway Engineer over several years entitled 'Modem Locomotive Engine Design and Construction'. For some reason Rowland adopted a Greek letter pseudonym (Delta Theta? Omega) for this exercise. Rowland was one of the first in Britain to recognise the merits of stationary locomotive testing and was advocating the establishment of such a facility in the early 1920s several years before Gresley, on the LNER, took a public interest in the cause. He was involved with A.F. Bound in the development of the Reliostop system for train control. In 1929 he joined Gresham & Cravens in Salford. Extract from David Jackson's J.G. Robinson

An approximate method of estimating superheat and boiler output and evapourative efficiency. J. Instn Loco. Engrs., 1919, 9, 3-35. Paper 75.
Chairman's Address: Engine loading for varying classes of traffic. J. Instn Loco. Engrs., 1923, 13, 514-24. Disc.: 524-7.

Contributions to discussion
Gass, E.M. The application of the compound principle to locomotives. J. Instn Loco Engrs., 1927, 17, 5-18. Disc.: 19-29. (Paper No. 208). pp. 20-1\
Allen, C.J. Notes on the influence of design on express locomotive performance. J. Instn Loco. Engrs., 1922, 12, 186 et seq

4961/1905 Improvements in starting valves for multiple expansion engines. Applied 9 March 1905. Published 11 January 1906.

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Updated: 2018-03-20