Curator's Choice: Glasgow Riverside Museum's John Messner on a South African Railways gem

John Messner interviewed by Ben Miller | 06 July 2011
Curator’s Choice: In his own Words...John Messner, the Curator of Transport and Technology at the incredible new Riverside Museum in Glasgow, introduces a steam juggernaut which was one of 60 locomotives built in the Scottish city for the South African Railways…

“In my five years at Glasgow Museums, I have had the opportunity to see and learn about thousands of objects in the museum collection. But my favourite for several reasons is the South African Railways locomotive 3007. 

I have been involved with the locomotive since it was purchased. It is one of the newest objects in the collection. It was bought from the scrap line in South Africa in late 2006, just as I started my post, because it represented Glasgow’s proud heritage of exporting steam locomotives built in the city.

The locomotive is big!  It is the largest object in the museum, and indeed in all of Glasgow Museums collection. It is 74ft long, 13ft tall and weighs more than 150 tons. Just the sheer scale makes it a fantastic object. It really wows visitors.

When the museum purchased the locomotive, it was in a sorry state. It had been in the scrap line for 20 years, with many parts missing and most of the surface corroded. In order to get it ready for display in the Riverside, we had to complete a comprehensive conservation programme.

It was cleaned, had rust removed, old parts were reintegrated, and new parts were made and fitted in order to make the locomotive look as if it was a working engine. 

The engine was not restored to an as-new condition, but conserved to look like an end of life working steam engine. We wanted to retain as much of its history as possible, so no parts were replaced – they were just cleaned, or new parts were added.

That is a new technique for the museum, as previously our locomotives had been restored to an “ideal” condition. It meant I had to search out as much possible information about this engines (and the others in its class) so that the team would have a good working idea of what we wanted.

It gave me a great chance to dig deep into the history of one object, to piece together facts and to produce a vision of the final product that would be both accurate and acceptable.

The museum collection featured various locomotives built in the city, but none that had been exported to countries across the globe. Indeed, the Glasgow-based North British Locomotive Company built more than 28,000 locomotives before closing in 1962, and around 20,000 of these were built for overseas.

I had the fantastic chance to visit South Africa to see the locomotive, conduct an initial conservation survey and make vital contacts with heritage groups and ex-railway workers in South Africa. They proved valuable during the research of the locomotive’s history and the conservation programme to get it ready for display.

Since the locomotive came back to Glasgow in August 2007, I have been researching its history as well as the history of the railways in South Africa. It’s been a really interesting process, and finding details of this specific locomotive has proved difficult. But details have surfaced which have allowed me to pull together a good history of the locomotive.

What has also been very interesting has been research into how this locomotive was involved with the Apartheid system in South Africa, a topic very rarely discussed in regards to transport in South Africa.

The South African Railways were a nationalised industry and thus were a full part of the racial segregation in the country. Discovering information in regards to Apartheid was difficult, as most transport books don’t mention much – if anything – on this painful history, and resources on Apartheid don’t mention the railways often. 

Basically, all the skilled jobs were reserved for white people, so locomotive drivers, firemen, fitters and the like were only open to whites.

Black people did work on the railways (they were the second largest group employed), but they were confined to less skilled jobs. In addition, stations, carriages, facilities and even platforms were divided by race.

One of the displays near the museum examines the Apartheid system and how transport links were part of this system.

The work on this locomotive, getting it to Glasgow, researching its history, and getting it ready for display, has been a massive part of my time here at Glasgow Museums.

I have had the great opportunity to be part of a huge project, and I hope that the final product will both informative and interesting to our visitors here at Riverside Museum.”

The locomotive 3007 in numbers:

£19,600 (£2 million in today’s money)
Total length: 22.5m (74ft)
Total weight (in working order): 182,583kg (179 tons)
Maximum height: 3.95m (12 feet, 11½in)
Maximum width: 3.04 m (10ft)
Wheels: 30 inch front, 60 inch drive, 34 inch rear
Working pressure: 210lb/square inch
Total heating surface: 3,415 square ft
Tractive Force: 47,980 lb
Tank capacity: 27,504 litres (6,050 gallons)
Coal capacity: 14,225 kg (14 tons)
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