William Milne - M.I.Mech.E.

16 March 1840 to 10 April 1917

By Zak Cooms ------ 2018
Fire contents page

William Milne from the ‘Natal Who’s Who’ approx. 1894


William Milne was born on 16 March 1840 in Stratford, Essex, England. He was educated at the South Essex Academy, Stratford and then apprenticed for seven years, from1853 to 1860 at the Great Eastern Railway Works, Stratford.

At the end of his indenture, William was employed from1860 to 1862, as a Fitter and Erector at the Great Eastern Railway Works, Stratford. During this time the Great Eastern lent him to the Russian Government, as a travelling Inspector of Rolling Stock.

Following his return to England, from 1862 to 1865, he was Inspector of Ironworks and New Rolling Stock Milling by Contractors for the Birmingham and South Stafford districts in the Great Eastern Railway Works.

From 1866 to 1868, he was promoted as Inspector of Running Engines and Second in Charge of the Wheel Department at the Railway Workshops.

He married Rebecca WALKER a daughter of the late Henry Walker in ? July/Aug/Sept ? 1869, in Edmonton, Middlesex, England,.

They had 7 children. Their sons were William (Will) Henry, born 22 May 1870, George ? L ( married to Jess?) and Charles ( Charlie) E, and the daughters, Mary and Annie Milne and a third daughter who became Mrs. Dick in South Africa. One son was married, his wife being Mrs A. Milne.

From 1869 to 1877, the newly married couple lived on the island colony of Mauritius, where he had been appointed as the Works and Locomotive Superintendent for the Mauritius Government Railway.

In 1875 he joined ‘Whytes and Jackson’ as Locomotive Superintendent to the contractors constructing a railway line from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. He arrived in Natal on 14 March 1876 aboard the RMS Natal. He impressed by the contractor’s 2-6-0 tank locomotives ‘Durban’ and ‘Pietermaritzburg’, used in the construction of the line, and following his appointment in August 1877, as Locomotive Superintendent to the Natal Government Railway, he placed an order with Beyer, Peacock and Company for seven engines. The first two, with 30 open wagons and 10 passenger carriages, were landed from the Empress of India on 14 December 1877.

During the Anglo- Zulu War of 1879, William and his team of railway engineers did their utmost to keep the trains running, to support the British and Colonial troops against the Zulu warriors. Due to his personal effort and direction the engines were kept steaming throughout the campaign, largely as a result of his ability and experience, with large amounts of ingenuity and invention!

In the 1880’s, his dedication and enthusiasm saw the establishment of a large railway engineering workshop in Durban on behalf of the Natal Government. Never afraid to get into the workings of an engine, he had enormous energy, and this inspired the men employed in the engineering department.

In 1887, as Locomotive Superintendent he designed a 2-8-2 Mikado tank-and-tender locomotive. It was built in the NGR’s Durban workshops and was the first locomotive designed and built in South Africa. It was also the first engine in South Africa to have eight-coupled wheels, and the World’s first 2-8-2 with tender. Only the wheels and axles were obtained from England. Construction began on 26 January 1888 and the locomotive went on trial in August of that year. It was named Havelock after Sir Arthur Havelock, the Governor of the Colony of Natal from 1886 to 1889. During the South African War the engine was prepared for action as an armoured train. Unusually the engine was not equipped with armour plate protection, but was draped in strands of thick hemp rope that covered it from front to back. This earned the locomotive the nickname Hairy Mary amongst the troops.

In 1888 he also designed and modified the Class D 4-8-2T Tank Locomotive originally built in Glasgow, by Dubbs and Co. As far as it is known these were the first locomotives in the world with a 4-8-2 wheel arrangement, later to become known as the Mountain type The first forty-two locomotives built by Dubbs to his design were employed during Milne’s time as Superintendent. His design proved so successful with such good engines, that, when G.W. Reid took over as Locomotive Superintendent in 1896, he continued to place orders for another fifty-eight of these modified locos. They were built and delivered to South Africa in 10 batches between 1888 and 1899. Two more were hand built in 1915, at the NGR workshops and railway yards, completely from the spare parts that were to hand

During his time with the Railway in Natal, in 1882 he organized the first Railway Volunteer Fire Brigade, possibly the first in the whole of South Africa. He ensured it was equipped with a modern steam fire engine, which frequently gave very good service to the town.

This was particularly so during the Great ‘Smith Street’ Fire that destroyed and large area of the city during the night of 4-5th September 1884. For his exceptional service to the community, William Milne received the grateful thanks and a silver medal from Mayor and the Town Corporation. He remained in command of the Railway Fire Brigade until his retirement in 1893 from the Brigade, when he was succeeded by Captain W. Scotney.

In conjunction with several other men of similar outlook, he started first St. John’s Ambulance Service and Association, at the Railway Company offices in Durban.

On the 29th June 1887 a Proposal for Membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers was submitted by William MILNE, as the Locomotive Superintendent of the Natal Government Railways, Natal, South Africa.

He was Proposed for membership by John Chisholm, and Seconded by Alfred Louis Sacre. George Spencer, James Gresham and by James Compton Merryweather all signed as Supporters of the application to give evidence of his ability as a Mechanical Engineer. Details of these engineers, contemporaries of William Milne are noted below.

  • The proposal was signed by William MILNE, and the handwritten application details his career to date, a brief summary of the details noted above, and gives his age, at that time being 48.
  • Apprenticed from 1853 to 1860, at the Great Eastern Railway Works, Stratford.
  • From 1860 to 1862, as Fitter and Erector at the Great Eastern Railway Works, Stratford.
  • From 1862 to 1865, Inspector of Ironworks and Rolling Stock Milling by Contractors for the Great Eastern Railway Works, Stratford.
  • From 1866 to 1868, Inspector of Running Engines at the Great Eastern Railway Works, Stratford.
  • From 1869 to 1877, Works and Locomotive Superintendent for the Mauritius Railway.
  • From 1877 to present date (29 June 1887) as Locomotive Superintendent to the Natal Government Railway.

At the time of this application he had offices in the Castle Buildings, West Street, Durban, and he was living at The Oaks, 52 Queen Street, Durban.

William Milne had interest in the welfare of the men who worked under him, and was responsible for setting up the Mutual Benefit Fund, to care for the workers with benefits in times of hardship, illness and retirement. Unfortunately his outlook was not matched by the higher Company managers and brought them into conflict. This came to a head after the new constitution of 4 July granted the colony the right to a responsibly elected government. Elections were held between 14th and 20th of September 1893, and it was around this time that matters regarding the welfare of his work force came to a head, and sadly William was forced to retire in 1896.

Although his interest in the railways never diminished after he retired from working with steam locomotives, William practiced as a consulting Engineer.

At the time of his death on 10 April 1917, William Milne still maintained his offices in the Castle Buildings, West Street, in Durban. The family were originally living at house called "Eurnheim", situated on Rosetta Road, in Berea but following his retirement they moved to a property in Rapson Road.

His funeral took place at the Presbyterian Church, and was conducted by Rev. J. S. MacPhee assisted by the Rev. David Russell, of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. This was the church at which William Milne was an old and valued member and office-bearer. The firm of Adlam, Reid and Co had charge of the funeral arrangements.

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