Merchant Navy class pacific 36006 Peninsular & Oriental SN Co  decorated for Merchant Navy centenary powers away from Winchcombe on 3 September 2019 (Picture by Ian Crowder)


Originally issued 22 August 2019 and updated 04 September 2019

GWSR to ‘FLIES the Red Ensign’ for Merchant Navy Day Centenary


  • Railway commemorates Merchant Navy centenary month on 3rd September 2019

  • Merchant Navy class steam locomotive  ‘Few the Red Ensign’

  • Merchant Navy Day commemorates those who served in the Merchant Navy and lost their lives over the past 100 years

  • 3rd September marks the sinking SS Athenia - the first marine casualty of WWII on that day in 1939


The Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway (GWSR) used its ‘Merchant Navy’ class locomotive, no. 35006 Peninsular & Oriental SN Co to mark 100 years of the Merchant Navy on Tuesday 3rd September, at Toddington station.


The day remembered all those from various countries who served aboard civilian ships, which became known as the ‘Merchant Navy’ and who lost their lives during wars, conflicts, campaigns and peacetime disasters.  Britain’s Merchant Navy was the largest in the world and in 1939, a third of the world’s merchant ships were British, employing around 200,000 seamen. 


September 3rd was chosen because on that day in 1939, just 10 hours after the declaration of World War II by Neville Chamberlain, the transatlantic liner S.S. Athenia was the first marine casualty of the war – torpedoed by a German U-Boat, with the loss of 117 lives.

35006 as built with 'air smoothed' casing and chain driven valve gear.  Pictured in 1948 at Exeter still in Southern livery but with British Railways on the tender and its new BR number (originally 21C6) (Mike Morant collection)

The headboard to be carried by 35006 to commemorate those in the Merchant Navy who fell during two World Wars and in subsequent conflicts (Andrew Marshall)


'P&O' at Toddington dressed up to celebrate the centenary of the Merchant Navy on 3rd September 2019 (Ian Crowder)

  It's 16th May 2016 and Pete Waterman, President of the GWSR, unveils the impressive nameplate of 35006 Peninsular & Oriental SN Co - one of just two shipping brands carried by the Merchant Navy class locomotives still extant (the other being Cunard) (Ian Crowder)


The locomotive, no. 35006, is a member of the Southern Railway’s ‘Merchant Navy’ class which comprised 30 locomotives, named after shipping companies both in recognition of the wartime services and sacrifices of our merchant seamen and which used the Railway’s south coast ports.  They were the most powerful locomotives built by the Southern Railway and were designed by the controversial engineer O V S Bulleid. 


The locomotive carried a specially-commissioned ‘Merchant Navy’ headboard and flew a Union flag and Red Ensign in a 'V' formation on its buffer beam. The smoke deflectors carried larger Red Ensigns.


The day will started with a short remembrance service at 09.30 at Toddington station before departing with the normal 10.00 departure to Cheltenham Racecourse.  Guests included former Merchant seamen and members of the Merchant Navy Association.


Richard Johnson, chairman of GWSR commented: “Our Merchant Navy pacific, so beautifully restored by the 35006 Preservation Society, could be regarded as the ‘flagship’ of our locomotive fleet and I’m proud that we were able to recognise in this way, the contribution our merchant fleet made over many generations to the peace we enjoy in this country today.


“It was an inspired choice to name these fine engines after the shipping lines that sacrificed so many of their vessels and crews during the Second World War.  This was a chance to remember them.”


The Merchant Navy

During the First World War, the British civilian fleet was known as the Mercantile Marine.  During both World Wars, German submarines targeted merchant ships on sight and, by the end of the First World War more than 3,000 British-flagged ships had been sunk with the loss of 15,000 seamen.


After that conflict King George V, on 19 September 1919, bestowed on the British merchant fleet the title ‘Merchant Navy’ which flies the familiar Red Ensign (the White Ensign is flown by Royal Navy ships).  In 1928, the King bestowed the title ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’ on Edward, Prince of Wales and, more recently, the title has been held by HM Queen Elizabeth II.


At the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939, King George VI said in a message to the Merchant Navy: “…Yours is a task no less essential to my people’s experience than that allotted to the Navy, Army and Air Force.  Upon you the Nation depends for much of its foodstuffs and raw materials and for the transport of its troops overseas.  You have a long and glorious history and I am proud to bear the title ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’….”


During the Second World War, 4,700 British-flagged civilian ships were sunk – more than 2,800 allied vessels being sunk by German U-boats.  The UK alone lost 2,200 ships, more than half of the total Merchant Navy and with the loss of 32,000 seafarers.  Nevertheless, the Merchant Navy’s contribution was incalculable in that its vessels successfully imported sufficient supplies to allow an Allied victory.


The Merchant Navy class steam locomotives

These ‘Pacific’* engines were controversial right from the start when the first, Channel Packet, appeared with an ‘air-smoothed’ appearance and a range of innovative features.  But they were powerful and fast, capable of handling a wide range of freight and passenger traffic although they were prone to maintenance problems.  In the 1950s, British Railways rebuilt the whole class, to the more conventional appearance that the survivors, including no. 35006, bear today.


All were named after shipping lines, many of which used used the Southern Railway’s south coast ports and in poignant recognition of the considerable contribution to the war effort and sacrifice of merchant seamen during the conflict.


No. 35006 was named ‘Peninsular & Oriental SN Co’ in 1942 and worked the heaviest and fastest express services between London Waterloo and the West Country until it was withdrawn by British Railways in 1964.  It was rescued from a South Wales scrapyard and restored at the GWSR’s Toddington headquarters, re-entering service after a long and meticulous overhaul in 2016.  It was renamed by the GWSR’s President, Pete Waterman at a special ceremony at Toddington.


Only four of the shipping line names carried by the locomotives survive as marketing names to this day: P&O (Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company) accoirded to P&O Ferries and P&O Cruises; Cunard (Cunard White Star); Bibby (Bibby Line) a freight shipping and distribution company and the American luxury cruising company Holland America Line.


* ‘Pacific’ refers to the wheel arrangement, 4-6-2 – the most common arrangement for express steam locomotives in the UK (ie four leading bogie wheels, six driving wheels and two trailing pony wheels)


Ends / More


Media contact: Ian Crowder, 07775 566 555 or


Copyright-free photographs of 'P&O' available on this Dropbox link Please credit photographer if possible

Copyright-free pictures of the Merchant Navy centenary celebration are on this Dropbox link Photograhs by Ian Crowder


Shipping company names carried by the Merchant Navy class locomotives, British Railways numbers 35001 to 35030.  All built between 1941 and 1949 at Eastleigh; all rebuilt by British Railways between 1955 and 1959:

Channel Packet

Union Castle

Royal Mail

Cunard White Star

Canadian Pacific*

Peninsular & Oriental SN Co**

Aberdeen Commonwealth

Orient Line

Shaw Savill*          

Blue Star*

General Steam Navigation*

United States Lines

Blue Funnel

Nederland Line

Rotterdam Lloyd

Elders Fyffes

Belgian Marine

British India Line**

French Line CGT

Bibby Line

New Zealand Line

Holland America Line*

Holland Africa Line

East Asiatic Company

Brocklebank Line*

Lamport & Holt Line

Port Line*

Clan Line**

Ellerman Lines*

Elder Dempster Lines


















* Locomotives that have survived and are in various states of restoration or overhaul (as at August 2019)

** Currently in working order