Australian Tank Engines

There is something about a tank engine that I find irresistible.

They may not be as visually appealing as a VR R Class or a NSWGR 38 Class. Watching a tank loco go about its work may not be as exciting as watching and listening to double-headed AD60s winding up to assault Raglan Bank or Hawkmount or some other heavy goods loco drag tonnage up any of the other steep grades around the country.

VR’s elegant DDE Class tank engine No. 702. The 58 strong DDE Class tank engines were built in Victoria from 1908. (State Library of Victoria photo)

VR’s elegant DDE Class tank engine No. 702. The 58 strong DDE Class tank engines were built in Victoria from 1908. (State Library of Victoria photo)

Tank engines in government service
But there was something magical for a young boy who could lay in bed in the very early hours of a frosty winter’s morning and listen as a humble NSWGR 20 Class struggled to keep its footing as it hauled 240 tons of coal up the 1 in 27 grade on the Potts Hill branch.

While a few Australian tank engines were visually appealing, the best that could be said for most tank engines in this country was that they were functional. While the VR DDe Class engines of 1908 are sleek and almost elegant there is little visual beauty in a NSWGR 26 Class. And yet these simple, functional tank engines are more interesting to many of us than any mainline engine.

While the express passenger engines and the heavy goods engines held the spotlight and gained all the publicity for the railways it was the humble tank loco that got on with the work and not just on the government owned lines.

Mary Ann – a very simple tank engine that spent its working life in a thick forest, ended its days in a locked shed in the village of Dundathu in Queensland and yet had a huge impact on today’s Queensland railways. The Mary Ann was built in 1873 by the company that was to become Walkers Engineering of Maryborough. Over the years Walkers built many steam and diesel locomotives that were used across Australia. This loco was built for William Pettigrew for use on his 3’ 3” gauge timber railway near Tin Can Bay in Queensland. Pettigrew and his inexpensive construction methods influenced the construction methods used by the Queensland Railways well into the 20th Century. (Photo from the State Library of Queensland)

Mary Ann – a very simple tank engine that spent its working life in a thick forest, ended its days in a locked shed in the village of Dundathu in Queensland and yet had a huge impact on today’s Queensland railways. The Mary Ann was built in 1873 by the company that was to become Walkers Engineering of Maryborough. Over the years Walkers built many steam and diesel locomotives that were used across Australia.
This loco was built for William Pettigrew for use on his 3’ 3” gauge timber railway near Tin Can Bay in Queensland. Pettigrew and his inexpensive construction methods influenced the construction methods used by the Queensland Railways well into the 20th Century. (Photo from the State Library of Queensland)

Tank engines working for private industry
All but forgotten these days were the many industrial tank engines that came to this country to help build dams, pipelines, move raw materials around industrial plants, haul sugar cane, timber, sand and firewood.

Government owned tank engines were never far from skilled maintenance and repair shops that could handle every task that was required to keep their tank locos working for years but conditions were quite different for the tank engines that came to Australia and went into private ownership.

For many of those tank engines life was tough. The track that they ran over was poor, the water that they used was filled with minerals that could shorten boiler life and maintenance was often rudimentary and carried out in a poorly equipped shed rather than a fully equipped workshop.

Following a faint trail
These industrial tank engines often arrived with great fanfare in the local press but their ending was rarely mentioned and physical records, if any were kept, are no longer in existence. So all a historian may have to work with is a faded photo or two, maybe a paragraph or two in an old newspaper and the childhood memories of anyone who may have seen the loco in action.

Preservation is no guarantee that the history of a tank engine may be fully known. At the local museum at Gin Gin in Queensland there is an 610mm well tank engine that is almost a complete mystery. We know where it came from before it was donated to the museum but we don’t know who built it or when it arrived in Australia.

It’s obviously of European manufacture and it does have some similarities to similar engines built by Krauss but there are some obvious differences and there are no markings on the engine to indicate who the maker might have been.

Of course there may be some manufacturers’ records remaining that can provide us with builder’s numbers and other identifying information but that is often of little help when the tank engines that remain today are actually the amalgam of two or more locos.

Government owned railways usually kept meticulous records of all the work done on each loco in their possession and in many cases those records are preserved but private industry was more interested in making money than keeping records. They would not hesitate to combine parts from two engines that were in poor condition to make one engine that could go on making money and not bother to keep any records of what they did.

A photo dating from 1890 showing what is described as “the Kitson” shunting the wharf at Port Germain in South Australia. (State Library of South Australia B-54865)

A photo dating from 1890 showing what is described as “the Kitson” shunting the wharf at Port Germain in South Australia. (State Library of South Australia B-54865)

All a historian might see is that two similar locomotives existed but then one would no longer appear in ongoing records while the remaining loco continued to work for its owner and that is something that was done occasionally here in Australia.

There are several preserved industrial tank engines here in Australia that are actually a combination of two engines but fortunately, in most of those cases, we have enough information to be confident in the identification of the two locos that were combined to form one.

So while Australian tank locomotives may not be as glamorous as a mainline loco they are certainly interesting and researching them can be a very interesting pastime.

As always, this is a work in progress and more will be added on a regular basis.