Review of Hattons SECR 'P' Tank No. 323 'Bluebell' [H4-P-012]

Background and Prototype History

The Hattons 'P' tank is a model of an SECR class of 8 locomotives which were built for push-pull trains and light branches following the less than successful trials with steam railcars. The P tanks were not entirely successful in this role and were gradually demoted to shed pilot and light shunting duties on wharves.
The SR made unsiccessful attempts to find the 'P's employment on the Lyme Regis and Wenford Bridge branches. From time to time, the locos were hired out to private companies and the Kent and east Sussex Railway.
Withdrawal commenced in 1955.
In June 1960 the Bluebell Railway was looking for a second loco and no. 31323 had become available, thus in July 1960, the loco arrived on the Bluebell railway and was named 'Bluebell'. It remained in black livery until 1966 when it was repainted in a 'house style' blue livery, not dissimilar from a blue version of SECR green livery.
In 1961, the Bluebell Railway was looking for a 'spare' loco. There were no more 'Terriers' available by this time, therefore the choice fell on a second 'P' tank, no. 27.
No. 27 remained in black and named 'Primrose' until early 1963 when it was restored to full SECR green livery.
Nos. 323 and 27 formed the core of Bluebell railway motive power for many years, proving to be free steaming and reliable locos. Today, both are largely confined to lighter off-peak and winder duties.
In the autumn of 1969, a third 'P' tank became available - no. 1178. It had been sold to Bowaters in 1957 and had operated in an approximation to SECR livery under the name 'Pioneer II'. It arrived on the Bluebell Railway as a source of spares for nos 323 and 27 with a spare boiler and in need of general overhaul - it had suffered major cylinder damage and had been 'run into the ground' by its previous owners. It did not return to running order until February 2010.

No. 323 Blubell at Sheffield Park in June 1964. Photo by Paul Plowman

No. 323 Blubell at Sheffield Park, 8 June 1977. Photo by Paul Plowman

The Model

Back in the late 1970's, I recall visiting an exhibition at Clair Hall, Haywards Heath, Sussex when I saw a 'finescale' layout with hand-built copper-clad track and running on it what appeared to be a Finecast, or similar kit of this loco. I really don't know what its origins were, but I recall thinking at the time that the chances of seeing a ready-to-run version of this loco were highly unlikely! But here we are, 40 years on and Hattons have commissioned a model of this iconic loco.

The Hattons model of No. 323, as delivered.

Initial observations are that this is a very small loco but it is packed with detail, making it fairly fragile to handle. It is beautifully painted and lined out and the characteristic features are immediately obvious and well portrayed.
When run out-of-the-box on DC power, it runs extremely smoothly. It's speed is appropriate for scale running. This loco is fitted with an NEM 651 6-pin DCC decoder socket and when fitted with a suitable decoder, it gains the benefit of constant full track power, which ensures perfect running at the slowest of speeds.

Dismantling to fit a Decoder

This model is very easy to dismantle. To remove the body, undo the four screws located at each side of the couplings. Once these are removed, the body lifts off very easily. There is no detail to be 'unwound' - the body simply comes off, nice and easily, no pulling, twisting or levering.

Once inside, we find a very simple cast chassis and motor mechanism. The body is also cast, which means that this loco is actually quite heavy, considering its small size. This isn't a fast loco, but the pay-off is that it runs smoothly at low speeds - which is what one would normally want from a shunting loco.

As will be noted from the picture above, the loco is fitted with a 6-pin NEM 651 decoder socket, into which, we have fitted a decoder.
It was at this point that we dicovered our only disappointment with this model. We initially fitted a DCC Concepts ZN6D decoder. When fitted, because the pins of the decoder are offset to one side of the decoder PCB, this causes the decoder to protrude downwards which in turn, has the effect of lifting the loco's own PCB out of its slot and causing it to sit in an uneven position: higher on the left than on the right. The net result is that the body will not fit back on the chassis evenly. This can be observed in the following pictures where the sanding boxes cannot sit flat against the footplate on one side of the loco:

The simple conclusion from this is that the DCC Concepts ZN6D decoder did not fit. Therefore, Hattons were contacted and asked to recommend a decoder which did fit. They recommended their own DCR-6PIN-Direct decoder which was duly obtained and fitted. This had exactly the same problem! The photos above show the Hattons decoder fitted.
Hattons assured me that the model had been designed to fit their own decoder. We were not seeing evidence of this. A small block of plastic was made up which was exactly the same width as the Hattons decoder. Double-sided sticky tape was used to hold it in place where the decoder sits and an attempt was made to re-assemble the loco. It did not fit. It can only be concluded that the decoder which the model was tested with in its design, has been subsequently modified and is not the same as the one that I purchased. It most definitely could not be made to fit.

In the end, we ended up using a diamond cutting disk to cut a slot in the chassis block so that the decoder could sit lower in that recess, thereby reducing its height. This worked perfectly, but is not the sort of thing one should have to do with a brand new model which wouldn't accept the very decoder which is recommended for it! Probably does wonders for the warranty too. Not 'cool' guys!

Like many locos these days, this one has a solid metal body/footplate arrangement for increased weight which works well. The buffer beams are solid metal, but fortunately, the body attachment screws have been located either side of the chain coupling hole in the buffer beam, meaning that major structural engineering isn't required by those who wish to fit chain couplings, but it may be necessary to cut some of the chassis block away to create some space behind the buffer beam from springs and split pins. Not everyone uses NEM pocket couplings!


This is a beautiful model, very neatly finished, runs smoothly and on the review sample, exhibits no wobbling when running. It would be a very useful and appropriate addition to anyone modelling the preserved Bluebell Railway, but be aware that the livery is the current preserved livery, not the pre-1970's blue livery. For those modelling SECR, SR or BR periods, the model is available in several other liveries which may be more appropriate. Also watch out that your decoder of choice actually fits. Recommended.

No. 323 at Ashprington Road with coach no. 320 which was also one of the first two coaches owned by the Bluebell Railway

No. 323 at Ashprington Road with coach no. 320 which was also one of the first two coaches owned by the Bluebell Railway

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Graham Plowman (10/09/2018)

Locomotive, coach and decoders supplied by: Hattons

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