1923 ‘Challenger’

Bassett Lowke/Henry Greenly

‘Challenger’

This is a fascinating model locomotive and one steeped in a rich wealth of model engineering history.  We are proud to be it’s custodian here at The Steam Workshop.  We are also very pleased to be able to add a new chapter to the Challenger story and put right some of the ‘accepted’ published history!

The ‘Battle of the Boilers’

Most people involved in the model engineering hobby will be aware of the so called ‘Battle of the Boilers’ that took place in the run up to, and at the 1924 Model Engineering Exhibition.  This was ultimately a contest between two miniature locomotives, one with a spirit fired boiler and one with a boiler fired upon coal to prove which was the better method.

The story had begun a couple of years earlier in the correspondence columns of the Model Engineer & Electrician Magazine (as the Model Engineer was then titled), where a number of correspondents were discussing the performance of methylated spirit fired water tube boilers in small locomotives.

Entering the debate, one Lillian (Curly) Lawrence, using the sobriquet LBSC claimed that a locomotive type boiler fired by coal was far more efficient despite being more complex to build, and was eminently practical in the smaller scales.  He finished off his opening shot by suggesting that the meths fired boiler should be ‘thrown in the bin’,….. and the fight was on!  Now having read through all these articles, we can say that in our opinion the delightfully bullish LBSC was a bit on the confrontational side in his comments, and ultimately the written debate attracted notice from such names as Henry Greenly and W.J.Bassett-Lowke, as well as other well respected pioneers of the model engineering world, which at this date was still in it’s relative infancy.  After a lengthy debate, and shall we say ‘shots fired’ on both sides,…. Bassett-Lowke who as we know owning the company bearing his name was significantly invested in the manufacture of spirit fired models at the time issued a challenge to LBSC!  Smithies’ boiler (meths fired) verses locomotive coal fired type.

We have reproduced all the original Model Engineer articles here in case you fancy a fascinating dip into history and reading some of the story yourselves.  See who you’d have been rooting for nearly 100 years ago!

The Locomotive

Following the very public debate, W.J.Bassett Lowke, decided that it was now of paramount importance to demonstrate that a spirit fired loco was perfectly capable of hauling ‘live’ loads,…. (people to you and I!)  He was also clearly irritated in his responses to LBSC’s writings, and it seems to us that he wanted to publicly beat him as much as prove the worth of his companies products!  So he asked Henry Greenly to design him a locomotive to challenge LBSC’s coal fired Atlantic ‘Ayesha’ at the forthcoming Model Engineer Exhibition in December 1923. Greenly was by now fully occupied at the Ravenglass & Eskdale railway, and by all accounts was puzzled as to why his friend was so anxious to pursue the matter,…. himself, having given LBSC’s engine and the boiler debate little further thought.  However, he produced a 3 cylinder 2-8-2 design and Greenly’s original drawings are re-produced below.

Bassett Lowke, allocating two of his experienced model engineers Mr.Braunston and Mr.J.Walters to the project soon had the engine under construction in their Northampton workshops.  The locomotive was to be named, appropriately enough,…..’Challenger’!

Helpfully for us, Greenly also wrote up the project for the Model Engineer, and on January 10th 1924 they published a very thorough article on the project.  As well as a rich description of the technical details of the model, there are a number of good photographs showing the part constructed loco which have proved invaluable to us 93 years later. Again, for your interest the article is re-produced in full here:

After the ‘Head to Head’ Battle

At the 1923 Model Engineering exhibition, a 60 foot length of straight, raised track was set up, and the two respective models, Ayesha and Challenger each took turns in running for 15 minutes back and fourth with their drivers in tow. Challenger completed fractionally more distance in the allocated time, (half a lap of the track, minus 10 seconds) to quote LBSC, and was therefore technically the ‘winner’.  Ayesha, however was pulling the 12 stone LBSC, where as the Bassett Lowke driver was only 9.  Because the objectives of the whole thing were never particularly clear, and the two locos so fundamentally different, both sides were able to focus on the bits that they felt supported their objectives and claim the win.  They continued to argue past each other in the subsequent press, and amusingly,…. and rather predictably, the challenge resolved nothing between the protagonists.

The full continued debate is re-produced here for you to enjoy should you feel that way inclined!

The Story post 1924!

Gerry Collins had really done his homework collecting as much information as he could on the loco and as such it came to us with a large folder full of model engineer articles and general photocopies of mentions for the loco from other magazines and books.  From this collated material several things have become apparent.
Firstly, although it was commonly understood that the locomotive was ultimately re-boilered with a coal fired boiler, today, she is still wearing her original water tube boiler.  We can be sure of through direct comparison to the part build photos published in the ME, January 1924.  The construction and backhead are clearly visible in these photos and are identical to the loco as it stands today.  When we strip it down, hopefully we will be able to demonstrate this definitively by photographing our loco in the same state and position as these original photos.
We’ve read through the early ME articles now, and it seems to us that the reports of her being retro-fitted with a coal fired boiler originate from LBSC himself,….. (he also wrote that the engine had been scrapped!) Having observed his,… less than charitable approach to BL and Greenly, and his vested interest in running down Challenger, we reckon it likely that he was the source of this myth.
Mr Fry of chocolate fame bought Challenger sometime between 1925 and 1928, and commissioned Steadman Jackson to build a larger 3 1/2″ replica, which essentially took the form of the original Challenger loco but with a few ‘Stanier-esque’ tweaks.  This loco ‘Hercules’, is I think the source of some further initial confusion.  Jackson and/or possibly BL offered the castings to make this 3 1/2″ gauge loco, and at least one was made, (possibly by BL) with ‘Challenger’ written on the tender.  This locomotive was presented in the BL book as the ‘original 1924 Battle of the boilers 3 1/2″ gauge ‘Challenger’ loco’, which of course it was not.  Hercules was also coal fired, and looks really similar visually to our loco in its current form, so it’s my feeling that either Fry had Jackson modify it to look like Hercules, or that Challenger had already been cosmetically modified pre 1928, and so Fry/Jackson’s 3 1/2″ replica copied the modified Challenger rather than the original.
To re-cap,…. the story so far.  We are convinced that this ‘Challenger’ is the original one.  Ironically the boiler seems to confirm it, but equally the frames, rods, wheels, buffer beams and cylinders are an exact match to the 1924 part build loco photographs.  Also the bogie wheel is extremely distinctive, and although we have seen several other ‘Challenger’ locos in 3 1/2″ and possibly in 2 1/2″, to date, none wearing this bogie wheel,….. except of course our one.  Even the frame construction countersunk screws are visible in the 1924 ME pics, and the slots are in the same orientation as the model currently stands,  suggesting further that at least the chassis has never been apart.  The boiler is, we think the original, and it doesn’t appear that it was ever re-boilered for coal firing.  That we think, was a rumor started and then expanded upon by LBSC, or perhaps to be slightly more charitable, it stemmed from confusion between Challenger, and Hercules and it’s replicas.
Our plan here at ‘The Steam Workshop (currently unless anyone raises any objections), is to sympathetically restore Challenger back to original 1924, unpainted, polished condition and pair her with a replica bogie tender.  The steam pipes will be removed (conserved obviously), and the windows in the cab filled in with a different material to the cab side sheet so that our modifications are clear and honest.  The net result I think will actually be a highly original loco, excepting of course the tender.  The Stanier tender is interesting as we believe that it is wearing the original bogie tender buffer beams and wheels.  (We were wondering if the wheels and perhaps even bogies might have been a standard BL design and therefore potentially you might be able to help us source some authentic parts?).  Ostensibly however, we plan to preserve the Stanier tender in it’s current form to preserve the green paint and historical links to the loco in it’s Stanier-esque form.