‘Impostor’ steam engine from Sunderland AFC's 1937 FA Cup final history set for a comeback

A piece of jiggery-pokery over the train carrying Sunderland’s 1937 FA Cup winning team has finally come to light.

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 1:30 pm

The locomotive pulling the train from Wearside to London carried “Sunderland” nameplates over the middle two of its six, six-feet eight inch wheels. The team, captained by Raich Carter, beat Preston North End 3-1 to lift the trophy.

But the steam engine in question was an impostor.

A brand new green B17 Class engine, built at Darlington a year earlier, was given the number 2854 and “Sunderland” plate then officially launched before dignitaries outside Roker Park.

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Sunderland captain Raich Carter with the FA Cup trophy out of the train window at King's Cross on May 3, 1937. Photo by J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Top brass from the London and North Eastern Railway promised Sunderland manager Johnny Cochrane that if his side reached the following year’s FA Cup final, they could use the locomotive to travel to Wembley.

In 1936 Sunderland became champions of England for the sixth time, a then-record, but had never won the cup in their history and reached only one final. So perhaps LNER were misguidedly confident.

But in April 1937 SAFC beat Millwall in the semi-final and were off to Wembley for the first time, although not behind the locomotive they thought. Embarrassed LNER bosses realised Number 2854 was unavailable on cup final day and were forced to carry out a deception.

A sister locomotive was given a frantic clean-up, its original number plate 2851 was switched to 2854 and the name “Derby County” replaced with “Sunderland”.

The naming ceremony of the real "Sunderland" locomotive, near Roker Park in 1936.

It’s unlikely that anyone at the football club ever found out. However, it seems even less likely that having finally won the cup that they would have cared either. They might have happily walked home if necessary.

After swapping the names back, the genuine “Sunderland” locomotive pulled 90mph passenger trains between London Liverpool Street and East Anglia.

It was withdrawn in 1958 and sadly scrapped. By 1960 all 72 of its sister B17 engines, many bearing the names of football clubs, had met the same fate.

Rail enthusiasts still regret that not one of the locomotives, designed by Nigel Gresley the railway engineer behind the Flying Scotsman, was saved.

The nameplate was later put on display.

But now there is a £3.4 million plan to build a replica, which could haul special heritage trains on Britain’s main line before the end of the decade.

The B17 Steam Locomotive Trust, whose patron is train-loving rocker Rod Stewart, is working from the original designs. The mainframe is already taking shape in Sheffield.

The new locomotive will be named Spirit of Sandringham. But replica nameplates bearing famous football club names like Sunderland, could also be recreated and sold to raise funds.

It’s possible that if Sunderland reach the FA Cup final after 2029 a B17 locomotive bearing the club’s name could pull the train to Wembley again.

John Peat, of the trust, said: “The B17 class is the missing preservation link in the evolution of the London North Eastern Railway design of 4-6-0 locomotives.

“We would love to hear experiences of former railwaymen who were involved in any way with these locos. It is important to glean as much information as possible before the knowledge disappears.

“We are also looking for new members; people who would like to help us recreate this railway icon.”

For more details of the B17 project, see www.b17steamloco.co.uk or email [email protected]

* Our thanks to Mal Tattersall.

Read more: Blue plaque finally unveiled at James Herriot’s Sunderland birthplace in Roker

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