March Newsletter 2024

The Sierra Leone National Railway Museum –

An African Cultural Gem

Helen Ashby OBE and Steve Davies MBE

At the east end of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, lies a densely populated industrial suburb called Cline Town.  Few people are aware of the huge importance of Cline Town in the history of the country. It is the location of the original Granville Town, the earliest site of a freed slave settlement in Freetown, founded in 1787. The area abounds with historically important sites, including Bishop Crowther Memorial Church, built in 1891 to commemorate the first African Bishop of the Anglican church and Racecourse Road Cemetery, where many famous Sierra Leoneans rest. The old Fourah Bay College building stands in College Road, Cline Town adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Quay, locally known as ‘Water Quay’.

Cline Town’s other claim to fame is as the site of the former National Railway Workshops, where the construction of the Sierra Leone Government Railway (SLGR) began in 1896. Officially opened on 1st May 1899 and completed in 1916, at its fullest extent SLGR consisted of a single steeply winding route running eastwards inland from Freetown for 227½ miles to Pendembu, via Hastings, Waterloo, Bauya, Moyamba, Bo, Kenema and Segbwema, with an 86-mile branch northwards from Bauya Junction to Makeni, and a 5-mile Mountain Railway ran from Freetown to Hill Station, where the Colonial Officers resided.  This gave a total route mileage of about 320 miles.

Beyer-Garratt 4-8-2+2-8-4 locomotive No 73 of 1955, as displayed in the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum. The locomotive was built as a coal-fired locomotive and converted to oil-burning in Sierra Leone in 1959.  The locomotive hauled the last passenger train on 17th November 1974. Photo, Helen Ashby.

Built to the narrow gauge of two feet six inches (760 millimetres), the main purpose of the railway was to convey the mineral and agricultural produce from the interior to Freetown for consumption or export, with imported goods and materials carried the other way, though there was also a flourishing passenger traffic. The narrow gauge was chosen for economy and to minimise civil engineering works along the route, although this resulted in the need for a large number of impressive viaducts.  The locomotives, carriages, wagons and other items of railway paraphernalia were made in Great Britain and until Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, the Sierra Leone Railway was operated by the British Colonial Government .

Hudswell Clarke Engine Company 2-8-2 diesel-mechanical locomotive No 133, built in Leeds in 1958, on display in the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum. Photo, Helen Ashby.

By the mid-1960s, road competition and other economic factors combined to affect the profitability of the railway, and the decision was made to phase out the railway.  The branch line to Makeni and the town section between the Water Street terminus and Cline Town closed in 1968 and the remainder of the line gradually contracted towards Freetown.  The last passenger train ran between Cline Town and Waterloo on 17th November 1974 and the railway finally closed in 1975, with the locomotives, rolling stock and railway tracks being sold for scrap.

The last General Manager of the Sierra Leone Railway, Richard Norman, felt very strongly that something of the railway should be kept for posterity and asked the Chief Mechanical Engineer Radcliffe Ayodele Cole to ‘recommend what and what we can keep and what we cannot keep before we scrap the whole thing’. A selection of surviving locomotives, carriages and wagons was chosen for preservation and hidden from the scrap man in the former carriage carpentry workshop in Cline Town.

The collection includes the oldest surviving steam locomotive, Manning Wardle 0-4-0 saddle tank No 10, built in Leeds in 1915; Hunslet Engine Co 2-6-2 tank locomotive No 81, built in Leeds in 1947, one of a class of 32 locomotives built to the same design between 1898 and 1954; Beyer-Garratt 4-8-2+2-8-4 No 73, built in Manchester in 1955; four Hudswell Clarke diesel-mechanical locomotives; the former Pay Coach, the special coach built in Birmingham by the Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance Company in 1913 for the exclusive use of the Governor; the private saloon built in Cline Town for the use of the General Manager; a steel sided goods van; the Diesel Locomotive Fitters’ coach (a passenger carriage converted to act as a mobile workshop to travel with the less-than-reliable diesels); two of the 1961-built ‘Independence Coaches’ commissioned from the Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company and presented to the Sierra Leone government as an independence gift and the Queen’s coach built in Cline Town in 1961 to convey Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II from Freetown to Bo during her state visit following independence – sadly her itinerary was changed at the last minute and she never travelled in the carriage.

For the next few years intrepid travellers could make an appointment to visit and view the collection in the former railway workshop in Cline Town, where they were conscientiously cared for by Mohamed Momodu Bangura, a Sierra Leone Railway apprentice trained engineer, who had become General Manager of the works following the closure of the railway, at which time it had been redesignated as the National Workshops, continuing to provide engineering services to Sierra Leone.

Then in 1991 the civil war broke out. The collection was forgotten about and the Works became a refuge for some ten thousand displaced people who fled to Freetown from the Provinces and the locomotives and carriages hidden there were stripped of fittings and panelling.

(Left) Mohamed Momodu Bangura with Manning Wardle 0-4-0 Saddle Tank locomotive No 19 Nellie on the day that Steve Davies first visited the collection in September 2004.

(Right) The derelict Queen’s Coach, as found by Steve Davies in September 2004.

After the war, in 2004, Colonel Steve Davies arrived in Sierra Leone on military service and, being a railway enthusiast, quickly began to explore the remains of the former railway.   On a visit to Cline Town he re-discovered the collection and was able to bring it to the attention of the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Alhaji Dr Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.  The President supported the idea of developing a national museum on the site and gave Colonel Davies the authority to do so.

His first task in developing the museum was to recruit a team of local men to form a restoration team who would clean, repair and restore the collection to an acceptable standard for conservation and display.  Cosmetic restoration of the collection started in September 2004, with the fourteen new recruits learning how to rub down metal and wooden surfaces, carry out basic repair work, paint, line and letter the vehicles.

Steve Davies and President Kabbah with the restoration team at the official launch 12 March 2005. Photo, Steve Davies.

By March 2005 Colonel Davies felt the time was right to open the collection to the public.  Although there was still work to be done on the development of the museum, this seemed like an appropriate time to have a test opening.  Amidst a crowd of invited dignitaries including the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone Alhaji Dr Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Director of the National Railway Museum of York Mr Andrew Scott CBE, the museum was officially launched on 12th March 2005.

The exhibits and their stories are amazing, and the displays tell the fascinating story of the railway.  A team of knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guides enable visitors to access the vehicles in meaningful ways but the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum has become much more than simply a repository for railway artefacts, but an important cultural and social centre.

(Left) Members of the St Peter’s School Bauya Railway Heritage Club join together at Bauya Railway to assist in clearing vegetation which is damaging the structure.

(Right) A Community Workshop for the local Sowei Women supporting the protest against female genital mutilation was hosted at the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum in 2019.


The museum boasts a rich and vibrant educational programme attracting school groups at all levels, for an action packed visit including guided tours, railway themed song and dance, art and craft activities and a ride on the very popular pump-trolley. Many groups stay on for the rest of the day to play and take part in a range of fun activities and competitions.  Teachers are delighted with the museum as it provides a large safe space in which the children can play and learn.

In addition, the Education team at the museum has developed an outreach programme to encourage young people in schools in Freetown and elsewhere to understand and value their heritage.  The first schools to be targeted were those with direct connections to the former railway, particularly those with relics of the line in their compounds.  Pupils are invited to join their ‘School Railway Heritage Club’ and to develop their own constitution and governance structure.  The first such club was founded in March 2020 at Bauya Junction, where the Makeni Branch connected with the main line to Bo and beyond.  The young people learn about the railway, explore the railway compound, carry out simple cleaning and conservation of the railway station building but also develop leadership skills, an understanding of the benefits of tourism and cultural heritage and advocate for the preservation of the site in their community.  Alongside this, they participate in a range of cultural activities, such as arts and crafts, music, dance and performance.  The club has been so successful that a further six clubs have been formed between Bauya and Freetown, with more schools now approaching the museum to ask for their help in developing their own clubs.

The adult education and community programme is equally important to the museum, which is now the only public facility in the eastern end of Freetown with regular workshops, charitable activities, weddings and funeral receptions and a whole host of other community activities taking place there.

There is something for everyone at the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum and it is well worth a visit …

Primary school children enjoy a guided tour of the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum, November 2023.

Trade-routes and Settlements –

The use of lime, its influences and methods, George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Gwynn Jenkins is a consultant in heritage architecture and cultural anthropology and she sits on the Commonwealth Heritage Forum's International Advisory Committee. Here she writes on the use of lime and its influence in George Town, Malaysia.

The traditional use of lime concrete, mortar and plaster, made principally from sand and burnt limestone, coral or shells, forms a thread in the tapestry of masonry buildings found along the great trading routes of the world. Traditions, methods and materials would have been transported to each trading settlement as they began to evolve, merging with indigenous building knowledge.

  1. Southern Chinese Eclectic shophouses on Stewart Lane, George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia. Constructed using timber, stone, clay and lime. Photo credit, Dr Gwynn Jenkins

George Town, sited on Penang Island at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca along the trading sea-route between India and China, is one such settlement - a former British East India Company’s transhipment port. Fashioned by the hands of those from near and far, overtime they created a rich plethora of building forms; administrative, institutional, commercial, religious and vernacular.

The town itself, which is inhabited by people of almost every country, from the Red Sea to China, is about a quarter of a mile in length. The streets are pretty regular, though the houses are very far from being so; the Chinese, Malays, and Hindoos, following their own taste in the construction of them. March 1805 (Johnson, 1807, p226)

The various styles in the construction of habitations of this small town have a strange effect – the European house, the Hindoo [sic] bungalow, the Malay cottage, the Chinese dwelling and the Burman hut are mingled together with regularity and apparently without plan, the first settlers having each built his residence according to the custom of the country... (Wathen, James 1814: 146).

George Town’s earlier monumental brick buildings including a star fort, churches, mosques and temples, were later joined by rows of terraced brick ‘shophouses’ after several devastating fires destroyed large areas of the timber and thatch-built settlement. The multicultural, multi-ethnic owners, builders and craftsmen left traces of their traditions and practices on the buildings of their and others’ cultures.

By the late 1980s a fledgling conservation movement began to review this history, as artisans moved on to Portland cement and concrete and the icons of modernity pierced the sky line.

  1. (Left) View over the Chinese crafted roof of the Acehnese Mosque in the low-carbon historic urban-scape of George Town towards the skyline of its technology-dependant future. Photo credit, Dr Gwynn Jenkins
  2. (Right) Portland cement render repairs replacing lime plaster, causing damage on an Anglo-Indian bungalow. Photo Credit Dr Gwynn Jenkins

A decade later, when the internet had barely begun to give access to the rich archives it now holds and historic building plans lay dusty in municipal store rooms, enthusiasm for the ‘old’ was held by just a few even though George Town was a treasure chest of tangible traditional knowledge, built in ‘cooperation’ with the climate, geology and traditional customs.  The urban landscape itself was an open classroom for those eager to learn. With a large task ahead, a few dedicated people, began to photograph, measure when possible and record, putting together the jigsaw of how, why, with what and for whom this historic urban landscape was created.

At the recent turn of the century, as the predominantly tenant population left following the Rent Control Repeal, owners took back their historic properties. Initially there was little interest, but a few owners had already recognised the value and fledgling conservation work began. The use of lime was writ large, but what could be purchased was young, sloppy lime putty in small plastic bags. Projects needed to slake their own lime stone in order to control quality and achieve a rich thick, malleable end product. Visiting experts showed how to slake in bucket-size demonstrations, and some projects rose to the challenge.

  1. (Left) Light-weight burnt lime stone or lump lime. All photo credits, Dr Gwynn Jenkins
  2. (Centre) After the frenzied bubbling and agitating as the lime is added to the water, comes the calm of the milk-of-lime.
  3. (Right) A few months after being stored below water, the lime putty is ready to be used.

At that time, it was still possible to buy burnt lime-stone from small scale kilns on the mainland, though these were later to die out. To see light-weight ‘rocks’ of burnt pure limestone bubble away in vats of water, stirred slowly into milk-of-lime, and a few months later take on a tofu-like state was pure ‘alchemy’. Persuading sceptical contractors and building owners to use it was another magical process. Once site work began, the doubtful became cautious converts – especially on a delayed project where contractors used lime putty stored for two years claiming it was like silk.

Further along the journey of discovery, we learnt lime concrete, plaster and mortar were not just a mix of slaked lime with different grades of sand and broken bricks as George Town’s recently restored 20th century building plans specified, there were and are other materials added too. These varied according to climate, region, availability and cultural influences and acted as air entrainers, accelerators, bonding agents and hardeners.

As conservation work allowed damaged lime plaster to be removed, the pinkish hue of untouched lime mortar revealed the use of brick dust (surkhi) in the mix. Lime plaster on the other hand was more often white – pure slaked lime mixed with fine sand.

  1. (Left) Revealed – original lime mortar mix with brick dust, white plaster -lime and fine sand, and later infill brickwork with lime & river sand mortar mix.
  2. (Centre) Preparing surkhi in Kolkata. The fine and finer pieces will be used in mortars & base plasters. Larger pieces or brick-bats are used, together with finer surkhi in the lime concrete floors and terraces.
  3. (Right) Macau – example of lime putty mixed with rice stalks, later to be ground to a finer paste to be used in mortar and plaster work. All photo credits, Dr Gwynn Jenkins

Not all mortar found in George Town was pink, suggesting other influences needed to be explored. Conservation work in Macau, near the eastern end of the India-China trade route, used mortar / plaster mixed with pounded rice stalks, giving a creamy hue. For exterior plaster work, as described in the works of Lu Ban Jing, ‘strips of cotton-paper’ were dissolved into slaked lime and mixed together with freshly boiled glutinous rice porridge just before plastering (Ruitenbeek, Klaas,1996 p112).

Building methods from Chennai (Madras) and Calcutta (Kolkata) supported the addition of jaggery (gur) palm sugar, as historian Marcus Langdon uncovered in East Indian Company dispatches whilst researching the history of George Town’s Fort Cornwallis (Langdon, 2015 p161). The Indian Standard Code of 1992, specifies the use of jaggery, bael fruit, kaddukai nuts and hemp in the preparation of lime concrete. Other mixes can be found recorded current references such as P C Varghese Building Materials as well as in bygone travellers’ journals and ‘learned’ publications.

  1. (Left) Jaggery sugar ready to be broken up and melted into molasses.
  2. (Centre) Bael fruit, a hard-shelled fruit with a fibrous pulp.
  3. (Right) Kaddukai or Hartaki (ink nuts) Terminalia Chebula, found in a spice shop in George Town. All photo credits, Dr Gwynn Jenkins.

One such publication - The Architectural Magazine and Journal of Improvement in Architecture, Building and Furnishing… London 1834 notes an admixture linked directly to Penang:


… In buildings in Canton, and other Parts of China, immense quantities of pepper, and pepper dust are employed; so much so, that the greater part of the pepper raised in the Island of Penang is sent to the Canton market, where it generally bears a higher price than it does in London. The pepper dust is mixed with the plaster used for the last coat of the insides of rooms in order to diffuse an agreeable odour, such rooms not being painted. The whole pepper is mixed with the mortar used in the walls; because it is found to stop the ravages of the white ant, one of the most destructive insects in the tropical climates. -  G.P. Brixton, August 21, 1834.

Linked by trade and missionary routes, which moved people, skills and sometimes materials around the world, do we share other lime building traditions throughout the commonwealth and its temperate and tropical lands? What is the same or similar and what is different and why? What can we learn, encourage, enhance and revive?

Author’s note

This article springs from an online lecture compiled and presented by Dr Gwynn Jenkins for the Borobudur International Online Course on Heritage Material Conservation 2020. BIOCHEMCO’20, October 19-27, 2020.

Reading material

 Gutzlaff, Charles, (1833?).  Journal of a voyage. along the coast of China, in 1831, 1832 and 1833, with notices of Siam, Corea, & the Loo-Choo Islands. Third Edition, London: Thomas Ward and Co.

Holman, J., (1840) Travels in Madras, Ceylon, Mauritius, Cormoro Islands, Zanzibar, Calcutta, etc., etc.. London; George Routledge.

Holmes, S. and Wingate M., (2019) Building with Lime, A practical Introduction. Third edition reprinted. Rugby: Practical Action

Johnson, J. (1807). The Oriental Voyager or Descriptive Sketches and Cursory Remarks on the Voyage to India and China. London: James Asperne

Ram Raz, (1834) Essay on the Architecture of the Hindus. London: Royal Asiatic Society.

Ruitenbeck, K. (1996), translation., Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-Century Carpenter’s Manual- Lu Ban Jing. Leiden: Brill.

Langdon, M., (2015) Penang Fourth Presidency of India 1805 – 1830 Volume Two: Fire, Spice and Edifice. 2nd edition, Penang; GTWHI

Loudon, J. C. (conducted by) 1834, The Architectural Magazine and Journal of Improvement in Architecture, Building and Furnishing, and in the Varied Arts and Trades Connected Therewith. London Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green & Longman

Varghese, P. C., (2005) Building Materials, Second Edition, 8th printing 2012. Delhi; PHI Learning Private Limited.

Wathen, James (1814), Journal of a Voyage in 1811 and 1812 to Madras and China; returning by the cape of good hope and St. Helena; in the H.C.S. The Hope, Capt. James Pendergrass. J. K Nichols, son and Bentley. London reprinted Elibron Classics.

The Angelo Bissessarsingh Heritage House –

A 1904 restored Gingerbread House in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Harriet Cross, British High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago encourages visitors to the island to explore its rich culture and heritage, she writes: 

As a diplomat of over 25 years, I have had the pleasure of seeing some fascinating architecture. I particularly love the unusual and the quirky. As such, I was delighted to get an invite to tour a 1904 restored Gingerbread House in Port of Spain. I was impressed by the excellent work done by the Bissesarsigh family to maintain the integrity of the original design of the house. Carmelita’s devotion to finding original period pieces from all around the world to furnish the house was also striking. The Angelo Bissessarsingh Heritage House is a great example of the rich culture and history of Trinidad and Tobago. I would highly recommend visting this beautiful twin island to see its gorgeous landscape and unique heritage sites – many quietly hidden gems like this one.  

André Blackburn, the Political, Press and Public Affairs Officer for the British High Commission, Port of Spain, on the history of the Gingerbread House style and its importance on the island ...

Trinidad's signature architectural style is that of the Gingerbread House–delicate wooden filigree, jalousie windows, peaked roofs, dormers, and a welcoming gallery. There was no corner of the island where gingerbread style could not be found, since it adapted equally well to the stately mansions of the planters and merchants as it did to the humble cottages of labourers and tradesmen. Built for the tropical climate, the eaves and high-level fretwork panels allowed for cooling and good internal cross-ventilation.

Constructed in 1904, this house featured here is one of the most well-preserved, carefully curated and publicly accessible Gingerbread Houses. Named after the late historian, Angelo Bissessarsingh, the space represents everything Angelo stood for: preservation, traditions, love for history, and country. The style is iconic and distinctive of Trinidad's city and suburban architectural period.

George Brown, a Scottish architect who came to Trinidad in 1880, was the genius behind this movement. He was a visionary entrepreneur who established woodworking factories in Port of Spain in 1891-93 that employed modern machinery, producing decorative fretwork at a lower cost and in more significant quantities. This allowed Brown to incorporate intricate fretwork, previously only available to the wealthy, into his designs.

Brown's architectural contributions have left a lasting impact on the built heritage of Trinidad and Tobago. Buildings designed by him include the old Queens Park Hotel (demolished) and Mille Fleurs (National Trust Head Office). He built the Roman Catholic Archbishop’s House with plans prepared in Ireland. The Francis of Assisi Church in Belmont, St. Ann’s Church on Charlotte Street, the Royal Victoria Institute, Sacred Heart Church on Richmond Street, most of lower Frederick Street, and Marine (Independence) Square. He also designed the Catholic Church at Moruga and most Catholic Churches throughout Trinidad.

Brown's designs continue to inspire and influence architects today, and his legacy is a testament to his vision and entrepreneurial spirit, affecting the Caribbean region as well.

Several of the houses he designed have been converted to office spaces, some retained for private homes, but none for public use and display, such as this one. Those in private hands vary from very well-kept to dilapidated. They are mostly at risk due to their location, primarily in prime city spaces where the landscape is rapidly evolving for modern buildings, and their need for precise maintenance makes upkeep challenging.

The Angelo Bissessarsingh Heritage House, a National Trust Heritage Site, is privately owned by Carmelita and Mario Bissessarsingh (siblings of Angelo) and has been recreated as if you were to walk back in time and experience the essence of a typical upper-middle-class home. It has been restored to have period items (curated by Prof AnnMarie Bissessar) and local folklore paintings (done by Rudolph Bissessarsingh) and maintained closely to ensure the original aesthetics are well preserved.

There are no other Gingerbread Houses that are fully furnished and open to the public - the ideology was to foster a sense of awareness and to create an appreciation of cherishing our history and architecture. Visitors can interact with all the items on display and enjoy our speciality afternoon tea. We encourage visiting the house for other activities, such as private events, corporate retreats, and school visits.

These houses are synonymous with our national identity and yet they are rapidly disappearing. We hope to inspire others to cherish our built heritage - it is our life's mission to continue to do so.

88 Belmont Circular Road, Belmont, Trinidad, West Indies.

Heritage on Samoa and Fiji

Karin Taylor has recently returned from the beautiful islands of Samoa and Fiji. She was there to find out more about local and colonial heritage buildings and sites, current systems for planning and heritage, and to produce a photographic record as part of an audit of Protected Buildings in Suva. Read more here.

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