Oxford alumnus Bill Parker turned a passion into a career in preserving railway heritage.
By Lindsey Harrad
Not since 1971 had any steam engine been in use on London Underground, but in 2013, on the 150th anniversary of the world’s first underground railway, the magnificent Metropolitan Railway No 1 ran a series of public steam specials along the original route through Paddington, Euston and King’s Cross to Moorgate, with VIPs on board including Mayor of London Boris Johnson.
‘We had to do a trial run first to see if it would work,’ says Bill Parker (Jesus, 1966), owner of the workshop that had overhauled the 1899 Met 1, and whose crew drove it. ‘We managed to borrow a steam engine dating from 1874, only eleven years younger than the Underground itself, to do a test in the middle of the night. It turned into a real cloak-and-dagger operation, blowing smoke rings into Baker Street station well after midnight, watched only by a few VIPs and the station cleaners.’
Following a career in commercial property valuation, mostly in America, Parker has something of a reputation for making magical things happen, at least when it comes to steam locomotives. Starting as a porter on Oxford Station during University vacations while reading Geography, his interest in steam railway engineering came to replace his property interests.
When British Rail Engineering announced the closure of Brunel’s Swindon Works in 1986, Parker, commuting across the Atlantic, set up a trust to keep working engineering alive there, which proved vital when the National Railway Museum had to replace the roof of its main building in York in 1990. He arranged for the museum to bring much of its collection to Swindon, culminating in a private visit by the young princes William and Harry in August that year.
In 1992, now back in the UK, Parker purchased and restored a derelict engine house at the Flour Mill Colliery, a grade II listed building in the Forest of Dean. ‘From 1996 we started operations trying to keep working Victorian engineering alive. Everyone loves to see a steam engine working, but few think of the poor engineer slogging away repairing it. Steam engines were eventually replaced because they were labour-intensive, dirty and hard to maintain – you need big machines and specialist skills to repair them.’
In May 2007 he took his 80-year-old Great Western engine, 5521, to Poland for the centenary steam festival at Wolsztyn, perhaps the first British steam loco to run in Europe since the First World War. By September the engine was in Budapest, just as the Orient Express returned from its annual trip to Istanbul. ‘The sun, moon and stars were all in alignment,’ he says. ‘I knew the train manager, I knew the Hungarian railway people, and with less than a day’s notice I was on the footplate of 5521 piloting the Orient Express out of Budapest – a fantasy come true.’
After overhauling many historic locomotives, with clients such as the National Railway Museum, running steam on the Underground has really put the Flour Mill on the map. ‘Operating 19th-century steam engines on a 21st-century railway was just the most extraordinary opportunity,’ Parker says. ‘On the Metropolitan Line they’ve got brand new, state-of-the-art S-stock, and we were running a Victorian steam train between and alongside them. The contrast of past and present was amazing. It was a very positive story for London Underground – the British love anniversaries, and they love a steam train. I suppose it’s because steam locomotives are warm and alive – there’s a sense that at any minute they could do something unexpected.
‘It’s important to preserve the engineering expertise to make projects like this happen. For me, the work we do at the Flour Mill is important in maintaining and passing on these skills, ensuring people continue to work in this industry so we can maintain and revel in our Victorian heritage, of which steam is of such great significance.’
Portrait of Bill Parker by Geoff Phelps. Photo of Metropolitan Railway No 1 at Great Portland Street Station, 13 January 2013, by Ed Webster, via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.