A Beginner's Guide to GWR large prairie tanks

by Jim Champ

(pictures from the webmaster's collection unless otherwise credited)


5101 Class Large Prairie 4160 at the West Somerset Railway in 2013

5101 Class Large Prairie 4160 at the West Somerset Railway in 2013, picture courtesy of Jim Champ



The tale of the large prairies is the most complex of the Churchward standard classes, complicated also by renumbering and gaps in the number allocation filled in by later builds. Basically they divide into Standard 2 and Standard 4 boiler variants, with a subdivision into 200psi and 225psi boilers. In the Collett era there were also some variations in wheel size, which seem to have been as much for the accountants' benefit as anything else.

K J Cook talks about this in one chapter of his book Swindon Steam 1. What follows here is something of a simplification. The finances of the Railways were strictly controlled by acts of Parliament, and there was a demarcation between capital expenditure and expenditure from revenue. There was also what was called the renewal fund, which was an allocation made out of revenue to replace assets.

This meant that in the depression of the late '20s and early '30s when revenue was low there was very limited money available for repairs and maintenance. On the other hand there was a healthy amount of money available in the renewal fund for replacement locomotives. This meant that it was easier to find money to replace locomotives than repair them – if what we would now call a business case could be made. The first instance of this was when the last 10 Stars were scrapped and replaced with 10 new Castles. The new Castles, with the exception of cylinders, cabs and boilers, contained a large number of Star parts – including frames – they just happened to have lying around. The 'new' Earl/Dukedog class was an even more extreme example.

In the case of the early large Prairies they were getting towards the age when new cylinders and front-end extension frames were going to be required in heavy overhauls. It was decided that it would not be permissible to do this work using the renewals fund and describe the updated locomotives as new. What Collett elected to do was to design new variations of the class with significantly increased power with the intention of using them for roles where the increased power would be valuable. So a new version of the Standard 2 boiler was designed, uprated to 225psi, but with no increase in weight due to the use of high tensile nickel alloy steel and smaller non-standard wheels of two different sizes were used to further increase tractive effort. The result was the new 3100, 6100 and 8100 classes.

Tractive effort values given here are nominal figures to the nearest 500lbs, because it is not really a precise measurement: an engine with its cylinders bored out to the wear limit and tyres approaching scrapping thickness might have a theoretical tractive effort getting on for 10% above the nominal figure. However, this was definitely considered in the design of the Large Prairie variants.

All the large 2-6-2Ts had spring compensation between the leading pony truck and the leading driving wheels, but they never had compensation between the driving wheels, unlike the Saints and Stars. There was spring compensation between the trailing driving wheels and the rear radial truck on the Churchward large prairies but was absent from Collett build locos and the major rebuilds. This was retained when the 3111 series had springing arrangements and weight distribution altered in the 1930s and they were renumbered in the 5100 series, even though compensation was removed from 4-6-0s at this time.

ATC gear was fitted to most if not all locos during 1930–3.


Summary of lot numbers, build dates, running numbers and diagrams

LotDateRunning numbersDiagram(s) *
15019053111 – 31203111 – 31205111 – 5120A7
15219053121 – 31303121 – 31305121 – 5130A7
15919063131 – 31503131 – 31505131 – 5150A7
16919073151 – 31703151 – 31703151 – 3170S
1721907 – 83171 – 31903171 – 31903171 – 3190S

5101 – 5110
5150 – 5159
2591930 – 15160 – 5189A9
26919316100 – 6129A10
2781932 – 36130 – 6159A10
28419345190 – 5199A9
29119356160 – 6169A10
2921935 – 64100 – 4119A9
3131937 – 84120 – 4129A9
3191938 – 93100 – 3104
(rebuilt from 3173, 3156, 3181, 3155 and 3179 respectively)
3201938 – 98100 – 8109
(rebuilt from 5100, 5123, 5118, 5145, 5124, 5126, 5120, 5116, 5133 and 5115 respectively)
32319394130 – 4139A9
33519464140 – 4149A9
36119474150 – 4159A9
3691948 – 94160 – 4179A9
 *  Diagrams listed are representative – many locos ran under different diagrams when rebuilt throughout their lives or when fitted with water scoops etc.


3100 (1903), 3111 class (1905), 5100 class

GWR 3121 large prairie in early form

3121, in early days, showing the original form of slim tapered cast-iron chimney, and the early form of low-hung brakes, with pullrods behind the wheels. It is unsuperheated, and with a back-feed boiler. No insignia are carried, but the loco is fully lined, and there is a works plate on the front of the smokebox saddle.

Drawing: GWR 3111 Class

3111 Class Diagram B. This is the diagram as first built without superheating

In 1903 No 99 was one of Churchward's first three standard prototypes, alongside the 4-6-0 and 2-8-0. No 99 had a 8'9" + 7' + 7'9" + 8'3" wheelbase with a 2'5" front overhang and a 3'2" rear overhang, quite small and short flat-topped side tanks, with a 1380 gallons water capacity, some of it in a tank in the bunker. The boiler was a short-cone Standard 2 running at 195psi. Like all the other early standard locomotives there was a 2½" offset between cylinder centreline and driving wheel centreline, and unlike the 4-6-0s this was retained on all classes, even the late Collett rebuilds. There was spring compensation between the leading pony truck and the leading driving wheels and between the trailing driving wheels and the rear radial truck. However, unlike the Saints and Stars, they never had compensation between the driving wheels.

3111–3149 were built in three lots in 1905/6. These production engines had long-cone Standard 2 boilers and larger and longer tanks with sloping tops for a total of 2000 gallons water capacity. It seems that at least some of the first locomotives were fitted with water pickup apparatus. The brake rigging on at least the earlier locomotives varied. Photos seem to show that 99 and at least some of the 3111 class were built with the brake pullrods inside the driving wheels, but by the time they were rebuilt as 5100s the brake rodding was outside the driving wheels in a discontinuous run. The brake shoes were originally set very low down on the wheels and frames, but they had been fitted with quite different brake assemblies by the late 1920s.

With a little over 18T on the driving wheels they were red route engines as built, but well within the limit. Tractive effort was nominally 23690lbs when new.


No 99 was renumbered 3100 in the 1912 renumbering. 3111–3149 retained their numbers until 1927. (3101–3110 were being used for what would become the 44xx small prairies.)

All were renumbered in the 51xx series, keeping the same last two digits, when changed to blue weight group in 1927 (see below), making the class 5100 and 5111–5149. So during the conversion period 31xx were red route and 51xx blue route availability.

Modifications and withdrawal

The characteristic front end struts of the 2-cylinder classes were fitted from 1909. Apparently the extension frames were especially vulnerable when used for banking. Superheating came within 1910–1915, most by 1912, and several arrangements were tried in the early days. Top feed was fitted from 1911. Boilers were uprated to 200psi from about 1912, which increased the nominal TE to 24300lbs.

Coal bunkers were enlarged at the top in 1919–22, and rear fenders added at much the same time. This increased the weight, but the addition came mainly on the trailing axle and didn't affect route availability. 99 received normal sized tanks in 1929.


GWR Prairie 3117 in pre-1927 condition

3117 in pre-1927 condition, with a flush-riveted smokebox, high cab, inside steam pipes, parallel chimney, tall safety valve cover, struts fitted between smokebox and front footplate, porthole windows in the cab front, enlarged bunker, brake blocks in the low position and pullrods outside the wheels. The pony truck cover is of the early 'non-domed' form. The filler for the rear sandbox is inside the cab. The driving wheels are small-boss Churchward, with the crank 'on the spoke'. Balance weights on these early wheels are comparatively small, even on the centre axle.


GWR Prairie 3127 at Newton Abbot c 1926

3127 at Newton Abbot, c 1926. The brake pullrods are in front of the driving wheels, but the loco has acquired later styles of lubricator pipe cover and pony truck dome cover.


GWR Prairie 3146 at Old Oak Common in May 1921

3146 at Old Oak Common, May 1921. It has features similar to those of 3117 pictured above, but its brake gear is behind the wheels. Lubricators are mounted on top of the tanks, the lubricator pipe cover on the smokebox is of an intermediate style, and there is a blanking patch where the smokebox damper was previously fitted.


About 1927 some 31s were run with reduced weight, mainly as a result of limiting tank capacity. The tanks were then altered back to the full capacity, and the weight distribution altered for all the class, bringing more weight on the carrying wheels and bringing them within the blue route limit, but reducing the adhesive weight available for acceleration and braking. Diagram T, which gives the weights for before the changes, but with enlarged bunker etc. shows the weight on each wheel set to be respectively 9–0, 17–13, 18–4, 18–4, 12–9. The revised weights, shown on diagram A7, were 10–5, 17–5, 17–2, 16–18, 14–0.

Most received lower cab roofs with a shallower radius between 1931 and 1939, but some may have kept the originals until they were scrapped. Tapered chimneys began to be fitted in the early 1930s. Sliding shutters for the cab sides were added between 1933 and 1939. They also received some variations on the recessed and fender/bunker top theme and one or two of the last received steps on the bunker on the fireman's side after 1943. A picture of 5100 before it was converted to 8100 is given here.

Drawing: GWR 5100 Class

5100 Class. Diagram A7: the post 1927 condition of the locomotives

Ten, including 5100 (ex-3100, ex-99) were converted to 8100 class by the time the war started, but there were no further conversions. Outside steam pipes and curved front ends appeared on some locomotives from 1943 after the conversion programme was abandoned – presumably before then those requiring new cylinders were put on the conversion programme.

Although one more was scrapped in 1947 the remainder survived to British Railways, but were withdrawn steadily from 1948 on, the last surviving until 1959.

There were no less than ten diagrams. Three of those were for 99, which had diagrams to herself until she became 5100, and two were to do with the weight distribution changes and the 5100 conversion. The rest were all superheating variations.


3150 class

Drawing: GWR 3150 Class

3150 Class Diagram Q. This diagram is from the early 1920s and shows the locomotives with superheated boilers and top feed

The 3150s were the second variation on the large prairie theme, having the larger Standard 4 boilers.

The 'prototype' 3150 came out in 1906 and was built alongside a batch of the 3100 class. It had 18 x 30" cylinders. 40 production locomotives followed in 1908/9, and had 18½" cylinders. 4 were built with water pickup apparatus. They were, of course, quite a bit heavier than the 3111s at 78T–16c when new (increasing to 81–12 later) and theoretically a little more powerful with the larger cylinders giving 25670lbs TE.

Like the 3111s there seem to have been variations in the brake rigging. Photographs in RCTS of 3170 and 3171, in very early, if not as built configuration, seem to show them with pull rods outside the leading two pairs of driving wheels and inside the last pair. The brake shoes look to have been set a little higher on the frames than the 3100s, but this sort of change was regularly made in the course of producing batches of locomotives. Like the 3100s they received the later style of brake assembly by the late 1920s.

Modifications and withdrawal

They received most of the developments that their Standard 2 boilered sisters received in the same sorts of date ranges. There is no evidence that changes to the weight distribution were considered in the 1930s.

The front end struts appeared first on this class about 1907, but later became universal on all the 2-cylinder classes. Bunkers were enlarged, although they were deeper than those of the 3111 class.

Later photographs suggest they were all fitted with the brake rigging inside the wheels, unlike the 3111/5111 series. Outside steam pipes and curved front end frames started to be fitted from 1934, and a few had outside steam pipes but retained the straight framed front end.

Five were withdrawn before the war for reconstruction as the new smaller-wheeled Collett 3100 class (see below). Scrapping started from 1947: thirty-three lasted to British Railways and the last went in 1958. None survived into preservation.

There were six diagrams. One concerned the water pickup apparatus, but all the other diagrams were superheating variations.


The enlargement of bunkers differed between classes, seen here with 3131 on the left (of the 3111 class), and a deeper style on 3156 and 3166, the last two being of the 3150 class. Bunker enlargement styles on 3111 and 3150 class GWR prairies


5101 class

GWR Prairie 5105 in 1929

5105's works grey portrait in 1929. The front end frames are curved, outside steam pipes are now standard, and the brake blocks are now inline with the axle centres, with the pullrods behind the wheels. The loco has a tall safety-valve cover. Buffers are now Collett parallel. The motion plate above the footplate is flanged. The driving wheels are late-pattern large-boss Collett, with a web between the spokes at the crank position, and the balance weight on the centre axle is larger than on previous designs. Lubricators are now mounted on top of the tanks. (Members of the 41xx series did not have lubricators.) The water filler is of the screw-down type. The shaped plate behind the front area of the slidebars is designed to prevent oil from the slidebar area getting on to the brake shoes, and was a standard feature of all GWR 2-cylinder locos having brake shoes in front of the driving wheels. The portrait is a little premature, because the lamp irons have yet to be fitted. The first members of the class were not outshopped with ATC, but this was fitted between September 1930 and August 1931.

Drawing: GWR 5101 Class

5101 Class. This sketch is based on diagram A9, but amended to show the final configuration with cab shutters and bunker steps


The 5101s were further batches of the original 3100 class, but built with the various improvements that had been made to the originals in the meantime. 5101–10 were built in 1929, filling in the gap in the number sequence of the Churchward 3100 class (now numbered in the 51xx series) followed by 5150–5189 in 1930/31. 5190–5199 and 4100–4139 came between 1934 and 1939, and finally 4140–4179 from 1946 to 1949, the last leaving the works as British Railways locomotives.

The overall weight was 78T–9c, and the tractive effort 24300lbs. They had similar weight distribution to the altered Churchward engines, but they had no compensation on the radial trailing wheels. This resulted in less weight on those and more on the last set of drivers, but they still came within the blue weight restriction.

They had 200psi Standard 2 boilers, curved front end frames, outside steam pipes, the later style small flanged motion plates and a new cab design with roof and sides integrated. They had prominent external sandboxes under the cab, unlike the Churchward batches. 5190 on were built with sliding cab shutters, with earlier engines receiving shutters from 1933 onward.

5101–5110 and 5150–59 had tall safety valve bonnets, other locos had short ones.

5101–5110 had a recessed fender above the bunker top only, subsequent locos had the upper half of the bunker extension recessed to match.

The brake rodding all ran inside the driving wheels, and the brake assemblies were similar to the revised design that had been fitted to the earlier locomotives by this stage.

ATC was fitted when new to 5160-99, and applied to the earlier engines between 1930 and 1933. The ATC shoe was bolted to the front buffer beam.

Whistle shields were fitted to 4160–79 when new, but only a few other locos received them. Two extra handrails were added on the strap over the boiler from circa 1945 onwards.

Modifications and withdrawal

Sliding cab shutters were fitted as new equipment from 5190 on, and were fitted to the earlier locomotives from 1933. Water fillers on 5101–10 and 5150–89 were of the screw-down type, other members had the lever type. Bunker steps were added from 1952, and involved some changes to handrails on the left-hand side.

All survived to (or were built by) British Railways. Withdrawals started in 1956, but the vast majority survived well into the 1960s.

Ten survived into preservation. Of these one has been converted into a 2-6-0 tender engine – a sort of lightweight version of a 43xx with the Standard 2 boiler. Another is being reduced to spares as a donor towards GWS rebuilds of extinct classes. Of the remaining eight, five have or are running in preservation, whilst the others are under restoration to a greater or lesser extent, all with a lot of work left to do.


It was very rare to see a large prairie with a capuchon chimney. This one, on 5152, at Stourbridge c 1937, probably originated on a withdrawn Bulldog 4-4-0. These chimneys were common between several classes, here is a drawing.

A batch of these locos had their GWR roundels placed asymmetrically on their tanks.
GWR Prairie 5152 at Stourbridge, c 1937


connecting and coupling rods on GWR Prairie

Churchward liked robust motion work. These conn rod bosses are 5¾" thick. (Webmaster's note: I would like to credit this picture to the photographer, but I can't track back to find who it is. So if it's yours, please let me know.)


front-end clearances on Prairie 5199

Clearances at the leading axle are notoriously tight, with a recessed crankpin nut required to clear the crosshead, and a slot needed at the end of the lower slidebar to clear the envelope of the connecting rod. The balance weight is flush with the wheel tyre. This is 5199 at Llangollen, picture courtesy of Tony Sheffield.


6100 class

Drawing: GWR 6100 Class

6100 Class. Diagram A10. Only the first ten of the class were built without cab shutters like the sketch


GWR 6110 large prairie soon after building in 1931

6110 pictured soon after it left the works in 1931, and the first of the class to be fitted with a cab shutter. It has a short safety valve cover and the rear sandbox is fitted adjacent to the cab steps, with the injectors now tucked away behind the steps. The initial form of tripcock gear can be seen. There is no whistle shield. ATC has yet to be fitted. Bunker steps were not added until well into the BR(W) era. The centre axle balance weight is proud of the wheel tyre. The size of the centre axle balance weight seems to have increased in subsequent years.


tripcock apparatus on large prairie 6136

Detail of the later form of tripcock gear on 6136


Large prairie 6120 at Reading

6120 at Reading, with trip-cock gear between the centre and rear drivers, for working over into the suburban platforms at Paddington. From their inception, the 61xx engines were the mainstay of Thames Valley suburban services until being displaced by DMUs.

These were effectively a 5101 development, using the nickel-steel 225psi version of the Standard 2 boiler. This made for a more powerful locomotive with a tractive effort of 27340lbs. The intention seems to have been faster acceleration. They were intended and used for London suburban services, and fitted with a tripcock for working on London Underground tracks.

60 were built between 1931 and 1933, and then another ten in 1935. Externally they were not readily distinguishable from the 5101 class.

Water fillers on 6100–6109 were the screw-down type, other members of the class had the lever type.

ATC was fitted when new to 6130-69 and the earlier engines between 1930 and 1933. The ATC shoe was mounted beneath the pony truck.

Modifications and withdrawal

The first ten received sliding cab shutters in the 1930s, the rest having been built with them. 6116 was rebuilt with smaller wheels, presumably serving as a kind of prototype for the 8100 rebuilds, and retained these for the rest of her life but otherwise the only visible change made was steps on the fireman's side of the bunker from 1952–1955.

The first went in 1958, as suburban work started to go to DMUs. The majority lasted until 1964/5, with no less than a dozen withdrawn in December 1965.

6106 survives with the Great Western Society at Didcot and has run in preservation.

GWR large prairie 4158, built from a 4mm Martin Finney kit by Steamline Sheffield

4158, in BR lined green livery, one of a pair of large Prairies built about the same time by the Steamline Sheffield crew, from a 4mm Martin Finney kit, now available from Brassmasters. Image courtesy of Brassmasters. (The cylinders should be lined, btw.)


GWR Prairie 4158

4158 busy at Wellington loco yard, 12 April 1960. Photo by Ben Brooksbank, and reproduced by Commons Licence.


Prairie 4159 at Exeter, 25 August 1956

A very grubby 4159, with its step and handrail mods on its left-hand side, at Exeter, 25 August 1956


Preserved Prairie 4144 at Didcot, 2017

Sporting early British Railways insignia in GWR Egyptian font, preserved 4144 at Didcot Railway Centre in 2017, picture courtesy Godfrey Glyn.


8100 class

Drawing: GWR 8100  Class

8100 Class. The only diagram issued

This was one of the renewal fund classes. Effectively the 8100s were 3111/5100s rebuilt with 225psi Standard 2 boilers and 5'6" wheels. This brought the nominal tractive effort to 28165lbs, and the weight to 76T–11c, but they were still within the blue route availability limit. They can be regarded as a smaller wheeled version of the 6100s.

At one stage there was a plan to rebuild all the original 3111s as 8100, and probably 5101–10 too, but the war put an end to it.

The first 8100 was turned out in 1938. Withdrawn 5100s were taken into the factory and all good parts were reused. They were given new cylinders and new curved frame front ends. RCTS 2 states positively that the main frames were retained, but unlike their parents they had no spring compensation on the rear carrying wheels and an external sandbox by the cab steps so at the least the frames must have been significantly altered 3.

The theory was that the smaller wheels and increased tractive effort would give increased acceleration for suburban services: as noted a 6100 had been rebuilt with 5'3" wheels. 8100, rebuilt in September 1938 and surviving until 1962, was in theory the original No 99 from 1903, but the writer wonders if very much of the original had survived two significant rebuilds and all the normal maintenance. She was, nominally at least, the last survivor of the Churchward prototypes.

The 8100 class inherited the tall safety valve covers from their donor locos.

Modifications and withdrawal

The only visible change was steps on the fireman's side of the bunker from 1954.

The first went in 1957 and the last in 1964. None have survived.


3100 (1938) class

Drawing: GWR 3100 Class

3100 Class

This was the other Collett 'for the accountants' new class, intended to be principally banking locomotives. They were reconstructions of the 3150 class, and in the same way that the 8100s were 3111/5100s upgraded with smaller wheels and a higher pressure boiler these were upgrades of the 3150s. Withdrawn 3150s were given smaller (5'3) wheels, new curved frame front ends and new Standard 4 boilers set to 225psi. Thus they were much the most powerful of the large prairies with a tractive effort of 31170lbs. They were also the heaviest at over 81T. It is believed that the intention was to rebuild the whole 3150 class, but only 5 had been built/rebuilt by the time WW2 interrupted the programme.

There were few modifications in their life. The majority were withdrawn in 1957 and the last in 1960. None have survived.


1  Swindon Steam 1921-1951, K J Cook, Ian Allan Ltd, 1974, chapter 13, p115

2  The Locomotives of the Great Western Railway Part Nine: Standard Two Cylinder classes, N J Allcock, F K Davies, H M Le Fleming, P J T Reed & F J Tabor, The Railway Correspondence and Travel Society, pJ28 onward

3  The rebuilds all survived until end of steam withdrawals were in full swing, whereas unrebuilt locos were withdrawn in the 1950s, along with other Churchward locomotives reaching end of life. This extended lifespan causes the writer to wonder just how much of the original frames were reused.

Excellent album of detail pics of preserved Prairies by Brian Daniels

Drawings are approximately redrawn from Jim Russell and NRM sources but are strictly representative and may contain errors.