HOME from the FRONT
From the front line in France to the industrial heartland of Australia, Hunslet No. 303 has led a remarkable life. THOMAS BRIGHT explores the history of this rare First World War veteran.
It is hard to truly comprehend the horrors of the First World War. Imagine being in the trenches at Passchendaele or the Somme, ankle deep in rancid mud, deafened by incessant shell fire and chattering of machine gun bullets strafing No Man’s Land.
It almost doesn’t bear thinking about.
Then imagine what a relief it must have been to see an oddly proportioned narrow gauge steam locomotive bucking its way towards the front over hastily laid track, bringing food, medicine and ammunition to where it was desperately needed. The War Department Light Railways Hunslet 4-6-0Ts were a vital lifeline to the brave soldiers fighting for King and country in the “war to end all wars”. It is appropriate that one of these locomotives – Railway Operating Department No. 303 – has been restored to working order for the first time in over 50 years, and is able to pay its respects to the soldiers with whom it served on the Western Front in time for the Armistice centenary. The First World War was the first truly mechanised conflict, but it wasn’t until halfway through the war that the Hunslet 4-6-0Ts were deployed.
Ian Hughes, chairman of the War Office Locomotive Trust, which restored No. 303, explains: “The War Office’s original transport plans were to link the standard gauge railheads – a safe distance out of artillery range – to the front line using requisitioned horses and road transport, but by late 1915, this
concept was proving a major drain on resources and a restriction on effective war operations in the conditions into which the front had degenerated.”
The War Office turned to iron horses to replace the flesh-and-blood kind, and in collaboration with the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds, developed a narrow gauge locomotive that would not only be quick and cheap to produce but was suitable for the lightly laid branches from the standard gauge railheads to the front line.
Given that large swathes of British industry had been turned over to the war effort, and that Hunslet had lost a large proportion of its skilled workforce to the military, the speed with which these locomotives appeared is remarkable.
Ian says: “They were designed and the first locomotive completed in just over three months, a remarkable achievement for a relatively small
manufacturer which was already committed to manufacturing gun-making equipment for the War Office.”
An order for an initial batch of ten was placed in May 1916, with the first despatched to the front in August that year. The class eventually totalled 155 examples, the largest single class of narrow gauge locomotive built in Britain – a figure which trumps even the ubiquitous ‘Quarry Hunslet’ 0-4-0STs.
No. 303 – Works No. 1215 – was the third War Office Hunslet 4-6-0T built as part of the initial order, but actually the second to leave the factory, and was despatched to France on August 12 1916.
Ian says: “We do not know exactly where it headed first but it is known that Hunslets were used on one of the first lines officially operated by the British forces.”
In War Office use it was numbered 303, but there are few records of its wartime service. Remarkably though, it is the only surviving example that can be seen in service in a photograph, taken at Boisleux-au-Mont works in September 1917, serving with the US Army Corps of Engineers.
“It was later involved in a slight misdemeanour with some ballast wagons just north of Arras, but after this we have little information of its further war service,” says Ian.
What happened to No. 303/1215 after hostilities ended is unclear. Ian explains: “Some engines were stored in France, some were used on the Region Libre lines to aid restoration, but I think those not sold directly from France were progressively brought back to Purfleet in Kent or possibly Barnbow in Leeds until a customer could be found.”
Although where No. 1215 was based after the war remains a mystery, by 1924 it had returned to Britain and, as part of the War Office’s plan to dispose of all surplus equipment, it was repaired and slightly re-gauged at Hunslet’s works on behalf of the Engineering Supply Company of Australia. It was subsequently sent halfway around the world to the Bingera sugar mill of Gibson & Howes, near Bundaberg in Queensland, where it stayed for over 30 years.
During its time at Bingera, No. 1215 received a replacement boiler from Bundaberg Foundry in 1942, but by 1957 diesels were taking over from steam at the mill. It moved north to Invicta mill near Townsville, where it received the cab and tanks from classmate Works No. 1226, and continued working for a further eight years until it was withdrawn in 1965 and placed into store.
Two years later, No. 1215 was presented to the Rowes Bay Bush Children’s Home in Townsville – a scheme established in the 1930s by Queensland’s governor, a former First World War officer – and was plinthed next to the sea for a further 27 years.
It was during this period that Ian first became interested in the War Office Hunslets, after seeing on the cover of a Narrow Gauge Railway Society publication a photograph of one used on the railway that was used to construct and maintain the hydroelectric scheme that fed an aluminium smelter in Fort William.
He says: “That photo, and a snippet from the book (incorrect, as it turned out!) claiming that possibly two of the Hunslets used survived in Australia stayed in my mind. Talking to friends, I realised that it would be nice to have one back in the country.
“While working in Australia in the 1990s, I started to try and track down the Hunslets and found no fewer than five surviving there (but not those from Fort William!). Returning to the UK, I continued research on the class, and started gathering a group of friends who were also keen on the idea of bringing one back to the UK.”
Coincidentally, in 1994, the Rowes Bay Bush Children’s Home closed and No. 1215 was sold to Brisbane-based enthusiast Alan Robert who started restoring it. Ian had kept in touch with his Australian contacts – including No. 1215’s new owner – so when Mr Robert’s circumstances changed ten years later, Ian was perfectly positioned to buy the locomotive, in 2004.
“The next year was spent in a frenzy of starting an organisation from scratch, gathering funds and obtaining an export permit (on the second attempt). When No. 1215 returned home, we reckon it completed its circumnavigation, as it returned via the Panama Canal.”
BACK TO BLACK
The locomotive returned to Britain in September 2005 – the first War Office Hunslet seen on these shores since 1962, when the Army scrapped the example displayed at the Longmoor Military Railway, and the first in Western Europe since 1964 when the only other surviving example – which worked on a sugar beet railway in Pithiviers, France – was also scrapped, despite attempts to save it.
After a brief period of storage at a private site, No. 1215 was initially displayed at Locomotion in Shildon, where it was given a basic cosmetic restoration.
The War Office Locomotive Society was formed in February that year with the aim of recording as much information about the class as possible, repatriating at least one example and returning it to steam. Efforts to realise that final ambition would not begin for another eight years, during which time No. 1215 was based variously at the Apedale Valley Light Railway, the Hollycombe Steam Collection near Liphook and the Leighton Buzzard Railway while the society raised the necessary funds to restore the locomotive.
In 2012, the society – which by now had rearranged itself into the War Office Locomotive Trust – reached an agreement with the volunteer team led by preservation stalwart Martyn Ashworth and based at ‘Workshop X’ in Derbyshire to restore No. 1215. They were part-way through restoring another narrow gauge locomotive with First World War credentials, Hudswell Clarke ‘Ganges’ 0-6-0WT Works No. 1238, so were well placed to take on the Hunslet.
Martyn picks up the tale: “It was a pretty worn-out locomotive when we took delivery of her in May 2012. At this time, we were well on with the restoration of No. 1238, but while the new boiler was being built for her, we took on No. 1215 on the basis that we would do a bottom end overhaul and then see what happened next.
“Work on No. 1238 reached a crescendo in 2014 and
No. 1215’s heavily stripped frames were dispatched to a sub-contractor for extensive work in order to strengthen them. We launched a completed No. 1238 at Statfold in August 2014; after that, No. 1215’s frames returned to us and she then got our undivided attention.
“There are two major things that all locomotive restorers will agree on – the first is that it will take twice as long as you first thought, and the second is that it will cost twice as much as you first thought. No. 1215 was no exception to these rules!
“The work we ended up doing on it was quite extensive, but because of her historic status we used as much of the original as possible and all our efforts were directed at returning her to 1916 condition and appearance as No. 303 – with the exception of the fitting of discrete air and vacuum brake systems.”
Martyn estimates that he and his team put in a total of 20,710 man-hours in restoring No. 1215 but that “this figure does not include all the time that Ian, myself and others spent behind the scenes sorting out new components, doing all the administration for the project, sorting out supplier issues, raising funds and sourcing materials and so on.”
The list of work conducted on No. 1215 is extensive and there isn’t space available here to detail it all, but suffice to say the locomotive that moved under its own power for the first time since 1965, on June 30 in the yard of ‘Workshop X’, is in the best condition it has been since it was despatched to Australia in 1924.
Martyn says: “All of this costs money and we have been extremely lucky in that we have been supported by various grant making bodies, for example the Heritage Lottery Fund, which paid for the new boiler, the PRISM fund, which paid for much of the frame restoration work, the Transport Trust, and the Statfold Barn Railway, which undertook all the bogie restoration work for us as an apprentice training project. We were also greatly assisted by the trustees and supporters of WOLT who have given generously to the project, and to one patron in particular, who also helped us with No. 1238.”
Ian summarises the restoration as: “Six years of excitement, head-scratching, frustration and relief involving a vast amount of emails and letters, cutting, sanding, machining, more headscratching and some nail-biting, balanced with the satisfaction of eventually seeing it all finally coming together. The locomotive has fought us all the way, but it just goes to show what poor condition it was in.”
It had been hoped that it would star in the Ffestiniog Railway’s ‘Hunslet 125’ event on June 22-24 this year, but it wasn’t quite ready in time and instead made its working debut at the Statfold Barn Railway on July 8 during a private event, before making its first public appearance – appropriately – at the AVLR’s ‘Tracks to the Trenches’ event on July 13-15. Here it was united with a number of other First World War veterans, including Britain’s sole operational Baldwin 4-6-0PT No. 778, the Hunslet’s American equivalent and a design arguably more synonymous with the light railways of the Western Front than the Hunslet 4-6-0T.
No. 1215 will remain resident at Apedale for the foreseeable future and will be running at its Remembrance Day event on November 10/11, after which it will go on display at the Warley National Model Railway Exhibition in Birmingham on November 24/25.
But while we should rightly celebrate the return to steam of this rare and historic First World War veteran, we must never forget the terrible circumstances surrounding its creation and purpose. It serves as a memorial not only to those with whom it served on the Western Front, but also all the soldiers who gave their lives for their country during the conflict.
Martyn says: “At the conclusion of the restoration process I placed a brass plaque in the cab which states very simply: ‘THIS LOCOMOTIVE SERVED IN THE GREAT WAR FROM AUGUST 1916 UNTIL NOVEMBER 1918. AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN AND IN THE MORNING, WE WILL REMEMBER THEM’.”
That says it all, doesn’t it?
THE LOCOMOTIVE FOUGHT US ALL THE WAY, BUT IT JUST GOES TO SHOW WHAT POOR CONDITION IT WAS IN IAN HUGHES, CHAIRMAN, THE WAR OFFICE LOCOMOTIVE TRUST
War veterans united. Fresh from its return to steam, Hunslet 4-6-0T Works No. 1215 (ROD No. 303) passes its fellow First World War veteran, Baldwin 4-6-0PT No. 778 at the Apedale Valley Light Railway during a 30742 Charters event on July 16.The only known photograph of ROD No. 303 during its time on the Western Front is of it at the light railway works at Boisleux-au-Mont alongside members of the US Army Corps of Engineers on September 2 1917.
An almost unrecognisable Hunslet Works No. 1215 is transported on a low‑loader from its home at the Rowes Bay Bush Children’s Home on an unrecorded date in the mid‑1990s. The modified smokebox, spark arresting chimney, dome and headlight were fitted during the locomotive’s time at Bingera.
Team effort. Some of the volunteers who helped restore Hunslet Works No. 1215 pose in front of their charge at ‘Workshop X’ as the locomotive comes together. Martyn Ashworth is second from left.