15 July 2010

Nababeep - Richard Thomas Hall - 1st builder of the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand

NOTE: Information about the Namaqualand Railway is spread over these entries:
  1. "CLARA" built by Kitson & Co in 1891
  2. The Namaqualand Copper Mine Railway - a brief history
  3. Locomotives of the Namaqualand Copper Railway
  4. "The little railway in Namaqualand" written by Richard Thomas Hall
  5. Richard Thomas Hall - 1st builder of the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand
  6. Traveling on the Copper Mine Railway in Namaqualand - some personal accounts
Richard Thomas Hall

Richard Thomas Hall, a former superintendent engineer of the Redruth & Chasewater Railway, was charged with improving railway links in Namaqualand. Hall's 93-mile Port Nolloth Tramway, built between 1869 and 1876, was considered one of Africa's engineering marvels, and set the 2ft 6in narrow-gauge for sub-Saharan Africa. The following brief bio written by Graham Ross and Tony Murray appeared as the 14th article in the series "Past Masters" in Civil Engineering | February 2008. (pdf document here.):

Ore from the Namaqualand copper mines was shipped to Cornwall for treatment, so it was perhaps natural that the Cape Copper Company should appoint a Cornish-man to investigate its transport problems.

Richard Thomas Hall, the engineer who conceived, designed and built the narrow-gauge railway through the forbidding country from Port Nolloth to Okiep, was born in Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1823. His experience as Superintendent of the narrow-gauge Redruth to Chasewater Railway and of its conversion from horse to steam traction stood him in good stead when it came to tackling the transportation problems of the Namaqualand copper mines.

He arrived in Namaqualand in 1865, enlisted the help of surveyor Patrick Fletcher (PM 13), and carried out extremely thorough investigations into the various options for getting the copper to the coast. He did not exclude road transport from his studies, but he must soon have become aware of the difficulties attached to this mode, particularly the seasonal lack of water and forage for draught animals, which meant that the riding season was limited to a few months in each year. In the closed season, ore would be stockpiled and income would cease, which had obvious drawbacks for the copper companies.

Thus his comprehensive report recommended a narrow-gauge (2’ 6”) tramway or light railway from Okiep to Port Nolloth. The Colonial Government did not support this solution and instead built Fletcher’s Messelpad road to Hondeklip Bay.

Unfortunately the Cape Copper Company was in the meantime committed to contributing to the improvement of this road, so Hall’s proposal for a railway, although accepted in principle, could not be implemented at that time.

However, when in the next few years the transportation of ore by wagon went from bad to worse, the Copper Company called Hall back to carry out the necessary surveys, and to design and build the Port Nolloth railroad which he had recommended three years earlier.

It was a formidable task involving a 70 km section across the littoral sandveld to the foot of the escarpment. The Anenous Pass then climbed 400 m to the plateau over a distance of 12 km, and the final section across the hardeveld to Okiep covered 55 km. Not only did Hall have to cope with the unfriendly climatic, geological and topographic conditions, but also with a lack of trained artisans and labour, and with the continual difficulties of getting supplies and equipment delivered on time from overseas. (It should be remembered that government road builders could invoke convict labour – Hall had no such resources.) Nonetheless, he succeeded in building a work unique in our history, and one which saved the copper mines from closure.

The complete railway was formally opened on 1 January 1876 and was in service until 1942.

The first section was brought into use using mules, and when Hall saw how well the track stood up to the carriage of materials he recommended trying a light steam engine. Two locomotives were imported, but proved unreliable, not the least because they consumed large quantities of water. The company reverted to mules and for a time kept an enormous stable of some 260 animals. Each train required about 60 mules to pull it, except on the section down the Anenous Pass, which the trucks ran down under gravity – and the watchful eye of the brakeman! Eventually, and not without some false starts, steam was reintroduced in 1890, and served until the line was taken out of service. Road motor transport proved more efficient and gradually took over, initially to Port Nolloth and later to the SAR railhead at Bitterfontein.

The benefits of the railway were quite spectacular. In 1870, 12 000 tons of ore were mined, but only 7 300 tons could be transported to the port. In 1872, when only the coastal section was in operation, 13 240 tons were exported. Little wonder that the company opted to extend the line!
After the Namaqualand job Hall was employed by William Brounger of the Cape Railways to find a way for the line from Worcester through the Langeberg to the Karoo, from where the location of the line to the Diamond Fields was relatively simple. His best route was via Montagu and Ladismith and then doubled back to Touws River. He spent about six months on that job, for which he was paid a mere 100 pounds. (Fortunately for the efficiency of the SAR, Wells Hood, Brounger’s star location engineer, discovered a much more direct line through the Hex River valley.) During this period Hall’s voice was heard in influential circles, and he is credited with having advised the Colonial Select Committee to adopt the 3’ 6” (1 067 mm) gauge which has since become the standard gauge in Africa south of the Sahara.

Hall next did a flying survey from Pretoria to Lourenço Marques for President Burgers of the ZAR, and then became traffic manager of the Cape Railways at Port Elizabeth until he was pensioned at the age of sixty. Thereafter he filled his days as manager of Thomas’ Mine (near Avoca). In 1889 he was appointed by President Brand to manage the Free State railways, but he died in Pretoria while on his way to take up the post. He was then aged 66 years.

Like several of his contemporaries, Richard Thomas Hall was a bold and competent engineer whose achievements merit more appreciation than they have received in the professional annals of our country.


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