A Sentimental Journey
There’s something endearing about Thomas the Tank Engine. Those big porthole ‘eyes’, the sturdy tank, and perky little chimney give him a playful puppy-dog look. You just couldn’t cut him up for scrap, could you? Such is the story of Fry’s Sentinel 7492, a survivor from the 1920s now enjoying a happy retirement at the Avon Valley Railway. The March gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society were lucky to have Eric Miles along to tell the story.
Egbert Cadbury, of the chocolate family, a pilot who had shot down two Zeppelins in the recent war, was a bit of a railway enthusiast. When, in 1921, he was put in charge of relocating Fry’s chocolate manufacturing from Union St. In Bristol to a brand new green-field site near Keynsham called Somerdale Garden City, perhaps he had a glimmer in his mind of his own private railway. It is remarkable that the cuttings and embankments for this futuristic industrial complex were all built manually by teams of labourers in waistcoats and bowlers. We have the photographs, and bills for spades, picks and barrows to prove it. In 1922 the railway was complete and Cadbury contracted GWR to shunt sugar, milk, cocoa and chocolate bars between the factory and Keynsham station across the main road.
The new factory already had a large fleet of steam lorries from the Sentinel Wagon Works in Shrewsbury, so when in 1928 Cadbury decided he needed his own tank engine for his railway he ordered locomotive 7492 from the same works. Fry’s Sentinel engine puffed up and down from 1928 until 1956, shunting sugary sweets along the short track to Keynsham station. Not content with just an engine, Cadbury also purchased 3 carriages which were fitted out with kitchens and entertainment facilities to publicize the factory’s products. But in 1956 a diesel engine was bought, Sentinel 7492 hauled its last bar of chocolate and was put out to grass.
Now the story leaps forward to 2004, when Eric was made redundant from the factory and decided to write a book about Somerdale. As he did so he became intrigued by the fate of 7492 and decided to try and find out if it still existed. Trawling through the archives he discovered that the company (now Cadbury’s) had sold the engine in 1964 to a scrap merchant in Fishponds. The scrap merchant’s two sons were keen to cut up the engine but he formed an attachment to it and kept it on display in his yard until 1970. It was then sold to someone in Somerset, and a few years later to a buyer in Suffolk.
Here the trail ran cold (as they do in the best detective stories) until Eric was lucky enough to find a photograph of the engine being loaded by a crane onto a truck. On the arm of the crane he could make out the name of the crane-hire company, and through further investigations he traced 7492 to a garden in Essex, where in 1991 the owner had built a shed around the engine to protect it. It was 2010 when Eric negotiated to buy the engine on behalf of Avon Valley Railway with generous funding from Cadbury’s.
Later that year Sentinel 7492 made a sentimental journey, sitting sedately on a low loader, to visit once more the Somerdale factory, on route to the Avon Valley Railway at Bitton. Then began the careful process of restoration, but that’s another story. Suffice to say that Fry’s Sentinel 7492 can now be seen at Bitton looking smart and Bristol fashion, thanks to Eric’s dogged detective work and persistent pursuit of his goal. Many thanks, Eric.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.