Endangered Archives

EAP626: Tracking the past - the preservation of the railway archives of Sierra Leone

Mrs Helen Ashby, National Railway Museum
2013 award - Major project
£15,266 for 10 months

Archival partner: National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone

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Project Overview

Work will be carried out to safeguard the surviving archival record of the Sierra Leone Railway. The Sierra Leone Government Railway was built in 1893 and changed the nature of society, enabling the transport of passengers and goods between the interior and the Freetown Colony and port. At independence in 1961 the railway was well equipped and was a significant employer until its closure in 1975. 1991–2002 was a period of bloody civil war in Sierra Leone and much of the infrastructure and academic memory was lost - the vital significance of the railway in developing the country faded from national memory. This material is representative of the history and development of the country and is of outstanding significance to the rebuilding of the country’s social and cultural foundations.

In 2005, shortly after the end of ten years of bloody civil war, the Sierra Leone government opened its National Railway Museum in Cline Town, a suburb of the capital Freetown, based around a collection of British built locomotives, carriages and wagons which had survived in the former railway workshops.

A number of documents and images have been found since the opening of the museum, and a significant amount of archival material was found inside some of the vehicles at the time when the museum was developed. The material consists of documents, tickets, photographs, postcards, stamps, files, notebooks, wagon labels and operating manuals.

This material is currently dispersed amongst the staff of the National Museum in Freetown City Centre, the archivist at the University of Sierra Leone, and the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone, where material is piled in the corner of a showcase. The papers, particularly those in the two national museums, are not properly stored and there is no proper provision for their care or access. They are currently kept in heaps in unsuitably hot and humid conditions and are vulnerable to damage from movement, light exposure and dust. They are un-catalogued, with the exception of a small number of tickets and wagon labels, so inaccessible to visitors or researchers, and vulnerable to loss or theft.

There are few people left in the country who remember the railway in operation and therefore it is essential that the archives are located, preserved and catalogued as quickly as possible whilst there are people who can explain the meaning of unidentified items and give the material context. The development of a railway archive will give meaning to the rolling stock collection and will help the Nation to re-discover and understand a large part of its history.

The National Railway Museum in York has worked in partnership with the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum since its opening in 2005 in the presence of President Kabbah and Andrew Scott, then Director of the UK NRM. To date support has been practical: curatorial support; the provision of information held in the UK in the Crown Agents Archive and the local archives of the Leeds-based railway manufacturing industry; and the recovery in the UK of a small number of documents and photographs, which are currently held for safe keeping at the National Railway Museum, York. As the archives are not catalogued or accessible, further historical research, and development of interpretation at the Sierra Leone museum is severely limited.

This project will encompass the development of an archives store in a secure area of the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone and convert the current open ‘office’ area of the main museum hall into a reading and research room. Archive and image collections scattered across Freetown and elsewhere will be gathered together, condition checked, and catalogued. Digital copies will be made of all material and the originals will be placed in archival quality packaging in the new archives store. Training in digitisation and cataloguing will be provided to enable the work to continue into the future as new material is discovered.

Project Outcome

The project team was able to digitise material from both the National Railway Museum and the National Archives of Sierra Leone. Across both sites the team digitised a total of 3543 individual images with the majority from the National Archives. Although there was less material than originally anticipated at the National Railway Museum, the significance far outweighs the quantity, for this is the only material surviving in Sierra Leone that was generated by the railway itself. Discussions with former employees had revealed that the railways’ entire archive was burned in the 1970s following the closure of the network. The majority of the material dates from the 1960s and 1970s, right at the end of the railway’s life. There are gate pass books, requisition slips for oil and two tally cards for drivers withdrawing oil, items which might be considered insignificant in a UK business archive, but these are the only source for names of railway drivers at this period and thus actually take on a greater significance in the context of the railway museum. There are also tickets, an instruction manual for the railway’s telegraphy system from 1946, and a few other forms, which show how the railway operated.

The material at the National Archives consisted of a series of files opened by the Colonial Secretary’s Office in 1929, and a small series of 19th century photographs. The 1929 files are particularly significant, as they suggest that a review of the railway was carried out, with renewal of track, attention paid to accommodation, some questions of pay and grading settled, and most significantly some services replaced by road bus, including the so-called ‘Mountain Railway’ which ran from Cotton Tree up to Hill Station. These experiments with bus services foreshadowed the closure of the network in the 1970s and its replacement by road transport. These files are rich with potential for further research – was what was happening to Sierra Leone’s railway in 1929 part of a wider colonial review, did it serve as a model for other colonial railways, was it a trial that was not applied elsewhere, or a mix of all of these? The technical aspects of the Sierra Leone Railway have been written about, particularly in Sierra Leone Narrow Gauge, but the administrative, political and economic aspects have barely been studied. Prof. Joe Alie makes some general points about the railway in A New History of Sierra Leone, but further study is needed and these files can form the basis of that study. It may be that the seeds of the independent government’s controversial closure of the network in 1974 were inadvertently sown by the colonial administration in the late 1920s.

The files also have significance for other heritage projects in Sierra Leone. There are some files relating to carriages, and the recent study of the vehicles in the National Railway Museum by 'Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum' (FoSLNRM) member William Bickers-Jones has revealed that the history of the carriages there is much more complex than first thought, with more work and component-swapping having taken place in-country than was first thought. These files will potentially clear up some of the mysteries around the unique Sierra Leone railway collection, allowing for more accurate interpretation and the proper telling of the in-country works.

There are also several files that relate to railway buildings and accommodation for staff, at Hill Station, Bo, Makeni and other locations. FoSLNRM is working with the Sierra Leone Commission for Historical Monuments on scoping an archaeological study of the former railway line and its attendant buildings, to better understand and preserve the remaining physical heritage. These files potentially contain significant information as to the extent of the railway estate in the late 1920s

The project was also able to carry out archival, preservation and conservation training for local members of staff. Assistance was also given in the preparation and enhancement of learning materials for visiting schoolchildren.

Further information about the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum is availble at their website.