Golden Arrow – The Luxury Train

The down Golden Arrow at Knockholt Summit, just south of Knockholt station headed by Merchant Navy class 35026 Lamport and Holt Line - Thanks to Norman Johnson

The down Golden Arrow at Knockholt Summit, just south of Knockholt station headed by Merchant Navy class 35026 Lamport and Holt Line – Thanks to Norman Johnson

Railways have fascinated me ever since I first read E Nesbit’s The Railway Children. Indeed, if Dr. Richard Beeching’s (1913-1985) advice had not been heeded some eighteen months after I started working for Eastern Region of British Railways, my career would have taken a very different direction. These days, one of the beauties of being a senior citizen, is that together with advance fares my rail card allows me to indulge in my passion. Someday, one of my dearest wishes will come true and I will travel on the Golden Arrow.

Southern Railway introduced the Golden Arrow service on 15 May 1929. They had already introduced the Continental Express boat train on 14 November 1924 that was deigned to give extra comfort. That train consisted of six first class Pullman cars, a baggage and a brake van  and left London Victoria at 10.50hrs with the return Continental Express train leaving Dover for London at 17.30hrs. The King Arthur class engine, advanced by Richard Maunsell in 1925 and introduced that year, hauled the train. Each locomotive was named after a character from the court at Camelot and the name of the locomotive and number-plates were of polished brass with a background of either red or black.

The French, in September 1926, followed Southern’s lead and launched an all-Pullman train between Paris and Calais, giving it the title of Fléche d’Or. To take passengers across the Channel, Southern had ordered the Canterbury from Denny’s of Dumbarton. In the meantime, the company decided to up grade the Continental Express with a new train given the anglicised name of the Golden Arrow.

Golden Arrow - post-war publicity shot of the 'Trianon' cocktail bar

Golden Arrow – post-war publicity shot of the ‘Trianon’ cocktail bar

The Golden Arrow consisted of 10 Pullman cars, hauled by a 4-6-0 Lord Nelson Class or King Arthur class engine sporting a Union Flag and Tricolour. At the time the Lord Nelson class was introduced, in 1926, they were the most powerful engines in Great Britain – the tractive effort was 33,510-lb. The carriages were individually named, resplendent in chocolate and cream and aimed exclusively at first-class Pullman passengers. On board was the ‘Trianon’ cocktail bar, a converted twelve-wheeled Pullman, modelled on a high-class club for the rich. The train also boasted of the first public address system and passengers were addressed in both English and French.

Canterbury - lay out pre World War II. Alan Sencicle collection

Canterbury – lay out pre World War II. Alan Sencicle collection

The Canterbury was launched on 13 December 1928 at Dumbarton. Of 2,910tons gross, her length was, 329 feet 7 inches (100 metres) between perpendiculars, a beam of 47 feet 1 inch (14.4 metres) and a depth of 16 feet 10 inches (5metres). The majority of the decks were occupied by passenger quarters, of which she was capable of carrying up to 1,700. However, she was only expected to carry 300 – 400 passengers because of the clientele she served. She was driven by four geared turbines taking steam from four water tube boilers that were served by a single raked funnel. The Canterbury arrived in Dover on 30 April 1929 and commenced service on the same day as the Golden Arrow – 15 May.

Golden Arrow Poster. East Lancashire Railway 2011

Golden Arrow Poster. East Lancashire Railway 2011

The journey between London and Paris was advertised to take 6½ hours and each day the Golden Arrow was scheduled to depart London Victoria at 11.00hrs and reach Dover Marine Station at 12.38hrs. As the line is fairly level with a very long straight section, speeds of 96kph (60mph) were not unknown. Having crossed the Channel in the Canterbury and on reaching Calais the passengers were transferred to the awaiting Fléche d’Or, a four-cylinder Nord Pacific of the French Northern railway, arriving in Paris at 17.35, (English time). The single fare was £6.10s (£6.50p).

In March 1929, the New York Stock exchange, on Wall Street, wobbled and on 20 September 1929, the London Stock Exchange crashed. Following which, top investor, Charles Hatray – who lived at St Margaret’s Bay – being sent to gaol for fraud and forgery. Stock exchange instability gave way to deterioration and on Wall Street this gained momentum. On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, Wall Street crashed. The repercussions were felt around the world leading to a major economic depression.

Canterbury - Alan Sencicle collection

Canterbury – Alan Sencicle collection

The Southern Railway annual reports for 1929 and the following two years reflected this with the non-viability of the Golden Arrow and the Canterbury holding centre stage. It was noted that on the Dover-Continental passage, the number of passengers travelling second class (the same as 3rd class on trains), during the year ending February 1931 had increased by 28,000 but the number of first class passengers had decreased by 50,000. Further, much of the increase in traffic was on the Ostend route, where ships were under the control of the Belgium Government. Following the report, the decision was taken to introduce, in May 1931, third class carriages on the Golden Arrow. At about the same time the Canterbury was modified to allow for the two classes of passengers. Ticket prices remained the same for the first class and for second/third class passengers, it was £4.10s (£4.50p).

Golden Arrow Pullman Car ticket number 0000.  Michael Stewart

Golden Arrow Pullman Car ticket number 0000. Michael Stewart

As the economy recovered the Golden Arrow service gained more passengers in both classes. On 14 January 1939 Neville Chamberlain together with Lord Halifax, foreign secretary, travelled by way of Dover, using the Golden Arrow and the Canterbury, for Rome. This was to meet with Benito Mussolini, Italian political leader, in an effort to persuade him not to become involved in the pending conflict. World War II was declared on 3 September 1939.

Canterbury - War Service. York Rail Museum

Canterbury – War Service. York Rail Museum

Following the Golden Arrow’s last trip, the Canterbury left Dover for conversion into a troop carrying ship. On the afternoon of 29 May 1940, during the Dunkirk Evacuation, she was attacked and badly damaged. Nonetheless, having returned to Dover and patched up, she was back rescuing soldiers from the beaches on 3 June. She became, in February 1943, part of Force J along with another Southern Railway vessel, Isle of Thanet. The Canterbury took part in the D-Day landings of 1944 sailing from Southampton she landed her contingent of troops on Juno Beach on 6 June. After a distinguished war service, the Canterbury was given a refit, which included the installation of radar, and returned to Dover.

Golden Arrow - the Oliver Bulleid’s Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2s c 1947

Golden Arrow – the Oliver Bulleid’s Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2s c 1947

The Golden Arrow journey, because of the poor state of the French railways, was scheduled to take 8½hours. On arrival in Calais, there were coaches available to take passengers to Basle, Lausanne and Milan.  Shortly after, Oliver Bulleid’s Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2s replaced the Lord Nelson Class engine. First introduced in 1941, it had an all-welded boiler chain-driven valve-gear and, at the time, novel air-smoothing casting.



The ship Invicta, was built in 1939 to take over from the Canterbury but was commandeered for war work following her launch in 1940. On demobilisation, she was converted to oil fuel having been originally designed to use Kent coal. She was fitted with radar and on 10 October 1946 came to Dover to take over the Golden Arrow service. She was also to be the company’s flagship and Len Payne was appointed Master. Five days later, the Canterbury, was transferred to the Folkestone-Boulogne service until 27 September 1964, when she was towed away to Antwerp to be scrapped.

Golden Arrow being drawn by William Shakespeare engine out of Marine Station. Dover Library

Golden Arrow being drawn by William Shakespeare engine out of Marine Station. Dover Library

The Golden Arrow celebrated the first post-war year on 15 April 1947, having carried 180,000 passengers but October saw the introduction of travel for pleasure restrictions. Although the Golden Arrow service continued, the number of passengers dramatically fell. As the economy began to pick up the restrictions were lifted and the service regained its popularity. On 1 January 1948, with the nationalisation of railways, the Southern Railway became Southern Region. In 1951, the smaller version of the Merchant Navy class, the Britannia 4-6-2 Standard Class 7s, was introduced to the service. One of these, the William Shakespeare, finished with standard green livery, was exhibited at the 1951 Festival of Britain. Variants of the original Merchant Navy class such as Battle of Britain and the West Country classes were used along with British Railway’s standard Pacifics, Iron Duke and William Shakespeare.

Embarking onto the Canterbury

Embarking onto the Canterbury

In October 1952 the outward journey on the Golden Arrow service was transferred, for a short while, to Folkestone. On 19 December 1955, Southern Region’s commodore, Len Payne collapsed and died just as the Invicta was about to leave Dover for Calais. Later that decade, the Kent Coast electrification scheme was introduced and it was goodbye to steam engines. It was a West Country class steam locomotive that pulled the Golden Arrow for Victoria in June 1961. The crew were Tom Crabb of Melbourne Avenue driver – who was due to retire – and fireman Eric Brereton of Friars Way. The Mayor, railwayman, Robert Eade, councillors and crowds of locals waved goodbye. Other trains gave whistle salutes.

Golden Arrow -  Electric engine pulling out of Marine Station. Dover Harbour Board

Golden Arrow – Electric engine pulling out of Marine Station. Dover Harbour Board

At the time, the demand for the service was on the wane in face of stiff competition from the car. The Invicta made her last Golden Arrow sailing on 8 August 1972 and the last Golden Arrow train ran on 30 September that year. In spring 1985, the Golden Arrow featured on 22p stamps, in the Post Office’s ‘Famous Trains’ series. At the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel in May 1994, a Britannia class steam locomotive pulled Golden Arrow pullman cars. When Marine Station closed that year, it was the Britannia class, Iron Duke – named after the Duke of Wellington – which hauled the last train to use the station. In the summer of 2003, the Golden Arrow, operated by Wessex Trains, made the first of a series of journeys pulled by the Battle of Britain class engine, Tangmere. Thus, the memory of the Golden Arrow lives on and, of interest, when the then Strategic Rail Authority (2001-2006), on 15 October 2002, launched a programme, in an effort to raise serious money from the private sector, they called it the … Golden Arrow!

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury:  17 & 24 November 2011

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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