According to Marshall Alexander McDonnell was born in Dublin on 18 December 1829 and died in Holyhead on 14 December 1904. He was educated at Dublin University where he graduated with mathematical honours in 1851. He then became a pupil of Charles Liddell of Liddell & Gordon. In 1858 he became resident & locomotive engineer of the Newport & Hereford Railway. In 1862 he joined the Danube & Black Sea Railway Co. and in 1864 was appointed locomotive engineer to the Great Southern and Western Railway of Ireland, which position he held until 1882. During this period he considerably developed the locomotive, carriage and wagon shops of the conipany at Inchicorc, building all new locomotives, carriages and wagons required. He introduced a proper system of workshop accounts and standardized the locomotive stock. He also, largely introduced stamping under the hammer. In 1882 . McDonnell was appointed locomotive superintendent of the North Eastern Railway, which position he resigned in 1884. After that he was connected with Sir William Armstrongs and the Maxim-Nordenfelt Companies for short pcriods, and waa also engaged in consulting work in connection with which he twice visited Brazil and once Australia. The latter part was extracted from the IME Memoir (Proc. Instn Mech, Engrs., 1904, 67, 1366). The delicate issue of his early resignation is relatively obvious even in something written so soon after his death. The contribution to the discussion on balancing produced shortly before his death is highly interesting. It is hoped that further contributions may be revealed..
Rutherford (Backtrack Volume 13 page 38) observed that McDonnell was well educated (Trinity College, Dublin). Rutherford has since returned to the same theme (Backtrack, 2006, 20, 360) (and especially to his overall contribution to British locomotive engineering through the excellence of his overall thought whilst in charge at Inchicore) The lack of standardization on the North Eastern Railway under Edward Fletcher's shocked McDonnell when he surveyed his new charge of 1400 locomotives soon after his arrival at Gateshead. He had come from the Great Southern & Western Railway Works at Inchicore in Ireland where he had gained valuable experience in overdue rationalization of manufacture and maintenance of locomotives and had taken Coey on as a draughtsman. He found a similar but much larger task awaiting him on the North Eastern, and made confident by his success in Ireland began a big job of 'cleaning up' the organization and its methods. All that was required to energize anyone in reorganization of this sort was an innate active hatred of waste. Some people do hate waste but many others passively tolerate it because they don't recognize it. Long bother-free years under Fletcher would inevitably produce resentful suspicion of his successor whoever he might be, but when he had arrived and had started some reforms, antagonism at once arose and was directed against anything new that he might produce.
For the present, George Heppell's My own memoirs (2012) is probably the most realistic account of the reason for McDonnell's resignation: his locomotives failed to match the power output of his predecessor. Heppell gives no hint of action by the drivers, or odd valves: his locomotives failed to do the job..
Contributions to discussions
Dalby, W.E. The balancing of locomotives. Proc. Instn Mech Engrs., 1901, 61, Discussion: 1191-3.
McDonnell noted that the balancing of locomotives was an old question, and in his own practice he had always followed out the arrangements which he believed were first brought into proper mathematical position by le Chatelier, who was the first person to show mathematically how to balance engines properly. "He happened to know le Chatelier and often discussed matters with him, particularly with regard to the wear and tear of tyres caused by the different amount of balancing. It was so loug ago that a good deal had escaped his memory, but he knew M. le Chatelier was exceedingly useful to him in suggesting the amount of balance that ought to be given; and, as well as he remembered, he balanced something about two-thirds. He did not think he ever balanced the whole amount. He also discussed the question very often with Mr. Beyer, and his opinions agreed to a very large extent with those of M. le Chatelier." When he first began balancing, his assistant was Mr. Parks, who preferred to experiment on the best balancing. Mr. Parks obtained permission to try some experiments without balancing at all, and the result was that he came back to the balancing. He found it was exceedingly disagreeable travelling on an engine that was not properly balanced; the engines got an exceedingly bad name, and therefore he changed his opinion with regard to the matter. It showed that a person who looked at a thing in a practical manner was quite capable of being convinced. With regard to the hammer-blow, there had been sometimes some curious results. There was a case in Australia about which he was never satisfied. They tampered with the balancing of some of their engines, some of which were heavy, while some of their rails were light. Whether the rails were of good steel or not he could not tell, but he was informed on what he believed to be good authority that the rails were regularly broken by certain engines. There was no doubt whatever that the rails were broken, and broken at distances where the hammer-blow would have an effect upon them, distances of from 15 to 20 feet according to the diameter of the wheel of the engine. It certainly appeared to him to be very doubtful whether the hammer-blow could ever be so severe as to break a rail, although might bend one, unless the blow happened to come between two sleepers that were an unusually great distance apart, and the rail was very weak and of inferior steel, and ready to break with a little extra blow upon it. The matter was described very carefully, but he himself never saw any of the breakages or the distances that the breakages were one from another. But there was a large number of rails broken by engines which were badly balanced. The other engines properly balanced running over the same rails did not break them. The facts he thought were certain, but what it was that caused the curious breakage of the rails he was not able to satisfy himself about, or that it was entirely due to the non-balancing of the engine.
Rutherford's A Brief Survey of the Irish 4-4-0. Part 1: Genesis or how the Irish designed a "Crewe" 4-4-0 and exported it back to England. Two (Railway Reflections No.121). Backtrack, 2006, 20, 360-9. explores Alexander McDonnell's very conisderable Irish achievements, notably how a series of standard locomotives were evolved for the Great Southern & Western Railway at its Inchicore Works, including the dominant 101 class of 0-6-0 (designed at Beyer Peacock), and eventually the Kerry bogies (4-4-0) which evolved from McDonnell's light 2-4-0 design. An 0-4-4BT (a sort of Fairlie) and an 0-6-4T are also considered. McDonnell was an inspired head hunter: the brilliant engineer John Aspinall was recruited from Webb to be Works Manager at Inchicore and later Ivatt was attracted across the water in the same manner. Thus it is shown how the Kerry bogie concept was to re-emerge on the LYR and GNR. Some play is made by Rutherford on Aspinall's Catholicism (and on the Worsdell Quaker connections: within this context it may not be realised that Tennant was also a Quaker who was later noted for his paternalistic approach to labour relations), but Ivatt's High Church sanctity is not mentioned. Those seeking more about McDonnell's Irish career should examine Chacksfield's book on the Coey brothers The Irish period is also well covered in H.A.V. Bulleid's The Aspinall era.
Rutherford's Railway Reflections No.121 (Backtrack, 2006, 20, 360-9). also covers the cause celebre of McDonnell's eventual fairly rapid departure from the North Eastern Railway (following his appointment as Locomotive Superintendent at Gateshead in succession to Fletcher). Rutherford both uses this as a pretext to demolish the embroidered descriptions presented by Nock and by Tuplin in contrast with the brevity in its coverage by the magisterial Tomlinson and by Irving. and for noting that the severance payments were relatively generous.
There is always resistance to any departure from established practice and it was inevitable that there would be extreme dislike of McDonnell's placing the driver in the sensible position on the left-hand side of the footplate. This change did not persist on the North Eastern after McDonnell left and over forty years elapsed before Doncaster and Darlington began to build engines with left-hand drive.
McDonnell decided on the 4-4-0 wheel arrangement as the appropriate one for express passenger locomotives and introduced a class sometimes designated '38' which was the running number of one of those built (in 1884) at Gateshead works, and sometimes designated '1492' which was the number of one of those built (also in 1884) by Hawthorn, Leslie. A bogie was nothing new in North Eastern territory as Bouch had built 4-4-0s ' at least thirteen years earlier, but those locomotives had had unsatisfactory features and were less powerful than Fletcher's Class 901 2-4-0s that followed them. There was no bogie under any Fletcher engine for main-line passenger service (although the 'Whitby bogies' had been running for twenty years and the BTP 0-4-4Ts for ten) and so some at least of the main-line men were afraid of bogies. They expressed strong antagonism to class 38 simply on the ground that they had bogies; the origin of this was nothing more than fear of novelty plus a modicum of unintelligence, no rare combination. It is in fact a perennial hindrance to progress and every resolute innovator is compelled to find some way of overcoming it. If he has difficulty in suffering fools gladly, or in bringing comfort to frightened children or in believing that the real reason for raising objection to anything is hardly ever the one that is offered in explanation by the objector, the end of his patience may decide him to become a dictator who gives orders without any pretence of explanation. Webb was already doing this at Crewe, and very soon T. W. Worsdell would do it at Gateshead, but McDonnell continued for some time to hope that reason might at length prevail.
In writing about the McDonnell reforms, E. L. Ahrons said that opposition of enginemen came from Newcastle and Gateshead 'Geordies'. These would form only a fraction of the staff of any department of the North Eastern Railway but nevertheless Ahrons specifically mentions them and this suggests that he had reason for discrimination. It is unlikely that many of the North Eastern's Geordies of the time were offensive; it is the low-grade mud-maker in any group that gets the group a bad name and this was probably what happened among the Geordies as seen by Ahrons. He wrote that they were radical in politics but conservative in habits and customs. This was in the Railway Magazine in 1917, over thirty years after the relevant events, but the usual magazine 'house style' forbade any plain description of unpleasant things and so Ahrons could do no more than hint at the truth.
Remembering the Ahrons account of the McDonnell trouble, one could imagine that a tradition of uncouth obstructionism had been handed down over sixty years by a line of Geordies. It may have been only a very thin line and perhaps a dotted one but its effects were easily noticeable. The individuals concerned may or may not have been radical/conservative but where they excelled was in aggressive bloody mindedness. This word had not .been invented when Ahrons was writing about the obstructive Geordies and it is used now only because there seems to be no polite alternative to it.
Most people dislike change in the routine of their lives and McDonnell's prodding of North Eastern locomotive staff into states of energy probably antagonized many of them towards him. Any driver who disliked an engine could easily demonstrate that it would not do what was required of it and it was obvious that that was how Geordie obstructionists would treat every McDonnell locomotive that came to them. There were few such engines because the rows that arose with McDonnell's campaign against the sloppiness (organizational and technical) in North Eastern motive power soon led him to appreciate that life was limited and might be tolerable if uninfested with Geordies. So he left them to it and the fact that he did so was an indictment of the general management of the North Eastern. Quite clearly it had not given McDonnell the support he deserved in the overdue job of cleaning out the Fletcherian stables. Henry Tennant, the general manager, recognized this, and that his best way of retrieving the situation was to give himself the job of supervising the locomotive department until someone else could be persuaded to take it on. Quite clearly also, no one would do so without very firm assurance from the management that there would be no more toleration of Geordie nonsense. Rutherford considered that the whole issue "needs some deeper research".
For the interim period a locomotive committee was convened and chaired by Tennant. It should be noted that Tennant enjoyed the services of Wilson Worsdell and W.M. Smith (both of whom may have contributed to McDonnell's departure, although they had been recruited by him). Smith had been in charge of locomotives and rolling stock on the Imperial Government Railways in Japan before his arrival at Gateshead. The Tennant Committee immediately got down to the job of designing something better than the 901 Class 2-4-0s for the North Eastern
The last of McDonnell's 4-4-0s for the North Eastern Railway just managed to survive into LNER days (they could not have been that bad) and this type, together with the enforced resignation are well covered in the RCTS Locomotives of the LNER. Part Part 3C (pp. 56-8).
Finally Marshall noted that McDonnell worked as a consultant for Sir William Armstrong (a firm notorious for its harsh approach to labour relations) and the Maxim Nordenfelt Co and visited Brazil and Australia on consultancy work.
Tuplin, W.A. North Eastern steam. Chapter 2: Survey of Six Reigns
Everett's life of Raven notes that McDonnell was responsible for recruiting W.M. Smith, Wilson Worsdell, George Heppell and David Bain. Everett also notes that McDonnnell visited Bayerische Staateisenbahn in 1871-2 to investigate turf burning, and that he would have seen the Heberlein, rope-worked system of braking in use whilst there. Everett is also dubious about Nock's and Grafton's assessments of McDonnell as a difficult aristocratic Irish autocrat. (note 5 pafe 48)..
Extract from Ahrons'actual account in Locomotive & train working (Volume 1)
Mr. Fletcher had held the North Eastern locomotive reins for so many (I believe more than 30) years that he was looked up to as a sort of father by his department and the men. The latter he understood thoroughly, and as he. allowed a great deal of latitude, he was naturally very popular, but whether his lenient "old school" methods were the best for the period is a point that need not be discussed. But they had the effect of rendering the position of his successor, Mr. Alexander McDonnell, extremely difficult. Mr. McDonnell came over from the Great Southern and West of Ireland Railway at Inchicore, a line that was steeped in the system of standardisation and traditions of Crewe. Now it would have been difficult to find any locomotive departments that were then so completely antipodal in their methods in every respect as Crewe and Inchicore on the one hand and Gateshead on the other. Mr. McDonnell was probably aghast when he found himself in charge of some 1,480 engines of several hundred different classes, and still more minor variations.
Gateshead was eminently a place where festina lente methods were desirable, at least for a time, and it is just possible that the reforming zeal of Crewe ideas was started a little too hastily. The result was friction with the men. The Gateshead and Newcastle "Geordies" may be described as distinctly radical as far as politics are concerned, but in many other respects such as ingrained habits and customs, there was not a more conservative body of men in the kingdom, and when Mr. McDonnell set about reforming a locomotive department of a sort that had gone on for so long in a smooth go-as-you-please style he promptly came up against a dead wall of hostile opposition. Let it be said at once that beyond the error of judgment of not knowing the men with whom he had to deal, this was not Mr. McDonnell's fault, for he tried to do what ninety-nine other men out of a hundred would also have attempted. Neither do I wish to impute blame to the other side, for all the friction that arose was due solely to an entire difference of ideals and training, coupled with an unreasoning conservatism.
Insofar as the locomotives were concerned there was a lot of blind prejudice. Mr. McDonnell's new engines had bogies. Bogies for express engines were then not popular with the North Eastern drivers, who considered them a totally unnecessary and uncalled for fad. Mr. Fletcher's chimneys had the narrowest diameter at the bottom, and tapered outwards towards the top, whereas Mr. McDonnell's chimneys were parallel or tapered the other way. Consequently many of the men at once said that the engines could not steam, and I am afraid that they had so decided before giving them a fair trial.
Then, but by no means the least important item-the "exhaust cocks." I have already explained in an earlier portion of this article the function of these so essentially Fletcher adjuncts. They certainly had their good points in softening the blast, but Mr. McDonnell apparently did not like them, for he gave orders for them to be removed. This was more than the patience of an over-wrought running staff could stand. The exhaust cocks favoured by Fletcher are given a lucid description of these is given by Poole.
I believe that several indignation meetings were held on the question of "exhaust cocks," at which the subject was discussed from every standpoint except that of Mr. McDonnell, and various resolutions were passed, all of which "emphatically denounced" the abolition of these fittings. For a locomotive without an exhaust cock was a thing not to be thought of, and if you mildly suggested that other railways got along very well without them, it was politely but firmly intimated that "the old mon" (meaning Mr. Fletcher) had forgotten more about locomotives than all the other locomotive engineers in the country had ever known. In this connection it is pleasant to record that a deep loyalty to Mr. Fletcher was a characteristic' of the northern North Eastern Railway men of this period.
Finally the new colour for the engines was also somewhat of a sore point. Mr. McDonnell introduced the dark olive green pricked out with red and white lines that used to be so well known on the Great Southern and Western Railway of Ireland. Anyway it was not a suitable colour, at least so many of the North Eastern men said. And so the story continued, until the unrest terminated with the resignation of Mr. McDonnell after about eighteen months of troubled superintendency. Some of the men frankly admitted to me years afterwards that they had not treated him fairly, and to bear this out I may instance the opinions held by them on the subject of the very handsome goods engines of his design-the 440 class. When these were new, there was hardly anything too bad to be said about them, they could not do the work, they could not'steam, etc., etc. Some years afterwards they were considered by the drivers to be the best and most popular goods engines on the line, and the same men who gave them such a bad name for steaming, etc., were the very ones to do their best to get one of these engines allotted to them.