When Bartlow was in Malaya - The Virgin Soldiers
Introduction and Background
This feature has been prepared primarily to describe the 'train wreck' scene in The Virgin Soldiers, shot during 1968 on the former Saffron Walden branch at Bartlow on the Cambridgeshire/Essex border, while it is also hoped to dispel a number of myths which surround the railway scenes in the film, both at Bartlow and across the globe in Malaysia. Within this feature the names Malaya and Malaysia are used according to period whenever practical and any errors are precisely that and in no way intended to cause offence. The Columbia British Productions (Columbia) film The Virgin Soldiers (the film), released in the United Kingdom in 1969 and elsewhere in 1970, was set in Malaya in 1950 during the Malayan Emergency. The release date was rather unfortunate in that it coincided with Communist Insurgency War, resulting in some considering the film rather controversial. In fairness to Columbia the film, which was anti-war comedy, was set against the backdrop of the earlier Malayan Emergency and was not a comedy about the Emergency. The railways of Malaysia mentioned herein are referred to either by full title or initials as applicable to period or as 'Malayan railways' in the general context.
The film, which was based upon a 1966 comic novel by Leslie Thomas, was shot during 1967 in Singapore and Malaysia. The plot concerned a group of highly sexually-charged British Army National Service conscripts anxious to gain the attention of the daughter of the Regimental Sergeant Major whilst at the same time being terrified of the local prostitutes. The railways scenes involved a train derailing following the track being blown-up by guerrillas. A real Malayan steam-hauled train was filmed, with the actual wreck scenes being shot mainly at Bartlow but with interior shots filmed at Shepperton Studios. Other filming locations, apart from Bartlow, with filming taking place mainly during 1968, included Pinewood Sanatorium, a former tuberculosis hospital at Wokingham, Berkshire and now a leisure centre and Gillman Barracks, Singapore, a former British Army base and now an arts centre. The cast included well known names such as Lynn Redgrave, Nigel Patrick, Nigel Davenport, Hywel Bennett, Jack Shepherd, Christopher Timothy, Wayne Sleep and Geoffrey Hughes. David Bowie also made a brief and uncredited appearance as a soldier.
The history of the former British Empire, her Colonies and Protectorates is exceedingly complex and no less so for the country now known as Malaysia. To keep this part of the story brief and relevant we will concern ourselves mostly with the years following the Second World War.
In 1946 what was known as the Malayan Union existed. This was a British Crown Colony formed of eleven states which can be broken down into nine Malay states plus Penang and Malacca. Perhaps confusingly, as we will see, the Union superseded what was known as the Federated Malay States, which had its origins way back in 1895. The Union was disbanded in 1948 and thereafter was formed, following the signing of an agreement on 1 April 1946, the Federation of Malaya, within which the Malay states was a British Protectorate while Penang and Malacca remained British Colonial Territories. During the Union and Federation periods Singapore was excluded and thus the traditional tie between Malaya and Singapore was broken, at least insofar as politics were concerned. One result of the Federation was the restoration of the rulers of the Malay states, albeit only in symbolic form. The Federation of Malaya gained independence from Britain, insofar as direct rule was concerned, whilst remaining in the Commonwealth of Nations (better known as the British Commonwealth) with effect from 31 August 1957. The Federation of Malaya saw change in 1963 when from 16 September it embraced Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo and this reconstitution formed what is now Malaysia. Singapore, however, became an independent republic on 9 August 1965 but remained within the Commonwealth of Nations, having joined the same year, and remains so today together with Malaysia.
The Malayan Emergency
Against the backdrop of the changes outlined in the Introduction was the so called Malayan Emergency which began in June 1948, with what might be conveniently called 'Phase 1' ending in July 1960. The 'Emergency' was a guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and what was known as the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party. Commonwealth forces won, ostensibly it could be said, and the result was the 1957 changes already outlined. The use of the word 'Emergency' rather than 'war' was rather astute and was a workaround at the behest of Malaya's tin and rubber industries, the backbone of the Malayan economy, to safeguard insurance payouts which would otherwise have been refused. The Communist Party leader, Chin Weng, instigated what we might call Phase 2 of the Emergency in 1967 (fighting did not actually commence until June 1968). This came to be known as the Communist Insurgency War and was to last, ending in failure, until 1989. This war is sometimes erroneously confused with the Vietnam War but, although there was some period overlap, this was entirely coincidental.
Prior to the creation of the Federated Malay States in 1895, the railways of what was then Malaya were collectively formed of several administrations pertaining to the individual states of that country. This may be likened to, for example, the various state systems within Australia, different gauges notwithstanding, or the state system once found in Germany prior to the creation of the Deutsche Reichsbahn. The creation of the Federated Malay States resulted, in 1901, of a consolidation, which included the Singapore Railway, known as Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). During the Japanese Occupation of World War Two, the system suffered very little war damage but much equipment, including locomotives, was removed by the Japanese for use on the infamous Burma Railway. All locomotives involved survived and were returned home after the war. Despite the changes within Malaya following 1946, FMSR continued in operation under British military administration until 1948 when it became the Malayan Railway Administration. Thereafter generally referred to more simply as Malayan Railway (MR), livery was generally black for steam locomotives and red and cream for passenger rolling stock. The railway introduced a simple but effective logo as shown below.
Image by Mrpresidentfaris and reproduced under Creative Commons licence
from Wikimedia Commons.
A simpler version of this logo appeared on coaching stock, both on the real MR and the LMS-designed Stanier coaching stock used at Bartlow. In both cases the logo is clearly seen in the film. The railway rebranded itself in 1962 using the Malay name Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB, commonly referred to as KTM) in 1962 and this remains the case at the time of writing together with a very modern and attractive KTM logo.
The system is metre-gauge and, perhaps unsurprisingly, much of its equipment was once of British origin and this included steam and diesel locomotives, Sentinel steam railcars and various products from D Wickham & Co. Many examples can now be seen in museums or plinthed at various locations including at Singapore to which location KTM still operates albeit now terminating at a new station known as Woodlands Train Checkpoint, the original station at Tanjong Pagar having closed in 2011 with the line to it now disused. The closure came about through a land exchange deal between Malaysia and Singapore. It was on the KTM line towards Singapore that The Virgin Soldiers scene showing a real MR train headed by K2 class* locomotive No.542.04 was shot during 1967 but the precise location has proved difficult to confirm. The first scene showing this train, being waved down by Pvt. Brigg (Hywel Bennett) very clearly shows rusted rails and thus suggesting a disused section of track. A second scene, as No.542.04 supposedly approaches the site of the wrecked train, shows rails which are clearly well used. This locomotive had been FMSR No.161. A Pacific (4-6-2) built by Robert Stephenson & Co, w/n 4016/27, she was withdrawn by KTM in 1973. A new high-speed line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore is proposed as of 2016 and, if it materialises, will no doubt be of standard gauge to overcome the limitations of narrow gauge. The KTM system consists of a west coast main line from Pedand Besar to Woodlands (Singapore) via Kuala Lumpur with a second line running from the junction at Gemas to north-east Malaysia at Tumpat, with a branch to Rantua. The system links into the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) at Pedand Besar and Rantua. There are a number of branch lines, notably to Butterworth and around Kuala Lumpur. Several other branches have been closed, perhaps most notably that to Jurong in 2011 which served the industrial area of Singapore. KTM owns 2,262 kilometres of Malaysia's total 2,418 kilometres which includes the Sabah State Railway, formerly the North Borneo Railway, which today consists of a single 134km metre-gauge route. KTM today operates modern diesel and electric trains, steam having bowed out in 1973. *This is K2 class and not K2 class, signifying that this was the second locomotive type to be given the K designation. The original K class comprised a sole 4-4-2T built by Dubs & Co, Glasgow, w/n 3621 of 1899 and began life as Sungei Ujong Railway No.4. It became FMSR No.102 in 1908 and was withdrawn in August 1926.
Transition from steamy Singapore to sleepy Bartlow
In August 1968 British Rail ran its final standard gauge steam locomotives, culminating in the so-called Fifteen Guinea Special of 11 August (a guinea was 21/-, or £1 1s in pre-decimal currency and equates to £1.05 in decimal currency. As a coin, the guinea become obsolete in 1816 and was replaced by the pound but continued to be used as a figurative sum, especially for luxury goods, until well into the 1970s, post decimalisation. The name came from Guinea, West Africa, from where much of the gold used in manufacturing the coins originated). In action on 11 August 1968 were Britannia Pacific No.70013 Oliver Cromwell and Stanier Black Fives 44781, 44871 and 45110.
Ideally Columbia would have preferred to film the train wreck scene in Malaysia but a number of security and logistical problems presented themselves as a result of the then ongoing Communist Insurgency War. There was also a perhaps very wise desire to not re-enact scenes which would be direct references to the Malayan Emergency; it should be remembered that The Virgin Soldiers was a comedy set against the background of the Malayan Emergency and not about it, so a train-wreck scene filmed on location would have been an unwise reversal of this policy.
Columbia therefore found itself looking for a locomotive, rolling stock and location rather closer to home. Columbia thus purchased Black Five No.44781 straight from BR service and in full working order, together with four LMS designed Stanier coaches and a couple of other vehicles which will be covered later. The Cambridge (Shelford Junction) - Sudbury line, the Stour Valley Line, had closed in March 1967 and its track remained in situ until 1970. On the Stour Valley Line between Linton and Haverhill was Bartlow, a somewhat secluded station and junction for the branch to Saffron Walden and Audley End, usually referred to as the Saffron Walden Branch. The branch platform at Bartlow was remote from the main part of the station and as the track curved away towards Ashdon and Saffron Walden it passed through a wooded area on a low embankment to the west of Ashdon Road. The Saffron Walden branch had closed in September 1964 but, apart from the junction at Audley End, the track remained in situ until mid 1968 apart from a section about a quarter-mile in length at Bartlow, including the loop and headshunt. The southern end of this remaining section, which appears to have been retained for the purpose, was the location of The Virgin Soldiers train wreck scene.
Annotated map showing the filming location at Bartlow. The locomotive faced Bartlow Junction with the carriages behind it. The map dates from 1921 so certain features may not be relevant to 1968, but it is adequate for our purposes and the layout of the remaining stub of branch track is shown, lifted panel excepted, as it still was in 1968.
The LMS Stanier 5MT 4-6-0, better known as the Black Five, needs no elaboration here. As photographs will show, the external appearance of the Black Five shared little in common with the locomotives of FMSR while similarly the appearance of No.44781 in FMSR guise at Bartlow bore only a passing resemblance to the locomotive it was representing. In fairness to Columbia, however, a fair attempt was made by the addition of certain accoutrements which will be covered later. Whilst little if anything could be done about differing track gauges, one has to wonder why a more visually suitable locomotive than a Black Five could not have been used and especially when considering scrapyards were at the time full of withdrawn steam locomotives. The answer probably lies in the fact that due to access issues the locomotive and rolling stock had to be taken to Bartlow by rail and British Rail would not have permitted an ex-scrapyard locomotive to travel to Bartlow over its metals. This therefore left a choice of Britannia Pacific No.70013, a Black Five or perhaps an 8F. No.70013 had already been earmarked for preservation so the only remaining option was a still-fit-to-travel Black Five.
Stanier Black Five No.45000 at Rugby in 1953. Whilst photographs of No.44781 exist, this example has been chosen as it shows well the general appearance of the Black Five and makes an interesting comparison with the metre-gauge FMSR L class and the Bartlow rendition thereof. No.45000 was identical to No.44781; there were variations within the 842-strong class, most notably a batch with domeless boilers and a few others receiving names.
Photo by Ben Brooksbank
Malayan Railways L class No.531.01 on display at The National Museum, Kuala Lumpur, in August 1976. This was the class represented at Bartlow by Black Five No.44781 bearing the number 531.03. The L class was built by Kitson & Co, Leeds in 1921 with No.531.01 being w/n 5300 and new on 6 January that year. She had originally been FMSR No.214 and was withdrawn in 1969, being presented to the museum in, it is believed, 1973. The final L class example was withdrawn in 1971. The real No.531.03 was Kitson w/n 5302 and new on 20 January 1921. Her original number was FMSR 216 and she was one of several sent to Burma during the Japanese Occupation of WWII, all returning to Malaya after the war. This view shows the design of these metre-gauge Pacifics very well and makes a good comparison with the early photograph of Black Five No.45000. Points to note are the cylinders and valves protruding through the running plate, the headlamp complete with number (both sides), the drop-link coupling and the cowcatcher. At Kuala Lumpur in 1976 No.531.01 was paired with an incorrect tender. The L class tenders were 8-wheel bogie types. As of 2016 she has been given the correct type of tender, albeit disfigured by 'wasp stripe' markings on the tender's upper sides. She has also had her wheel rims, motion, handrails and boiler bands painted a silver-grey colour.
Photo by Cliff Bancroft from his Flickr albums and reproduced by kind permission
Here is FMSR No.531.01 at the National Museum, Kuala Lumpur on 28 February 2015. She now has the correct type of 8-wheel bogie tender fitted for oil burning (see text) and somewhat disfiguring livery embellishments. The oil tank on the tender was not replicated on the pseudo 531.03 at Bartlow. This and the previous view provide interesting comparisons with the Stanier Black Five (see earlier picture) and the disguised No.44781 at Bartlow (see later picture). Click here for larger view.
Photo by John Thompson from his Flickr albums and reproduced by kind permission
A British miner, John Archibald Russell, formed Malayan Collieries Ltd in June 1913 and began mining operations at Batu Arang and the Malayan railways began converting from wood to coal burning. The colliery at Batu Arang was connected to the main railway system by a branch from Kuang but the coal-mining industry never recovered from WWII and output became inadequate to meet demand. As a result the railways began to convert to oil burning during the 1950s, Batu Arang by then being the sole source of locomotive coal in Malaya. The colliery closed in 1971 and the branch serving it was closed and dismantled. The locomotive at Bartlow will be described in more detail later but it is convenient to add here that she was given a cowcatcher, but of a different style to that seen on No.531.01, and also a very authentic-looking headlamp as also seen on No.531.01.
A believed 1930s view off another L class locomotive, this time FMSR No.220. Note the different style of cowcatcher compared to No.531.01 and also the 8-wheel bogie tender. No.220 was still a coal burner at this time. She was Kitson w/n 5306 and new on 4 February 1921. She was to become Malayan Railways No.531.07 and was another of the class to be taken to Burma by the Japanese during WWII. H M le Fleming (1902 - 1961) was in Malaya 1931-40 and several images believed taken, or collected, by him are now in the Stephenson Locomotive Society Library Collection including one of K2 class No.542.04, the locomotive seen in operation in the on-location shots of The Virgin Soldiers.
Photo from the SLS Library Collection and believed taken by H. M. le Fleming. Reproduced by kind permission of the SLS
Dispelling the Myths
Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably given the several decades which have passed since The Virgin Soldiers was filmed, a number of myths exist both on the internet and in books. Filming took place at a fairly secluded spot and although it was reported in the railway press and elsewhere it was not done so in any great detail. This has likely also been responsible for bolstering myths.
Known myths are as follows:
Previously we have seen how a real Malayan steam-hauled train appeared in the film interspersed with scenes shot at Bartlow. This has given rise to a myth which implies that only one train appeared in the film, this being that at Bartlow, and that the scene showing the real Malayan train was in fact the Bartlow train being pushed by, of all things, a BR Class 37 diesel locomotive. A variation of this says that the real Malayan train was in fact a second train filmed on the Stour Valley Line. The Bartlow train was static and never moved during the filming. Scenes showing it apparently in motion were created by special effects and partly filmed in a set at Shepperton.
Unfortunately, at least one published book claims that the rolling stock at Bartlow was BR Mk1 vehicles. The rolling stock used actually comprised four ex-LMS Stanier Period 3 passenger coaches with at least one other vehicle involved in one way or another.
A number of online sources claim Black Five No.44781, disguised at Bartlow as FMSR No.531.03, was destroyed during and as part of the filming. This claim could not be further from the truth; No.44781 was in fact undamaged other than a few very minor issues and was basically capable of being re-railed and steamed.
At Bartlow the track was blown up and No.44781 and train was set in motion and allowed to derail. This claim is totally untrue and how the scene was set at Bartlow will be outlined in due course.
At Bartlow the rolling stock was destroyed by fire. Scenes showing the rolling stock on fire were in fact special effects (this is fairly obvious when watching the film). Although there was some damage, necessary for realism, and especially to one end of the vehicle immediately behind the locomotive the rolling stock otherwise survived the filming more or less intact. The stock was subsequently scrapped on site.
Preparation and filming at Bartlow
Having been purchased by Columbia, Black Five No.44781 was towed from Carnforth to Cambridge shortly after the end of BR steam. She was still in working order and arrived in the south in as-withdrawn condition. The rolling stock is thought to have arrived at Cambridge separately and, like the Black Five, was in as-withdrawn condition. Both the Black Fives and the ex-LMS Stanier stock had of course been no strangers to Cambridge until the mid 1960s. Two other vehicles were also involved; one being a brake of some sort with the other being Derby Lightweight DMU car No.E79253, a driving trailer composite. This vehicle is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
Stanier open first No.7511 as preserved at the Severn Valley Railway in LMS livery and seen at Kidderminster on 26 September 2009. This view is included to give an idea of the general appearance of Stanier corridor stock. The main difference between No.7511 and the stock used at Bartlow was the latter being open thirds, the individual identities of which had not come to light at the time of writing.
Photograph by 7800 Evans and reproduced from Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence.
At the time the film was made, the Derby Lightweight DMUs were being taken out of service. At Cambridge E79253 was set aside and moved to a siding adjacent to the north side of Mill Road bridge and on the up side. Here it sat for quite some time and was eventually modified by removal of driving cab doors, controls and windscreens but retained the roof dome. It ended up resembling an American open-balcony vehicle at its driving cab end and was painted in an all-over light colour, including over some of the windows. It is known to have been taken to Bartlow prior to filming but then it simply disappeared and remains a mystery to this day.
Bartlow (Stour Valley) station on 21 September 1968 and looking towards Haverhill. Black Five No.44781 and Stanier coaches had been prepared at Cambridge but taken to Bartlow for much of the preparatory work to be undertaken. Here can be seen men painting the coaches into Malayan Railways red and cream livery over which, below the waist and midway along the bodysides, was applied the MR logo. A very good job indeed was done in making these coaches appear Malayan and once the conversion work at Bartlow was complete the Stanier stock was difficult to recognise. One scene, however, showed an underframe of very obvious LMS origin while in others LMS-style seating, apparently reupholstered and complete with seat number discs, was visible as were several shots clearly showing torpedo ventilators on the roofs. Work has yet to start on the locomotive and it appears to have arrived at Bartlow still bearing its smokebox numberplate but apparently without shedplate. What became of the numberplate, if that is what it is and not a painted-on number, is not known. Painted-on smokebox numbers were quite common in the final days of BR steam but no photographs of No.44781 on her last day in service are clear enough to determine if this was the case. Four Stanier coaches are visible in this view and the from the writer's memory, which may not now be reliable, all were open thirds or more accurately by this time open seconds. If correct then regulations presumably required use of a brake vehicle of some description. Ahead of the camera stands the derelict shell of Bartlow Junction signal box. The retained stub of the Saffron Walden branch can be seen curving away into the woods on the right. The branch platform was to the extreme right but is out if view in this scene. Note that the points are set for the branch; it is not known if something had already been down the branch or if the points were still set from when the Saffron Walden branch demolition train departed a few weeks previously. No.44781 and train had arrived from Cambridge and was positioned as required in the Stour Valley platforms. This move had been performed by diesel shunter D3611, which went on to become 08 496 and spent its entire working life based at Cambridge. The appearance of No.44781 at Bartlow was the last time a steam locomotive was seen on the Stour Valley and Saffron Walden branches, excepting the Marks Tey - Chappel section of the former. Click here for a larger version.
Photograph by Tim Stephens
A question mark hangs over why the points were set for the Saffron Walden branch, as mentioned. If they had been left set for the demolition train then No.44781 and train would have been taken through the Haverhill-bound platform when being delivered from Cambridge and then reversed into the Cambridge-bound platform. It is worth reminding readers that by this date the Stour Valley line between Shelford and Sudbury was disused and track-lifting was not to occur until 1970. Positioning of the train onto the stub of the Saffron Walden branch was undertaken in stages by Cambridge breakdown train which included Cowans Sheldon 45-ton steam crane DE330133. A picture of this breakdown train at Cambridge can be seen towards the bottom of this page. During the positioning moves an EE Type 3 (Class 37) diesel and a diesel shunter were present. The presence of the EE Type 3 may have been the origin of the myth described earlier in the 'Dispelling the Myths' section. The rolling stock was taken down the branch and, contrary to common belief, was not deliberately derailed in the accepted sense of the word but lifted off the track vehicle by the breakdown crane. The locomotive was dealt with last but a more complex procedure was used.
One familiar aspect of the film was the blowing-up of the track which resulted in the 'derailment'. Some preparatory work was undertaken, namely removal of fishplates, removal of a couple of sleepers plus measures to contain the blast and direct it upwards. The explosions were carried out by a fairly local man with an explosives licence but specific details are now forgotten. The task was carried out with the carriages already in position but the locomotive was positioned afterwards. How this was achieved is best described with a photograph and will appear later.
Filming of the guerrilla attack and derailment at Bartlow was done during the twilight hours and a sharp eye while watching the film will reveal structures for lighting and cameras hidden among the trees. Following the 'derailment' comes a scene starring the real Malayan train, this time in daylight as was the second scene showing this train. Subsequent scenes at Bartlow were also in daylight. There was one major gaffe in the scene immediately following the 'derailment' and which was filmed at Shepperton concerning the carriage which overturned and ended up on its side in an interior scene and which was later seen still standing upright. Despite the carriage being supposedly on its side, a doorway through a partition, or bulkhead, remained vertical and was able to be walked through in the normal manner.
A photograph taken during filming and showing No.44781 alias No.531.01 from a different angle. Notwithstanding the dummy and unauthentic side tanks, it was not FMSR practice to apply numbers to both engine and tender in this manner. FMSR tank locomotives did, perhaps obviously, have large font numbers on their tanks. A very good job was made of disguising the Stanier coaches but the locomotive remained very clearly a Stanier machine. Visible is the realistic headlamp fitted to the locomotive and which disappeared following conclusion of filming. The vehicle on the left which resembles a 1938 tube stock car was one of the Stanier coaches. This was the vehicle which received the most damage, balcony conversion aside, and was also the vehicle which supposedly overturned during the 'wreck' scene. Scattered around are examples of the flora used to give the impression of a far-eastern jungle location. This was only mildly successful but then when watching the film it would not have been the focus of attention. In the right background and above the locomotive chimney can be discerned one of the scaffold structures used for lighting. Filming actually took place during twilight despite appearances here, with skilful lighting and other effects used to give the impression of
the dead of night.
Photo from Ted Burgess collection
The remaining track of the Saffron Walden branch was curious. In scenes shot following the 'derailment' and notwithstanding the fading light, the railheads were heavily rusted yet shots taken from the front of what was supposedly the real Malayan train approaching the location the rails were highly polished. This discrepancy might be explained by certain shots being taken on a studio set. One source maintains that certain shots of the wreck were taken on a set at Pinewood Sanatorium but the accuracy of this has to be questioned and as time has marched on some confusion appears to have arisen between Pinewood Sanatorium, the completely unrelated Pinewood Studios and the actually used Shepperton Studios compounded, perhaps, by today's situation which sees the studios at Pinewood and Shepperton coming under the same umbrella. Positioning movements for the rolling stock would have de-rusted the rails to a limited degree but the 'highly polished' rails were in fact silver-painted railheads. For some mysterious reason the railheads had been pointlessly painted, loop included, as far back as Bartlow Junction and the writer witnessed this himself.
The aforementioned scene in which the real Malayan train supposedly approached the wreck site was filmed by means of a camera mounted on a trolley and pushed manually along the track. Also on the trolley was a mock-up of part of a steam locomotive smokebox and this was visible on camera to one side. The visual effect was quite realistic and represented the view from the front of a steam locomotive. Sound effects were added for extra realism. One very minor gaffe, however, was that the camera was too low down and thus too close to the track. The scenes showing the real Malayan train clearly showed metre-gauge flat bottom track, whereas at Bartlow standard gauge track with bullhead rails was equally clearly seen and the difference was glaringly obvious. Even laymen with little or no railway knowledge could not have failed to notice. In fairness to Columbia there was nothing which could be done about this and, this and other glitches aside, the standard of acting and filming was very good.
Those who have not seen the film may wonder how woodland at Bartlow in October, the month the filming took place, could look anything like the landscape of a hot far-eastern country. The solution was to place bamboo and other flora reminiscent of hot countries around the filming location. The effect was reasonably successful and, with viewers conditioned into thinking the scene was in Malaya during 1950, Columbia probably got away with it.
Black Five No.44781 in FMSR guise at Bartlow shortly after completion of filming. The frame on the left was probably part of a lighting rig or similar. Although at first glance the Black Fives appeared similar to each other there was a wide range of variations which were too numerous and not relevant for detailed discussion here. However, among the differences which might be relevant were the type and position of boiler fittings. No.44781 was one of those with a dome; others were domeless while on others the dome position varied relevant to the top feed. The dome seen here was in the correct position for No.44781 but appears to be too large, the implication being that as part of the disguise a dummy dome was placed over the original. The chimney is also suspect and on close examination and despite no obvious signs of copperwork, it looks suspiciously like a GWR chimney which, as it happens, were similar, but by no means identical, to those of the FMSR L class. Fortunately this view also shows the headlamp in place, which was a good representation of the originals - if not an actual original but this is unlikely. Sometime prior to scrapping, both headlamp and chimney disappeared. The whistle also disappeared but the fate if this item is known. Despite stalwart attempts to disguise the Black Five, she remained very obviously of Stanier origin. Criticisms might be the failure to remove all traces of the smokebox numberplate and shedplate and also the total lack of damage to the front end. Had the locomotive really run into the damaged section of track then the cowcatcher at least would have shown signs of damage. Visible ahead of the camera is some of the flora deliberately placed to kid viewers the scene was in Malaya. Some of the flora was used to hide the earth-covered pile of sleepers beneath the locomotive and upon which it was lowered by Cambridge breakdown crane. In the foreground the sleepers of the lifted section of the loop headshunt can be seen. The rails remained in place beneath the locomotive and are just visible in another, similar, image. No.44781 was scrapped at Bartlow but stories differ as to precisely how. Some say 'on site' meaning at the filming site and others say she was taken to Bartlow goods yard. The latter is unlikely but unfortunately the writer did not witness the scrapping
so cannot confirm.
Photograph by David Bidwell
While the carriages had been shunted down the branch via the running line, a different method was used for the locomotive. This had been shunted onto the loop headshunt, followed by the breakdown crane. Examination of the photograph shows the locomotive to be supported on what appears to be an earth pile but was actually a stack of sleepers covered in earth. The tender was parted from the engine (engine being locomotive minus tender) and positioned off the track first. With the engine, the method was to raise its rear (cab) end and swing it away from the track, lower it and then repeat the procedure with the front end but swinging it the opposite way, then lowering it onto the earth-covered stack of sleepers. This was most conveniently done from the loop headshunt. This complete, the rails, but not the sleepers, were then lifted between the loop points and the sleeper stack beneath the engine. Close examination of the photograph shows the ends of the rails from the remaining length of headshunt just protruding from the earth beneath the engine. Quite why the rails were removed is unclear but the most likely answer is to have made the scene concur with the single track upon which the real Malayan train was seen. In the film the Malayan train was ostensibly approaching from the direction behind the camera in the above view, so the sudden switch from single to double track as the camera changed location and direction would have been both obvious and ridiculous. This was the moment at which the sudden change from metre to standard gauge track mentioned earlier was very obvious.
On the left of the photograph what remained of the shunt signal controlling the points to the loop can be seen. The point blades can be seen at the bottom of the picture. By this date there was little evidence of the bamboo and other flora which had been dotted around the scene in an attempt to transform Bartlow into Malaya.
One of the four LMS-designed Stanier coaches at Bartlow shortly after filming. This particular vehicle is thought to have began life as a Lavatory Third Open, the lavatory being at the end nearest the camera. Unfortunately specific details of stock numbers are now lost in the mists of time. Archie King, the scrap dealer, dealt with large numbers of these vehicles including the TPO involved in the Great Train Robbery, at Wymondham and Norwich. The vehicle seen here was the one which received the most damage, as opposed to deliberate alterations, during filming (witness the smoke stains above the two nearest windows) but much of fire damage was controlled special effects - hence the basic structure remained intact. The end vestibules on at least the first two vehicles were opened up to create verandahs but the domed end to the roof is something of a mystery as as least one scene in the film, albeit brief, shows the roof abruptly ending with the air gap between inner and outer skins visible. The task facing Columbia was to make these coaches resemble those of the real Malayan train seen in the film and to this end a good job was done of the verandahs, the windows and the livery. One of the Malayan Railways monograms is on the near end, below the waistline, but almost invisible. Beading was also added to the bodysides to represent the Malayan stock and some of it can be seen here. The Malayan stock seen in the film also had central doors, inset from the outer body panels, but despite efforts made with the Stanier stock this feature was for some reason omitted. Possibly this was due to structural issues, window positions for example. A number of filming accoutrements can be seen; a lighting rig, gas bottles and some of the flora which, of course, was not native to the Cambridgeshire / Essex border. Bamboo canes, suitably dressed-up, were also set into the ground but are difficult to see both in stills and in the film. Reasonably obvious, especially where the damaged lengths of rail turn upwards, is the silver paint applied to the rail heads after the train had been positioned. This, for some mysterious and rather pointless reason, extended right back to the Saffron Walden platform
at Bartlow station.
Photograph by David Bidwell
The fate of Black Five No.44781
As already mentioned, No.44781 was the only locomotive in use on the final day of BR standard gauge steam (the then BR owned narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol line is frequently overlooked in this context) not to have survived into preservation but this was very nearly not the case.
Mr Gerald Pagano, whom the writer knew personally, was the Saffron Walden businessman responsible for the preservation of the Cambridge gasworks Sentinel locomotive and had previously set in motion steps to preserve No.44781. Columbia, owners of the locomotive, were approached and agreed to sell the locomotive. Mr Pagano was widely reported as reluctant to disclose the purchase price, describing it only as 'reasonable'. In fact the price quoted by Columbia was reportedly £1,700* and this was possibly less than scrap value at the time. Mr Pagano was, however and as would be expected, required to remove the locomotive from Bartlow by his own arrangements and at his own expense. This was where the nails began to be hammered into the coffin. Mr Pagano approached British Rail concerning the re-railing and removal of the locomotive from Bartlow and had this happened it would be have been taken to Carnforth. The sum quoted by British Rail for this operation was said by Mr Pagano to have been ‘excessive’ and was reportedly in the region of £5,000*. Mr Pagano therefore abandoned his preservation plans and No.44781 was ultimately sold by Columbia to A King & Sons who scrapped the locomotive on site in early 1969. Mr Pagano did, however, become the owner of the locomotive's whistle (technically the Black Five whistle was a hooter). In 2016 prices the sums quoted to Mr Pagano would be in the region of £26,000 (Columbia) and £78,000 (British Rail), a total of £104,000. Around the same time as the Bartlow saga, Mr Pagano was also involved with the shipping to England and preservation of Norwegian State Railways (NSB) locomotive King Haakon VII. [*These figures were quoted by the media at the time and found their way to the USA where the equivalent in dollars was also given. The authenticity of the figures is unconfirmed.
The scene along the Saffron Walden branch just outside Bartlow on 7 December 1968, a few weeks after completion of filming. In the background, A King & Sons have started scrapping the coaching stock and among the debris an underframe, or part of one, plus some sections of ribbed roofing typical of certain types of Stanier stock can be seen. The buildings seen in the distance stand alongside Ashdon Road opposite Three Hills Farm and are probably part of it. They, or similar, buildings are still there today. Near these buildings was Brocklebank's Occupation Crossing (one of three so-named crossings between Bartlow and Ashdon) and it was via this point of access that lorries removed the scrapped carriages and eventually the locomotive. Clearly visible is the damaged section of track which supposedly caused the derailment and the lack of damage to the locomotive, particularly at its front end, is somewhat unrealistic. The locomotive is of course the proverbial star of the show. Visible is the cowcatcher and dummy sidetank with the FMSR number 531.03 emblazoned upon it. Dummy tanks, with number, were fitted to both sides and were probably wooden with dummy rivet heads. The tender, also so emblazoned, is out of view. The fitting of dummy side tanks to a tender locomotive was a little absurd although tender-tank locomotives did exist. The reason was no doubt an attempt to detract from the then-still-familiar appearance of a Stanier Black Five but despite this the locomotive's origin is still very obvious. Another purpose of the dummy tanks may have been to ensure that the number of a Malayan locomotive was visible from all angles. The locomotive was also given a very authentic-looking FMSR headlamp (see earlier photographs) mounted ahead of the chimney. The open smokebox door obscures the view but it would appear the headlamp, at least, is missing as are the smokebox door handles. The whistle had also disappeared (but to where it disappeared is known) but other than these issues the locomotive was still in working order. The smokebox door was opened sometime after filming had concluded. There are a number of other features in this view which need describing and to avoid a very lengthy caption these are covered in the text.
Photograph by Tim Stephens
Many stories exist of British Rail being generally unhelpful towards preservationists and quoting 'excessive' prices in the period following the so-called Beeching Cuts and following the end of steam. Much of this was directly linked to who was in charge at a given time, not infrequent changes to accounting policy and, to a greater or lesser degree, who one might be on good terms with within the British Rail management structure. It must not be forgotten, too, that cash-strapped British Rail had an obligation to maximise income from sales of its assets although the actuality of this was by no means simple and much depended upon cost of asset removal versus predicted income and it was for this reason that structures such as signal boxes, signal posts, telegraph poles and so on were left in situ to quietly decompose. Sometimes, however, things did not work out this way and a good example was the scrapping of some of the diesel railbuses which were sold to scrap dealers for next to nothing on condition they were scrapped immediately in order the sweep the whole embarrassing saga under the carpet as quickly as possible.
A King & Sons had meanwhile won the contract for lifting the track of the Stour Valley Line and this included removal of the remaining track from the Saffron Walden branch. The scrapping and removal of The Virgin Soldiers train was a separate contract between King and Columbia. Today most of the trackbed at the 'wreck' site no longer exists. Indeed much of the trackbed of the Audley End - Bartlow branch is now fragmented, particularly between Audley End and Saffron Walden where virtually nothing now remains.
Additional photographs showing No.44781 and train would be most welcome as would any showing the breakdown crane or other preparatory work at Bartlow.
Sources and Credits
In addition, the writer has used his own recollections of events at Bartlow and Cambridge where these are considered reliable given the passage of time. Also, numerous studies have been made of the various railway scenes and stills thereof in and from The Virgin Soldiers. Copyright of the film is now owned by Sony Pictures (UK), 25 Golden Square, London W1R 6LU
Very little written and published information on The Virgin Soldiers railway scenes is available and, as outlined earlier, what is available is prone to errors, some of which are major. In contrast there is plenty of reliable information available on the railways of Malaysia, including via the links given in Sources and Credits. A fascinating subject in itself, many photographs are available of locomotives and rolling stock of British origin; not just steam but also diesel traction including the EE/VF shunters which bore some resemblance to what became BR Class 08 and were mechanically similar, the Sentinel railcars, the BRE/Leyland railbus set which initially went to Thailand and was last noted derelict in Malaysia during the early 21st century. Photographs are also available of more modern Malaysian stock, both diesel and electric, the external appearance of some being not unfamiliar to British eyes.
Additionally there are several photographs available online of Black Five No.44781 during her final months of BR service and, indeed, of the class in general. Thanks to heritage railways it is still possible to travel in a Stanier coach behind a Black Five but the experience of sitting in a disguised and derailed Stanier coach at Bartlow will never again be possible. Perhaps this is just as well.