The Bloomer was the nickname given to a steam engine designed and buit by J E McConnell at Wolverton Works. It was apparently fast for its period. The nickname came about because the wheels were not covered by skirting and was contemporaneous with the new shorter women’s dresses popularised by Amelia Bloomer.
In 1851 an American woman, Mrs Amelia Jenks Bloomer, caused a sensation by appearing in public dressed in a knee-length dress and ankle-length pants. Up to this date women wore yards of material down to their ankles and no woman was considered decently dressed unless their legs were invisible. Mrs Bloomer’s primary purpose was to devise clothing which would enable her to ride a bicycle rather than make a fashion statement; however the fame of this style of dress quickly spread and the word “bloomer” slipped into the language.
Meanwhile, in another country and entirely unconnected, engineers were designing locomotives under McConnell’s direction which had a partially covered driving wheel. I won’t go into the engineering reasons for this but the resulting appearance was different from any previously manufactured locomotive. They appeared when the Bloomer sensation was at its height and the partially covered wheels led some journalist to draw a parallel with Amelia Bloomer’s attire and the nickname stuck. There is no logical comparison: driving wheels were uncovered and then partially covered, whereas Mrs Bloomer’s legs were fully covered and then partially exposed. However, names don’t stick for logical reasons and these engines were called “Bloomers” long after the fashion disappeared.
This photograph was taken in 1861 of a “Bloomer” locomotive and tender at Wolverton. In the background you can see the back of the second station and refreshment rooms.
These new locomotives could reach speeds of 60 mph on their own and run at average speeds of 36 – 38mph with train loads. By the standards of the day they were very fast and the phrase “express train” entered the language. Not all of these engines were built at Wolverton but they were developed and built under McConnell’s regime at Wolverton and perhaps brought a little bit of glamour to Wolverton’s production history.
In 1985 a replica “Bloomer” was built and installed in Milton Keyne’s central plaza. Over the years it deteriorated and in 2006 was moved to Wolverton for restoration. I don’t know the status of the project.
I always thought it a pity that the L&NWR decided to rationalise their rolling stock production in the way they did – leaving Wolverton to concentrate only on the building of carriages and wagons. Steam engines were much more glamourous. Still, I don’t suppose the 4000 men employed there with good wages minded too much.
Wolverton got its first serious downgrading in 1963 in the aftermath of the Beeching report when it was decided to stop building new rolling stock and make Wolverton a repair shop. The workforce was halved overnight. The blow was softened to some degree because the Council had had the foresight to bring in new industry on the Old Wolverton Road, such as Copperad. The early sixties were also economic boom times and many men were able to find better paying jobs in car manufacturing plants in Luton and Coventry.