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.

Steam Railway (UK) - - ‘P’ CLASS RESTORED - SR

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.”


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?



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.

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