An epitaph compiled by Simon Marshall of the Severn Valley Railway. Grateful thanks to Simon for giving his permission for it to be published here.
We are very sorry to have to record the passing of Pete Simpson on 24 August 2019 at the age of 77. His close friend Columb Howell had become concerned that he had heard nothing from him for a week and more so tried to contact Pete’s neighbour, only to discover the dreadful news two weeks after the event. A post-mortem revealed that he died of a combination of lung cancer and leukaemia. It would seem that he left it far, far too late to seek help and once he had virtually collapsed with breathing difficulties there was nothing the medics could do. His funeral took place at Gloucester on October 17th 2019. He had no known surviving relatives, thankfully it was well attended by many friends and colleagues.
Born in June 1942, Pete Simpson’s knowledge of the workings of GW locomotives was legendary, but this was only his hobby, albeit a life-long and all-consuming one. He worked as a draughtsman at the engineering firm of Fielding & Platt Ltd., a firm of hydraulic engineers founded October 1866 and who were an important part of Gloucester’s manufacturing sector until closure in 2003. In 1939 the company became part of the Heenan & Froude group, headquartered in Worcester, which held the rights to the UK manufacture of Caprotti valve gears for steam locomotives and also supplied the dynamometers (water brakes) for the Rugby locomotive test plant as well as for testing diesel engines.
Peter entered the company in 1958 as an Apprentice. He then moved to the Light Machine Shop, which is where he learned his considerable skills in machining. After his training he became a draughtsman, working in the drawing office, but latterly he worked in a separate office on a drawing board on his own. He really enjoyed his drawing work and had no aspirations to progress into management, remaining simply a draughtsman for the rest of his career.
In 1968 the Heenan Group merged with Redman Engineering and renamed itself Redman Heenan International plc. Later the company decided to cease its heavy engineering business and concentrated instead on property development and leasing and in the early 1980s, Pete, along with many others, became victim of a large redundancy exercise. We think it was at about this time that his father suffered a debilitating stroke and Pete took on the role of full time carer, apparently making ends meet from the carer’s allowance. He used to bring his father up to Bewdley at weekends, where he was a well-respected figure.
Pete’s very long railway preservation career began in the early 1960s at the Dowty Railway Preservation Society at Ashchurch, replacing piston valve rings on 0-6-2T No. 6697, as well as jobs on No. 6808 Cookham Manor, working alongside Bristol Bath Rd steam loco fitter Gerald Peacock. After the main GW locomotive exhibits moved away from Ashchurch to Didcot in 1970 the site rather folded up and Pete transferred his allegiance to the SVR at Bewdley. However, at around that time Pete, together with six other Gloucester enthusiasts bought ex-Devonport Dock Barclay 0-4-0ST, works No. 2221 of 1946, subsequently named Bert, currently resident in a partly dismantled state on the Dean Forest Railway.
Pete quickly became heavily involved with the fledgling Severn Valley Railway and over the years took several scrapyard GWR locomotive projects under his wing, principally small 2-6-2T No. 4566, large 2-6-2T No. 5164 and 2-6-0 No. 7325, every one of which is ideally suited to the SVR.
As well as working at Fielding’s in Gloucester he spent some time at ‘Head Office’ in Worcester and apparently used to drive up to Bewdley in his lunch hour, do some work on 4566 and then drive back. How he fitted that into the time officially available must have raised a few eyebrows!
After his redundancy he was offered paid work on the SVR but turned it down, saying “I don’t want to take money off my friends for doing what I will be doing anyway”. He also took over his father’s Mk1 ‘Cortina’ and, being a true engineer, kept welding more and more steel into the chassis each year to keep it passing its MOT until the weight of the vehicle must have been reaching the limit of the suspension springs.
Pete Simpson had a formidable knowledge on the technicalities of GW locomotives and was the man who taught so many of us virtually all we know about them. He was a very private person and also very nocturnal. Dressed in a flat cap black with grease and an amazing army green ‘bri-nylon’ jumper than seemed to keep growing in the length of the arms, he used to get cracking in Bewdley machine shop once everyone on site had gone down to the pub in the evening, often running 2 or even 3 machines at the same time. From about midnight he was happy to sit in his GW ‘riding van’ with the stove going, drinking coffee, smoking roll-ups and chatting GW loco engineering until 2, 3 or even 4 am! On one occasion Phil Cheesewright showed a cine film but, due to loading the take-up reel incorrectly in the dark, yards of film coiled themselves round his feet. He giggled at that. On another night an owl landed on the roof and Pete quietly opened the window and recorded the owl’s hooting on his old reel to reel tape recorder, then rewound it and played the recording back to the owl through the open window, causing the owl much excitement and consternation!
He didn’t suffer fools gladly, yet at the same time he could be a wonderful teacher. Pete encouraged Phil to do some machining of the steam fountain – very scary – and explained the dimensioning of drawings so as to aid the machinist.
Late in life he found happiness with his partner, Elizabeth Poole, whom he had originally known at Ashchurch. Her favourite loco was No. 6201 Princess Elizabeth, the reason for which should be obvious! But, being of the LMS persuasion, she amazingly also owned a 3½” gauge model of a ‘Black Five’, a thing Pete tolerated with a fond indulgence which was lovely to see! They were a well-matched couple – after all, how many girls do you know who own a steam engine? Once again his selfless character came to the fore as he acted as her carer in her final years. Both Elizabeth and Pete’s older brother, Eric, who was a driver on the main line at Gloucester and whom Pete greatly admired, died in 2017 and this double loss affected Pete deeply.
Pete was a driver on the SVR. After one fraught trip with a hopeless fireman Pete watched as the man, black with coal dust and with perspiration pouring down his face, continued grimly throwing coal into the blacked-out fire. “Well”, chuckled Pete, “He’s still trying!” He was also not one for hanging about. On one occasion he came hurtling down the line towards Bewdley South signal box, lurched over the cross-over well in excess of the permitted speed and then, once the engine had regained an even keel, calmly observed to his white knuckled fireman “Ha! I frightened myself that time!”
Pete’s help on GW 2-8-0 No. 2857 was immeasurable. He organised a batch of safety valves being made complete and tested at Swindon and, later, a batch of manifold castings just before Swindon Works closed. He also helped by selling us a few original fittings – whistle valves, clacks, tender water valves – and assisted us to re-metal and bore out one of the big end brasses that unfortunately had been butchered at Barry. He was also of great help with dimensions of various other loco parts such as glands for piston and valve rods. But above all he was always ready to assist with advice and with the loan of Swindon drawings and special tools he had acquired over the years.
Pete took it upon himself to re-draw the Swindon drawings of standard fitting to incorporate modern limits and fits and to detail all the parts separately, thereby aiding all preservationists engaged on restoring GW locos. For example, patterns from Pete’s drawing of the lubricator components have gone on to produce 90 sets of parts! He also drew all the single cone ejector parts, and went on to machine the body castings in the Bewdley machine shop ‘on nights’. He produced a system drawing for steam brake and for vacuum brake locos. However, Pete’s crowning glory on the drawing board was producing a full set of working drawings for a Churchward ‘Intermediate’ tender. All 12 of the ‘Intermediate’ tenders had been cut up and no drawings existed; in fact Pete suspected that no drawings had ever been produced and that the tenders were simply assembled by a few sketches showing the minimal differences from the Churchward standard 3500 gallon tender. Pete’s ‘Intermediate’ tender drawings are a work of art produced with a Rotring ink pen on plastic film, and allowed Bridgnorth to build the first and only Churchward intermediate in existence, for loco 7325.
But that wasn’t his only crowning glory! Late in life, with encouragement from others, he learned computer aided drawing (CAD). Having mastered this new skill he went on to produce drawings for the re-creation of the ‘Grange’ class 4-6-0, No. 6880 Betton Grange, currently being built at Llangollen. Peter gave encouragement from the very start of the project as he believed strongly that this missing class of loco should return to the rails. His crowning glory on that project is generally reckoned to be his carefully researched re-drawing of the frame extensions, a pair of forgings supporting the cylinders, for which no original drawings existed. But apart from the meticulous work in recreating these extension frame drawings from scratch he also did the majority of the work in preparing the cylinder drawings, the originals of which were also thought to have been lost. However, after a detailed search by others into York’s uncatalogued drawings, the originals were found. He was immensely pleased when able to compare them to find that he had created a drawing that was virtually an exact copy of the GWR original. His CAD version only needed updating, with help from Elliot Powick, to bring it to the required program version for Premier Patterns to use to cut the polystyrene pattern. It is a great tragedy that he didn’t live to see this project completed.
He also greatly assisted the teams restoring GW Pannier Tank No. 7714; Hawksworth Pannier Tank 1501; the ‘4150 Fund’ with their large 2-6-2T; the ‘Erlestoke Manor Fund’ with their two locomotives No. 7802 Bradley Manor and No. 7812 Erlestoke Manor and the Erlestoke offshoot team restoring GW 2-8-0 No. 2885. Latterly he was preparing CAD drawings for a new tender for 7802. He was unstinting in his help to them all. But there was more – he helped the Carriage & Wagon Department at Bewdley with drawings and machining for the extensive collection of GWR and LNER coaches. His efforts here alone were phenomenal. He designed the rebuild of GWR former Third Corridor coach No.5043, since gutted at Swindon as a workshop, to a replica GWR Restaurant Car No. 9581, skilfully modified by Pete to give access to all, and the conversion of LNER Pigeon Van No. 70759 to Brake Third Corridor coach No. 24506, as well as preparing drawings and machining numerous small parts and fittings for various carriages.
To borrow the epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren; If you seek his monument, look around the preserved GWR (and more) rolling stock! May he rest in peace; he will be hugely missed.
Thanks are due to the following for help and contributions with these notes: Phil Cheesewright, John Davis, Tony Dyer, Richard Gunning, John Hancock, Columb Howell, Terry Jenkins, Quentin McGuiness, Gerald Peacock, Peter Skelton, Steve Whittaker.
We think this epitaph ably illustrates the quality of a Fielding & Platt apprenticeship!
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