Sunday, May 31, 2009


Here are some images (below) I shot in 1987 on the Hexham to Stockrington Colliery line - the last remnant of the once thriving railway empire of Hunter Valley Coal baron, John Brown.

They all show coal wagons and steam locomotives in regular service, as had been the case for more than 120 years beforehand.

Full wagons about to make the run from Stockrington Colliery to the washery at Hexham.

Empty wagons being drawn past the Stockrington loader.

An example of a wagon where the hopper does not match the frame.

Loaded wagons gravitating beyond the Stockrington loader.

My wife, Faye, at the crude Hexham wagon repair 'centre'. You can see the hopper has been lifted clear of its frame (which has been rolled clear) to enable several damaged timber planks to be replaced.

South Maitland Railway No24 shunting empty wagons at Stockrington. This and several sister locos were the last steam in regular revenue service - outside of preserved lines and museums - operating in Australia.

A typical wagon - this time with matching hopper and frame numbers.

Typical crude three-link couplings and Turton-style buffers fitted to so many Hunter Valley private railway non-air coal wagons.

An example of the longer wheelbase, higher capacity wagons operating in the closing years of the line.


THE fortunes of the coal industry and railways have always been intertwined – nowhere more so than in Australia. The country depended on it for loco power, and still does for the majority of its power generation, steelmaking and a large slice of its export income. In NSW, the relationship is particularly long and complex, stretching back more than 160 years. The railways of two major NSW districts waxed fat on moving this PRECIOUS COMMODITY FROM MINE TO WHARF. In the first of two articles I examine the humble four-wheel, non-air coal hopper wagon of the Hunter Valley coalfields around Newcastle – how it was born and evolved, and what modelers should search for in hopper realism.


ANY study of the ubiquitous NSW standard-gauge, non-air coal hopper must start around Newcastle.

Until recently, this irked me. Coming from Wollongong, south of Sydney, I has seen coal hoppers aplenty on the Southern Coalfields of the Illawarra District – and they displayed arguably more prototypical differences than those of the Northern Coalfields. But, alas, there’s no changing the chronology of history.

The four-wheel coal hopper was as much evolutionary as it was revolutionary. Being slavishly British, our forebears looked to the Old Dart for transport inspiration, and the coal barons of both the Illawarra and Hunter regions leant heavily towards the so-called box coal wagon which were employed enmasse in Britain.

Box of tricks

In Britain, the box design was improved and perpetuated through four-wheel wagons not dissimilar to the very early NSW B and D wagons – square wooden affairs of various numbers of side planks, and various door arrangements. Invariably, though, the first box coal wagons appear to have built to the early British recipe of side-opening door, hinged at the top. The boxes were fitted with lifting rings, which allowed them to be lifted cledar of their frames, and swung over the side of the colliers. This allowed coal to be tipped from the wagon into the hold once the box was up-ended.

The only problem was the Hunter region broke early with the tradition of staith loading, its barons opting for crane loading. Apart from being cumbersome and dangerous – many reports indicate early Newcastle cranes were far from capable of handling their loads reliably, with many subsequent breakages, crashes and industrial accidents – dumping the soft Hunter coal from great heights into ships holds tended to pulverise the stuff, lessening its commercial value. The preference, for 19th Century handling purposes, was for larger lump coal. Smaller, finer coal was invariably dumped or baked into coke – not so desirable, given that Hunter coal was far better for steaming than coking.

Loading the earliest Newcastle box-wagon loads meant lifting the whole wagon – frame, wheels and all – off the wharf siding, swinging it over the side of a ship, tipping it and hoping like mad all the stuff poured out, which it often didn’t satisfactorily.

The problem was overcome to some extent when a second generation of box wagons, again modeled on British principles, was introduced. This wagon was ostensibly a flat, wheeled frame on which sat two square timber boxes said to weigh ¾ of a ton and capable of carry about three tons of coal each. These could either be opened from the bottom or side. I believe this better design helped in the development of the later hopper wagons.

Hoppers MkI

In 1878, a batch of wagons built by the Birmingham Wagon Co of Britain arrived on the Hexham to Minmi Railway. These could best be described as the forerunners to later hopper wagons. Pictorial evidence shows these all-timber-bodied “hopper” wagons at Duckenfield Colliery, at Minmi, and at Back Creek Colliery.

Said to be capable of carrying 10 tons of coal, they had slightly tapered sides and ends, and ironically shared more in common with their Southern Coalfields counterparts – their hoppers were fixed to their timber frames.

Like the earliest box wagons, these early hoppers had to be lifted whole over the sides of colliers for their loads to be emptied via bottom-opening doors.

Nevertheless, they were said to be popular with mine workers, and a further batch was built locally in Minmi.

Little red wagons

But the real revolution had already taken place on a warm November day 15 years earlier. On that day in 1863, barely three years after the first box wagons are said to have been introduced to the Northern Coalfields, the management of the newly opened Lambton Colliery near Newcastle rolled out a rake of wagons that were to become part and parcel of coal transportation in NSW for more than 120 years.

These new hopper wagons, built in Britain to specifications laid out by the mine’s owner, the Scottish Australian Mining Co, were painted bright red instead of the drab black of the coal boxes. Pictures indicate these six-ton capacity wagons were about 13ft long over their solebars and ran on delicately sprung 3ft-diameter split-spoke wheels – a recipe that was to be repeated many times down through the years, with many batches of wagons subsequently ordered from British and local manufacturers.

These wagons were neat! Their timber, slope-sided hoppers were cradled in cast iron frames, which meant they could be lifted from their frames and swung more easily into an unloading position – sometimes deep inside the colliers’ holds. They immediately doubled the carrying capacity of individual box wagons, which also meant less time spent in handling at the wharf. And because they opened at the bottom, they could be emptied quickly and completely.

Nothing like it

According to a report in the Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin No. 465, mining engineers almost 50 years later told a Royal Commission into the NSW coal industry they had seen no similar railway vehicles anywhere in the world. The Queensland and Victorian railways administrations, along with the owners of the light Snailbeach Tramway in Britain may have wished to differ, but the design and the way these hopper wagons worked appears to have been uniquely New South Welsh in standard gauge.

In 1865, 60 more six-ton capacity hopper wagons arrived from Britain, and the race was on to be the latest Hunter Valley colliery on the block with these bottom-opening beauties. This second batch started another trend – this time for iron hoppers cradled in iron frames.

The Hunter Valley barons tried every construction material combination known to man – timber hoppers in iron frames, iron hoppers and iron frames, steel hoppers (from 1878, and again the Scottish Australian Mining Co), timber hoppers and timber frames – but the original recipe of timber hoppers in iron or steel frames was considered the best.

According to reports, colliery owners soon learnt to bring iron wagons into Newcastle “flat packed”, enabling more of them to be securely stowed and shipped in the smaller ships of the day. In many case, especially where hoppers were manufactured from local Australian hardwood, only the iron framework, wheels and buffers were imported. All brake gear also appears to have been initially imported from Britain.

Slowly over the years, carrying capacity grew. From six tons, it rose to seven. From there to eight tons, then 8 ½ tons. Larger 10-ton and 12 ½-ton capacity wagons were the upper limit of the species. And they all looked much the same.

Many of the locally built wagons fitted with timber solebars had no buffers, the solebars being extended to keep the wagons apart. Dumb buffers, as they came to be called, were given the rush fairly quickly, though, in the 1940s, when the NSW Government Railways banned their use on all trains (government or private) running on government lines.

Many of the early wagons – imported or locally built – had no brake gear at all. Those that did had hand brakes that were pinned down by long levers on the side of the wagons, or spider wheels which took the slack of chain-activated brakes. None – bar those owned by the Muswellbrook Coal Co at the extreme end of the Hunter Valley, or the government’s own CH and LCH hopper wagons – were fitted with air brakes. Hence the “non-air” handle.

These first hopper wagons differ little in basic appearance to the much-later NSW Government Railways’ CH and LCH. Major differences were that these government wagons tended to be more robust, were fitted with sprung buffers, and their ends were open and not covered by iron “spill” aprons.

Early versions of private wagons also appear to have been fitted with utilitarian goods-wagon buffers, light hooks and five-link connecting chains. Heavier three-link drawgear and Turton buffers were fitted over the years as improvements were introduced and trains lengthened.

As these private hopper wagons infested the Hunter Valley, they were invariably identified by large letters painted or stencilled on the sides of their hoppers. These stood either for the mine or the owning company. Many wagons sported names in full, albeit in smaller lettering. Most were painted red – a mix of red lead paint and linseed oil was found to be the best remedy against the corrosive Hunter Valley coal, especially on iron hoppers. Some others, however, were painted a dapper grey colour.

Eventually the non-air hopper population reached an estimated 13,000 vehicles, and it’s a tribute to their original design and durability that so many of them remained no-air until the bitter end. (Even when the last remaining section of the Richmond Vale Railway, between Stockrington and Hexham, closed on September 25, 1987, as many as 1000 wagons remained, of which an estimated 300 were in reasonably good working order.)


Private wagons were permitted to tread government rails, provided they were registered. Thousands of solebars carried the small, rounded iron registration plague. Even until the end of rail working at Stockrington Colliery in the 1980s, the last Hunter Valley mine to use these wagons, many registration stickers going back to the turn of the 20th Century could still be found.

Other universal markings were also interesting. Few of these hopper wagons ever carried a tare weight inscribed on their solebars. Because hoppers could be removed – and no doubt because the government thought, for tax-avoidance purposes, this would not have been too far beyond the barons’ thoughts – all hoppers were numbered, and their frames carried a corresponding number.

These numbers were stored on a giant register at the central Tighes Hill weighbridges near Newcastle and corresponded to tare weights written against them. Each hopper was also marked with lettered codes – S (for loads up to seven tons), SM (up to eight tons), M (up to 8 ½ tons), L (10 tons) and LL (up to 12 ½ tons). As each wagon rolled through Tighes Hill, clerks checked the numbers and letters against the tare register, coming up with an accurate nett train weight. The system kept all the bastards – including the government – honest.

As traditional Hunter Valley collieries closed and new ones opened (and in later years simply closed down to make way for far more modern and exploitative open-cut mining, hopper wagons changed hands or were transferred. In the early days they were repainted, renumbered, reregistered and reweighed. In later years they just survived – and survived. I saw many examples at Stockrington towards the end of hopper numbers that didn’t match their frame numbers. But I guess by them it didn’t matter. These wagons were isolated from the main government lines, and the Tighes Hill register had long disappeared.

It’s a testimonial to these rugged little gems that so many – along with their basic design – survived unchanged (even down to their split-spoked wheels) until the mid 1980s.

Some, including 12 small iron ex-Wickham & Bullock Island Coal Co hopper wagons strayed as far afield as North Bulli Colliery on the Southern Coalfields. On that point, I’ll leave discussion of the radically different Illawarra rolling stock for my second essay – except to say the peculiar fixed-hopper wagons of the also-isolated Catherine Hill Bay colliery south of Newcastle owed more in design and practice to their Illawarra counterparts.


Local wagon, wheel and axle manufacturers included the collieries themselves, Clyde Engineering, A. Goninan & Co, Ritchie Bros, Hudson Bros, AE&RS & Co, UP Davidson & Co, and R. Tullock.

Imports came from names such as Midland Railway Carriage & Wagon Co Ltd, of Birmingham; Ashbury & Co Ltd, of Manchester; Darlington Wagon Co; and The Lancaster Wagon Co Ltd.