Wagon Rolls! A steam railway and a prison connect skills training

A thriving steam railway and a prison in the West Midlands have joined forces to restore a unique museum exhibit: a railway wagon used to carry ammunition and war supplies over 100 years ago.

The World War I Ammunition Wagon project is a new initiative by the Knotty Coach Trust, a charity based at Foxfield Steam Railway near Stoke-on-Trent, and HMP Dovegate, in nearby Uttoxeter. During 2020, the 6 tonne wagon will be restored at the Prison workshops, to help develop prisoners’ skills in large scale woodwork, metalwork, painting, heritage restoration and project management. The project will cost almost £20,000 and has attracted grant support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Trusthouse Charitable Foundation and donations from supporters in memory of a British soldier who died in 1918. Support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund has come through its ‘First World War: Then and Now’ programme, and the project highlights the role of women in the conflict, who worked long hours under very hazardous conditions to produce rifle bullets and shells for the large guns overseas. The wagon was used to transport ammunition and all sorts of essential supplies and materials from the factories on the British mainland to the trenches of the Western Front in France and Belgium.

HMP Dovegate is a Category B prison managed by SERCO, that houses over 1,000 long term prisoners as well as having a local remand function. One of the prison’s fundamental roles is to equip prisoners for release by instilling a work ethic, providing skills and opportunities that would assist them on release and ultimately reduce re-offending. Around 20 prisoners will work six hours per day in Purposeful Activity for a five day week on the project, enabling them to learn and develop skills that will be valuable on their release, not only for heritage restoration, but also for building, decorating and landscape gardening. Training will be led by SERCO’s tutor Kim Brassington, who has visited the carriage and wagon workshop at the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley, near Ripley, to see a similar project. Some of the external grant funding is being used to equip the prison workshop, and fund experienced heritage restoration experts to visit the prison and share their knowledge of traditional techniques. Prisoners will also learn about the history of the wagon and help to build some of the educational displays, led by the Knotty Coach Trust’s Chairman and manager of the project, Mark Smith.

The railway wagon itself is over 100 years old; built in Derby Works by the Midland Railway and converted by the British War Department in 1917 for its role in the global conflict that lasted from 1914-18. Later it was used at an Army depot numbered 46370, and ended up in a quarry in North Wales from where it was rescued from scrapping in 1987 by a member of the Foxfield Railway Society.  Now in the ownership of the Knotty Coach Trust, which has restored the Victorian ‘Knotty Heritage Train’ as a popular local attraction, the wagon had deteriorated through storage in the open for the previous 30 years. The major iron and steel components will be restored at the prison and the superstructure rebuilt using new timber, to match the original drawings. Special air-dried oak will be used for the main frames, all worked by hand using traditional wagon-building techniques, and painted in the Admiralty Grey colour it carried in 1917-18. Once completed and moved back to Foxfield Steam Railway, the wagon will be displayed with examples of some of the goods it used to carry and an explanation about the “Munitionettes” – the women who made them – and the “Tommies” – the men who used them.

It will be fully operational and demonstrated behind steam locomotives on selected dates in 2021, and is the first wooden Victorian style wagon to be restored on the line for many years, the basic vehicle being typical of the freight rolling stock on a former colliery railway.

Chairman of the Foxfield Steam Railway Mr Ron Whalley said: “The Knotty Coach Trust has already achieved the thorough restoration of three Victorian carriages which bring delight to our passengers every year. The Foxfield Railway Society has a long-held ambition to restore its collection of traditional wooden wagons from a century ago, and this Ammunition Wagon represents the first step in achieving that ambition.”

John Hewitson, Serco Contract Director at HMP Dovegate, said, “Our prison workshops have already produced some very useful timber components for carriage restoration at Foxfield Railway and so we are very pleased to take this collaboration to the next level and rebuild a complete railway wagon in-house. The range of opportunities for skills training are tremendous. All the prisoners who work on the carriage can feel justifiably proud of their achievement when we roll it out finished later this year. They are learning skills that will help them gain employment and prevent reoffending on their release back into society, breaking the cycle of crime and reoffending.”

A grand-daughter of the late Private Job Wilson (who died of wounds from the second battle of Cambrai, on 8 October 1918) who contributed a significant anonymous donation towards the costs of the project, said “It is poignant to remember the sacrifice of so many young men, such as my grandfather Job Wilson, who gave their lives in the trenches. And to link them back to so many women who suffered long term health issues as a result of the work they did in the munitions factories to supply them with the equipment for war.”  

Chairman of the Knotty Coach Trust Mark Smith said “The Trust would like to thank the team at Dovegate Prison for approaching the Foxfield Steam Railway to take on an ambitious project such as this. We would also like to thank the grant funders which have made it possible to purchase the materials and equip the prison workshop, especially thanks to the players of the National Lottery, whose grant has contributed half the costs.”

Anne Jenkins, Director, England, Midlands & East at The National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “We are excited to support the Knotty Coach Trust in the restoration of the WWI Ammunition Wagon, while also showcasing the pivotal role that women played in the global conflict, with money raised by National Lottery players. This project will ensure the Wagon can be admired for years to come, and also provide opportunities for people to explore their past and create stories for the future.”