Born Peter Norman Townend in Doncaster, both his parents were teachers, and he attended the local grammar school.
Aged just 9, he was thrilled by seeing a silver A4 train, thunder through Doncaster Station, as part of the Silver Jubilee Express. His love of trains was kindled.
When Peter left school, he was offered an apprenticeship to become a locomotive engineer with the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER). The railway works were known as ‘The Plant’. He learned his trade quickly.
Peter soon realised that many of the LNER engines were in poor condition – but as it was wartime, there was not the wherewithal to repair or maintain them effectively.
After qualifying, he was moved ‘upstairs’ to the drawing office. It was there he met Daphne, whom he married in 1950. They had two children.
Promotion came soon afterwards. He joined the motive power department before being transferred to Liverpool Street where he designed headboards for the East Coast expresses – including the Flying Scotsman.
He then moved throughout East Anglia as a relief manager of various ‘sheds’. He went to Hatfield, then March, then Boston, and had spells at Bury St Edmunds, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.
He made a very positive impression, praised for making the steam engines in his care work as efficiently as the more modern diesel trains. He improved the Flying Scotsman by adding a double chimney and deflectors.
Consequently, in 1956, aged just 31, Peter was appointed to the most prestigious position in railway engineering – ‘Shedmaster’ at the famed ‘Top Shed’ at King’s Cross Station in London. He beat over 300 other applicants to get the job.
Top Shed had been designed and managed by Sir Nigel Gresley, who died just as Peter had begun his career on the railways. One of the locomotives Peter was responsible for, was named after Gresley.
Many of the grizzled, old and experienced railway workers were extremely skeptical about such a young man becoming their ‘boss’, but he made an immediate impression.
On his very first day, he gave a ‘rollicking’ (his words) to a fireman who had derailed a tender in the sheds by changing the points without noticing there was a piece of coal jammed in them.
Peter had to manage a large workforce across two sites – and regularly clashed with engine drivers and firemen. Gradually, they became impressed with his knowledge, work ethic, fairness – and obvious love of the engines.
It may have taken time to win over the railway men, but he was immediately loved by the Polish immigrants who cleaned the trains, and the West Indians who cleaned out the fireboxes. He knew everybody’s name – and treated each person as an equal and was liked for his pleasant and mild manner.
He was in charge of over 1,000 staff – and had up to 19 A4 class trains (also known as ‘Pacifics’) in his care, including all the famous ones – The Flying Scotsman, The Mallard, the Green Arrow, the Sir Nigel Gresley and The Dominion of Canada.
Peter was a great believer in technological advancement and was constantly trying to improve the efficiency and speed of the trains in his charge. He would test them out by running them at maximum speed whilst totally empty.
On one occasion, he forced the exclusive ‘Queen of Scots’ express to park at Newark whilst he sent a speedy train past it. The VIP passengers on the Queen of Scots, hung out of the train windows, desperate to see what it was that was so important that their train had to be halted.
One of Peter’s biggest challenges came in June 1961, with the wedding of the Duke of Kent to Katharine Worsley. It was in York Minster. He was told every train from London, carrying guests, should be steam-hauled.
He laid on a Royal Train and two VIP trains, all hauled by steam driven A4s. There was a spare train based at Hitchin in case anything went wrong – but it all ran extremely smoothly.
Peter was one of the first people to realise the age of steam was coming to an end. “People generally were not prepared to accept the dirt, grime and smoke associated with steam traction, and there were many menial, unpleasant tasks that had to be carried out in primitive conditions at depots, which few men really wanted to do.”
To this end, as early as 1959 (before there was a general realization that the steam era was ending), he got involved in steam preservation. Peter helped Captain Bill Smith buy a LNER J52 tank engine (known as ‘The Old Lady’) – now in the National Railway Museum in York. He paid for the train to have its workings modernized. It still had the original 1923 mechanics, which had long ceased working.
By the end of 1961, diesel trains had overtaken steam locomotives as the fastest trains out of King’s Cross.
Peter remained in charge of Top Shed until it was demolished in 1963. He was the last person to hold the position of Shedmaster at the station.
As Top Shed came down, Peter arranged new homes for all his A4 class trains, usually in museums. He worked extensively with the National Railway Museum (NRM) at York.
He was then given a managerial position at King’s Cross, but said nothing ever equalled the thrill he had from the engines in the ‘Top Shed’.
He retired in 1984, and, with Daphne, he moved to Torquay.
There, he pursued the hobby of railway photography. As a young man, he had been taught the skills by Eric Treacy – who later became Bishop of Wakefield.
Peter wrote (and illustrated) two books; ‘Top Shed’ (1977). And ‘LNER Pacifics Remembered’ (2014).
In 2016, Peter was invited to a reunion of the 7 remaining A4 class steam locomotives. This included the one-time world speed record holder, The Mallard, which had once been one of ‘his’ locomotives.
Peter said, “I have seen the A4s as they were built and have ridden on them since the 1940s. I wanted to come and see them on display for a final time.”
He said it was one of his greatest ever days.
The NRM said, “We are deeply saddened by the news of Peter’s death – one of the last great figures from the age of steam.”
RIP – Railways Inspire Photography