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Narrow Gauge Railway Project


Keep up to date with the railway crew via their newsletters:  THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS...

THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS - past issues


HRN July 2018

THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS - July 2018

HRN November 2017

THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS - November 2017


THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS - January 2016


THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS - June 2015


THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS - July 2014


THE THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS from January 2005 to July 2012 have been archived.

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Scattered traces survive to show that there was a network of railways at the Royal Gunpowder Mills as extensive as the waterways. Railways did not come here until new steam – powered mills were built from 1856 to help meet the demands of the Crimean War. These are the buildings facing the south and east sides of Queen’s Mead. 

The Early Railway

The first railway linked the long-demolished charcoal mill and gunpowder-mixing house (situated just to the west of the roundabout) to the Mills on the south side of Queen’s Mead, the small stores and the main canal to the east.  By 1888 the system largely built on raised wooden platforms 4’ wide and level with the floors of Mills, had reached the present viewing tower, and was of 2’3” gauge (the distance between the rails).  The wagons and trolleys were pushed by hand never pulled and were turned round on small metal turntables. The rails were generally of wood faced with iron on the top and inner surfaces. Meanwhile, the industrial use of narrow-gauge railways had been revolutionised in 1862 by chief engineer John Ramsbottom at the Crewe works of the London & North Western Railway, where he chose the narrower gauge of 18” to link the workshops. This meant that materials and components could be moved easily and safely not merely between but into each building.  Tight curves became possible, and large awkward items like locomotive boilers could be moved when spread over several small flat trucks. We have three of these; originally from the LNWR’s Wolverton carriage works, and made to a design of 1866. 


The Government was quick to see the advantages of the 18” gauge. Extensive systems became widespread, including those at Woolwich Arsenal and Chatham Dockyard. At Waltham Abbey, the lines were converted to 18” gauge by 1897 and were greatly extended to the north and east as more of the site was built on.  Wagons were still pushed by hand and a surviving push trolley is in the exhibition. In the process areas of the cordite factory buildings all-wooden rails were used to avoid risk of sparks from wheels on steel rails. The Superintendent’s request to use brass rails there was refused because of cost. Surviving wooden rails can be glimpsed from the land train in the entrance of the buildings either side of Newton's Pool. 

First World War

The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 called for a further increase in the Mills’ output, and in the railway’s mileage.  In 1916, a new line was built linking the Mills on the north side of Highbridge Street to those on the south, which no longer survive. This then connected with the standard gauge branch from the main Liverpool Street – Cambridge line serving Enfield Royal Small Arms Factory and the Mills’ coal wharf on the bank of the Lee.  Exchange sidings between the two gauges were put in next to the wharf, but coal for the Mills’ own powerhouses and gas works coming by rail continued to complete its journey by barge. 

With 3½ miles of heavier track to allow locomotives, this new railway was a major undertaking with three swing-bridges for barges to pass where it crossed waterways. To cross Highbridge Street, the railway had to be tunnelled under the road bridge and under the gas and water mains.  It then had to pass over the main sewer and was separated from the river by a substantial retaining wall because the trains had to be given sufficient clearance under the road – the track was some 3’ below normal river level.  Sadly, the tunnel is no longer visible as it was sealed off when the road bridge was rebuilt in 1967.

Because of the risk of explosion from sparks, steam engines were not used here. Instead, four Ruston Proctor paraffin-powered locomotives were bought in 1917, each weighing 4 ½ tons and capable of hauling up to nine loaded bogie wagons, each weighing 2 tons, at up to 6mph.  Several small battery-powered electric locomotives were bought from various manufacturers from 1917 and were the mainstay of the system until closure in 1954.  Following the end of the First World War, the large Ruston Proctor locomotives were gradually sold off, but examples survive in other gauges. Houses in Beaulieu Drive occupy the site of the engine shed and main sidings. 

The railway had a variety of wagons, and carried such items as acid retorts and baskets of laundry as wall as guncotton and cordite. No record has been found so far whether it routinely carried passengers about the site as the systems at Woolwich and Chatham did. Great attention was paid to safety in operation, especially on the locomotive-hauled routes on which trains ran to a timetable. Signals controlled the approaches to the swing - bridges, and a rope ring served as the token giving access through the tunnel. 


The Royal Gunpowder Mills' aim is to reconstruct an 18" gauge railway to enable visitors to enjoy the site by steam.

In 2000 the Mills bought rolling stock from Bicton Gardens, near Exeter, most of which originally came from Woolwich Arsenal. Although not original to Waltham Abbey's railway, all are to similar War Department designs, and the carriage bodies are almost all on frames and bogies identical with those used here for the large cordite wagons of 1917.

The gift in 2003 of 2'6" gauge rolling stock and track parts after the closure of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Bishopton near Paisley (to where most of Waltham Abbey's production had been transferred by 1943) led to the decision to lay the 2'6" line on the west side before tackling the more difficult authentic 18'' gauge route on the east. The long-term aim is that visitors will be able to transfer where both lines meet.

The Hibberd Planet diesel locomotive, standard gauge, Wks. No. 3294 built 1948 which originally worked at Barking Power Station, was acquired from the now closed North Woolwich Station Museum.

We also have a German built RUHRTHALER TUNNELLING 0-4-0 Type G100 H/VE fitted with 139hp Deutz diesel engine & hydraulic transmission. Works No. 3920 built in 1969. All that is known to date of its history is that it was delivered new to Rome to the Ministry of Public Works and was exported from Italy in 1994 to a UK contracting firm by the name of Amey - Donelon, and was one of a pair working on a tunnelling contract in Bristol. Whilst some may say this unit is not relevant to our system at Waltham Abbey, it must be remembered that tunnelling as well as mining often involved the use of explosives for preparation before excavation and removal of spoil by industrial locomotives.

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Great progress has been made by our volunteers laying this track and more acquired from Thames Water and Shoeburyness south towards its destination near the roundabout where the first line began in 1856. Four box vans suitable for adaptation to passenger-carrying were bought last year from the former naval stores railway at Trecwn near Fishguard.

On the 18" gauge a protective canopy for the rolling stock has been erected, and parts bought for a second next to it. Our newest arrivals late last year are the sectioned 1885 boiler of 'Mars' from the closed Museum of Army Transport at Beverley, temporarily stored at Shildon, and all the tramway plates rescued by the archaeologists from Woolwich Arsenal, which includes the sole surviving complete wagon turntable.

Just north of the 2'6" gauge depot and visible from the land train is the recently placed 3' gauge Coal Dust Explosions Simulation Unit of 1960 from the Health and Safety Laboratory at Buxton where it was used in research into spontaneous explosions in deep coal mines.


Are You Interested In Becoming A Volunteer?

We normally work Wednesdays & Saturdays. Please come and visit the Mills Industrial railway and see what we have achieved to date, or read THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS.

See our Volunteer web page for information about becoming a   Railway Volunteer...

Please help us to restore this valuable piece of history by   making a Donation...

For more information, please download our   Railway Leaflet...


Keep up to date with the railway crew via their newsletters: THE HIDDEN Railway NEWS...