Monday, 3 June 2013

The Saga of Southland's Wooden Railway 1864 - 1867

"Crampton" type locomotive "Oreti" departing Invercargill Railway
 Station on the "Great Northern Railway" to Makarewa in 1864.
The sleepers - and the rails - are wooden.
[From a painting by W.W. Stewart] 

Last Update : August 2017

The idea of a "wooden railway", with wood replacing iron rails, sounds decidedly far-fetched. But a wooden railway is indeed what was constructed in the deep south of New Zealand during 1863-64. But ultimately this whole sorry saga precipitated the bankruptcy of the local Provincial Government, became synonymous with New Zealand's first railway fatality, and immortalised the story of "the lady who raced the train".

The route of the "Great Northern Railway"
from Invercargill to Makarewa and
eventually to Winton

Planned to initially run the eight mile distance between Invercargill and Makarewa for goods and passenger use, this was no mere 'bush railway'. But it was always envisaged that iron rails would eventually replace the wooden rails and for the route to be extended further north.

A bullock team in Tay Street Invercargill, 1860's 

The reasons for its construction were primarily two-fold. The land around Invercargill tended to be swampy with very little road metal [gravel] where it was needed thus the bullock wagons frequently became mired in deep mud. This made communication and transport exceedingly difficult. Secondly, with gold having recently been discovered in the interior, Invercargill saw itself as "the supply centre for a rich and thriving mining district". But to achieve that required a reliable transport route north. What was to be done?

In the early 1860's the main route north from Invercargill
was nothing more that a muddy track. This photograph is
taken at Waikiwi only 2 miles north in the 1860's.
The name "Bush Hotel" is very appropriate.

The 'Southland Provincial Council', led by their far-sighted Superintendent, the Hon. Dr. James Menzies, decided that railways were the answer. At that time all New Zealand provinces had a considerable degree of self-governance, perhaps not unlike the Australian model. So, having already heavily committed themselves to the construction of an iron railway south from Invercargill to the Bluff, thoughts now turned north. But the lack of money and inability to take on another equally large debt brought forth a novel suggestion from Mr James R. Davies, a contractor for the Bluff Railway - that of a wooden railway! Mr Davies had in fact designed and built a wooden railway in Victoria Australia when he held the position of Chief Engineer for the 'Ballarat and Geelong Railway'.

Advertisement for "'Davies' Patent Locomotive
 Engines, Carriages, Trucks, Wagons &c.
circa 1861  

The Council, to their credit, were naturally sceptical - who would not be? But to convince them otherwise, the entrepreneurial Davies imported the "Lady Barkly" 0-4-0 locomotive of around 8 tons from Australia, having been built in 1861 to his own design, by "Hunt and Opie" at the 'Victoria Ironworks' in Ballarat, Victoria. For two years it had been employed "to great satisfaction" on a wooden line at Green Hills, near Meredith in Victoria.  Davies successfully demonstrated the 8 ton "Lady Barkly" on a short wooden track laid on the Invercargill jetty on Saturday, the 8th August 1863. This locomotive thus has the honour of being the first locomotive to run in New Zealand, although not in revenue earning service.

Historian J.O.P. Watt states that "no dimensional details are known of this locomotive." But knowing the driving wheels were "about three feet" and using scaling a knowledgeable Australian source (who, by the way is building a miniature replica of the "Lady Barkly") has advised me that he believes her length to have "been a bit longer than 15 feet". One other source quotes 12 feet but this appears to be an unqualified estimate. There is another image of the locomotive Here (and is one that I had not previously seen).

The "Lady Barkly" Locomotive of 1861 and
the first locomotive to run in New Zealand in 1863.

"The afternoon of Saturday last witnessed the experimental trip of the first locomotive, which has ever snorted along a New Zealand tramway. Wooden rails were laid the length of the Jetty, and from one o'clock till five, the "Lady Barkly" was driven up and down sometimes at a speed of 25 miles an hour, with the most complete success... Crowds of spectators passed the afternoon at the Jetty in riding delightedly in the locomotive. The motion was found pleasant and quite free from that oscillation and concussion, which distinguish travelling on iron rails..."

With flange-less wheels running on 8 inch wooden rails, the small locomotive was kept on the track by means of inside guide wheels angled at 45 degrees and running against the top inside edge of the "rails". Thus Davies demonstrated that the system, which had been patented by William Prosser in 1844, could be made to work and that construction could proceed at a faster pace by utilising wooden rails. The construction cost per mile in iron would be £2000 but only £460 in wood.

An artist's impression of the "Lady Barkly" steaming
along the wooden railway

The previously sceptical Provincial Council were now enthusiastic. Despite suggestions from some quarters, and based on varying reports from Australia that further - and longer - trials should be conducted, the Council passed an ordinance raising a loan of £100,000 to fund the railway which they now planned to extend to Winton, a total distance of 18½ miles. It would be known by the grandiose name of "The Great Northern Railway" and, independently minded as ever, it would be constructed at the 'standard' 4ft 8½ inch gauge. Provincial Councils could not even agree on a consistent gauge and the 3ft 6in 'narrow' gauge would soon become the New Zealand standard.

Typically for new railways, a dispute then arose over the route, and that it should not bypass the nearby settlement of Wallacetown. But at an additional cost of £10,000 and with the attraction of the popular "public house" in this township no doubt figuring highly in the minds of many, good sense finally won the day and the railway would proceed in a direct line. Local farmers remained suspicious, fearing that they would be required to subsidise a line that primarily favoured the merchants of Invercargill.

A model of Invercargill Railway Station, complete
with overall roof. A veranda would later be added.

The ceremonial turning of the first sod took place on Wednesday the 25th November 1863 at the "Government Reserve" at the end of Esk Street, being the site of the new Railway Station. This was followed by a "Grand Ball" in the Southland Club. Hopeful of completion by the mid-year winter season of 1864, work proceeded slowly. But work halted on the 20th May when the Council found itself in financial difficulties - due primarily to railway construction debt. But thankfully the work recommenced in August with Makarewa soon being reached. A new "commodious" wooden railway station was constructed in Invercargill, the tender being let on the 10th Feb 1864 for £5020.

The 'Crampton' No 3, named "Oreti" pictured at the Soho
Works of 'Robinson Thomas & Co. of Ballarat in 1864.
The inclined guide-wheels are clearly visible.

Two heavier locomotives to work the new 'Great Northern Railway' were ordered from Victoria, Australia, being based on the classic 'Crampton' design and manufactured at the Soho Works of 'Robinson Thomas and Company' at Ballarat. The "No 2" locomotive ["Makarewa"] was first used on a ballast train on the 5th September 1864 while the "No 3" ["Oreti"] locomotive was landed at the Invercargill wharf early the following month. Both were of a 2-2-0 design with 1,000 gallon tenders, 54" wheels, 150 psi boilers, two 10½ in cylinders, and outside Stephenson link motion.

A copy of an early photograph of the Invercargill Railway Station
with the overall wooden roof. The wooden rails are apparently for
the construction tramway for the yard development and are not
the rails for the actual "wooden railway". Circa 1864

An official opening of the "Great Northern Railway" took place in mid October 1864 but a furore developed as only management and their official guests could take part in the festivities. Towns people gathered to "heartily groan and boo" as the train left the station. So they organised their own "do"! Suitably chastened and contrite, the Council organised a 'public' "Railway Opening Celebration Day" for the following week on Tuesday, the 25th October 1864.

The account of the Fatal Death of Alfred Gasket, 1864

But an unfortunate accident occurred the day before the opening when Alfred Gasket [later recorded as "Glascott"], a 17 year old railway employee, "slipped between the engine and the tender" of the slow moving train and with his head resting on one of the rails was hit with one of the guide wheel axles and instantly killed. His "carelessness of manner" in standing on the tender was a contributing factor. This did not bode well, also being New Zealand's first recorded railway fatality.

The Crampton No 2 "Makarewa" would have been the locomotive used on opening day, the train waiting at the station that morning comprising of the engine, two closed carriages and seven open trucks fitted with seats. Two return trips were made to Makarewa, carrying upwards of 1,000 people [one source says three trips were made "carrying fully 2,000 people"] including local school children. A picnic with food, sports and fun for all, together with a brass band, would make for an enjoyable day out.

But for the last trip back to Invercargill difficulties arose. After a heavy shower of rain and with clay being trampled onto the wooden rails, the locomotive - and lacking a supply of sand for gripping the rails - could not get traction when faced with a 1 in 90 gradient. An added problem was that the locomotive developed leaky tubes "which almost extinguished the fire". The excursionists were either forced to walk home on muddy roads, 'camping out' at Makarewa, or return with a portion of the train which finally managed to reach Invercargill at 11.30pm.

The opening Day occasioned a General Holiday and a
"Triumphal Arch" over Esk Street. The National Library
of New Zealand holds a collection of early Ross
photographs but have confirmed to me that they
unfortunately do not hold these particular images.

Regular trains were not run for some months, hindered primarily by the lack of finance. Nor was there money to extend the line. The Southland Provincial Council had appealed to the General Government but their plea fell on deaf ears, they had already gained a reputation for "extravagance", being regarded as "the 'naughty boy' of the provincial family". By the end of 1864 the Provincial Council had become critical of  their Superintendent, Dr. Menzies, who was then forced to resign his position although he remained on the Council. Menzie's far-sighted schemes had left the province owing £400,000 on public works but furthermore, gold output had declined, men were leaving the southern provinces, and the whole country was in recession.

In April 1865, and due to the very poor state of the north road, the Government borrowed the "Lady Barkly" [having been used as a ballast engine on the Bluff line] from its owners and re-commissioned the line to Makarewa to run the mails and to haul a very limited amount of goods. The Cromptons had of course proven too heavy for the line so could not be used. But the small "Lady Barkly" soon proved to have insufficient power for the task expected of it and was barely capable of hauling even ten tons. Additionally, because she had never been intended to work on the Great Northern Railway, she was not of the correct gauge and thus damaged the wooden rails. Her wheels projected about two inches from the outer edge of the wooden rails and she could not continue to run without excessive wear to the rails.

The contractor, Mr Davies, then offered to fit up a more powerful portable locomotive. "Puffing Billy", as she would be known, proved capable of hauling twice the load of the "Lady Barkly". A knowledgeable reader from Southland believes that Davies used one of the tenders from a Crampton as a basis for the new locomotive and this explains why one Crampton was later sold without its tender.

To confuse matters, railway writer Charles Rous-Marten, who travelled on the line at this time, states that it was Mr William Conyers (a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers), and Manager of the Locomotive Dept. of the Southland Railways who conceived the idea of converting a stationary sawmill engine into a coupled locomotive "in the hope of tiding over the difficulty until more suitable engines and permanent way could be provided." Rous-Marten regretted that he held "no photograph of this ingenious but amazing nondescript". He does however give a full description "of her astonishing appearance" which he added, "probably stands alone in locomotive history". So, one can assume that Conyers (a competent and knowledgeable engineer in his own right) came up with the idea and that Davies must have fitted it up, using a Crompton tender for the same purpose.

But the service proved "slow, intermittent, and unsatisfactory". Capable of up to 20 miles per hour, the "locomotive" only came off the rails once, the sole damage being a smashed basketful of eggs which a farmer's wife was taking to market. "Puffing Billy" ran for a short time until October 1865 when it is reported that its "crank-shaft broke" necessitating repairs. Mechanical troubles were only repaired with difficulty, as the workmen who had built the engine had left the province, and "her mysterious structure baffled other engineers".

In May, 1866, "The Southland News" reported: “The line in its present state is an absolute nuisance and instead of being a convenience to the public is the reverse. At uncertain intervals there is a breakdown; perpetually the wooden rails have to be lifted and turned to present a fresh surface to the action of the engine.

Fares were initially high, being 2s 6d a single and 5s 0d return with a charge of £2 each way for the hire of a truck. With grades of 1 in 79 to 1 in 90, the great railway writer Charles Rous-Marten recalled on one occasion being "politely requested", along with the other passengers, to leave the carriage "and help to push the carriages and engine to the summit of the bank" due to the lack of adhesion. This they did "with colonial cheerfulness" but "on resuming our seats the guard promptly collected 2s. 6d. apiece from us as our fares!". The inevitable protests as to high fares led to a reduction in fares to 1s 6d single and 2s 6d return with freight now at 10s 0d per ton (1s 3d per mile) but this naturally reduced income.

On the 2nd December 1866 cinders set the wooden rails alight. It was at this point that the locomotive was again reported to be out of action, this time for several weeks. The railway engineer now 
reported that owing to the defects of the track, traffic could only be continued at an ever increasing cost. 

"The decay and warping of the rails necessitated constant turning, so that in many cases all four surfaces were soon worn out. An average of twenty rails per week had to be replaced completely. Little hope was held out of being able to keep the line open through the winter without an entire relaying of the track. There was a constant loss on working. From April, 1865, to November, 1866, the expenditure was £3,730, while the revenue amounted to only £1,432."

Tenders invited for the purchase of one of the
'Crampton" locomotives, 14th February 1867

While proud of their new railway, the locals recognised its limitations. When Mrs Steel of West Plains, some 5 to 6 miles out of town, was one day walking to Invercargill, well laden with produce for the market, she was obliged to wait a few minutes at a railway crossing while the train passed. The friendly engine driver called to her "Wull ye tak' a lift?" She responded politely "and with no intention of humour", "No' the day, I thank ye!, i'm just wanting to mak' a wee bit of haste the day!". So on she trudged and had sold her butter and eggs at the market and was enjoying a cup of tea by the time the train finally trundled into Invercargill.

She thought no more of it as everyone knew the train was slow. But her "fame" spread to a "Home" paper back in Scotland where a few verses entitled "The Lady Who Raced the Train" appeared [the full poem appears below]. This story would perhaps be considered apocryphal but for the testimony of the Rev. James H. MacKenzie, Minister of Wallacetown Parish 1881-1889, who sought out Mrs Steele. He proudly wrote to his relatives in Scotland, "I have done something I thought long ago I would like to do. I have met in the flesh the lady who raced the train, and I have shaken her by the hand!"

"Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand" also relates an unverified story of how slow the train was. One day it caught up with a local woman herding a cow along the track. ‘Get off the line!’ the driver shouted. Sidestepping the engine she shouted back, ‘Man, ye’re in an awfu’ hurry this mornin!’

In Disgrace - "Crampton" locomotive "Makarewa"[?] being
pulled by a bullock team to Mr Fraser's Steam Saw Mills in
July 1867 to be used on a bush tramway. 

While the formation for the line further north to Winton had been completed there were not the funds available to physically extend the line. Thus all further railway extension work had ceased, a bitter blow for settlements further north. Probably in desperation, the Southland Provincial Council signed a new contract which included converting the unsucessful wooden railway to iron and extending it north, being secured on 60,000 acres of Crown land. Unfortunately the state of the wooden rails meant that they could not be used as longitudinal sleepers which would have been a cost saving.

In 1867, Mr Davies, the original Railway Contractor and promoter of the 'Wooden Railway', received compensation of £32,500 from the Government for the great expense he had incurred on "bringing over an extensive plant, and owing to the works having been suddenly stopped..."

By the end of 1869 the new "Iron Railway" had reached Makarewa and then Winton finally on the 22nd September 1870. Some revenue could now be derived from the heavy expenditure which had been expended on the line. But by now the lucrative goldfields traffic was only a memory, and Southland had agreed to surrender her independence as a separate province.

Dr J.A.R. Menzies,
Founder & Superintendent of
 Southland Province   

But the achievement of finally having iron rails laid was bitter-sweet for by October 1870 the 'Southland Provincial Council' had succumbed to its crippling debt of [now] £450,000 and ceased to exist. The chastened 'naughty boy of the provincial family' had been forced to re-unite with its big brother, the 'Province of Otago'. That was not to be the end of Southland's railway woes but the "temporary wooden railway" ultimately proved to be its undoing. Led by their ambitious Superintendent Menzies, it became a victim of economic realities, bad business decisions - and very bad luck. Menzies is still well thought of in the south but was perhaps a man before his time, "He was at his best when advocating a cause [but] less successful in the detailed work of administration. Menzies saw what was needed in the south and in different circumstances his courage might have met with the success it deserved."

The replica of the "Lady Barclay" on
Stead Street Wharf, Invercargill

What remains of this Railway today?

The railway formation north to Makarewa, now at the standard New Zealand narrow gauge of 3ft 6in, still carries freight trains through the rich Southland countryside to and from the Ohai coalfields. This branch line received a major refurbishment in 2012 so would appear secure for now. The 1870 branch line from Makarewa [Junction] north to Winton and Lumsden closed on the 13th December 1982.

A replica of the Hunt and Opie 2-2-0 "Lady Barclay" of 1861 now sits on the Invercargill Stead Street Wharf.

An example of the original wooden rail is held by the Southland Museum in Invercargill, having been milled to the required size but never used so had been incorporated into a local farm building from whence it was retrieved.

The builders of the original 1864 Invercargill Railway Station could not have imagined that it would last until 1978, then the oldest in New Zealand and apparently by then "totally decayed". During demolition it was noted that a vast number of nails had been used. Ironically, the New Invercargill Railway Station, built at a cost of $1.7 million in 1978, no longer handles passenger rail traffic. I rather preferred the historic and rather more 'atmospheric' old station.

The "Lady Barkly" adapted for use by "Massey & Co"
Sawmillers at Woodend, Southland circa 1886 

And What Became of the Locomotives?

"Lady Barkly" - the First Locomotive to Run in New Zealand :

The "Lady Barkly" appears to have quickly been converted to drive a sawmill but still capable of running on rails as the image above shows. Originally built at the "Irish" broad  gauge of 5'3", she was converted to the standard gauge of 4ft 8½ inch for the Southland "Wooden Railway", then finally converted to the narrow 3'6" gauge.

Around 1874 it appears to have been in use by a sawmill north of Winton, employed cutting sleepers for the Winton to Kingston line. This area became known as "Lady Barkly". There are also reports of it being used by "Massey & Co," sawmillers at Woodend [noted round 1886] then by "Guthrie & Larnach", sawmillers at Clifton [this must be when it operated a mill in the late 1890's at the site of the present day Kew Hospital]. The above photo at least conclusively confirms its use at Woodend around 1886. An article in "The Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle" for the 26th July 1905 would appear to give a contemporary account of what finally became of the "Lady Barkly" :

That the boiler was "lying in a paddock in Makarewa" would suggest it was put to some final use here but we may never know. As to "the moving part" it is unfortunate the the flaxmill in question is not specifically identified, there being a number then operating in Southland. That the chassis and cylinders were still in use would suggest that the "Lady Barkly" was either reboilered or connected to a stationary boiler, not surprising considering the original "Hunt & Opie" locomotive boiler dated from 1861.

To further confuse matters, Mr John A Bennett of Tuatapere [died 2001 aged 91 years] advised "The Southland Times" in the early 1980's that the "Lady Barkly" supposedly finished its days carting timber for Raymond's Mill at Tuatapere. This information, which I was aware of even before this article hit the press, would now appear to be totally spurious. Mr Bennett claimed that at an auction of Raymond's Mill in 1925 his Father bought the "Lady Barkly", along with the mill engine but as the locomotive proved of little use, it was soon scrapped.

"The old loco carried a lot of copper and brass fittings and ornaments, and these were at that time valuable scrap, so along with the cast iron cylinders, they were sold to an Invercargill foundry in exchange for a turnip ridger worth £28. The chassis and wheels of the Lady Barkly lay around our farm for many years and were eventually used by my brother as the foundation of a stock bridge over a small stream to an island in the Waiau [River] near the Tuatapere Domain. This chassis with the four wheels and axles attached is still in the same place but is no longer used for its original purpose and could be easily retrieved by the use of a bulldozer."  

A very helpful reader who uncovered the above 1905 article has also advised me that Gerald Petrie in his publication "NZ Steam Locomotives by Official Number", being a research manual for privately owned locomotives in New Zealand, records that the above-mentioned locomotive owned by I W Raymond's sawmill was in fact made by Henry Hughes & Company in 1878. Prior to being owned by Raymond's Sawmill it had been used on the Dunedin tramway system. Petrie also notes that it was last inspected in 1928, the owner then being Thomas Bennett of Tuatapere. Being date specific, this information must have been gleaned from original records relating to official boiler inspections. I am also strongly assuming that Petrie is referring to a mobile locomotive rather than the static "mill engine" which Bennett's also purchased at the Raymond's Mill auction. But even so, the 1878 locomotive would still be of some interest so is not without it's own historic value.

Update Mar 2015 - A very knowledgeable reader from Southland has advised me that the Tuatapere locomotive dumped in the Waiau River was in fact a "Barclay" locomotive [Andrew Barclay & Sons of Kilmarnock, Scotland]. If this is indeed correct the manufacturers name may have caused Mr Bennett's confusion. So some further research is required here.

The above information concerning the Tuatapere locomotive is included in this article as Mr Bennett's testimony was widely believed to be correct until, as per the above research, totally disproven in recent years. This was not helped by the above mentioned article in the "Southland Times" which also promoted the Tuatapere locomotive as being the actual "Lady Barclay" and efforts were hopefully going to be made to retrieve it as a basis for display purposes. Research, as above, has however now totally disproven this spurious story. This locomotive, or at least what is left of it, is still of some interest.

Any further information or period references relating to the last years of the real "Lady Barkly" would be appreciated. I can be contacted via the Email link in the right-hand menu bar.

"Makarewa" :

The "Crampton" No 2 engine "Makarewa" was sold in 1867 to Mr W. Fraser's sawmill at Makarewa (?) to operate on a bush tramway, converted to a stationery boiler from 1903 operating untill 1917. Presumably scrapped after this date.

"Oreti" :

The "Crampton" No 3 engine "Oreti" was sold in 1869 to "Hare & Pratt's" Mill in Dee Street, Invercargill then in 1873 to "Sykes & Tulloch's" mill at Makarewa, thence to John Murdoch then the "New Zealand Pine Company" at Woodend in 1892. The boiler was condemned in 1908. Presumably scrapped after this date.

Finally, here is the short poem which appeared in a Scottish newspaper :

"The Lady Who Raced the Train"

"Na na," she cried in quite a flurry,
"I'd rather walk, I'm in a hurry.
"So puff awa' in a' your glory,
"I'll be in town an hour afore ye!"

Bibliography : 

[Other than "Papers Past" and "The New Zealand Railway Magazine", all reference sources are from my own collection] 

"Southland's Pioneer Railways", by J.O.P. Watt, 1965
- "The Flame Unquenched", by Georgina McDonald, 1956 
- "Footplate - The Victorian Engineman's New Zealand", by Gordon Troup, 1978
- "Papers Past" - National Library of New Zealand
- "The New Zealand Railways Magazine", Dec 1938 - NZ Electronic Text Collection
- "The Southland Times" newspaper
- "When Steam Was King", by W.W. Stewart, 1970
- "Historical Southland", by F.G. Hall-Jones, 1945 
- "Centenary of Invercargill Municipality 1871-1971"

And with grateful thanks to those who have contributed additional information to this Blog (updated August 2017)


  1. Russell Beck, Invercargill12 March 2015 at 11:52

    I enjoyed the article. My understanding is that the Lady Barkly engine was never intended to operate on the Great Northern Railway. It was a ballast engine for the Invercargill-Bluff line. The Cramptons proved too heavy and Davies used the Lady Barkly and the Puffing Billy which he built probably using the tender of a Crampton as a basis, hence the Crampton was sold without the tender. The Tuatapere engine in the creek was a Barclay engine, not the Lady Barkly.

    1. Thank you Russell, that was extremely interesting. I have made some amendments to my Blog and thank you for your contribution.

  2. Greetings, A most interesting story, well researched, and I would like to incorporate the basic facts in an historical novel I am writing based on the life of my great grandfather. He arrived in Invercargill at about that time, on a ship carrying 'railway parts' but from England, they must have been for the Bluff line. Do I have your permission? Perhaps we could meet as I am also a Dunedin resident. Regards, Dave Tucker

    1. Hi Dave, as i've only pulled together "the facts" from various primary and secondary sources myself there's no issue with incorporating such facts into your novel. If you were copying the whole thing word for word that would be a different matter. Good luck with your writing. Actually very interesting who reads these blogs and you're not the first to use parts of something i've written for a book or for inspiration. Hope I get invited to your book launch! With kind regards, Donald


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