The June meeting of GIHS heard a talk by Ian Bull on the Narrow Gauge Railways of the Royal Arsenal. The following report is by Richard Buchanan (with thanks to WADAS) with some annotations by Ian Bull.
The Arsenal found railways to be the best way of getting about on a marshy site – they built few roads. Its first was a plate railway in 1824, developed from the Surrey Iron Railway (of 1802) and horse drawn. At this stage the Arsenal was about the size of what has been retained since its closure, though at its height it stretched 3¼ miles, all the way to the Crossness outfall works, and 2sq miles in area. It then had 147 miles of track; the east of the site with its several isolated high explosive (HE) facilities being served only by rail.
There were three fiefdoms in the Arsenal, the Royal Gun Foundry, the Royal (gun) Carriage Department and the Royal Laboratories (for ammunition). They did not co-operate; if one had a spare wagon it would not lend it to another that might need one; if there was accidental damage to a train operated by one department, that department had to make good, even if delays ensued.
In 1849 the North Kent Line of the South Eastern Railway reached Woolwich, and the Arsenal entered into an agreement to interwork with them, and build an internal standard gauge railway (the three departments still working separately). The connection was at “the hole in the wall” in Plumstead. However in 1870 the Army decided that an 18 inch gauge railway would better suit their needs particularly if it were to be deployed in narrow trenches for siege warfare; and be easier to transport. They had good experience in the Crimea with such railway - The 'Grand Crimean Central Railway' which was steam worked and standard gauge.
So the Arsenal built an 18” railway, which could manage sharper curves, and took it into buildings - anywhere where heavy loads were to be handled. Inside buildings special cast iron track was made (by the Royal Laboratories from redundant cannon balls) with a level top surface apart from grooves for the wheel flanges. The standard gauge railway continued in use; where necessary a third rail was laid inside standard gauge track for the 18” gauge.
The 18” railway was steam hauled from the outset (though at Chatham Dockyard, with a system whose length reached 20 miles, horses were used). The locomotives followed normal practice with the frames inside the wheels; the first engine had the cylinders inside tharger cylinders outside, were not too wide (though side swipes between trains on adjacent lines were not uncommon. The 18" railway at Woolwich used locomotives with *outside* frames (there were a very few exceptions). The Royal Engineers visited the London & North Western Railway's Crewe Works in the 1850s where the 18" locomotives had frames inside the wheels and cylinders inside the frames. Said cylinders could only be very small and the Military waited until the Hunslet Engine Co. developed outside frames in 1870.
As time passed guns and ammunition got heavier, and stronger rails were laid. And passenger trains were provided to get workers quickly from the Arsenal gates to the more distant work places. Faster locomotives were needed for this, with larger diameter wheels. Open knife-board bogey wagons were made, the bogeys giving some comfort - but also the ability, with the knife-board removed, to take heavy loads at other times. First class covered carriages were also produced by the Carriage Works.
An 18” railway was sent to Africa and laid to help in the unsuccessful relief of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885; it was packed up put in charge of the Royal Engineers under Percy Girouard a Canadian of great promise then aged 23. He relaid decrepit 1860s track with the heavier rails brought back from Africa, and ran it as a single railway. He remained in charge until 1895.
A compression-ignition engine came in 1896 – slow, but not having a fire it was much safer where high explosives were handled; four more soon followed. Otherwise steam continued in use, and with rapid expansion in WWI more of a “Culverin” design first purchased in 1884 were ordered; and 16 of a more powerful “Charlton” class was ordered (of which the “Woolwich” is the remaining one).
In 1922 it was decided to scrap the 18” railway; at the time it had 3000 items of rolling stock including 1100 powder wagons. Most of the steam engines, which had been worked hard during the war with less maintenance than they should have had, were sold off and scrapped.
However parts of the railway lingered to 1971. A Diesel locomotive was bought in 1932, from the Hunslet Engine Co.. The loco was called 'Albert'. and another, the “Carnegie”, in 1954 – with cab heating! Three small Diesels were bought during WW2.
Ian said that however it was run the Arsenal railway was always technically up-to-date.
The “Woolwich”, the “Carnegie” and one of the small Diesels had a new lease of life at the Bicton Woodland Railway in Devon from 1960. Woolwich' went for scrap in 1959 and was purchased from the breakers by Bicton in 1962. 'Carnegie' went directly to Bicton from the Arsenal in 1966. One of the small diesels was scrapped in Greenwich, one went to Bicton where it still is, and one to the Great Bush railway via a Nursery in Littlehampton and the Isle of Wight.
But by 2000 they were worn out, and new management got a Diesel powered ‘steam’ engine. The “Woolwich” and “Carnegie” went to Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Mills. The “Woolwich” was moved again, visiting Woolwich in 2011, to the Crossness Engines Trust, who are now rebuilding it. The “Carnegie” remains at Waltham Abbey awaiting substantial repair. The small Diesel is now at the Great Bush Railway in Sussex.
The Crossness Engines Trust has several wagons, including the powder wagon which recently stood outside the Heritage Centre, and with the “Woolwich”, could make up a train. Thames Water, wishing to keep the Trust’s visitors away from their sewage treatment plant, are putting in a footpath by the sewer bank to Plumstead – wide enough to also accommodate a railway track (on the route of the spur line used in building the original Outfall Works). This would make the Trust much more accessible.