The Queen of Sheba

According to the King James bible (1 Kings Chapter 10) The Queen of Sheba visited Solomon in Jerusalem and that version of the bible uses these words.

And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.

Of course the word train meant a retinue or following – which is really what it still means but meanings are often forgotten and for many the word train, conjures up a railway train.

Jokes have often been made about the Queen of Sheba being an early railway user but in one case a name stuck.

I was looking through some teenage photos of mine and came across this one.


It isn’t the best photo you ever saw, but units like this Southern Electric suburban one were known as ‘Queen of Shebas’ because they were deemed to be very great trains.

I now quote from another bible – one of my old train spotting books.

No further new suburban stock appeared until 1942, when a new four-car unit, 4101, was built to Mr. Bulleid’s design, followed later by 4102 to 4110. The bodies are built with steel sides and wooden roofs, and seat six passengers on each compartment seat, whereas all earlier stock only accommodated five.

It was that six a side seating which gave them the name great. They had a huge carrying capacity. Whereas similar, older trains had seats for 280 people, a Queen of Sheba could seat 456 – a massive load, by comparison.

I travelled only very rarely on a Queen of Sheba and I have to say they were profoundly uncomfortable. The 12 people in each compartment had to lock knees with the person opposite. The seats were very upright and narrow and it was all very cramped.

But they were designed to cope with the huge rush hour crowds in London – and actually, they proved to be a bit of a nuisance and designs soon changed. The problem was station time. With all those dozens of single compartments, potential passengers walked up and down the platform seeking a seat or a suitable compartment. Trains ran late because they spent too long at stations. Future builds took out the compartments and each coach became an open saloon with a central gangway. This meant passengers had less seats, but they could get on and then find a seat, or stand in the gangway. That enabled trains to keep to time.

But the Queens of Sheba served their time, running for about thirty years,

Here’s a better picture from the same train spotting book – and to my mind the old Queen looked far better in the plain green livery.


And here’s the front of this – the first train spotting book I ever had – and an old one even then.


It’s battered, but much loved.

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