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A talk by Mark Smithers.

The Royal Arsenal railways was unique amongst industrial railway systems in the British Isles. From humble beginnings in the 1820s as a horse-plateway, the system had grown sufficiently by the late 1850s to warrant a connection with the main South Eastern Railway. By 1871 it accepted its first indigenous locomotive, the highly influential 18 inch gauge Manning Wardle Lord Raglan, which was initially equipped with drawgear to suit both standard and 18 inch gauge rolling stock.

Until unification on New Year’s Day 1891, the dual-gauge railway system was under the control of three Arsenal departments – the Royal Gun Foundry; the Royal Carriage Department; and the Royal Laboratory. Shortly after unification it became a centre for training the Royal Engineers’ 10th Railway Company in the skills of railway operation, a function which it fulfilled until after the conclusion of the Second South African War.

During the latter part of the 19th century, important milestones in non-steam railway motive power appeared in the Arsenal. First came Col. F.E. Beaumont’s experiments with compressed air, which were pursued with thoughts directed towards the Channel Tunnel project of the period. This was followed a few years later by Richard Hornsby’s locomotives powered by Herbert Ackroyd-Stuart’s patent heavy oil engines which remained in use for over two decades.

The system experienced its finest hour during World War One, a time when the Arsenal’s river frontage extended to three miles, when over a million standard gauge wagons were exchanged with the South Eastern & Chatham Railway. By this time there were three gauges in use: standard, 2 ft., and 18 in. The standard gauge locomotive stock peaked at 56 in 1917, whilst the 18 in. gauge stock briefly totalled 64 units during the preceding year. Following the Armistice, the site’s vulnerability to hostile air attack prompted a steady rundown of the system during the 1920s, with a relatively modest revival during the Second World War, with most of the last remnants of the system being removed from the site by 1971. Today, only a small number of relics survive of this once mighty part of Britain’s industrial railway heritage.

Cubic Theatre. London Transport Museum, Covent Garden.

Monday 11 September 2017. 18.15 hours.

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