The steam engine nameplate in the photograph says Darlington, but doesn’t say it all. The wheels are again about to come full circle.

Back in the 1930s, the London and North Eastern Railway built 73 class B17 locomotives – 52 of them at Darlington – amid suggestions of skulduggery to which we shall return.

Though most spent their hard-working lives in East Anglia, the class included locos named after North-East stately homes like the castles at Alnwick, Brancepeth, Lambton, Lumley and Raby, Wynyard Park near Billingham and Aske Hall, the Zetland family seat near Richmond.

Among the football clubs, Sunderland became 61654, Middlesbrough 61655 and Newcastle United, very briefly, 61658. There never was a Hartlepools United or a York City for that matter, despite York’s railway heritage.

“The staff at York works clearly didn’t have the same clout as their Darlington colleagues,” said Railway Magazine in 2002, and that takes us back to where it all kicked off.

The plan was that 2852, which became 61652 after nationalisation, would be named after first division Sheffield Wednesday, though some say Manchester City. At any rate, the North Road night shift was unhappy that the Quakers – Third Division North – appeared to have been overlooked.

The engine which steamed out of North Road some time in 1936 proudly bore the golden plate and black and white colours of Darlington, and on both sides so that the declaration of independence might not be supposed unilateral.

Though precious few of them were along North-East lines, it had covered almost a million miles before being withdrawn – with many more – in 1959.

In 1969 British Railways gave one of the nameplates to the Quakers, accepted by club chairman and car dealer John Neasham. The other went into private hands but resurfaced in 2004 when a chap in Worthing offered it to the borough council for £19,000.

A government grant would have met half of the cost, a public appeal failed to raise the rest. The other brass nameplate, long proudly on display above the Feethams tunnel, was found abandoned in a boiler room beneath the stand by Darlington businessman Gordon Hodgson after he became the club’s vice-chairman in 1990.

“It was in a terrible state, covered in cobwebs, I can’t imagine why it had been abandoned like that,” says Gordon who had it restored, refurbished and returned to a prominent place at the ground. When the club went into administration in 2004, however, the administrator sold that plate to a private buyer in America for £41,000. In the US, so far as anyone knows, it remains.

So the brass plate in the photograph is a replica, albeit made by the same Nottingham forge and to exactly the same specification, colours and (very heavy) weight.

It was funded in 2004 by Gordon Hodgson and fellow Quakers director Peter Ellis – who, as we may previously have observed, bears a certain resemblance to Genial Harry Grout – in the hope that it, too, might have pride of place in the foyer. Now that they’re still without a stadium of their own, Peter’s putting it on the market to a good home or to be sold at auction.

“It’s just sitting there and really needs to be prominently displayed somewhere,” he says. “I’d rather it was used for the purpose it was originally intended, or at least was in the hands of a true Darlington supporter.”

Gordon Hodgson even commissioned a painting, one of the splendid John Wigston’s, of B17 Darlington steaming out of the town’s railway station, though it’s not thought ever to have worked passenger services there.

“It really got up my nose when the administrator sold the original because I don’t think it was theirs to sell,” he says. “It was part of the club’s heritage, and of the town’s.”

An Everton original sold for £28,000 a few weeks ago, the record for a B17 nameplate is thought to be nearer £50,000. Peter Ellis accepts that the replica is unlikely to fetch as much. “I’d just be happy to know that it went to a good home, somewhere where it would be displayed with pride.”

He can be contacted at

Skulduggery, we were saying. If 2852 Darlington came out under the cover of the night shift, what of 2858 Newcastle United? The name barely lasted a week and – horrors – the fingers pointed towards the Arsenal.

2858 was definitely named Newcastle United when she left Darlington works on May 28, 1936 but by the time the new locomotive turned up a railway exhibition in Romford ten days later the loco was named The Essex Regiment.

“The locomotive names were subject to almost as many transfers as the club’s players,” said Railway Magazine. There was a bit of a problem with Sunderland, too.

Perhaps not expecting the team to reach the 1937 FA Cup final, LNER gaffers had the recently named Sunderland in for repair and so swapped nameplates with Derby County – a Rams raid, as it were. That’s how “Sunderland” headed the official train to Wembley.

The Newcastle United nameplates were never formally seen again, but in 2003 Magpies fan David Tyreman paid £500 for a new one, which long hung in the St James’ Park reception area. His theory was that one of the LNER directors had been an Arsenal fan.

“We’d beaten Arsenal in the 1932 FA Cup final, the allegation that our equaliser came from a cross that was over the line before the lad hit it.

“They never forgave us, but it was a very dirty trick. So far as I can gather, the United nameplates just went for scrap.”

None of the 73 B17s survived the scrapyard, though work is now underway on a replica, to be called Spirit of Sandringham.

Hornby produced a “Darlington” model, too, though the website reveals that it’s sold out. There is, however, a “wish list”, and there may be quite a few names on that.