Although this steam locomotive had a chequered nine-year career on a short stretch of an East Kent branch line, it nevertheless has an important place in the county’s railway history. Having spent most of the 20th Century exposed to the elements whilst on display near the remains of Canterbury’s Medieval wall, the diminutive “Invicta” can now be found safely under cover within a Whitstable museum, cosmetically restored. It has the stereotypical appearance of those very first steam locomotives which have been immortalised in paintings and drawings from the earliest years: a tall chimney, short boiler, and no cab; a look made seemingly familiar throughout history by George Stephenson’s famous “Rocket”.

The single-track standard gauge Canterbury & Whitstable Railway (C&WR) was formally opened at 11:00 AM on Monday, 3rd May 1830. It was England’s second railway to be commissioned to public traffic, following in the footsteps of the Stockton & Darlington, the latter of which was brought into use in 1825. The C&WR was 6-miles 1-chain in length and was characterised by steep gradients and low clearances. The steepest incline was 1 in 30, for a duration of about ¾-mile, situated about two miles from Whitstable, ascending in the Canterbury direction. The gradients were too severe for the locomotives of the earliest years, so traffic was hauled up them by ropes attached to stationary steam engines.

There existed just a single stretch of railway line which was completely flat. This extended for about 1-mile 300-yards, situated at the Whitstable end of the line, with its southern extremity ending at the foot of the aforementioned 1 in 30 gradient. It was this section of the branch line upon which “Invicta” was built to operate. In the February 1907 edition of The Railway Magazine, it was reported that the locomotive had been built by Stephenson of Newcastle, being their works number 20; the same company was responsible for “Rocket”, which was works No. 19. “Invicta” arrived at Whitstable in February 1830, having been delivered from Newcastle by sea.

The Railway Magazine (February 1907) remarked that “Invicta” had a difficult career, constantly being the subject of small alterations in design until 1838, when considerable repairs became due. The opportunity was taken to more or less completely reconstruct the locomotive: a new boiler — three inches greater in diameter than the original — was supplied; a square smokebox and shorter chimney fitted; and a replacement set of leading wheels provided, which were of a different design to the original (the rear set remained unchanged). Unfortunately, the rebuild did not improve performance; “Invicta” failed to adequately maintain steam and, as a result, was withdrawn from service in 1839 and replaced by horses on the flat. This outcome was perhaps ironic, given that the name “Invicta” was Latin for “undefeated” which, unfortunately, the small engine did not live up to.

After withdrawal, The Railway Magazine reported that the locomotive was stored in a shed in Canterbury, presumably alongside the original C&WR terminus at North Lane. The South Eastern Railway (SER) took the C&WR out on lease in 1844 and, on 6th February 1846, opened a double-track line to the city from Ashford; from that day, the branch to Whitstable was temporarily closed to traffic, to allow the laying of new track, and was reopened exactly two months later. The SER also took the opportunity to move “Invicta” from its Canterbury storage shed to Ashford Works, the latter of which was the locomotive’s main home — having periods on display both indoors and out — until June 1906. During this time, “Invicta” also had the opportunity to travel: the locomotive was exhibited at Darlington in 1875, Newcastle in 1881 — as part of that city’s celebration of George Stephenson’s centenary — and Paris in 1900.

In 1906, “Invicta” was on the move to a new permanent home, returning to Canterbury. Initially, the plan had been to display the locomotive on the southern approaches to Westminster Bridge in London, but this changed to the more appropriate location of Kent’s cathedral city:


Another attraction has been added to Canterbury by the presentation of the famous old locomotive Invicta by Sir David Salomons, and it has been erected on the Dane John. The Invicta was the first locomotive of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, the first line in the South of England, which was opened on May 3rd, 1830. Sir D. Salomons recently offered the Invicta to the L.C.C. to be set up by the southern approach to Westminster Bridge and also £1,000 [£114,400 at 2021 prices] for the pedestal, but the offer was not accepted, as it was thought that the old engine would be out of place in such a spot. [The Nottingham Evening Post, Tuesday, 12th June 1906]

It was reported in the Folkestone Express and Hythe Advertiser on 13th June 1906 that “Invicta” had arrived in Canterbury on Thursday, 7th of that month. The locomotive was placed at the eastern end of the “Moat”, near Canterbury’s “Riding Gate”; essentially, adjacent to today’s Riding Gate roundabout, on the opposite side of the City Wall to Dane John Gardens. “Invicta” was reported to have been finished in lead-coloured paint, picked out with black and yellow, and weighed 7-tons, which compared to the 72-ton weight of the then modern locomotives in use in 1906. The height from rail level to the top of the chimney was quoted as being 13-foot 2-inches; so, even if the entire Canterbury & Whitstable branch had been flat, the engine would never have fitted through Tyler Hill Tunnel, on the city’s northern outskirts, for it was 12-feet high. The February 1907 edition of The Railway Magazine described the display of “Invicta” in the city:

To make its present position appear more historical, the “Invicta” stands on fish-bellied rails, after the style of those that were in use on the original line in 1830, these being kept in position by cast iron chairs resting on stone sleepers, the whole being mounted on a pedestal, and enclosed with railings.

In the Kent Messenger on 7th April 1961, it was reported that the City of Canterbury was after a second steam locomotive to put on display. The newspaper stated that the locomotive being sought was, appropriately, named “Canterbury”, and was due to be scrapped, having been withdrawn by British Railways as a result of electrification. Your author presumes this referred to the “Schools” Class locomotive by the name of “King’s Canterbury”; the City Council asked the British Transport Commission if the engine could be disposed to them. The same article also stated that “Invicta” had been repainted into "its original colour of red" (whether or not that was in fact the original colour, your author cannot ascertain). Naturally, the “King’s Canterbury” discussions came to nothing and that engine is no more.

20th May 1962

The red paint had perhaps faded slightly, but "Invicta" looks in good cosmetic condition in this 1962 view, showing the form it took after rebuilding in 1838. The locomotive is seen on the original plot of land where it had been displayed since being presented to the city in 1906, at "Riding Gate", about 350-yards northeast of East railway station. As a result of road widening, "Invicta" was moved to a new railing-lined enclosure in 1968, all of 70-yards to the northwest in Dane John Gardens, on the opposite side of the City Wall. © David Glasspool Collection

In the East Kent Times on 15th November 1968, it was reported that “Invicta” was soon to be moved from the location it had been on display at since 1906, to make way for the construction of the city’s ring road. The locomotive was relocated to within Dane John Gardens, on the opposite side of the City Wall.

The weather finally took its toll on the exposed “Invicta” and, in December 1977, the locomotive was dispatched to the National Railway Museum for restoration work. It took half a day to dismantle the railings around the locomotive so it could be loaded onto the back of a lorry and taken to York. The restoration work was sponsored by the National Transport Trust and Science Museum and was envisaged to take two years to complete; a condition of the works — which were estimated to cost £20,000 [£132,200 at 2021 prices] — was that “Invicta” must be housed indoors once complete. In the Times & Observer (Whitstable and Herne Bay), it was reported that “Invicta” would be back in Canterbury in time for the 150th Anniversary of the C&WR in May 1980. That prompted a debate over whether or not the locomotive should return to Canterbury, or if Whitstable had a legitimate claim, given that “Invicta” spent her working life at the coastal end of the line. At that time, a town museum in Whitstable was in the planning stage and it was thought that the locomotive could form the centrepiece of the collection.

The anniversary celebrations of the C&WR started on Saturday, 3rd May 1980, 150 years to the day after the branch line opened, commencing with a service in Canterbury Cathedral. On the following Bank Holiday Monday, “Invicta” formed part of a cavalcade of transport vehicles through Whitstable, on the back of a lorry; the locomotive was only able to be taken along part of the proposed route, because its chimney was too tall for a couple of bridges. The celebrations generated a £350 profit, and “Invicta” went on display indoors at the Poor Priests’ Hospital, Canterbury.

In 1986, proposals were afoot for a building in the Whitstable Harbour area to be converted into a railway museum, and for “Invicta” to be kept there. It was argued that the Poor Priests’ Hospital was not a suitable location for the locomotive, nor was Canterbury in general, because its entire working life was spent at the Whitstable end of the branch line. Canterbury City Council also proposed a railway museum in the environs of Canterbury West, the former goods shed there being suggested as a possible location where “Invicta” could be displayed; and so a battle between the city and Whitstable ensued over the final home of the diminutive engine. The museum proposals came to nothing and the locomotive remained at the hospital site. This is where your author’s research becomes somewhat sketchy, for he recalls seeing the locomotive around the mid-2000s, perched up high in the corner of the former goods shed at Canterbury West (which had by that time become a farmers’ market). On 16th June 2019, the locomotive was finally delivered to an appropriate permanent indoor home at the Whitstable Museum and Gallery, to which it was transported from Canterbury by lorry and hoisted through the roof of the building by crane as part of a £70,000 scheme. Newspaper articles of the time stated that the locomotive was still at the Poor Priests’ Hospital, Canterbury until the Whitstable move, suggesting that it had only existed in Canterbury West’s goods shed for a brief period.


"Invicta" is seen at its second display location, at the eastern end of Canterbury's Dane John Gardens, where it remained for eight years prior to being dispatched to York for restoration. The engine of 1830 comprised cylinders which were 10-inches diameter, situated 4-foot 7-inches apart, and a boiler of 8-foot length and 3-foot 6-inches diameter. The latter was equipped with a multitude of 2-inch diameter tubes which gave a heating surface of about 50 square foot. After rebuilding in 1838, a boiler of 10-foot length was fitted, which had a 3-foot 9-inch diameter. © David Glasspool