Francis Webb (engineer)

Francis William Webb (21 May 1836 4 June 1906) was an English railway engineer, responsible for the design and manufacture of locomotives for the London and North Western Railway (LNWR). Webb was born in Tixall Rectory, near Stafford, the second son of William Webb, Rector of Tixall.

Francis Webb
Webb in 1890
Born21 May 1836
Died4 June 1906 (1906-06-05) (aged 70)
Bournemouth, England
Engineering career
DisciplineMechanical engineering


Crewe Works

Showing early interest in mechanical engineering, on 11 August 1851 at the age of fifteen he was articled as a pupil of Francis Trevithick at Crewe Works.[1] Webb joined the drawing office in 1856, at the end of his training.[1] He became Chief Draughtsman on 1 March 1859.[1] On 1 September 1861 he was appointed Works Manager at Crewe and Chief Assistant to John Ramsbottom.[1] Whilst Works Manager Webb was responsible for the installation of Bessemer converters and the start of steel production at Crewe.[1]

Bolton Iron and Steel Company

In July 1866 Webb resigned from the LNWR and moved to the Bolton Iron and Steel Co. as the manager.[1] It has been suggested that this move was arranged by the LNWR management to enable him to gain experience of steel making.

Return to Crewe

Ramsbottom gave 12 months notice of his resignation in September 1870. Shortly afterwards the Works Manager, Thomas Stubbs, died aged 34. Stubbs may have been Ramsbottom's intended successor. The Chairman of the LNWR, Richard Moon, contacted Webb and invited him to return to Crewe. In October 1870 Moon was able to inform Webb that his appointment as Locomotive Superintendent had been approved. Webb's salary was set at £2,000 for the first year, and £3,000 for the second and subsequent years.[1] Webb took up his position on 1 October 1871.[2] Webb became Chief Mechanical Engineer when the post of Locomotive Superintendent was renamed. It appears that this happened soon after Webb took up his duties.[3] At the same time he also became President of the Crewe Mechanics' Institute, where he had for some time taught engineering drawing during his first stay at Crewe.[3] Webb remained as CME of the LNWR until 1 July 1903, having tendered his resignation in November 1902.[4] His successor, George Whale, was appointed in April 1903. Whale took over Webb's position somewhat earlier than planned, as Webb became seriously ill in June.[4]

Locomotive classes

Webb was responsible throughout his career for some highly successful standard locomotive classes, all built at Crewe in considerable numbers. Notable amongst these is the Precedent class of 2-4-0 (known as Jumbos), an 0-6-0 general purpose freight design, ("Coal Engine") and its 0-6-2 ("Coal Tank") variant, a celebrated 0-6-0 mixed traffic design ("Cauliflowers"), and an 0-8-0 freight locomotive with two compound variants and a simple expansion version produced in parallel, The last-mentioned was continuously developed and built down to LMS days, most earlier locomotives being rebuilt to conform.


There does however remain some controversy over Webb's own two distinct compound systems applied to a number of locomotive designs, which are reputed to have given considerable trouble in service. The Webb Experiment or Improved Precedent class were withdrawn by his successor George Whale soon after he succeeded Webb in 1903.

An obituary in The Engineer (8 June 1906) criticised his express compound design, which used un-coupled high and low pressure cylinders, a design promoted by Webb alone.[5] The article caused open debate in the pages of the journal, mostly based on the perceived flaw of not utilising coupling rods.[5][6] In the 20 June edition the editor of the journal continued the attack on the deceased engineer, stating:[5]

It is a noteworthy fact that no railway authority in Great Britain and Ireland ever believed in these engines; Mr. Webb, and Mr. Webb only, had faith in them. Precisely on what evidence that faith was based we have never been able to discover

The Engineer, June 20, 1906

Other work

Webb was also responsible for the remodelling of Crewe station which involved the building of four tracks in underpasses on the west side of the station to carry freight trains.

He made numerous inventions and received over 80 patents.[2] He was Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Political life

Webb took a great interest in local politics and was an Alderman on the Crewe Town Council and had been Mayor twice. He was also an Alderman on Cheshire County Council.


In Crewe he was for very many years remembered as a major benefactor of the "Webb Orphanage", a beautiful red-brick building with extensive playing fields behind the railway works and fronting on Victoria Avenue. Together with Richard Moon, Chairman of the LNWR, he presented, to the Crewe Corporation, on behalf of the railway company, Queen's Park, a large and beautifully landscaped park with attractive entrance gates and lodges (complete with inscribed decoration mentioning both Moon and Webb) and also fronting on Victoria Avenue. "Frank Webb Avenue", a much later Crewe residential street, also recalls his name.

Retirement and death

He retired in 1903 to Bournemouth, being replaced as CME by George Whale. He died in Bournemouth in 1906 aged 70. He had never married.

A complex man, with very great capabilities, deep sensitivity and tolerance yet sometimes an unapproachable martinet, blind to the faults of his later compound locomotives.

L&NWR Society : Personalities.[7]

See also



  1. Griffiths, p.51
  2. Griffiths, p.52
  3. Griffiths, p.53
  4. Griffiths, p.60
  5. "The Webb Compound Locomotive" (PDF), The Engineer: 655, 29 June 1906, archived from the original (PDF) on 24 September 2015
  6. The Engineer, Letters to the Editor, 1906. 15 June, p.613; 22 June, p.635; 6 July, p.18-9; 13 July, p.44-5; 20 July, p.72; 27 July 1906, p.99-100; 3 August, p.127; 17 August, p.179
  7. The Personalities, London and North Western Railway Society


  • Chacksfield, J.E. (2007). F.W. Webb: in the right place at the right time. Usk: Oakwood Press.
  • Griffiths, D. (1991). Locomotive Engineers of the LMS and its Major Constituent Companies. Sparkford: Patrick Stephens, Haynes.
  • Spink, John E. (2011). F.W. Webb, 1836-1906. A Bibliography. London & North Western Railway Society. ISBN 978-0-954-6951-7-0.



Preceded by
John Ramsbottom
Chief Mechanical Engineer
London and North Western Railway

Succeeded by
George Whale
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