South Western Railway Co. Ltd - Newsletter No.37

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Millwood House Museum - Newsletter No.37, February 1991.

A graceful curve into the forest
A graceful curve into the forest.

The South Western Railway cont ...
On completion of the railway in 1907 the Swedish engineer or so-called builder of the whole operation, Mr. Carl Westfelt, was offered the position of Manager of Company. This he declined, and his work completed, was soon to leave Knysna to return to Europe after putting up for auction his household effects on 8 January, 1908. It was then that Mr. H. Noren became the General Manager (he was already Secretary to the Board of Directors and kept that position, as did his successor).

Unique passenger tickets
From the very beginning the railway tariffs were very low. Return fares for passengers to Brackenhill, Parkes station (at Veldtmanspad) and Templeman (to be later corrupted to 'Templeton') at Deep Walls were 2 shillings, 2 shillings and sixpence and three shillings and fourpence respectively, and as we saw in the last Newsletter, the goods rate was 4d per ton per mile. Passenger tickets were unique - no firm little pasteboard printed rectangles, but a paper receipt, the duplicate of a handwritten statement of name of passenger, starting point (name of station), destination, date, amount of fare and signature of issuer. This was written out twice, one copy for the passenger and the other (the counterfoil) remaining in the book. These counterfoils, what is more, were checked by the auditors (as it appeared in a report addressed to the General Manager, Cape Town by the System Manager, Port Elizabeth, S.A.R. & H., dated 10 March 1941). Ten tickets could not be traced! An amount of thirty-seven shillings and ninepence could not be accounted for. The collected tickets of the passengers, reported the auditor were not being daily matched up to counterfoils. What a treasure house of information to the researcher a bunch of those books of counterfoils would be to-day.

... in a hurry that day!
Passengers were wont to have very leisurely journeys on the 'Coffee Pot' line; the train rarely exceeded 6 miles an hour, particular beauty spots would be pointed out to the passengers by short blasts of the hooter, and on a lovely Spring day engine driver Tom Kennet, as everybody knew, would gladly stop the train for those who wished to pick flowers along the way. There were many prescribed stops on the way to take on 'water, to unhook empty trucks on sidings to be filled and hooked up again on the way home, and in fact, so leisurely was the pace that a favourite story goes that when the kindly Tom stopped the train one day to offer one of the regular heavily-burdened local washerwomen a lift, she called out no thankyou but she was in a hurry that day!

Discovery of Lignite
Running costs of the train were increasingly on the minds of the Directors of the Company. Up to 1911 the Railway had paid out only working expenses and the interest on the Debentures after allowing for depreciation of rolling stock etc. There was nothing over for Directors' fees or for the shareholders. There was at that time, a general depression in the timber industry, and the distance from and cost of transport to markets of other local products also inhibited local prosperity. But then a sudden wave of optimism swept away some of the gloom with the discovery of certain deposits of lignite in the forest and neighbouring parts of the country. The newly-formed Knysna Lignite Syndicate hoped to be able to supply their "brown coal", mined locally, to fire the boilers of the 'Coffee Pot' engines. Deposits had been found, amongst other places, as close as 50 yards from the railway line at Veldtmanspad near Parkes station. Hopes were high, fortunes were dreamed of, the lignite was sent to Salt River in the Cape to be made into briquettes for easy and convenient use to fire the boilers of ships and trains, but sadly, the quantity or quality was inadequate, and by mid-1911 the whole venture and the high expectations attending it, faded away. (see Newsletters no's 14nd 15).

"cut in half"
In spite of the low goods tariff it was felt in some areas that the railway was being under-utilised. Pennies had to be "cut in half" apparently, according to 'Jack' (John, E.) Rex writing to the new Manager, John Alexander Wilson on 15 June 1915. From Templeman station, Deep Walls, where he was Station Master, he advised lowering the tariff though' ...on sleepers (only) to say threepence halfpenny each from here, and proportionately from the other stations. The train has to come up to this and often goes away empty, and as the track is downhill very little coal is used. I am sure if this were done the Rail would be more patronised.

Jack Rex's house at Deep Walls
Jack Rex's house at Deep Walls illustrating the open area of the railway terminus

... from Engine driver to Mayor
John Alexander Wilson was appointed General Manager of the Railway when Mr. H. Noren resigned to join the army in World War I. "Alex" (as he was always known) Wilson started his career as a railway man in England, serving his time with the Great Eastern Railway; later he went to sea as a ship's engineer on board Thesens' ss Agnar. It was an easy step then to take up the appointment with the South Western Railway following in the steps of his predecessor as General Manager of the Company and Secretary to the Board of Directors. Being a practical man he soon became a Jack-of-all-trades and when the leanest days came he ran the railway on a shoe-string. Which he had to do most of the time in fact, as there was rarely any money for extras. At times he acted as Station Master, Booking clerk or Engine Driver all at once running the railway practically singlehanded. In addition to this he played an important part in civic affairs acting as a town councillor for many years and serving as Mayor from 1939 - 1945. His wife and family seemed settled in England which meant that he had a good deal of spare time on his hands.

Mrs. Margaret Parkes recalls: "His Mayoress was my mother-in-law, Mrs. Roward Parkes. Alex was on the Council at the same time as my father, and Uncle Alex, as we knew him, called every Monday evening at our home. He and Father would discuss civic affairs until Father eventually fell asleep, Mother being left to hold the fort! During the war he was Chairman of the Governor General's Fund and was a familiar figure about town always with a cigarette in a cigaret holder. He died in Knysna aged 83, and his headstone was erected by his fellow Freemasons. He was also a J.P., and for 10/- would take you for your driver's licence test making you stop and re-start your car on the hill past the Rectory."

In earlier more difficult days in 1916, on 4 May, Knysna, after torrential rains throughout the entire District and beyond, was badly hit when the rivers came down in flood. The flood not only washed away the brand-new concrete bridge over the Knysna river but also all but washed away some of the little railway bridges in the forest over which the "Coffee Pots" hauled their truckloads of timber and occasional passengers. In some places, e.g. at the 15th mile, 1,820 tons of earth were washed away, and some of the embankments, especially at the 10th mile, were also washed away. Filling and repairs were started immediately and before 2 June, a mere month later, when the first train was again able to run to Deep Walls, approximately 16,368 tons of material had been excavated, carried and deposited to replace what had been washed away.

Flood and washaway damage to the line
Flood and washaway damage to the line.

The railway had, of course, been put out of action while the repairs were on the go which meant a loss of traffic and loss of revenue. It was a bad year all round for the Company with World War I having caused a falling off of trade as a result of the reduction in the number of ships calling at the port. Meanwhile maintenance and general repairs had to continue to keep the rolling stock and the "permanent way" (the railway term for the "line") in good order.

Sleeper factory moved!
At last, in 1919, the Company made a profit and was able to pay a small (2%) dividend to its shareholders. Cost of Living allowances were paid to staff for the first time, and a small increase in tariffs, with the approval of the South African Railways, was adopted. That was the good news, but the bad news was that in that same year the Government moved the sleeper factory, i.e. the creosoting plant for railway sleepers, from Knysna to Mossel Bay. This was a real blow because it meant no more barrels of creosote to be brought to the port (mostly from Goole in Yorkshire) to be conveyed by the railway to the factory and no more treated sleepers to be conveyed by the railway back to the wharf for export, or to other points from where they would be taken to other destinations inland. Mr. C.W. Thesen wrote to the Government saying this was "a detrimental action ... which may have serious consequences to the South Western Railway and the district ... " and he wished to know whether the action constituted a breach of contract between the Government and the Company. The 'detrimental action' was a real hardship with many a repercussion to the fragile economy of the town but the dauntless Alex Wilson managed to find a new supply of insect-resistant wood and bought 1000 wit els and hard pear sleepers @ 1/9d each. A little before the time he introduced an innovation to the line in the form of a motor trolley, a most comfortable conveyance whose motive power was provided at the rear by two local men. On the down grades the trolley required no help and sped along at about 20 miles an hour, "although," wrote the editor of the Knysna Mail and George Advocate on 7 January 1919, "... the rate of travelling might have been easily increased to sixty miles an hour where the fall of the line was particularly great."

New engine from Umzinto
Throughout the 1920s' and 30s' maintenance costs and taxation took their toll and soon another engine had to be bought. The S.A.R. was of assistance in this regard providing a 2nd-hand engine no longer required on the Umzinto line for the nominal sum of 600. The engine was in good condition and gave many years of service. But in 1927 perhaps the most serious blow which fell was when the S.A.R. finally connected Knysna with George by the standard 3 ft.6 ins. gauge line and any hopes that they would eventually take over the forest railway were dashed as all narrow gauge lines were considered to be obsolescent. Nevertheless the South Western Railway was to keep its "Coffee Pots" going, with many ups and downs , for another twenty years.

Forced to contribute to its own obsolescence
Forced to contribute to its own obsolescence, the "Coffee Pot" brings stones for the
foundations for the new 3' 6" gauge railway bridge over the lagoon.

The resourceful Alex Wilson did his best and worked wonders making new water tanks from old boiler plates and re-tubing engines with 2nd-hand re-conditioned tubes and effecting every possible economy. All very necessary since revenues from the wharf had also decreased drastically because it soon became so much cheaper to bring goods to Knysna by train than by sea that the landing and shipping activities at the wharf died down with fewer ships comimg into port with cargo.

Lack of stability
Over the years the Company was finding it increasingly difficult to pay the interest on the debentures owed to the Administration. On the death of Mr. Hjalmar Thesen in 1935, Mr. Thomas G.B. van Veen was appointed as Trustee (without fees or remuneration of any sort) for the debenture holders, i.e. the S.A.R. The Directors of the S.W.R. had been without fees almost from the beginning, and when some of them decided to pay themse1ves what they considered their due, they were obliged to re-fund the amounts as the finances were in such a parlous state. The Administration eventually agreed to reduce the interest on the debentures by 200 p.a., but even so, the Company seldom made enough money to pay even the reduced amount regularly. The whole vexed question became in the end one of the factors which brought about the demise of the S.W.R. There was increasingly a lack of stability; profit and loss literally see-sawed; in 1938 there was a debit balance of 879; in 1939, the railway had a "remarkable recovery", in 1937 the revenue from landing and shipping at the wharf took another knock when the privately owned petrol Company transferred their business to Mossel Bay; at the end of 1939 there was a credit balance of 36 - after an amount of 500 had been paid towards the outstanding debentures interest, as well as 570 to Thesens towards the repayment of the working capital they had loaned the Company free of interest - and, in November and Decmember of that same year there were five trains instead of three running each week to cope with the increased demand! The Administration had come to the rescue by arranging with the State saw-mills at George to order timber through the Forest Department to be transported on the S.W.R. and proclaiming the Port Elizabeth-Knysna road a transportation route via Kruis Valley, Templeman and Concordia.

"Alex" Wilson

Loads were being "pirated"
The new Trustee for the debenture holders, Mr. L.C. Stokes, travelled the line, found it in good repair, was impressed to see the several water tanks made up from plates of scrapped engine boilers and the "Heath Robinson" telephone line patched up by the ingenuity of Alex Wilson. But road transport, competition for haulage by lorries, was now more openly rearing its ugly head. Loads were being "pirated" even along the transportation route proclaimed to protect the Railway. It was cheaper and quicker. The distance from the S.W.R. Knysna station by rail to the terminus of the line was 19 and a half miles, whereas by road, suitable for heavy transport, it was only 12 and a half miles. And there was no double handling. One of the timber merchants who had a contract with the Government to supply 5000 cu. ft. of yellowwood logs was known to be guilty of transporting them by road to Knysna even though they were supplied from a point close to the line, and even though he was a Director of the Railway Company. Nevertheless, in 1941 the year closed with a credit balance of 310 - quite a record!

Broken rials
In 1944 a Committee of three from the S.A.R. & H. came to Knysna to examine and report on the state of the "Coffee Pot" railway with a view to its being closed down. They interviewed Alex Wilson, Messrs. C.W. and H.Thesen and Mr. Ballenden of the Forestry Department. Corrosion was very bad on the line and "broken rails" were likely to become a problem, From the beginning of September it had already been stated that the line would carry no more passengers. At this stage it seemed that Thesens were the only concern interested in keeping it going as they had concessionary rights in certain pine forests a few miles beyond the railhead. But although the S.A.R. & H. recommended closing down the railway immediately because of the deterioration of the line, they were more or less forced to find means of keeping it going at least temporarily, because of the shortage at the time of motor transport caused by World War II. So it was decided to have the line re-conditioned with old rails at scrap rates of 30/- per ton from South West Africa which the Administration would supply provided Thesens would put up the money. They were to advance approximately 4000 as a loan which would be repaid out of profits (after the interest on the debentures was met).

In 1946 the re-laying of the track was completed with the second-hand rails and pronounced good for another 20 years. But safer rails were not the whole answer to the manifold problems of the little railway. After the end of the war it was used less and less. Messrs. Parkes and Sons found it uneconomical to rail their timber and now used private lorries, as did the Forestry Department, and when Thesens set up a new mill at Tentershoek about 10 miles beyond the terminus of the railway even they resorted to motor transport. This meant a drop in the Company's earnings of approx. 5000 p.a. There was now no longer enough money to pay the wages of the few employees left.

Serious accident and liquidation
In 1947 the S.W.R. had its first and only serious accident, and became involved in litigation. It was sued by one Andries Johannes Fourie on behalf of his minor child, Andries Fourie, for an amount of 2005 damages. The child lost his hand in the accident. Tom Botha recalled: "we were coming down from Deep Walls, approaching the three-mile-post near George Rex's grave, when a three-year-old boy was knocked down by the trucks in front of the engine. I immediately applied the brakes and rescued the boy from under the wheels. The engine was uncoupled and the boy was rushed into town to see the doctor. Althlough the S.W.R. won the case they had to pay costs, and this bolt from the blue turned blue turned out to be the final blow which brought about the demise of the "Coffee Pot" railway. The historic decision was taken on 7 November 1947 to liquidate the South Western Railway Company and close down the railway by the Chairman of the Board and the General Manager of the S.A.R. & H. The railway's assets were to be disposed of by tender. The highest tender which came in was 11,000, it was accepted, and the entire railway with the exception of one engine which went to the Witwatersrand, was sold to a sugar concern. The official closing date was fixed for 30 April 1949, and it was Tom Botha who drove the last train on the line. It was a sad day for the people of Knysna to have to bid farewell forever to their unique and beloved little 'Coffee Pot" railway.

Dismantling of the line
Mrs. E. Dickson and Tom Botha were to be responsible for the dismantling of the line, - every sleeper and coupling and piece of rail. Mrs. Dickson and her husband were Stationmaster and booking clerk at the S.W.R. Knysna station for the last seven years of the railway's life. They took over the responsibilities from the Gruels. (Mr. Gruel, one time steward on the ss Agnar was well-remembered by many a Knysna pupil from their trips to school by sea). Mrs. Dickson recalls nostalgically some of the joy-rides in the 'Coffee Pot", particularly the moonlight picnics in the forest in the railway's happier days.

Tom Botha started pulling up the rails and sleepers at Deep Walls loading them on to the lorries driven qaily to Knysna by John Westraad. Mrs. Dickson did the checking and then they were transhipped on to S.A.R. trucks to be railed to their destination. It was a difficult task and took over a year. Soon there was nothing left beyond a broken lail or two which was made use of to tether a goat or a pig in the backyard of a Hornlee cottage. The broad swathe which the line had cut through the forest and bush was inexorably re-claimed by the forest and bush; nearer the town buildings and new roads have obliterated its course. A modest monument remains however, in the form. of a foot or two of rail set in the pavement on the right hand side of Long street diagonally opposite Thesen House. When you pass, pause a little and try and imagine the little train fussing and puffing through the town before climbing up to the forest all those years ago.

©Copyright: Mrs. Margaret Parkes & V.M. Williams


Compiled and written by: Mrs. Margaret Parkes & V.M. Williams.

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