You could build a railway carriage for that!

What do manual arts students, dentists, domestic science students and leprosy patients all have in common? At one point in Queensland’s history they have all had custom railway carriages built for them.

When railways were the most dominant means of transporting goods and people on land, some of the rolling stock used had to be customised to accommodate all sorts of passenger and freight needs. Sometimes standard carriages and wagons were not suitable. The Queensland Railway Department during its long history designed and built a number of these special carriages.

One of the earliest needs for a special carriage was to transport people suffering from Hansen’s Disease (leprosy). The general public was very fearful of traveling with leprosy patients so a special carriage was designed and built to allow patients to travel in their own cabins (usually with two nurses to look after them) while keeping them isolated from the rest of the train. The carriage was used throughout the state. Patients travelled to Brisbane, with the carriage coupled onto an existing service. Patients were then transferred to the lazaret (the name given to leprosy hospitals) at Dunwich on Stradbroke Island. From 1907 a newer lazaret was opened on Peel Island where leprosy patients were housed in isolation until 1959.

1. Carriage diagram of Hansen’s Disease Carriage

As there was no known cure for Leprosy until the 1940s, Government policy around the world was to keep sufferers isolated from the rest of society. This railway carriage was used to transport patients throughout Queensland to be isolated on islands off Brisbane.

Another area of public health where special railway carriages were used was dentistry. In the mid-1920s the Queensland Department of Public Instruction recognised the difficulties that rural and regional children experienced in getting dental care. It also recognised that the best chance that a person had for having healthy teeth into their adult years was to receive proper dental care in childhood. These observations led to the building of the first traveling dental clinic carriage at the Ipswich Railway Workshops in 1928. The carriage consisted of a small treatment area, a waiting room and a living area for the dentist, and was described as being ‘a lesson in the economy of space’ by The Telegraph.

Although small, the carriage was full of modern conveniences including an electrical generator, spot lights, a wash basin with a high pressure water system, a steriliser for the instruments and a filtered water system. A trailer with a motor vehicle coupled behind the carriage was also provided so that the dentist could travel to patients who could not attend the local railway station.

2. 1928 Traveling Dental Clinic

Queensland’s first traveling dental clinic carriage was only six metres long and two and a half metres wide with just enough room to spin the chair around.

The traveling dental clinic was upgraded after 1945 and included two carriages and a trailer for a motor vehicle. There was even enough room in the newer version for the dentist to bring along his wife.

3. Photo of dentist and wife, child in chair

Mr and Mrs Kilby were a husband and wife dental team who operated on the post-1945 dental carriages. Photo courtesy of Mandy Rounsefell

The traveling dental clinic was adopted due to the success of an earlier traveling endeavour initiated by the Department of Public Instruction, traveling classrooms. In the early 1920s the sparseness and vastness of distance in Queensland was a major hurdle when it came to educating the State’s youth. In an attempt to improve rural education, the Department requested that the railways build custom teaching carriages. The idea was to install the carriages on railway sidings throughout the state in order to teach children for up to six weeks.

The first carriage to be built, a domestic sciences carriage, was launched in 1923 and students were taught dressmaking, millinery (hat making) and cookery. A second carriage was built and sent to Townsville in early 1924. This carriage had a wood stove, kerosene refrigerator, shelves packed with aluminum saucepans, and a dresser full of cups, saucers, plates and various other dishes – all held in place with special devices to stop the items shifting while the carriage was moving. The carriage also had a Singer sewing machine and enough bench space for 14 pupils. There was also a small living quarters for the teacher.

4. Domestic sciences carriage   

A classroom on wheels, the interior of the domestic sciences carriage. Courtesy of Keith MacDonald. 

The success of the domestic services carriages led to the Department of Public Instruction requesting that the Railway Department build them a traveling manual training classroom in 1925. The new carriage would travel along with the domestic science carriage in a pair. Twelve students could be accommodated in the manual training carriage, and would be taught wood, steel and leatherwork. The ingenuity of the classroom’s design was credited to the Railway Department’s Chief Mechanical Engineer’s branch who did amazing work in housing all the materials and tools needed to teach such a class in a small amount of space.

5. Manual training carriage

A manual training carriage was designed and built because of the success of the domestic sciences carriage. Courtesy of Keith MacDonald. 

Specialised railway carriages started being phased out in the 1960s when it became easier to travel by motor vehicle and to fit out trailers for specialised services (who remembers Harold and the Life Education van visiting their school?). But the history of these carriages shows us how adaptable the railways needed to be in meeting the needs of the community. In a state as large as Queensland these carriages were a way of bridging vast distances so the lives of rural communities were improved by public health and education initiatives. These carriages are only four examples of the wide range of specialised vehicles the Queensland Railway Department designed. Prisoners, explosives, maternity clinics, cheeses, army hospitals and even circus animals had specialised vehicles designed for them so they could travel on the railways safely.

Rob Shiels
Collection Manager, The Workshops Rail Museum