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History of Walsall's Sister Dora and the steam engine

Dora and the steam engine

Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison was born 16 January 1832 at Hauxwell, a small North Yorkshire village. After a difficult family life, she eventually escaped to devote the rest of her days to nursing, arriving in Walsall on 8 January 1865. It was here that she was to become a legend equal to Florence Nightingale in local eyes.

Sister Dora, as she was by then known, had joined the Christ Church Sisterhood, and was sent to work at Walsall’s first tiny hospital in Bridge Street, later at the cottage hospital at The Mount, and in 1876 she found herself in a temporary hospital in Bridgeman Street, overlooking the South Staffordshire Railway (later the London and North Western Railway).

Industrial accidents were common in those days, and railway workers especially suffered in Walsall. Many railwaymen required medical treatment, and a great bond of friendship developed between Sister Dora and men from all departments. Their appreciation may easily be measured by their fine gift of a pony and open carriage to Sister Dora one afternoon in June 1873. The railwaymen had raised the princely sum of £50 from their own modest wages to enable Sister Dora to more easily visit housebound patients, and a dozen of her former railway patients turned out in their best off-duty suits to make the presentation.

In 1875, Walsall was hit by smallpox, an epidemic hospital being set up in Deadman’s Lane (now Hospital Street), and here Sister Dora worked for six months, risking her own life for the people of Walsall.

Later, an infection closed the Cottage Hospital at The Mount, following horrific injuries to workers in a local ironworks explosion. The hospital moved to temporary accommodation rented from the LNWR Railway in Bridgeman Place, overlooking Walsall Station.

During 1876, Sister Dora attended 12,127 patients, a workload which seriously affected her health. In 1877 she contracted breast cancer, and on Christmas Eve in 1878, she passed away. At her funeral on 28 December the town of Walsall turned out to see her off to Queen Street Cemetery, borne by eighteen railwaymen, engine drivers, porters and guards, all in working uniform.

There were several lasting monuments to Sister Dora’s life, despite her not wanting any fuss after her passing. Firstly, the new cottage hospital that opened shortly before her death eventually became known as the Walsall General (Sister Dora) Hospital. Secondly, a marble statue, the second, bronze incarnation of which still gazes over The Bridge today. Finally, the Sister Dora steam locomotive.

The special relationship between Sister Dora and the railwaymen was clear at their Crewe headquarters. The LNWR’s chief mechanical engineer, Mr. Francis William Webb, was well aware of Sister Dora’s work and her association with the railwaymen. A successful locomotive designer, Webb also named many of his engines. It was a great surprise to Walsall folk when it was announced in January 1895 that he planned to name a 2-4-0 passenger locomotive, a rebuild of a Precedent Class ‘Jumbo’, as No. 2158 ‘Sister Dora’.

Accordingly, management at Crewe decided that ‘Sister Dora’ should visit Walsall as often as possible. Shedded at Derby, No. 2158 worked a Derby to Walsall morning train via Burton, Birmingham New Street and Soho to Walsall. It then undertook maintenance at Ryecroft Shed, Walsall. After a few hours there, ‘Sister Dora’ would return to Derby. The locomotive worked this train between 1896–1906, regularly driven by Mr. Charles Sayer, whose duty ran from Monday to Saturday. Only rarely did ‘Sister Dora’ have a relief driver for holidays or sickness.

Jack Haddock, who has lived all his life near Ryecroft, knew most of the staff there in the 1930s and 1940s. They recalled that driver Sayer was very proud of ‘Sister Dora’ and seemed to regard this engine as his own property. Sayer watched repairs like a hawk, and wiped clean any adjusted parts. Walter Franklin, a shed cleaner, often approached Sayer to clean ‘Sister Dora’ but was always refused. Sayer was loath for anyone to mount the footplate, preferring to have lunch aboard her, and never used the shed mess rooms. Two late friends of Jack Haddock, Bill Ramsell and Bert Arnold, were young trainspotters of that era, and recalled seeing Sayer polish ‘Sister Dora’s’ nameplate on each visit to Ryecroft. They both were adamant that this nameplate was the cleanest on the LNWR.

No. 2158 ‘Sister Dora’ had a long and hard life, and is believed to have been scrapped around 1924 after the formation of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company. But her spirit was resurrected once more in 1988, when, after an open day at Bescot marshalling yards, a committee was formed with the intention of obtaining permission to name a modern diesel locomotive after Sister Dora. The committee was successful in its aim, and in due course a Class 31 locomotive became the proud bearer of the fine new nameplate ‘Sister Dora’.

This was not the end of the story of the first Sister Dora locomotive, however, for in 1992 the great-great-grandson of driver Sayer, Mr. Larry Sayer of Solihull, turned up at Walsall Local History Centre to research his family history, and so it was that Jack Haddock and I encountered a living connection to that historic engine of so long ago which, like the town’s railwaymen of the time, had such a strong bond with Walsall’s great heroine, Sister Dora.

References: ‘Sister Dora’ and ‘2158 Sister Dora’ by Jack Haddock, ‘Walsall Chronicle No. 10, Sister Dora’ by C.S. Latimer.

For this article, Stuart Williams climbed aboard the footplate with co-author, Jack Haddock, to tell the story of Sister Dora and the steam engine which was named after her.