The Workshops Rail Museum has installed a new exhibit 12 years in the making: Hunslet locomotive 327.
In 2005 the Museum was donated a 2 foot gauge tank locomotive that had operated between the early 1920s and the mid-1960s at the North Eton Mill, in Mackay, Queensland, hauling sugar cane. However, the locomotive was originally built in England in 1916 for use on the Western Front during the First World War.
Moving ammunition, supplies and soldiers on the Western Front was an enormous undertaking and after stubbornly persisting with motorised transport for nearly two years, the British War Office recognised that narrow gauge railways were the most efficient means of transporting essential supplies over this harsh landscape.
The Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds was engaged by the British War Office in May 1916 to build a 60cm gauge tank locomotive with a maximum axle loading of 4 tons. Modifying the design of one of their existing engines, the 0-6-0T ‘Hans Sauer’ which had been built for use in Rhodesia, Hunslet came up with 4-6-0T ‘War Office’ type.
The Museum’s locomotive was numbered 1239 by Hunslet and when delivered to the War Office in November 1916, was given the running number 327. 327 survived the war and was returned to Hunslet Engine Company for repairs at the end of 1918. During these repairs 327 was converted to 2ft gauge and in 1920 it was purchased from the War Office by an Agent of the Queensland Government to be used in the Queensland sugar industry. It was one of 15 War Office types that would be sent to Queensland to haul sugar cane.
When the Museum acquired 327 in 2005 it was quickly decided that it would be restored to its original incarnation as a War Office Type locomotive. Years of research and fundraising followed which allowed the Museum to take its time investigating the locomotive so that we understood what modifications had been made to 327 during its years hauling sugar cane.
When restoration work began the Museum was confident that we had a sound understanding of the provenance of the locomotive which allowed us to make informed decisions about what parts of the locomotive were original and what had been modified or exchanged in later decades. Where possible, parts from the engine that were identified as later additions were removed and retained so that in future years, if the decision is made to return 327 to its ‘sugar appearance’, those parts unique to that era of the locomotive’s history are retained and preserved.
The Museum purchased a number of new parts for 327 which were fabricated from the original Hunslet drawings rather than alter existing parts in order to preserve the locomotive’s later history. In keeping with best practice restoration, all new parts have been marked so that they cannot be confused with original parts.
When the Museum acquired 327 in 2005 the locomotive had spent over three decades on display in a park near the North Eton Mill, and time and the weather had not been kind to it. In 2012, in partnership with Queensland Rail, restoration work began in the Erecting Shop at the Ipswich Railway Workshops, where 327 quickly became a highlight of the Museum’s Steam Shop Tour. During the last five years 327 was completely disassembled and all of its parts were assessed for suitability for inclusion in the restoration.
A fascinating aspect of this work was the discovery of parts from other Hunslet War Office locomotives on 327. These included:
1240 – which came to Queensland in 1924 and worked at South Johnston Mill in Innisfail and is now with the Australian Narrow Gauge Railway Museum Society.
1219 – which also came to Queensland in 1924 and was sent to the Proserpine Sugar Mill.
1334 – Which was sent to the Buenos Aires and Great Southern Railway between 1921 and 1923.
It will always be a mystery as how these parts were acquired – was it on the Western Front, back at Hunslet Locomotive Works in 1919 or were they acquired later on? Parts from 1240 and 1219 may very well have been acquired after arrival in Australia with the mills swapping or selling parts amongst themselves.
The part from 1334 is perhaps more of a mystery. From a later batch of locomotives, 1334 never saw any war work and perhaps parts from it were used to repair returning locos from the war in 1919. Ultimately we will never know for sure but it adds some further mystic to 327’s story.
Only a handful of War Office Type locomotives around the world have been restored to their original appearance and the Museum is honoured to unveil our Hunslet for public display.
Historians have calculated that if all the artillery shells that were fired during the war were fired back to back it would equate to a shell dropping every 40 seconds for four years straight. The only way that these shells were able to be delivered to the war zones in such numbers was by rail. The narrow gauge steam engines and petrol tractor locomotives proved an incredibly efficient way to deliver the explosives that caused so much destruction to both the landscape and the men and women who had to work and serve in this horrific environment. In later years, our Hunslet led a very different life, toiling year after year under the Queensland sunshine with people probably not giving a lot of thought to its previous life as a vital cog in a truly awful war.
It is the Museum’s hope that our visitors will be able to learn about the light gauge locomotives that criss-crossed the Western Front and contributed so much to the war effort through this restoration. We also hope that visitors learn how some of these unique locomotives went on to have a second life – a life far away from the destruction of war on the other side of the world.
Collections Manager, The Workshops Rail Museum