Toby, Ex-Wisbech LNER J70 tram Engine

Sir Richard Topham Hatt tells us all about the NWR's famous tram engine, Toby!

The Wisbech and Upwell Tramway is, by no small degree, one of the most mythical railway lines to ever exist in the United Kingdom, perhaps only rivalled by the Southwold Line. This beautiful little farmland railway in East Anglia was famed for being purely agricultural, a naive, quiet little railway running alongside the road populated by tram engines. Coincidentally, Sodor's Quarry Tramway is very similar to the Wisbech, although is mainly used for stone traffic, and has an exceptional likeness, in no small part assisted by our own Tram Locomotive, Toby.


Toby is one of the most famous engines in my fleet and is a personal favourite of mine. He was built to replace the smaller Y6 tram locomotives in 1914 at Stratford works, and originally worked at Great Yarmouth Docks with his brothers, built at the same time. He had a simple enough life there, although was not kept in the finest of maintenance- in the 1930s allocation was reduced and as traffic grew on the Wisbech line he found himself transported there - to a quieter, more simple life of transporting strawberries, apples, carrots and flowers! It was a relatively busy line at the time, with plenty of harvest produce during seasonal months keeping the line afloat far better than passenger numbers were capable.


Following here, during the 1940s, Toby was transferred to another small local line he ran by himself. I couldn't tell you much about this little branch - there seems to be practically no documentation for it, but it seems to have mirrored the Wisbech all in all, although in 1927, passenger services on the Wisbech were largely overtaken by a new fangled invention - Omnibuses. It is here where similarities seem to end, as Toby's line remained a passenger hauling railway and a passenger carriage - a classic Wisbech design four-wheel informally called 'Henrietta' was retained on Toby's daily services, along with a standard four wheel GER luggage van called Elsie. It is worth noting his line was often used for war effort, occasionally transporting ammunition from local factories.


However, as time went on, so did the goods traffic - until the 1950s. 1950 itself was an excellent year for the tramway, busy with lots of traffic. By 1951, lorries had been introduced by many of the local farms and it seems that the line's days were numbered. In the Spring of 1951, My Great Grandfather, The First and at the time current 'Fat Controller' of the North Western Railway and his grandchildren (Bridget Hatt, my Aunt, and Stephen Hatt, whom became controller in 1984 and retired in 2006) were holidaying in the small village which Toby knew as home. They met the rather dilapidated Toby and his crew, and struck up a firm friendship. They were there for a fortnight, culminating in a footplate ride, and were very sorry to leave. As luck would have it, it was soon after his return that my grandfather was approached by the Reverend Awdry, a close friend of his, to discuss a tram engine he had seen at Yarmouth. The two were very interested in acquiring a tram for the Ffarquhar Branch. It was here that a position arose very sharply, when the Ffarquhar's E2 Tank Engine, 'Thomas', was booked by a new policeman in the area for travelling on the quarry tramway, that ran alongside the road, for not wearing sideplates and cowcatchers. Embarrassingly, the NWR had actually been breaking the law for quite some time, the policeman beforehand being a very gentle, lenient soul, whom was happy to let a few things 'slip.' This new police officer was far more official and, one has to admit, rightly pointed out the issue. To my Great-Grandfather's chagrin there was no way around the law and traffic to the Quarry Road would not be permitted without modification - something Thomas was very much against, complaining he would 'look like a tram'.


This arose a spark in my Great Grandfather's mind and he looked into acquiring Toby himself. Toby, by coincidence, had been locked in his shed awaiting the cutter's torch, as his line had officially closed. He was awoken the very next day with a letter, requesting Toby's purchase for the North Western Railway on Sodor - allocated to the Ffarquhar's branch, in place immediately after arrival. The manager, eager to get rid of stock, had sold Toby for a miniscule amount, and sent him with Henrietta, whom had one other option of being a now out of work Stationmaster's henhouse! Toby, right enough, was perfectly suited to the Quarry Line, and with his years of incredibly valuable experience became an asset to the line. He was introduced in his dilapidated state, with flaking paint, loose boards and Henrietta practically falling apart.


A few months after his introduction to our fleet we took opportunity to repaint him into a close approximation of GER Chocolate and Blue. Our blue is a touch brighter, but it serves. Henrietta was painted and refitted and both have now been running well for many years. Toby is a headstrong engine. He can be stubborn, even argumentative, and when the Ffarquhar Quarry Company took ownership of a Drewry Class 04 Shunter called ‘Mavis' (Coincidentally, the replacement of the J70s on the Wisbech!) he got into several arguments over changes to his truck arrangements, and after what could have been a very severe accident involving an overflowing stream and broken bridge, they reconciled - Toby's experience now in place across most aspects of the Ffarquhar Branch's running.


Toby is also well known for his running of the 'Vintage', a train that runs every morning and evening for carrying Quarry Staff. This consists of Henrietta, Victoria, and Elsie. To those unacquainted personally with the North Western Railway, Elsie may be unknown - She never featured in a story, or even illustration. She's a very small, old fashioned piece of stock and isn't as often used as she'd like, but she remains well cared for. Ultimately, Toby has become one of the most responsible, intelligent, albeit old fashioned locomotives on the North Western Railway, and one of the most important in the day to day running of our railway. He is well respected, although still receives the odd comment from engines on the main line, due to his old age and antiquated design.


Toby is, above all else, a curiosity, and an engine that we could never go without. His Quarry Tramway has become as famous as the Wisbech, and continues to attract both tourist trade and carries ton after ton of stone every day. Toby's main hindrance is his small water supply - the J70s had limitations of only 15cwt of Coal and only 625 gallons of water. Toby needs to stop for water at Elsbridge on each journey, the branch line being a touch too long in total for his tanks. This minor bugbear does nothing to slow his services, but it has landed him in a pickle the odd time - Something those who have read the Railway Series will know all too well! Toby, unfortunately, remains the last of his class. However, as a result of his fame, there are many diesel replicas, my personal favourite being at the East Anglian Railway Museum, which even has a matching carriage. Personally, however, while it may not be my place to say, I do not think this is sufficient.


The J70 was an enterprising, even sometimes powerful little class of locomotive - Toby himself has once pulled some 48 trucks of stone (and indeed a train this length has been documented as taking place on the old Wisbech branch more than one successful fruit harvest!). And their curiosity value can't be overestimated. I, personally, believe it would be a wonderful starting project for groups wishing to build a new steam locomotive. A J70, after all, would easily make a return on days celebrating a certain tank engine, and the Wisbech has achieved such a mythical stance in rail enthusiasts I have not the slightest doubt it would be a popular addition to any fleet. It is rare, as a controller, I get particularly affectionate about a class of locomotive, but I would love to see more than a single steam tram in existence.


There are currently plans for a heritage railway travelling from Wisbech to March, being spearheaded by The Bramley Line Heritage Railway Trust - this group has my full support, and I think if any railway should end up with a reproduction of a GER Tram, it is surely this one. Toby is an engine I would love you all to see far closer to home. Until then, on the Ffarquhar Branch, you'll see a little six-wheeled box shaped wooden locomotive trundling along with a train of stone every day through the countryside, ringing his bell to any people he passes.

Find out more about Toby and his origins on the internet's definitive Awdry Railway Series website - The Real Lives of Thomas The Tank Engine.

The LNER Encyclopedia gives a greater insight into the old tramway that Toby and Mavis' prototypes used to work on - the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway.

Click the link above for relevant books and products about Toby and the Wisbech and Upwell Tramway!