For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

Train Headcodes part 1

The lamp-irons, lamps, discs and destination boards displayed by Great Eastern Railway locomotives were a prominent feature, and this leaflet is intended to briefly describe the ‘hardware’ involved, and its use to display train headcodes. By law, railway trains have always had to carry a lighted headlamp by night, or in times of poor visibility, such as in fog and falling snow. It was not long before the railway companies realised that by altering the colour, number and position of the headlamps, information about the class of train and/or its route could be conveyed to signalmen and other railway staff.

The Eastern Counties Railway was one of the earliest to do so, for upon its opening in 1847, all trains on the North Woolwich line had to carry a blue light by night, and a corresponding blue disc by day. As the GER suburban system evolved, a comprehensive system of train headcodes was developed, divided into three broad categories. Firstly, there were the ‘route indicating’ codes used in the London area and, latterly, around Norwich. Secondly, there were the ‘single line’ headcodes, and finally the ‘train description’ codes which were used when neither of the others applied.

Lamps and Discs: 1847-1884

Initially, ECR locomotives were equipped with a ‘lamp hanger’ of unusual shape, in the form of a swan-necked bracket secured to the top of the smokebox, at the end of which was a short U-shaped channel along the longitudinal axis of the locomotive, from which the lamps and discs were hung by their handles. The lamps were cylindrical in shape, and had lenses front and rear. It is to be presumed that one lens showed white (or other colours as required), and the other red, as these lamps were also carried on one or both sides of locomotive tenders and bunkers. Until the abolition of un-braked goods wagons in the 1990s the guard's brake vans of freight trains conveying unfitted wagons displayed similar side-mounted lamps. Their purpose was that, to the rear, the train displayed three red lights, thus indicating to signalmen that the train was entirely or partially unfitted. The white lamps displayed towards the front enabled the enginemen to check that the train was still complete. The side lamps on ECR locomotives similarly enabled the guard to check that that the train was complete, and thus that the engine was still attached! The side lamp hangers appear to have been discontinued during the 1870s.


The shape of the lamp hanger was simplified about 1860, when it became a simple horizontal spike, with the hanger welded to the end, and was combined with the top smokebox handrail knob at the front of locomotives. The early headcodes called for the use of one or two lamps (or discs), and presumably the second one was hung from the coupling. As the suburban area developed a second lamp iron was added on the left-hand side of the smokebox (as seen facing the engine) around 1870. Within about five years a third lamp-iron was in use on the right-hand side. These positions were of course duplicated at the rear of locomotive tenders and bunkers. Finally, by around 1880 a fourth lamp iron was needed. Logically, it should have been in the centre of the smokebox, and to achieve this, the swan-necked hanger made a re-appearance. This fitted into a socket on the buffer beam, over the coupling, and could therefore be removed to allow the smokebox door to be opened.


The lamps were painted vermilion until the mid-1880s when - for a brief period - they appear to have been painted white, but they later reverted to vermilion. At the same time a rectangular pattern of lamp appeared.

The headcode discs were about fifteen inches in diameter, and double sided. One face was white, and the other green, red or blue, with a white rim in each case. The handle was at right angles to the face of the disc, so that it could be hung from the lamp hanger.

Around 1870 the discs were fitted with a flat metal spike at the bottom, and the handrail knobs on the smokebox top on locomotives were fitted with a corresponding socket, allowing the disc to be directly mounted. The discs could also be fitted into the bufferbeam socket for the removable swan-necked bracket. The final development of this came in 1884, when the new M15 class 2-4-2 tank engines were fitted with similar sockets over each buffer.

Lamps and Discs: 1884 onwards

In about 1884 the GER decided that the paraphernalia connected with headcode display needed modernisation, and changed to conventional flat spike lamp-irons and directly-mounted lamps and discs in four positions; on top of the smokebox, and on the bufferbeam over each buffer and the coupling. Fortunately, the company chose wisely, for this became the standard system throughout Britain (except for the Great Western Railway, which always seemed to do things differently!). At the time, the British railway companies were still using a number of different methods of mounting lamps and discs on locomotives.

The headlamp was re-designed, being of rectangular shape with a single lens. Pockets on either side held the glass slides which could be inserted between the flame and lens to show the various lamp colours.


The discs were of similar size and pattern as before, but had a pocket for the lamp-iron riveted to one side, and a wire handle at the top. Each locomotive was issued with four discs: all had a white face, the reverse sides of three of them being green with a white rim, whilst the remaining disc was red with a white rim on the reverse. Initially, the number of the locomotive to which they belonged was painted on each disc (and probably on each lamp), but this was soon discontinued.


For a brief period in the 1890s a blue disc with white rim was also in use. At around the same time, locomotives working over the GN&GE Joint Line were fitted with an additional lamp-iron on the chimney, and this was also short lived.

After the 1923 Grouping, the new LNER took exception to the use of green and red lights for headcode displays. In GE practice, a red headlamp was only carried when passing over single lines, and this was abolished by the LNER. The green lamp and disc was replaced by what was described officially as 'violet'. In the lamps this was achieved by means of a deep ultramarine blue glass slide that gave a purple light when placed in front of a paraffin flame. The colour used on the discs was actually a purple-lake colour - more brown than purple.


From the LNER period onwards the headlamps were painted white instead of vermilion.

From the mid-1930s, the GER lamps and discs were replaced by standard LNER patterns. The lamps were cylindrical, initially with a hooded lens, although this was later discarded. Instead of separate glass slides for the coloured lights, these were permanently mounted in a rotating sleeve inside the lamp, being brought into play by turning the top of the lamp. The discs were plain sheet steel with a pressed socket and hand-hole at the top.

Destination Boards

From the early 1880s tank locomotives working in the London area were fitted with brackets to display a destination board for the information of passengers. The boards were of wood, three feet long and 4½ inches deep, the brackets being placed so that the board was positioned immediately above the smokebox door handles. The boards were black with white lettering, and double-sided with related destinations: LIVERPOOL ST/CHINGFORD, or VICTORIA PARK/CANNING TOWN, for example. As with the early discs, they were originally painted with the number of the locomotive that they were issued to.

With the introduction of the famous ‘Jazz’ suburban services in 1920 a somewhat deeper board was used. Besides showing the destination of the train, it also showed the stations that the train did not stop at. This necessitated the mounting brackets being re-positioned higher on the smokebox door, but it would appear that very few locomotives were thus modified, and they quickly reverted to normal.

Destination boards were only used on suburban trains in the London area (and later on some workings around Norwich), and thus only locally-based passenger tank engines were fitted with the necessary brackets. However, boards were also used on some excursion trains to destinations such as Clacton or Southend, and were displayed by tender engines. Such boards had no lugs at either end for mounting in the brackets, and although, in photographs, some were suspended by wires from the smokebox handrail, others were displayed beneath the smokebox door handle, with no visible means of support. Most likely, they incorporated a clamp on the rear to attach them to the door handle.


In the LNER period, at the same time as the introduction of the new lamps and discs, the destination boards were redesigned. The new type was of sheet steel, enamelled in black with yellow Gill Sans lettering. The separate wire handle was replaced by a hand hole.