In 1904 G J. Churchward introduced the 2-6-2T locomotive No 115 that was to be the forerunner of the 45xx class locomotives. The prototype, built at Swindon, very quickly proved most useful, and a further 10 examples were soon constructed at Wolverhampton locomotive works. The new locos sported copper topped chimneys and were originally numbered in the 31xx series but were re-numbered as the 44xx class. They were well equipped for use on the steep and twisting Great Western branch lines, particularly in and around the West Country. They were noted for excellent acceleration but with 4ft 1½in wheels their speed was restricted. Various modifications were soon introduced amongst other things, increased coal capacity, superheated boilers with increased pressure, at that time 180 p.s.i, and greater cylinder capacity.
When, in 1906, further locomotives were required, all the above modifications were included in the new 45xx engines, which, apart from the first 20, were built at Swindon locomotive works during the 18-year period up to 1924. The boiler pressure of the No5 tapered boiler being further increased to 200 p.s.i. The popularity of the locomotives resulted in demand for additional numbers of the class and C.B. Collett, who had succeeded Churchward as Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Western Railway in 1921, added further improvements to the design. He introduced the now familiar sloping side tanks to the 100 locomotives numbered 4575-5574 that were built between 1927 and 1929. The water capacity of these engines was thereby increased from 1000 to 1300 gallons giving more flexibility to their duties.
Via John Hind
The class of locomotive could be seen virtually anywhere on the former Great Western Railway system. They were rostered for all types of work, from humble branch ‘pick-up' freight to use on several famous named trains. Duties included hauling the ‘Cambrian Coast Express' between Machynlleth and Pwhelli, shuttling the ‘Cheltenham Flyer' between Gloucester and Cheltenham, all the way to West Cornwall double heading the 'Cornish Riviera Express' through carriages on the St Ives Branch. 5542 was allocated to Taunton on a number of occasions, working all four branches that once radiated from there. It had tablet exchange apparatus fitted which allowed for faster trains on longer branches, particularly useful on the Yeovil, Barnstaple and Minehead branches. Some of the class were also fitted with ‘auto gear' to work in conjunction with auto trailers, the forerunners of today's diesel multiple units.
5542 was built in 1928 for £3602, as part of Lot 251, also preserved from this Lot is elder brother 5541, now based on the Forest of Dean. Together with 5541 it was first allocated to Gloucester entering traffic on 2/8/28, then over next 33 years was based at Bristol, Taunton, Newton Abbott, It was last based at Taunton on 21/8/57, when it was transferred to Westbury, where it spent its remaining years before being finally withdrawn from Westbury on 8 /12/61 after having run 987, 429 miles. It was sold to Woodhams in February 1962. Throughout the greater part of its life it was based at Taunton. It was first based at Taunton in 1934 and was a regular performer on the Minehead line. It carried 6 boilers in its life. The last boiler was built in 1943 and had been used on 4558, 5551, 5501 before fitting to 5542 in March 1958, at the locomotives last Heavy General. After 14 years in Barry, together with 4561 and 5521 it was sold to the West Somerset Railway Association in 1976. In 1979, a cash strapped West Somerset Railway Company, which had loaned much of the finance for the original purchase required repayment thereby forcing the sale of 5542 and 5521. Members of the Dean Forest Railway bought 5521 and a Taunton based group of active W.S.R. supporters formed the 5542 Fund to save and restore it for use on the West Somerset Railway. Subsequently a limited company was formed with an authorised share capital of £100,000, there are 50 voting shares and 150 non-voting shares. Only 1 voting share is allowed per shareholder. The 5542 Fund then continued as a support and fund raising body, which over the years has raised an average of £500 per month from a variety of fund raising inititives.