Monday, 2 February 2015


It's been so long since the last update that no-one would blame the hundreds of thousands (yes, really!) who've been reading this blog for thinking that we've given up. Far from it, but we were asked to not to publicise the important development that forms much of this content. This update revolves around patience and we thank you for your patience with us. This might prove to be one of the most important updates we've given, for whilst it doesn't say that we're opening a railway, a very considerable amount of previously unmentioned work has been done towards building one. All can now be revealed, so do read on...

We admit it, we need more money, and the next few months will see strenuous efforts to raise it. Just over a year ago we submitted an application to the UK's Heritage Lottery Fund which is how the restoration of many British locomotives is financed. Whilst our application was deemed to be an excellent example of its kind we couldn't meet some of the conditions that the Lottery laid down and nor could we today. Despite that disappointment we've completed, in terms of time, about 70%, perhaps 75%, of the work to restore this historic locomotive to as-new condition. About GBP50,000 is now required to conduct the work that we can't do ourselves. Such things as boiler repairs and replacement water tanks come to mind. Now we could reduce our specifications and get this work done cheaply. Yet typically, a quick job on her boiler would get her running again for a while, but a quality job could see the boiler's life extended by as much as 40 years. We've chosen to be patient and take the quality, long-term option. WOOLWICH is too important a machine to be the subject of second-rate work.

Some tasks, mainly painting, have been done in the past year and as the photographs show the entire loco is now in an excellent state of conservation. Our visitors aren't generally railway experts and most never realise they're looking at a steam locomotive, let alone the very last of the Royal Arsenal's many dozens of narrow gauge machines. Our late July open day saw a wider realisation though thanks to a Gentleman who brought along his wonderful models of WOOLWICH and ARQUEBUS, one of the Arsenal's earlier locomotives. As far as any of us are aware these are the first scale models of Arsenal 18 inch gauge machines ever made. They sat on the real thing's mainframes and were a joy to behold. It's hoped that these models will return to Crossness in 2015 - in steam!

So, not a great deal to say about 'Woolwich' but even if she was in working order she'd need a railway to run on and...

Our site is located the width of a fence from The Royal Arsenal within one of the largest sewage treatment works in the World. Crossness Sewage Treatment Works purifies almost all of South London's liquid effluent at the rate of some 14 tons per second. It's not possible to allow general public access through such a strategic and vital plant and thus the very limited number of open days we can have. For some years Thames Water and the Crossness Engines Trust have been striving to find a method of allowing the life-blood of paying visitors into the preserved pumping station on a more frequent basis. Railways hold the key. (Of course!)

The first parts of the Sewage Works were constructed between 1860 and 1865 and to build them the contractors, Lucas & Aird, built a two and a half mile long standard gauge railway across the marshes from Plumstead. Remarkably the course of their railway remains all but unimpeded today. That line would come to delineate the Southern boundary of The Royal Arsenal as the great military factory extended Eastwards from the mid 1890s reaching Crossness in 1903.

In late 2011 Thames Water and the Crossness Engines Trust entered discussions about using that former railway's course as an independent access route to the magnificent 1860s pumping station. A substantial, surfaced, footpath is now complete and it is designed to allow construction of a narrow gauge railway alongside. Whether that will happen depends on Thames Water's permission. Detailed proposals are being drawn-up at the time of writing and should the go-ahead be given an application for planning permission will be made. As there are no properties within sight of the proposed line, yet alone close-by, objections are considered unlikely.

This modest line of 700 yards wouldn't open rapidly, probably no earlier than 2016. Thanks to some splendid donations of Permanent Way materials we have an additional incentive. A large amount of superb 80lb per yard rail has been delivered and there's more to follow, hopefully enough to complete the line.

Speaking of rail, the large number of photographs accompanying this update include the remarkable discovery of a surviving section of the RAR. All was thought to be lost so a thrilling time was had surveying it. Some came away with prizes for doing so, pocketfuls of genuine RAR loco coal!

The image above of WOOLWICH, the Powder Wagon that's been preserved, and the cranes of the Arsenal's Cross Ness explosives handling pier depict what would have been seen at this time of year in the late 1930s.

Please do look at the photos that come with this update, their captions add a great deal of important detail and are best read in order. The first are of WOOLWICH and the lovely models that came to see her. After that there are maps, plans, and photos, concerning the hoped-for new railway and a picture really does speak a thousand words here. Finally there are some intriguing glimpses of those remnants of the RAR that haven't seen a train in half a Century. DO HAVE A LOOK!
Album 1: Woolwich, Large and Small
Album 2: A New Line for Woolwich?
Album 3: Look What We Found - Original Track!

Friday, 2 August 2013

THE POWDER WAGON: A YouTube Sensation

Don't just read our words for it - see the action unfold as the powder wagon  arrives at Crossness!  

...And don't forget to take a look at the photo album, complete with captions.  Loco and wagon - reunited once again!

Thursday, 25 July 2013

NEWSFLASH: New Arrival at Crossness!

Welcome to a special update. A Century old, and very historic item of Royal Arsenal Railway rolling stock has arrived at Crossness!

The importance of the Royal Arsenal Railway cannot be understated. Until the First World War the security of the UK and the British Empire was totally dependent on the Arsenal, and the Arsenal was totally dependent on its railway system. Many of the magazines, to their last days in the 1960s, never had any road access, only rail. To transport munitions to those magazines the RAR developed a specialist wagon and eventually there would be just over 1,000 of them.

...Now, only one remains.

The Powder Wagons.
Perhaps remembering centuries of gunpowder usage these bogie vans were always known as 'Powder Wagons'. The basic design dated back to the beginning of the Arsenal's narrow gauge in the early 1870s. By 1898 a shallow bodied version five planks high was in widespread usage each carrying up to five tons. From that time the bodies were extended upwards to seven planks in height with an increase in capacity to seven tons. Some of the wagons were built in the Arsenal but most came from the outside manufacturers of Oldbury Railway Carriage and wagon Co. Ltd, Cravens Ltd, and Dick Kerr Ltd. The subject of this update is a late version having been built by Cravens in 1913. The lower five plank versions were also extensively used at the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills.

Withdrawal and preservation.
Arsenal railway operation ceased in 1971, one Powder Wagon being kept for possible preservation. By the mid 1980s it was becoming clear to the Arsenal's staff that closure was looming and that the Ministry of Defence had little intention of preserving anything from the site which had defended the Nation for four and a half Centuries. Concerned employees formed the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Historical Society (RAWHS) and set about ensuring the preservation of some two shipping container loads of artefacts and records, they also saved the last Powder Wagon.

In 1989 the wagon was sent for display at the former North Woolwich Old Station railway museum. Unfortunately, by the mid 2000s it had become apparent that this museum was likely to close. The Royal Arsenal site was by this time being re-developed by Berkeley Homes and their work had included provision of the new Greenwich Heritage Centre. The Heritage Centre contains many artefacts from the RAWHS collection and it was agreed that the Powder Wagon should be placed in the care of Greenwich Council and displayed outside the building.

Various proposals emerged for restoration including the building of a glass box around the old vehicle. Sadly no money could ever be found and the wagon began to deteriorate. By 2012 the condition of the wagon was causing concern and it was suggested that it move to Crossness pumping station where we're restoring 'Woolwich' the last RAR narrow gauge steam locomotive. Such a proposal would secure the Powder Wagon's long term future but required expenditure on transport, money which no one had.

A dramatic rescue.
Removal attained a now or never state of urgency during the bad winter of 2012/3 when many fixing bolts sheared through corrosion in the salty riverside air and the near continuous precipitation noticeably increased its toll on the woodwork. The day was saved by the good offices of Tamesis, the firm which is rebuilding Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. They very generously supplied specialist equipment and staff and were thus instrumental in saving the last of the 1,000 Powder Wagons.

Our thanks go to...
We'd like to thank Malcolm Farance for arranging the transport, Dave Evans for overseeing the loading, Paul Tomlin for conducting the loading and overseeing the offloading, and Ben Martin for operating the fork lift vehicle. We'd also like to thank Tracy Stringfellow of the Greenwich Heritage Centre for her understanding on the day, Berkeley Homes for allowing access at short notice and providing staff to keep an eye on events. Finally, our thanks to the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Historical Society for entrusting the welfare of their historic wagon to us, an appreciated vote of confidence.

Pictures speak a thousand words particularly when they are captioned, so please do look at the photographs!

As always, if you'd like to make sure of knowing about what we're doing just enter your e-mail address in the box to the upper right of this page. Also, if you'd like to see 'Woolwich' and the Powder Wagon, do come to one of our open days:

  • Sunday 28th July
  • Sunday 1st September
  • Sunday 13th October
You'd be most welcome!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

MAINFRAMES: An Ongoing Saga

You might have noticed that there weren't any updates to this blog in early 2013. Why? Because, as said in the last update, who want's to read a continuous story of paint removal? It certainly isn't very interesting, and that's putting it mildly...

Paint-scraping: Is there a faster way?
Woolwich's mainframes were coated with up to 14 layers of thickly applied red paint. Those lucky enough to be involved in locomotive restoration will know that this has to be removed so that the 'frames can be checked for defects. They'll also know that today's standard methods of stripping mainframes are shot blasting and needle gunning. In September 2012 a local firm indicated that they'd be prepared to shot blast the 'frames at no cost. As we operate on a shoestring that offer was irresistible and the mainframes were delivered to them. Five months later nothing had happened so we reluctantly concluded that we'd have to bring them back and do the job ourselves.

And if you want something done...
Whilst we have superb workshop facilities our supply of certain staples, such as compressed air and power tools, is limited. Also, most volunteers are only able to visit once per week. Consequently much of the stripping has been done by hand, a days work hasn't appeared to result in much progress, and it's been a slow job. It was disappointing if understandable to receive such comments as "You haven't got very far, have you" from visitors at mid-June's open day.

Was it faster?  No.  But we're almost there...
Thankfully we are now just two or three weeks from the end of the process [- you now have that in writing!] and in part two of this 'Saga of the Mainframes' you'll see them over 99.9% down to bare metal and painted. Painting is the turning point of the restoration. Until now 'Woolwich' has looked worse and worse as each week passed. She'll now start to look better and better.

When money and tools are in short supply every locomotive restoration goes through this difficult period of little apparent progress despite diligent work. Yet, thanks to being first, the UK has a well deserved reputation and tradition of producing the finest restorations in the world. That's thanks to patience, resilience, and resolution. We've taken the responsibility of restoring a particularly historic machine and realise that we'll be judged by the quality and qualities of those who went before us.

Don't take our word for it - check out the photos!
Please do look at the photographs, they and their captions tell so much more about this unique locomotive's journey back to steam, and the condition her makers splendid reputation depended on. The next update will be 'Mainframes Part Two' in less than four weeks but there's a chance that a new arrival might appear at Crossness before then. If so, there'll be a special update, so watch this space!

To make sure of knowing about what's happening here just enter your e-mail address in the box to the upper right of this page. Also, if you'd like to see 'Woolwich' in person, 2013 will see open days at Crossness on 28th July, 1st September and 13th October.  You are most welcome.

Meanwhile, do look at this instalment's photographs!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

THE BOILER: An Old 'Un but a Good 'Un

At last, an update in the annals of our restoration of 'Woolwich'. And why the delay? It's because we've all been busy on the very repetitive task of stripping every last granule of dirt, grease, paint, and rust off all the locomotive's components. Rather than fill this blog with endless descriptions of grinding and scraping we'll show the whole process in one major update next time. Amazingly that next update is almost complete!

Ah, the boiler!
Meanwhile, we must say something about one job we can't do, the boiler, and everything this time is devoted to just that. In 1954 the authorities decided that the Royal Arsenal Railway deserved some investment. The result was new diesel locomotives and a very thorough overhaul for a handful of steam locos, the others being disposed of. 'Woolwich' was the lucky narrow gauge candidate and her overhaul included the provision of the boiler she has carried ever since.

Her new boiler was made in the Arsenal and demonstrates superb workmanship. Perhaps the boiler makers knew it might be their final example for the last of the photographs that come with this update shows that the Arsenal was keen to record its pride in the job. Over the years corrosion has taken a minor toll but the boiler remains very sound and given some repairs still has decades of life before it.

Boiler repair is strictly governed and is a part of Woolwich's restoration that we couldn't contemplate doing ourselves. We will need financial assistance for this specialist work and with that in mind we called in an expert inspector to assess the boilers condition. Armed with his inspection report we now have a series of quotes and will seek funding in the very near future.

Photos, emails and open days
Pictures speak a thousand words, so rather than describe our preparations for the inspection here we have some juicy captions for you to read, so please do look at the photographs! 

If you'd like to make sure of knowing about what we're doing just enter your e-mail address in the box on the upper right of this page.  Also, if you'd like to see "Woolwich', come to one of our open days:

- Sunday 23rd June
- Sunday 28th July
- Sunday 1st September
- Sunday 13th October

You'd be most welcome!

Friday, 1 March 2013

Remember This, WOOLWICH?

This is Bicton Woodland Railway, where Woolwich took tourists for a ride after being retired from duty at the Royal Arsenal.  Read about Woolwich's varied career here and more about the railway itself here.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The disassembly continues: Bearings, Axles and Wheels.

Having removed the wheelsets from the frames, it's time to have a look at the state of the bearings, axles, and wheels.  Hold your breath!

The axleboxes are in two parts, both iron castings. The upper section holds the brass bearing and the lower, two fabric wipers that apply lubrication to the axle and retain any grit particles. Avonside had a simple and elegant method of securing the castings together: two steel pins (with a slight interference fit) pass through them and they are easily tapped out. 

We separated the axleboxes with some trepidation as we'd already found notable scoring on the valve gear's brass bearings, which means they will have to be re-made. We needn't have worried - both the axles and their bearings are in excellent condition and require very little work to bring them into first class condition. Unlike most British lines, The Royal Arsenal Railway had an abhorrence of whitemetal in bearings and none is present in 'Woolwich' although the 'slippers' on the sides of the axles boxes are whitemetal. These look good, but at the time of writing haven't been measured to ascertain whether replacement is required.

Whilst the bearing's condition is heartening, the rear right hand axlebox castings had a nasty surprise for us. We noticed that the securing pins were missing from one side yet the lower section was stuck fast in the upper. After much elbow grease it was discovered that the upper casting had been badly damaged, perhaps by dropping it during an overhaul. The missing metal had been replaced by stainless steel weld metal, built up to approximately the correct shape and then roughly filed down. The lower casting had then been forced into the other to give a very tight fit. This is probably the worst damage we've encountered and as you'll see, repairs are now underway.

Take a glance at our close-up photos of all the parts cleaned up.