The Natal - the engine on SA's first railway

By Allan Jackson - 26 August 2003

In Facts About Durban (1st Ed.) I wrote:

1860: The first** railway in South Africa is opened in Durban by Acting Lieutenant-Governor Major Williamson on 26 June. The green-painted engine is named Natal and is described by the Natal Mercury as a ‘rather strange-looking, but withal very neat little engine ...{which}... savours of Yankeedom, and is new to most English eyes’. The driver of the train is Henry Jacobs and the line, only 8km long, runs from the Point to Pine Terrace [Pine Street]. There is no turntable on the line so the engine, mounted facing the Point, has to steam in reverse to get back to town. Prince Alfred is a passenger on the train during his stay. The line is extended to the Umgeni two years later, to Pietermaritzburg in 1880, to the border of the Transvaal at Charlestown in 1891 and to Johannesburg in 1895.

**I was not correct when I said that this was the first railway in South Africa. It was actually the first steam railway - see here for the story of the first railway.


The picture that was orginally in this location has proved not to be that of the Natal locomotive. It is of the locomotive Perseverance, see below for details.

Since Facts About Durban (1st Ed.) was published I have discovered that the Natal locomotive is on show on Durban Station and was recreated using many of the original parts which, according to a sign, had been found in the Umzimvubu River. The Umzimvubu runs into the Indian Ocean at Port St Johns about 240km south of Durban. There has never been a railway line in that area to my knowledge and so, of course, I immediately began to wonder what Natal had been doing there.

Without further ado I fired off an e-mail query to Transnet Heritage Foundation Librarian Eurika Deminey who faxed me a copy of an interesting booklet on the Natal engine which was written by Theo J. Espitalier and published in 1944 at two shillings per copy. It seems that the Natal ran on tracks which were four feet and eight inches apart and that it could no longer be used after the Natal Government decided in 1875 to move to tracks which were only three feet and six inches apart.

The Natal was sold in 1879 to Mr Crowther who had the idea of using it to power a sawmill on his farm which was about four miles up the Umzimvubu River from Port St Johns. The engine was dismantled and shipped to the farm on the ketch Sir Evelyn Wood but it wasn't ever used because the farm labourers objected. The pieces of the locomotive were eventually buried near the river which then deposited silt over the top of everything.

And there the Natal sat until 1943 when Espitalier was given the job of writing a history of it and managed to locate and photograph its remains. It was then decided to recover and restore the Natal and Espitalier was one of the small team which was sent down to Port St. Johns to do the recovery. The Natal returned to Durban on a 10-ton lorry on 26 June 1944 exactly 84 years after it had drawn the first train in South Africa.

Pictures courtesy Transnet Heritage Library  

The locomotive was restored in the Durban workshops of the South Africa Railways and Harbours (S.A.R.& H.) in time to be displayed at a Thanksgiving Cavalcade** which was apparently held in Durban later in 1944. There was some concern at the time about a plan to move the Natal to the Railway Museum at Kaalfontein and a number of local residents including Killie Campbell wrote to the newspapers in protest.

All's well that ends well, however, because the Natal is on show on Durban Station.

<== Click to view a wallpaper-sized enlargement (1024x768px).

**Anyone know anything about the Thanksgiving Cavalcade referred to above?? Added 16-12-2008: Reader Graham Moss wrote in to say that there had been a big display of military equipment and South African goods in Albert Park shortly after VJ Day in in 1945. He pointed out that this was already mentioned on this site in Leon Nicholson's reminiscences here.

Added 28 May 2004: In clearing up the issue of an incorrectly captioned picture mentioned above, I received a fax of an excerpt from Steam Locomotives of The South African Railways by Frank Holland. It adds a couple of details to the Natal Locomotive story including the fact that it arrived in Durban on 13 May 1860, in crated sections, aboard the brig Cadiz. Henry Jacobs, who functioned as engine fitter, locomotive superintendent and driver, was responsible for errecting it. Jacobs was assisted by Alexander Davidson, who later became chief smith, fitter and springmaker, platelayer and head of the repair shops. The locomotive was painted green and the wheel were a copper colour. Thanks are due to Transnet Heritage Foundation Eurika Deminey for the info.

Perseverance Locomotive

I initially put the photo, below, up on the site in the belief that it was of the Natal locomotive but I now find that it is of the Perseverance. The locomotive was built by Kitson & Co. and was the third to be bought for use on the Point-Umgeni Railway. It arrived in 1875 aboard the ship Actaea and was initially christened Durban but soon became known as Perseverance. The locomotive was built for the railway's 4ft 8.5-inch rail guage and was rendered obsolete almost immediately when the Natal Government took over the Point-Umgeni Railway and decided to use a 3ft 6in rail guage to be in conformity with the railways in the Cape Colony. Perseverance ended up as a stationary engine used to power sawmill machinery in the railway workshops in Durban.

Picture courtesy Transnet Heritage Library

<== Click to view wallpaper-sized enlargement (1024x768px).



Perseverance Locomotive.


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