Francis William Webb was appointed Locomotive Superintendent of the London & North Western Railway (LNWR), in 1871, and for 32 years held that position, until failing health forced him to resign in 1903. He has been described as an autocratic manager, and during his time, it has been argued that much of his work – especially in the use of compounding – was unnecessary or ineffective operationally. However, it cannot be denied that he was a man who drove the development of Crewe Works, and established the company at the forefront of railway and engineering technology in the Victoria era.
His engineering knowledge and desire to provide innovative solutions may not always have been a success – either practically, operationally, or commercially – but they took the boundaries of the technology forward. Whilst he inherited the development of Crewe Works from his predecessor John Ramsbottom, it was Webb that pioneered the use of both Bessemer and Siemens Open Hearth processes to manufacture steel rails.
Webb started his career back in 1851, at the age of 15, as an engineering apprentice, under the tutillage of Francis Trevithick, and later John Ramsbottom – himself a prodigious inventor, designer and locomotive engineer. By 20, Webb had moved into the Drawing Office, and in March 1859, when he was just 23, FW Webb was appointed Chief Draughtsman. In 1862, the LNWR was formed by the combination of the Manchester & Birmingham, and Grand Junction Railways, and Webb was promoted and moved to Crewe as Works Manager, as John Ramsbottom was appointed CME of the LNWR.
Intriguingly, Webb left the railway company in 1866, to join the Bolton Iron Co. – confirming perhaps his expanding engineering interests and knowledge. The Bolton company was part owned by John Hick, who later became a director of the LNWR. Less than four years later, and due to John Ramsbottom’s deteriorating health, Webb returned to the railway in 1870, taking over completely in 1871.
It may seem urprising that a Vicar’s son from Tixall could rise to such heights in such a short period, but it must be remembered that railway and locomotive engineering was the ‘new technology’ of the day, and certainly a new industry. Unliked his brother, Francis Webb showed little interest in a religious career, but showed both an aptitude and great ability in menchanical engineering.
Whilst that ability may not have been enthusisastically lauded by the operational railway engineers on the LNWR, his successful locomotive designs were very successful, and a number lived on into the British Railways era. Of the 26 different locomotive types delivered under his leadership, only 11 were compounds, the remainder – some 2,563 locomotives, were simple expansion. The compounds totalled 531, with most built in the 1890s.
Please click on either of the two tables below for a bigger picture ……
The descriptions in the PDF file below is an overview of the various classes, which I hope is of interest:
Francis William Webb and His Locomotives
I originally wrote this item for the magazine “Engineering in Miniature” back in the 1980s, and wanted to revisit the matter of compound operation in steam locomotives. The magazine is still in full swing, and I envy the skills of the model engineers, who are everywhere producing small – not always that miniature – replicas of the real thing. Their skills in almost every aspect of engineering practice, and their workshop capabilities are something we can all be proud of.
This is a link to the magazine’s site:
Further information ….
- LNWR Society Photos
- London & North Western Railway Society
- Historical Model Railway Society
- Francis William Webb (Wikipedia)