Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Forgotten Enginemen of the Dunedin & Port Chalmers Railway Coy., 1872-73 (Part Three)


John Thomas, taken later in life
[Used with kind permission of a family descendant]

Mr John Thomas - Locomotive Driver

This Blog is a continuing instalment in my series entitled "The Forgotten Enginemen of the Dunedin and Port Chalmers Railway". To go to my short history of the D&PCR Co. click HERE. In this blog series we explore these "forgotten" enginemen, their early lives, their engineering and railway backgrounds, their employment with the D&PCR Co., and their subsequent railway and post railway careers and lives. 

Our second biography, having been pieced together from both published and family sources, charts the life of Mr John Thomas, being initially employed as a Locomotive Driver for the D&PCR Co. As we shall read, Mr Thomas went on to have a long and varied railways career in the south which also included a number of notable firsts in the annals of Otago's early railways. 


Double Fairlie "Josephine" as she appeared in 1925.
The baloon funnels were not original.
Photo by Percy Godber
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

Thomas remained proud of his railways career and the contributions he made but what appears to stand out is his great pride in not only having played an integral part in the establishment and running of the D&PCR Co but also, as we shall read, his personal connection to the 1872 double-bogie Fairlie Locomotive "Josephine", having in fact been preserved within his own lifetime. I can only imagine that it was indeed a proud moment and full of memories when John Thomas viewed the by now preserved, re-painted and highly polished "Josephine" when she formed an integral part of the New Zealand Railways display at the outstandingly popular 1925-26 Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition. 

From published and family records we know that John Thomas was born in Cardiff, Glamorgan, Wales in 1844 but by 1851 was living with his family at Penydarren in Merthyr Tydfil, also in Glamorgan. Could the steam engine workings on the railways around Penydarren (also where the world's first steam powered locomotive commenced working in 1804) have influenced a young, impressionable and practical minded boy to seek a career as a locomotive engine driver?

The Thomas family subsequently moved to Newport, Monmouthshire where John would marry his wife Sarah in 1866. Interestingly, his Father-in-law happened also to be a locomotive engine driver. Prior to coming out to New Zealand John Thomas served from an early age with the illustrious "Great Western Railway" and then five years later joined the "London and North Western Railway", no doubt having risen through the ranks from a lowly engine cleaner to fireman to locomotive shunting & goods engine driver to passenger work. 

In 1871 Thomas "took part in the tests of Robert Fairlie's patent locomotives, and upon completion of these he signed articles of agreement (through Robert Fairlie) to proceed to New Zealand with the sister engines, The "Rose"and "Josephine", for Messrs Proudfoot, Oliver and Ulph, owners of the Dunedin-Port Chalmers Railway." I have found a reference that "Fairlie staged a series of very successful demonstrations on the Ffestiniog line [which had been successfully using a Failie locomotive since 1869] in February 1870 to high-powered delegations from the many parts of the world. This sold his invention (and the concept of the narrow gauge railway on which it was based) around the world." So I assume this may be the "tests" referred to, even if the date is a year out.

As previously noted in my short history of the D&PCR Co., Thomas came out to New Zealand from Bristol England on the "Wave Queen" with the locomotives "Josephine" and "Rose", arriving in Port Chalmers, Otago, New Zealand on the 28th August 1872 after a "fair passage" of 98 days. His wife and two children would follow him out in the "Naomi", arriving on the 24th May 1873 after "a particularly rough and stormy voyage". Bearing this in mind, we cannot discount that Thomas had perhaps intended returning home at the end of his contract or if things did not work out for him but decided to stay and then sent for his family to join him. At any rate it would have been a long thirteen month separation from his wife and family.

The Double-Fairlie Locomotive "Josephine" at Wickliff Terrace, 
Port Chalmers, believed taken during a trial run in Sept. 1872. 
Burton Brothers Photo.
[Source : OESA Collection, 1979]

On the 18th September 1872 we note that "Josephine", and being specifically driven by John Thomas, hauled the first ever goods train on the line, being a shipment of three hogsheads of beer from Burke's Brewery to Port Chalmers. This is in fact also the first recorded goods train on the 3'6" gauge system in New Zealand.

Then on Saturday the 26th October, with George Amos driving and John Thomas placed in charge of the brake van, "Josephine" conveyed, "by invitation of the contractors" several members of the Legislative Council and House of Representatives, including promoters Messrs David & George Proudfoot & the General Manager Mr Richard Oliver, from Port Chalmers on the partially ballasted line through to Dunedin in one of the first class carriages.

The No 2 locomotive "Josephine", with John Thomas now driving and Thomas Graham as his fireman, would forever hold the honour of hauling the first public rostered train on the line from Dunedin to Port Chalmers on Wednesday the 1st January 1873. This event was always a matter of great pride to Mr Thomas and continues to be so to his descendants today.

John Thomas would continue to be be employed by the Otago Provincial Government Railway after the purchase of the D&PCR Co. on the 10th April 1873.

On the 17th July 1873 Thomas was driving the last passenger train of the day when a "black object" was run over on the line about a quarter of a mile south of Burkes Brewery on the line between Dunedin and Port Chalmers. This was found to be one Angus McPherson, now deceased. His fireman is again noted as Thomas Graham. Conflicting evidence given at the inquest by Thomas and by the Guard, Frederick Farrow, as to whether steam had been shut off approaching the scene could easily, according to the Coroner, have implicated Thomas. But, in the end, and after a character reference was given, Thomas' conflicting evidence was simply put down to "confusion".

It was the Manager of the line, Mr Daniel Rolfe, who acquainted the jury with what he knew of Mr Thomas in the way of a supporting character reference; "He had known him as engine-driver in the service ever since the line was opened. He was a remarkably sober, steady, and industrious man. He had not been very long from Home [ie Britain]...". Based on the fact that McPherson has been "the worse for liquor at the time" the jury returned a verdict of "Accidental Death". 

John Thomas remained an Otago based locomotive driver for the rest of his long career. In 1876 the Otago Provincial Government Railways would be taken over by the Central Government under the Public Works Dept. before becoming part of the Government owned "New Zealand Railways" (or "NZR") in 1880.

Additionally, "As soon as the Main North and South lines and Central Otago lines were completed, Mr Thomas had charge of the locomotives for the opening runs". Interestingly, this would again place him on the footplate of "Josephine" for her second claim to fame (or humiliation whichever way you look at it) when she met up with the American built and "flashy" Rogers K88 "Washington" at Oamaru to join the first through train upon the opening of the Main South Line to Dunedin on the 6th Sept. 1878 [Link HERE]. "Josephine's" early failure on the return to Dunedin was, as explained, not really of her making even if her tractive effort was slightly higher than that of the "K".  

Thomas, according to his obituary, went on to have "a particularly successful career of continuous footplate service with many classes of express engines, eventually retiring on superannuation in 1907". Furthermore he was noted as being "a particularly unobtrusive and retiring man, well liked by all who knew him, and was a great favourite with the locomotive staff and the officers of the several departments". The New Zealand Railways Magazine, who refers to him as "Jack Thomas", described him "as everyone's old friend".

At a University Club luncheon given in July 1928, Mr W.F. Sligo (Past Night Foreman of the Dunedin Locomotive Dept.) noted that John Thomas, "was a particularly successful driver, and was resourceful, cool, punctual, and thoroughly reliable. He must have possessed all these qualifications to have gone on for 50 years and to have left the record he had left as a driver. He had one collision, and on one occasion he lost a fireman [Ebenezer Brown] near the Goodwood bridge [on the 14th Feb 1885].... Mr Thomas' first fireman was a man named Tom [Thomas] Graham." 


Gravestone of John & Sarah Thomas & Family
in the Southern Cemetery, Dunedin.
Note that "NZR" is placed alongside his name.
[Source : Dunedin City Council]

John and Sarah resided in Mornington in Dunedin with John continuing to reside here after Sarah's death in January 1912. John ("Jack") Thomas died at the home of his son in St. Kilda, Dunedin on the 28th July 1928 and is buried with his wife Sarah in the Southern Cemetery. Both the obituary for his fireman Thomas Graham, who died in 1919, and the above Mr Sligo when speaking in 1928 quote his name as "Jack Thomas" so it would appear that he was always known on the railways and to his close friends as "Jack" rather than "John" which is the diminutive and common form of the latter name. Thomas was survived by four sons and one daughter, all being married. A son died in 1878 aged seven years.

I find it rather sad that from being Josephine's first driver and personally taking part in and witnessing so many momentous events in the formative history of Otago's early railways that his name has now all but been forgotten. While the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum have his photo, being clearly labelled as Josephine's first driver, this early connection is not publicly acknowledged.


Copyright : This blog may not be reproduced without my specific written permission and / or that of family descendants. Excerpts may however be quoted for non-commercial and academic use provided this site is acknowledged. Please feel free, however, to publicize this Blog.

Sources :

- Papers Past / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- Archives New Zealand / Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga
- Heritage New Zealand / Pouhere Taonga
- "The New Zealand Railways Magazine", 1934
- Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin
- McNab Room, Dunedin Public Library
- "Dunedin and Port Chalmers Railway - New Zealand's First 3ft 6in Gauge Line" by TA McGavin, 1973 (From my own collection)
- "Josephine and Her Friends" by JA Dangerfield, c.1994
- Genealogy.com
- Auckland War Memorial Museum / Tamaki Paenga Hira
- With grateful thanks to a Thomas family descendant for their very helpful assistance

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