Historical Background

The Breakdown Crane in the Early 20th Century

A rapid increase in the size and weight of locomotives was the trigger for larger breakdown cranes to be introduced early in the 20th century, locomotives in general having almost doubled in dimensions and weight compared with their counterparts of just two decades earlier.  We follow the rapid increase in breakdown crane capacities in the new century and come across an invention that would enable even the heaviest of them to run on weight-restricted track from which they might otherwise have been prohibited…

At the end of the 19th century, by far the majority of steam breakdown cranes on British railway systems were of 15 tons capacity built by Cowans Sheldon.  The first five years of the 20th century saw orders placed with Cowans Sheldon for several more 15-ton cranes and just three 20-tonners.  That same builder was then called upon by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway in 1906 to build a crane of 30 tons capacity but this was in general no more than an enlarged version of the by-now-dated 20-ton design.

In 1907, the North Eastern Railway placed an order with Craven Brothers for three cranes of 20 tons capacity.  The order was amended during the design stage to uprate the capacity to 25 tons and amongst the few changes required to accomplish this was an increase in centre post diameter from 16” to 18” and wire ropes being fitted instead of chains for load lifting, the derricking tackle already being wire rope.

The Cowans Sheldon 30-ton crane supplied to the L&YR in 1906 and the three Cravens supplied to the NER in 1907 thus became the largest capacity breakdown cranes on home railways, however they and their contemporaries had evolved from the design of the manual cranes of half a century earlier and the type had reached its practicable limit in capacity.

1907 Craven CME 13

1907 Craven 25-ton crane CME 13 at the National Railway Museum

Superstructure of CME 13

Side view of the superstructure of CME 13

In 1908, co-operation between the GWR and Ransomes & Rapier provided the answer to the capacity problem with the introduction of the 36-ton breakdown crane, this being of an advanced design and the fundamentals of which were soon to be followed by the major competitors in breakdown cranes.  This crane was the GWR No. 2 already referred to, with photo, in "The First Breakdown Cranes..."

Other railways soon began to place their own orders for heavy breakdown cranes, including the previously hesitant LNWR whose first order on the specialist builders was placed with Cowans Sheldon in 1908 for a 25-ton crane (later uprated to 30 tons) and on Ransomes & Rapier in 1909 for a 36-ton crane, to be followed in 1913 and 1916 with orders on Cowans Sheldon for two more of 36 tons capacity.

In 1911 the Taff Vale Railway ordered a remarkable crane from Cowans Sheldon, to a specification produced by Mr T Hurry Riches.  The specification called for a crane which could operate either as a breakdown crane with a capacity of 35 tons at 22 feet radius or as a quayside crane with a capacity of 50 tons at 20 feet radius using up to 42 tons of additional ballast to provide the extra stability required.  At the time of delivery this was the largest capacity standard gauge rail-mounted crane in Britain, although not strictly the largest capacity breakdown crane since the heaviest lifts needed the crane to be static.  This crane, which entered GWR stock upon grouping and survived until 1969, was used as the design basis for simplified 36-ton cranes for the LNWR in 1913 and the NBR in 1914.

Another notable benchmark was reached in 1916 when the Midland Railway took delivery of the first breakdown crane in the UK of the Stokes Bogie type.  This was a Ransomes & Rapier of 36 tons capacity which, by virtue of their Mr Stokes's invention of weight-relieving bogies, could travel from its Derby home base along routes from which heavy cranes might otherwise be barred due to track loading limits.  Before long, both Cowans Sheldon and Craven Brothers developed their own implementations of the Stokes Bogie.  (The story of the Stokes Patent Relieving Bogie may be found within the Design and Development section.)

The Midland’s amalgamation into the London, Midland and Scottish railway in 1923 was soon to be followed by larger locomotives being built for the whole LMS system, including some of 6P and 7F power classification.  The LMS thus found that more 36-ton breakdown cranes were needed and in 1930 it placed orders for six Stokes Bogie type cranes from three different makers - one from Ransomes & Rapier, two from Craven Brothers and three from Cowans Sheldon - all to a specification based on the Ransomes & Rapier 36-tonner built for the Midland in 1916.  (The story of the 1930/31 Ransomes & Rapier crane and its five half-sisters may be found in the Selected Chronicles section.)

Works photo of MP3

Ransomes & Rapier 36-ton relieving bogie crane ordered by the LMS in 1930, pictured at their Waterside Works, Ipswich, prior to delivery in 1931