Upcoming Events

Keep informed about heritage issues and projects across the Commonwealth by joining us online at our next online talk. We do not charge a fee to host these talks but if you would like to make a donation it would be greatly appreciated.

Join our Autumn lecture series

Join our Autumn lecture series

Railways across the Commonwealth

Wednesday 8 November, 6pm GMT: Christian Wolmar, ‘Railways and the Raj’, chaired by Pat Green

Christian is an award-winning writer and broadcaster, specialising in transport and is the author of a series of books on railway history. His talk will explore the vast Indian Railways network from its very beginnings to the present day, examining the chequered role they have played in Indian history and the creation of today’s modern state.

India joined the railway age late: the first line was not completed until 1853 but, by 1929, 41,000 miles of track served the country. However, the creation of this vast network was not intended to modernise India for the sake of its people but rather was a means for the colonial power to govern the huge country under its control, serving its British economic and military interests. By building India’s railways, Britain radically changed the nation but also unwittingly created the preconditions of independence. The Indian Railways network remains one of the largest in the world, serving over 25 million passengers each day. In this expertly told history, Christian Wolmar reveals the full story of India’s railways, from its very beginnings to the present day, and examines the chequered role they have played in Indian history and the creation of today’s modern state.

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Wednesday 15 November, 6pm GMT, Dr Oliver Betts: ‘Railways at the dawn of the Commonwealth', chaired by Francis Maude

Oliver is the National Railway Museum’s Research Lead. His talk will explore how people across the Commonwealth adjusted to a new dawn of railways, how some succeeded and others faltered, and how this very nineteenth-century invention had to find new roles in the twentieth century.

Railways in Britain were reaching their zenith as the Commonwealth of Nations took shape. During the previous century Britain's railway industry had spread across its Empire and into the informal empire of British influence and capital too. For British manufacturers it had been a closed shop - India, the fastest growing rail network in the early twentieth century, was obliged to import British rails rather than make its own. For British railwaymen too, be they engineers or financiers or investors, this global network had been a land of opportunity. All of that changed post-war, and as the Commonwealth evolved so too did its railways. New routes, new manufacturers, new ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, new people were drawn into railways across the Commonwealth.

Drawing on the extensive collections at the National Railway Museum, this paper will explore how people across the Commonwealth adjusted to a new dawn of railways, how some succeeded and others faltered, and how this very nineteenth-century invention had to find new roles in the late twentieth century.

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Wednesday 22 November, 6pm GMT, Dr Tara Inniss: ‘The Barbados Trailway Project: 21st Century Transformation of a Colonial Era Railway in the Caribbean’, chaired by Rachel Tranter

Tara is a Lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus in Barbados, and Director of the Caribbean Heritage Network. Her talk will trace the development and future use of railway reserves in post-colonial states as they grapple with issues of financing cultural heritage projects, using the Barbados Railway as her case study.

The Barbados Railway was operational from 1881-1937. Like many colonial era railways established throughout Britain's empire in the nineteenth century it was fraught with funding and infrastructural challenges from the start which largely led to its demise. Originally envisaged to transport sugar and its byproducts from rural plantations to the urban port, the railway also became popular with locals and tourists visiting the island's rugged East Coast. Eventually, motor vehicles and an improved road network rendered the railway obsolete with much of its physical assets being sold off or removed after 1937. Now, almost 100 years later, the old train line is being repurposed as multi-use rail to trail. This talk will trace the development and future use of railway reserves in post-colonial states as they grapple with issues of financing cultural heritage projects as well as growing health challenges with the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases.

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Watch the recording here.

Wednesday 29 November, 1pm GMT, Wong Kia Fu: ‘Refurbishment of the old Railway Bridges at Rail Corridor Singapore', chaired by Kelvin Ang

Wong is a civil engineer at the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore and a part-time lecturer at Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority Academy. In his talk, Wong will share his experience of working on the Rail Corridor project, Singapore, which has seen the preservation of the Rail Corridor as a continuous green artery and community space, celebrating the heritage by conserving key railway buildings and developing the parcels of land adjacent to meet Singaporean’s needs for homes, jobs, and amenities.

In 2011, the former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway line ceased operations at the Tanjong Pager and Bukit Timah stations and the land was returned to Singapore. This presented an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine how to best make use of the uninterrupted 24km- long stretch of land, from Woodlands in the north all the way to Tanjong Pagar in the south.

Following extensive engagements with the community on the 24km-long strip of land now called ‘Rail Corridor’, the feedback was distilled into a set of goals for the Rail Corridor’s transformation. Agencies embarked on efforts to carefully plan and enhance the Rail Corridor into a place that everyone can enjoy. A three-way balance between the different goals was achieved by preserving the Rail Corridor as a continuous green artery and community space for users of all ages and abilities, celebrating the heritage by conserving, restoring and repurposing key railway buildings and elements, and developing the parcels of land adjacent to the Rail Corridor to meet Singaporean’s’ needs for homes, jobs and amenities.

To demonstrate the approach, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and National Parks Board drew up the implementation plan and carried out the improvement works for a 4km-long central stretch of the Rail Corridor, between Hillview and the conserved Bukit Timah Railway Station.  The project was completed in two phases, with work on the paved trail and restoration of bridges that formed the connectivity done in 2021, and environmental improvement works to the nodes at both ends of the trail a year later.

Two steel truss bridges, one steel girder bridge, and one reinforced concrete bridge were sensitively restored and refurbished. The conserved Bukit Timah Railway Station building, along with its key architectural and railway elements, was carefully restored and repurposed as a heritage gallery. The conserved Railway Staff Quarters, a former staff housing block, has been repurposed into a café with a rustic, relaxed ambience. The 4km-long trail was strengthened with more durable pavement materials and finishes that complemented the character of the route at different stretches.

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Watch the recording here.

Wednesday 6 December, 6pm GMT: John McGoldrick, ‘Leeds Engines of Empire’, chaired by Rowenna Malone

John is Curator of Industrial History at Leeds Museum and Galleries. A major engine of Leeds’ prosperity was the railway locomotive building sector and exports to former British and other colonies filled company order books. John’s talk will chart the journeys of specific locomotives, evidencing the human aspects of Leeds’ railway connections with former colonial territories.

The city of Leeds is perhaps not as well-known as it should be as an industrial powerhouse. A major engine of the city’s prosperity was the railway locomotive building sector. Exports to former British and other colonies filled company order books as domestic markets became increasingly saturated. Leeds products fuelled Empire building projects in the areas of docks and harbours, extraction of natural resources and the movements of military forces. The talk will highlight how colonial orders helped shape the communities and urban fabric of the colonial metropolis. The talk will also examine the areas of specialisation covered by individual companies and chart the journeys of specific locomotives, including the return to the UK from India of the John Fowler locomotive ‘Cheetal’. The talk addresses case studies evidencing the human aspects of Leeds’ railway connections with former colonial territories.

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Wednesday 13 December, 6pm GMT: Helen Ashby and Colonel Steve Davies, ‘Da train fo Bo ….’, chaired by Isatu Smith

Helen was Head of Knowledge and Collections at the National Railway Museum and is now a freelance heritage consultant.  She was awarded the OBE for services to railway heritage in 2010 and in 2014 she helped set up the Friends of Sierra Leone National Railway Museum, of which Steve is the Hon. President. Steve is the former Director of the National Railway Museum in York and he is now Director of a private company operating a main line steam locomotive. Their talk will explore the extraordinary origin story of the National Railway Museum in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Construction of the Sierra Leone Railway was begun in 1896 by the British Colonial Government. Running directly from West to East for some 227 ½ miles, between Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown and Pendembu in the east, close to the Liberian Border, this 2ft 6in gauge railway was the longest of that gauge in the world.  A branch line to the north from Bauya, 64 miles east of Freetown, terminated in Makeni, bringing the route milage to over 300. The main traffic on the railway was passengers, palm kernels and minerals.

For a combination of political and economic reasons, Sierra Leone closed the railway in 1975, selling the locomotives, rolling stock and rails for scrap and abandoning the rest of the infrastructure.

Fast forward to 2004, at the end of eleven years of civil war, Colonel Steve Davies arrived on military service in Sierra Leone.  A railway enthusiast all his life, his explorations of the route of the old railway led him to Cline Town, where he found an astonishing collection of locomotives and carriages that had escaped the gas axe.  Thus the National Railway Museum came into being.

Now almost twenty years later, it is a thriving cultural hub, offering engaging displays, community activities and a vibrant education programme.

The Friends of the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum was founded in 2014 to provide advocacy and support for the museum.  They invite you to join them to learn more about their incredible journey.

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Previous Talks

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was an exemplary site for colonial botany. Scientists sent from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew worked in the institution – founded in 1859 – to identify Southeast Asian flora while also acclimatizing foreign species to support efforts to promote plantation agriculture in the region. The work undertaken in the Gardens ultimately influenced the economic and social development of the colony, and transformed the ecology of the...
This event features two short talks about the AJC Bose Indian Botanic Garden – Past and Present, Marine Bellégo; the Roxburgh Project, Nilina Deb Lal. The Calcutta Botanic Garden: Past and Present - Marine Bellégo, PhD. This paper focuses on the intermingling of past and present in the Calcutta garden and the ways in which traces of the past can be used historically. One can of course find information in...
This illustrated lecture will look at the history and heritage of South Africa’s old botanic gardens, those which survived and those now gone. It will include the old Dutch East India garden in Cape Town, which dates from the 1650s; the network of British colonial botanic gardens in the Cape and Natal (KwaZulu-Natal) and the birth of modern South African botanical nationalism with the founding of Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden and...
Book your free ticket here. Find out more about the Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a stunning surviving Victorian glass and iron building. The Palm House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is perhaps the finest surviving Victorian glass and iron building in the world. One of the earliest prefabricated buildings, the Palm House was the first structure to be commissioned when Kew transferred from royal to public ownership....
Book your free ticket here. For more than 300 years Britons and other Europeans came to India seeking fame and fortune. Some achieved success and reward and returned ‘home’, others including family members found their last resting place in the subcontinent. Life for many was just two monsoons. Around two million souls lie in hundreds of cemeteries and isolated graves scattered across the country: victims of disease or frontier wars, attacked by...
Book your free ticket here. Since its inception in 1727, the court of Jaipur with its every reign, has taken on challenges of new growth and development. Adopting new mindsets and modern technologies has meant that the courtly culture of Jaipur has been at the forefront of innovations. But it has done so with careful negotiations with its age old traditions, making each change albeit radical appear seamlessly aligned with its past....
Book your free ticket here. Calcutta / Kolkata – erstwhile capital of British India, is considered to be a city worthy of world heritage status. With an abundance of nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings, an ambience, lifestyle and culture unique unto itself, Calcutta’s heritage consciousness is of relatively recent provenance, having found a voice only in the 1990s. Since then, heritage awareness and protection has manifested itself in the listing of...
The Forum is working in partnership with the Hamish Ogston Foundation on a £4.5 million programme to train young people in heritage and craft skills and develop up to 20 practical conservation projects across the Commonwealth. It is the largest Commonwealth heritage project ever undertaken and will be launched in mid-May to mark H.M.The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. The purpose of the conference was to listen to local people, so we...
Digital technology such as laser scanning, photogrammetry, and aerial survey, are becoming increasingly common in the fields of architecture and allied fields of the built environment. Digital technology promises faster, more accurate ways to capture and represent historic building information.
Book your free ticket here. Camilla Nichol details our presence on Antarctica for the last two centuries and challenges posed to heritage in this extreme context. The last two centuries of human activity in Antarctica has seen a rapid evolution from discovery to exploitation; heroic exploration and a geopolitical arms race for sovereignty and today through international scientific programmes and questions of global sustainability. Today, Antarctica is at the leading edge of...
Book a free ticket here. “Character” comprises a number of different elements that combine to create the overall significance and value of a building or place.  This webinar will address character in the built environment, considering what contributes to character and how it might be assessed.  Developing understanding of what is special about a place will help decision makers, planners, conservation professionals and communities make well-informed decisions about the future of...
Book a free ticket here. Booking closes at 12:00 tomorrow.This talk, by Isatu Smith, will address Bunce Island's history including its phases of construction, uses and life on the island, and preservation efforts. Bunce Island is one of forty slave forts operated by Europeans along the West African coast. It was operated as the headquarter for British slave trading in Sierra Leone from about 1670 till 1808 following the abolition of the...

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Our International Launch

The evening attracted a full house, including High Commissioners from many Commonwealth countries, members of both houses of parliament, and leading architects and conservationists.

After warmly welcoming everyone, His Excellency George Brandis QC, the High Commissioner for Australia, spoke eloquently about the importance of working together across the Commonwealth to preserve our past and define our future. He stressed that ‘our family of nations share not only an architectural past, but a common future for the built environment’.

Our founding patron, Sir Rodney Williams, the Governor-General of Antigua and Barbuda, a passionate believer in Commonwealth values, then gave the inaugural address: ‘we are the guardians of a unique heritage for those that come after us,’ he said. ‘Much is vulnerable, and we need to pass it on to future generations in a better state than we found it. Understanding this legacy, and the buildings and places that bear witness to it, is a crucial part of our individual identity and collective sense of belonging’.

Sir Rodney highlighted the challenges faced by small island states – climate change, hurricanes, fire, neglect, dereliction and inadequate resources. He welcomed the access to specialist expertise that the CHF could offer.

We were fortunate to have Yasmeen Lari, one of our most eminent International Advisory Committee members at the launch. Yasmeen was in London to collect the prestigious Jane Drew Prize for Women in Architecture. She told the audience about the pioneering work the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan had been doing in Karachi to promote the co-ordinated restoration and repair of shared heritage buildings where there is keen interest in setting up a local chapter of the CHF.

Chair of the CHF, Philip Davies explained that our shared built heritage had been crafted by local people over many generations. It is a key aspect of the national identity of many Commonwealth nations and the links that bind us together. ‘Each’, he said, is part of an extended family of nations whose lives, histories and futures are all deeply intertwined.’

Philip took the opportunity to announce a partnership with Oxford Brookes University and Texas A&M University to help countries prepare registers of heritage at risk starting with a pilot project in Barbados. This will involve working with local heritage bodies to train young people and volunteers in specialist techniques, which in turn will build local skills, employment opportunities and resilience.

The CHF can make a real difference.

Photos by David Madden @ www.dmphoto.co.uk

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