The 1916 loco – 1215 – is a very important and historic narrow gauge steam locomotive.
Our locomotive was built by the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds to the order and technical specification of the British War Office for use on the light railways supplying the trenches of the Western Front. They were designed and the first locomotive of the class was completed in just over 3 months – a remarkable achievement for a relatively small manufacturer who was already committed to manufacturing gun making equipment for the War Office.
They had lost a large number of tradesmen to the various regiments raised in Leeds, eg the Leeds Pals, and as such now had quite a large number of female workers.
The British War Office had finally concluded by late 1915 that the original transport plans of requisitioned horses and road transport was unsuitable for the conditions that the front had by now degenerated into, but the majority of British manufacturing was already turned over to the war effort in preparation for the Somme offensive, which started on July 1st 1916.
The fact that Hunslet managed to produce over 90 of this type of loco before the war ended was a remarkable effort.
Unfortunately, this was not enough for the War Office, so they turned to the enormous capacity of Baldwins in the United States, who turned out no less than 495 of their similarly proportioned locomotives – of which a small number still survive.
Our Hunslet is notable in a number of ways. It is only the 3rd one of the type built and it was actually the 2nd one to leave the factory as part of the initial order (37400) for 10 locomotives!
The 1215 was dispatched on the 12th August 1916 to France, though we do not know exactly where it headed to first. It is, however, well recorded that the Hunslet 4-6-0s were used on one of the first lines officially operated by the British forces.
We are also incredibly fortunate that of the few survivors of the type, 1215 is the only one that has a photograph of it in service as in September 1917 – it was snapped at Boisleux-Aux-Mont to the south of Arras. It was later involved in a slight misdemeanour with some ballast wagons just north of Arras, but after this time we have little information of its further war office service.
Post war, the War Office attempted to dispose of all surplus equipment and thus in 1924, loco 1215 passed through the Hunslet engine works again for repairs and a slight re-gauge on behalf of the Engineering Supply Company of Australia, and halfway around the world it went to then enter service at the Bingera sugar mill near Bundaberg in Queensland. Here it stayed for many years, the limited availability of steel for replacement locomotives during the second war prompted rebuilds and 1215 received a new boiler from the Bundaberg Foundry. Come 1957 and diesel locos had been introduced at Bingera so 1215 was moved north to the Invicta Mill near Townsville where a number of items were transferred off the resident sister loco Hunslet 1226, which allowed 1215 to run for a further 10 years.
By 1967, 1215 had been withdrawn, and it was presented to the Rowes Bay Bush Children’s home in Townsville (a scheme established by a WW1 veteran officer) where it was to remain next to the sea for a further 27 years. In 1994 this scheme closed down and after some discussion the locomotive was sold to a Brisbane based enthusiast who dismantled it and made a start on its restoration.
Ten years later (although progress had been made) the owners circumstances had changed, and the opportunity for acquisition and a return to the UK became available. Once fund raising was complete and an export permit was obtained (on the second attempt) 1215 became the first of its type to be seen in Europe for 40 years, and in doing so we reckon it completed its circumnavigation of the world as it returned via the Panama canal.
The next eight years brought periods of display at LOCOMOTION the National Railway Museum at Shildon and at Apedale, as well as visits to the Hollycombe Steam Collection and the Leighton Buzzard Railway, before developments and fundraising allowed a start on restoration.
Restoration was initially in a small way by the Trustees, but agreement was then reached with the team, lead by Martyn Ashworth (of Heritage Transport Supplies), who were then working on Apedale resident Hudswell Clark loco number 1238 (also of 1916) at a well-equipped workshop adjacent to a private engineering works in South Yorkshire, to take the project forward.
To cut a long story short the last four years, since the loco 1215 left Apedale, have been a mix of excitement, head scratching, frustration and relief involving a vast amount of emails, letters, driving, filing, sanding, machining, cutting more head scratching, some nail biting, appeals for support and with relief, notes of thanks.
Balancing this is the immense satisfaction of having a brand new boiler being finished off in front of a wheeled, piped and painted chassis with every item on it in great order!
This satisfaction is not just for the Trustees and the volunteer team – it must also be shared with the many organisations and individuals who have supported the project so far from the larger ones such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council (PRISM award), Statfold Barn Railway and Graham Lee, Garfield Weston Foundation, Foyle Foundation, Transport Trust, the Veronica Awdry Trust and our anonymous benefactor as well as the other individuals without whom we would never have reached the point we have.
However, there is definitely still room for others to share the satisfaction of completion as we push on to get the job done. So please help the team hit the target of returning 1215 to steam in her own centenary year.
Visit the website www.warofficehunslet.org.uk for more details.