Skip to main content

Beyer, Peacock & Co. Ltd: from Manchester to the world

Published: 25 July 2017

In the second half of the 19th century, the rail network was expanding rapidly in the UK and around the world. The increasing demand for locomotive engines combined with innovative designs assured the success of Manchester company Beyer, Peacock & Co. Ltd. The company built almost 8,000 locomotives, which were shipped globally.

Early years

The company was established in 1854 by Charles Frederick Beyer and Richard Peacock, along with the Scottish engineer and ironmaster, Henry Robertson. Both Beyer and Peacock had experience of working in the railway industry. Beyer had moved to Manchester in 1834 to work for Sharp, Roberts & Co., while Peacock had previously worked with the Great Western Railway and the Manchester & Sheffield Railway.

Beyer's reputation as Chief Engineer with Sharp, Roberts & Co. meant that the new company received its first order (from the East Indian Railway company in 1855) before any part of the Beyer, Peacock works had been built. They went on to develop a wide range of locomotive designs, meeting the specific needs of clients through innovation and invention. One example of the company’s innovative work was the design, in 1864, of a 4-4-0 condensing tank engine for use on the Metropolitan Railway, which was part of the newly established London Underground.

Beyer, Peacock and the Gorton Works

The Gorton Works

Beyer, Peacock’s works at Gorton were purpose-built for the manufacture of steam locomotives. At the time the company was established, Gorton was a small community of 2,000 people. This area to the east of Manchester was still rural. With the establishment of Beyer, Peacock’s works (known as Gorton Foundry) and with the Manchester & Sheffield Railway’s works (known as Gorton Tank) just across the railway tracks, the area changed considerably between 1854 and 1904.

In 1854, the works included boiler shops, a smithy and forge, an iron foundry, the fitting, erecting and machine shops, the pattern shop, stables, offices, a store room, a grinding shop and the joiners shop. By 1864, the smithy had expanded, with the forge relocated to a new building, new tender shops had been built, the machine shops had diversified to include specific areas for work on wheels, cylinders and machine tools, and gardens had been planted outside the general offices.

The next phase of large-scale building and improvement at the works came in the 1920s, when a new boiler shop was built and the roof of the erecting shop was replaced, with the addition of roof lights to give better visibility in the working areas. Many of the original buildings from both the 1850s and 1920s are still standing on the site.

Employment at the works had also increased by the 1920s, from an average of 350 in 1855 to 2,395 in 1928. Employment levels peaked in 1930, when the company employed an average of 2,514 people. Much of this expansion in employment was probably due to Beyer, Peacock’s new locomotive star, the Beyer-Garratt.

The Beyer-Garratt locomotive

Herbert William Garratt designed and patented the articulated steam locomotive that became known as the Beyer-Garratt. Garratt joined the North London Railway as an apprentice in 1879, aged 15. By the age of 25, he was a district locomotive superintendent in Argentina and he also worked in Cuba, Lagos and Peru before returning to Britain in 1906.

In 1907, Garratt came to the Beyer, Peacock works as the inspector of locomotives for the New South Wales Government Railway. He had already come up with a design for an articulated locomotive which would overcome many of the problems encountered by locomotives like the Fairlie and the Kitson-Meyer.

Garratt’s innovative design was for a cradle-type locomotive, with the boiler positioned on two sets of bogies and the drive wheels placed at either end of the locomotive. This resulted in a clear space under the locomotive where the drive wheels would normally have been. The space was used by Garratt to create shorter and more efficient boilers along with a larger, deeper firebox and ashpan. These two improvements meant that the engine burned its fuel more economically to heat the water and, as a result, gave the locomotive more power in relation to its weight. The positioning of the water tank and fuel bunker above the bogies also gave the engine better traction, allowing it to negotiate very tight curves as well as cope with steeper gradients while pulling large loads.

Over the lifetime of the Beyer-Garratt design, a total of 1,636 Garratts ran on 86 railways in 48 countries. Of these, Beyer, Peacock & Co. built 1,116 at their Gorton works. One of the largest customers for Garratt locomotives was South African Railways. Their first GA class locomotives in 1920 proved the superiority of the Garratt over the Mallet articulated locomotive, while the later GL class was one of the largest steam engines ever built. An example of the GL class is preserved in the Power Hall.

Garratts were also successful in underdeveloped countries where investment in the development of railway lines was not always possible. The Garratt design allowed railways in countries like Sierra Leone to operate a single engine pulling a longer train with only one crew over the single line track. The Garratt also had good longevity. Many of the Sierra Leone Garratts, ordered between 1928 and 1956, were still operating on the railway when it closed in 1976.

Winding up

Faced with competition from tramways and electric railways, the company began to look for alternatives so that it was not dependent on one product. It built a few electric locomotives and experimented with road steam wagons but steam locomotives continued to be the firm’s main product. 

The late 1950s brought a rapid transformation in locomotive manufacture. In 1955 British Rail decided to switch from steam to diesel and overseas railway companies followed suit. Beyer, Peacock all but closed down the Gorton plant at the end of 1958. It had chosen to make diesel-hydraulic locomotives but British Rail opted to use diesel-electric locomotives.

In 1966 all production ceased at the Gorton foundry. Shares in Beyer, Peacock were eventually bought by National Chemical Industries Ltd and in 1980 Beyer, Peacock and Co. Ltd became a dormant company. The name was resurrected in the 1990s as a trading name, based in Devon.

The museum holds the Beyer, Peacock archive, which includes minute books, order books, correspondence, over 2,500 works photographs and almost 4,000 engineering drawings. To find out more about the collection, contact