Our Amazing Story
This isn't your average railway museum story. But then this isn't your average railway museum.
After final official closure, the rails for the line were taken up and the stock amassed at the Freetown end for scrap. By 1975 the last trains had run.
Some of the old stock was stored in the old Railway Works at Clinetown near the docks in Freetown. Here, little Nellie the old works shunting engine, a couple of Hunslet steam engines, some of the Hudswell Clarke diesels, a Beyer Garratt locomotive and assorted carriages were left. The Welshpool & Llanfair Railway in Wales purchased four coaches and one of the Hunslet steam locos, leaving the rest in Freetown.
It is here that the remarkable story really begins. Due to the foresight of some of the last of the Sierra Leonean railwaymen, these locos and coaches were saved from the cutters' torches. They were shunted deep inside the works and the doors firmly locked. The works was intended to become the National Workshops, to train and develop skilled engineers, but alas, little came of the project and the stock slumbered on, with the rails outside lifted right up to those great welded-shut doors.
It wasn't just the big locomotives that were ensconced inside. Inspectors' coaches, a Pay Coach, the Governor's coach, a goods wagon, a Royal Coach intended for Queen Elizabeth's visit but which was never used and even a plucky little pump trolley were all stashed away from prying eyes and the scrapmen outside.
Independence from the UK was not an easy transition to make for Sierra Leone, and the 1980s were not peaceful times. It came to a head in 1992, when a bloody civil war broke out, the flames of unrest fanned by disquiet in neighbouring Liberia. Ten years of fighting followed: 50,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Seeking refuge from the war that raged up country, 10,000 desperate people made the former workshop complex their home. Here, the little trains of Sierra Leone stored deep within now had a new role to play in the survival of a country's people. These locos and carriages which once transported Sierra Leoneans across the plains and through the forests were now those people's homes.
Peace resumed in 2002, and the UK provided a peacekeeping force to assist in the immediate aftermath of hostilities. One of the army officers was Colonel Steve Davies, himself an ardent railway enthusiast. He'd heard about a legendary collection of railway engines lost somewhere in the industrial dockyard area of Freetown, but that nobody had sight of them for 25 years. They were thought to have never made it through the war. Armed with a dog-eared copy of a book about the railway, Steve found time between duties to find the old sheds. Looking through a broken window, he saw what was thought to have been lost to Sierra Leone many many years before - the entire historic collection of engines, thick in grime and muck, axle-deep in detritus left over from the commandeering of the sheds by refugees.
Nellie and her sister locomotives and coaches had been found, after a quarter of a century locked away.
Time was of the essence. Steve knew that once his discovery had been made public, and his interest registered, scrap dealers would likely move in immediately. A meeting was held between Steve and his Excellency President Kabbah. With the Sierra Leone economy in need of investment and one of the strategies for development being to reintroduce tourism to this stunning country, the Government quickly agreed to let Steve and his team take control of the workshops and the collection. The stock was recognised as a national asset of the people of Sierra Leone, and after a live-TV declaration of approval by President Kabbah, work began.
Steve and his regiment assisted some former railway workers and interested local people in clearing the vast workshop space and repairing the sagging, leaky roof. Soon, local craftsmen were employed in restoring the bodywork of some coaches and making good some of the damage caused by the refugees' occupation.
Over the next couple of years, stock was repainted and in some cases had cosmetic improvements made; the small band in Freetown learned new transferable skills and some of the practical aspects of conservation and reconstruction.
Steve had returned to the UK and became firstly the Director of Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry and later the UK's own National Railway Museum. Official support came when in 2005 the Museum was officially opened by President Kabbah.
Andrew Scott, then Director of the National Railway Museum in the UK attended the ceremony and was impressed with what he saw. He was able to secure funding from the UK’s Department for Culture Media & Sport Africa Project to enable three of the Sierra Leonian staff to visit the UK to train as museum professionals. They spent three weeks learning about collections care, documentation and interpretation as well as visiting a number of heritage railways to learn about the operation of steam and diesel locomotives in order to be able to interpret the locomotives in their care.
In 2010 Andrew Scott retired and Steve Davies took his place as Director of the UK NRM. He was aware of the huge interest that UK railway enthusiasts had in the SLNRM and founded an informal supporters group, with a small advisory board made up of those people who had already supported projects at the Museum in Cline Town.
Over the next few years, staff and volunteers from the UK National Railway Museum made several visits to Freetown to help with projects to develop the museum further. Projects included the repainting of the vehicles, an oral history project to record the memories of former railway workers and a visit to see the new mineral railway in the North of Sierra Leone to enable the expansion of the museum’s interpretation to cover all aspects of railway operation in the country. In 2013 the British Library approved a grant of £15,000 under the Endangered Archives project to enable the digitisation of documents and images charting the story of the railways in Sierra Leone that had survived the closure of the railway and the bloody civil war, which were unlikely to survive the humid climate in the long term. Additional funds raised by the Supporters’ Group and a kind donation from British businessman, Martin Ainscough, enabled this project to be expanded to include the construction of an archive store and an education centre in the Museum.
At the same time, President Koroma had announced his ‘Agenda for Prosperity’ which placed tourism at the heart of the economic redevelopment of the country and the new team at the head of the Ministry for Tourism & Culture renewed their interest in the National Railway Museum. The success of the Endangered Archives project and the recognition of the Ministry for the commitment of the UK National Railway Museum and the SLNRM Supporter’s Group raised the profile of the museum internationally. This inspired the team who had implemented the project to expand the Supporters’ Group into a more formal organisation, with charitable status, in order to increase the opportunities for support to a much broader audience and to engage people worldwide with this remarkable Museum. The Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum was created. We'd love you to join us, by the way!
Just when we thought everything was set to relaunch the museum, in 2013 the Ebola epidemic swept across west Africa. Not only were thousands of lives lost across the region, but hopes for a new tourist-based economy had to be put on hold. So, the team here in the UK worked with the Ministry of Tourism in Sierra Leone to hold fast and provide support where we could.
But now, Ebola has subsided, and our colleagues and friends in the Sierra Leone government have worked tirelessly alongside aid agencies and foreign governments to combat the disease, and there is light ahead.
What Sierra Leone now has are the assets with which to build a museum unlike any other.
A museum that will educate people who have never seen or heard a train. A museum that will provide jobs and skills transfer to people in Sierra Leone learning from a global community. A museum that will remind people of their nation's shared heritage; a railway that joined up people's lives from coast to mountain plain. A museum that will bring joy. A museum that will help kickstart investment to this, one of the poorest countries on Earth. Against all odds, the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum is an engine for growth, and the world now needs to stoke its fire.
To make this happen, we need YOU to join us on our incredible journey.