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Railwayana Collectors' Network - Rhodesian/Zimbabwean loco relics

Loco Relics

by Ted Hamer

Since the late 1950s the interest in collecting locomotive artifacts has escalated, and various items of African origin are today increasingly popular, possibly because of the 1990s glut of 'steam safari' holidays. The NRZ Historical Committee verifies that the recent withdrawal of so many Zimbabwean steam engines has led to an unprecedented demand for 'relics'.

Over the years various steam locomotives were given names, sometimes officially, more often not. Botswanan or Zimbabwean diesels were never named, and despite representations neither were the NRZ electrics. Official naming of locomotives was seldom practised and so it was something of a novel move in 1978 when RR decided to name the refurbished Garratts of the 15th/15A and 20th/20A classes. The nameplates are of polished bronze, six inches high with rounded ends, and carry the trirail symbol at each end. Originally polished against a red background, in common with cabside and bufferbeam numberplates these handsome plates were in recent years defaced - the glint and polish was abandoned in favour of easy and expedient yellow painted lettering against a gloomy black background.

In the early 1980s the NRZ workshops cast several replica nameplates, notably Tuli and the inevitable Jumbo. These can be detected because the bolt holes are midline whereas on a 'genuine' plate they are drilled slightly higher. Longer plates have three bolt holes, and Umtshwayeli is one such. Preserved 15th No 394 Umzwazwa has a new plate to replace one riddled by bullets during a 1980s fracas on the Beira line and there have without a doubt been other replacements following accident damage.

Cabside numberplates are of oval pattern, approximately 13in high by 19in wide. Early examples are of cast brass and tend to be sought after because they retain the original company names. 'Mashonaland Railway' plates seem to be more common than 'Rhodesia Railways', but are none the less attractive.

Certain of the 7th and 8th Class 4-8-0s bore small oval brass 'KB' plates above the cabside numberplate proper. The initials stood for 'Kalomo-Broken Hill', indicating the engine had been purchased through finance allocated to this particular section; such plates are very rare indeed.

With the arrival of the 12th Class 4-8-2s in 1926, cabside plates, though still of brass, lost much of their appeal because they now simply carried a bland locomotive number. A pleasant exception noted as late as 1978 was 12th Class No 247 which bore a diminutive '12' below the number, but this was clearly a local addition by some houseproud engineman. When the Garratts began to arrive on the scene in large numbers, particularly the 15th/15A Class, it became the norm for the locomotive class to be indicated on the cabside numberplate. Most of the original cab plates were removed when the locomotives went in for refurbishment at RESCCO/ZECO. The only post-1980 cabside plates not of aluminium, yet bearing the full NRZ legend are the bronze examples especially cast in Bulawayo workshops for preserved 14th Class No 500.

In the late 1970s 14A Class No 520 is said to have briefly borne a pair of aluminium cabside plates bearing the initials ZRR, appropriate to the short-lived Zimbabwe Rhodesia Railways, and one of these interesting castings may be seen at the NRZ Museum.

During the early 1980s steam locomotive plates tended to have a polished finish, usually against a red background. After a while the general decline in cleanliness prompted a move to paint the lettering yellow against a black background. Whilst this move certainly made it easier to identify a grubby locomotive it did little for aesthetics, and collectors who prefer to leave such items in 'ex-loco condition' would do well to examine photographs of those newly refurbished engines with their plates still in pristine condition.

Brass or aluminium cabside plates affixed to Rhodesian diesels usually bore the locomotive class identity and the initials 'RR'. Of similar size and dimension to steam engine plates, most were replaced in due course with the standard aluminium NRZ pattern.

In times past steam locomotives usually had their numbers painted fore and aft, but some time during World War II it became standard the to affix brass bufferbeam plates, one with the word 'No' and the other the actual engine number. The numerals were polished metal against a black background. In the 1980s these plates inevitably fell victim to the ubiquitous yellow paintpot, covering the by now rather grimy brasswork. Subsequently a few colour variations appeared, including white-painted letters on a blue or green background, with cabside plates to match. A few replacement plates cast in the 1980s were made of bronze rather than brass.

As far as diesel locomotives were concerned, in the mid-1970s the practice arose to replace the rather attractive stencilled numbers at each end of a unit with rectangular cast aluminium numberplates. The locally-built DE.5s (and the imported prototype No 1500) also carried a steel trirail emblem just above each of these plates; the trirail is believed to have been adopted as the RR symbol in May 1969 concurrent with the change in format of the Rhodesia Railways Magazine.

Small but very collectable brass plates, oval with raised lettering, adorned the tenders of most non-articulated steam locomotives. The number originally coincided with that of the locomotive, but such became the frequency of tender-swapping that it was the exception rather than the rule for an engine to be mated with its original tender. Preserved 19th Class No 330, for example, is today attached to the rebuilt tender from No 336 "Silent Susie". The Henschel-built 19th Class carried two tender works plates, identical to those on the cabside, and occasional aberrations turned up with one worksplate showing a different serial number to its partner. The tender plates of No 323 were an example. The five 9th Class built by Beyer Peacock in 1915 had few detail differences from their North British stablemates, but one obvious variation was the provision of a brass tender worksplate. Unfortunately for the purists the plates only showed the year of manufacture and not the locomotive number.

On bunker or tender sides, more recent locomotives carried a pair of cast initials 'RR', those on the 19th Class being larger and slightly curved to accommodate the Vanderbilt tender profile. (In the early 1940s a few locomotives carried brass 'RRM' lettering, but this soon gave way to the basic 'RR' pattern.) In similar vein certain of the diesels carried cast aluminium 'RR' lettering. Understandably most of these items were removed from 1980 onwards, and subsequently various diesels began to be adorned with large and rather garish black-painted 'NRZ' lettering.

Many of the older and in consequence more interesting works plates tended to end their days in the foundry melting pot when the locomotives were scrapped, this being before the days of widespread artifact collecting. In a most extraordinary attempt to make money out of the increasing interest, it was a misguided move during the mid-1970s when Rhodesia Railways sanctioned the removal of works plates from all steam locomotives and offered them for sale to railway enthusiasts. Worse still was the act of vandalism carried out at the RR Museum to 'weather' various of the plates by sandblasting - a process which of course all but wrecked the lettering. Each Beyer Garratt carried two worksplates which meant that well over two hundred such items were prematurely removed and disposed of. From plate to plate there was a fair degree of textual variation depending on year of manufacture, locomotive type, and builder. Greatly prized were the much larger and considerably more splendid examples recovered from the earlier types of Garratt. It should be mentioned that several replicas were cast in the 1970s, many being duplicates of those affixed to various locomotives preserved in the RR/NRZ Museum - and indeed, certain of the museum locomotives carry replica plates, the originals either having been sold or simply 'gone'.

From 1945 all RR steam locomotives began to be fitted with three-note, step-top (usually) chime whistles. Prior to this most carried one or two single-note whistles, the reason for the change purportedly to give a louder warning to animals on the track. The new whistles were very similar (but not identical) to the South African pattern. Diesels have various styles of hooter, presumably collectable because a few years ago someone was caught trying to steal one from the preserved DE.2 No 1200 in the NRZ Museum!

One distinctive characteristic of many steam engines from 1910 onwards was that either side of the smokebox they bore a brass monogram with the ornate interwoven initials 'RR', 'MR', or 'BRT', the latter identifying the 'Beit Railway Trust' (or perhaps 'Trustees') which financed the purchase of that particular locomotive. All surviving monograms were removed in the mid-1970s and early 1980s and either sold or presented to interested parties. In yet another effort to boost Museum finances a number of replica monograms were cast - these are often distinguishable by being of bronze rather than brass and sometimes lacking the curved profile to fit the smokebox.

From observation as well as study of old photogaphs, it seems likely that monograms were affixed to all newly-built locomotives as follows:

  • BRT: second batch of 8th Class; 9th Class; 9A Class; first three batches of 10th Class; 11th Class; first (and second?) batch of 12th Class; 13th Class.
  • MR: some of the 12th Class, possibly second and certainly third batch.
  • RR: last batch of 10th Class; 11A Class; last batch of 12th Class; 19th Class; all Beyer Garratts except 13th, 17th, and 18th Classes.

In addition, reference to the finance behind the purchase of locomotives was indicated by small rectangular plates, although it is by no means clear where they were attached. Two patterns have been traced, one being 5 1/4in x 1 1/2in with the inscription 'Beit Railway Trustees' and the other 3 1/2in x 1 1/2in with lettering 'RR Trust'. The corners of the plates were scalloped, and in each case the finish was 'brass, bright finish'. The writer is indebted to John Williams not only for painstakingly unearthing data on these plates, but for providing proof that the smokebox side roundels were officially known as 'monograms'.

Less usual bits and pieces survive, but not always in the hands of steam enthusiasts. In recent years gauge glass protectors began to disappear because someone discovered that they make very good windshields for lighted candles...

©Ted Hamer 1999 .