British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Dr. T. P. Eddy
Our Side of the Tracks
Elder Dempster Line
Europeans in the Colonial Nigeria of 1937 (or expatriates, a word not yet invented) maintained and exaggerated the social distinctions they had known in their homecountry. The distinctions began on the Elder Dempster mailship as it sailed out of Liverpool. Colonial Service officers, appointed by the Secretary of State, travelled First Class, mere technicians with a Crown Agents' contract went Second Class. So there was at once, quite unofficially, a distinction between "First Class officers" and "Second Class officers" similar to commissioned and non-commissioned officers in the forces. This silly distinction was carried overboard at the port of destination, to the delight of onshore Mrs. Gadsbys.

In the First Class accommodation more refined distinctions appeared, when the ship's officers changed from navy-blue to tropical white uniforms four days out, at Madeira. "First Class" officers of the Colonial Service followed suit, changing from black dinner jackets to tropical white mess-jackets for dinner, with coloured cummerbunds, each colony having its own colour. Those outside The Colonial Service were indeed outsiders, conspicuous by their lack of colonial colours. Fashions on board reflected colonial life on shore. Not quite attaining the viceregal splendours of British India, it was from the same mould.

Our Side of the Tracks
First Steam Train in N. Nigeria
So, in 1937, all these expatriate social gradations existed in Minna, the provincial headquarters of Niger Province in Northern Nigeria. It was also an important railway centre with large locomotive workshops. There was The Minna Club, membership exclusively European, mostly Colonial Service officers with other "first class people, some experienced mining engineers and a number of picturesque gold prospectors. The Railway Club was also exclusively European, but the members were "second class" railwaymen and others. The Minna Club members would sometimes condescend to visit the Railway Club, but the reverse, never, unless the railway were formally invited for a tennis match. There were two exceptions. The railway District Engineer was "first class" as a professional engineer, but the Locomotive Superintendent had come up the hard way. He became "first class", with membership of The Minna Club, by promotion, for he had started his career as a fireman on the London & North Western Railway before it became the LMS. Just as the "first class" officers talked in friendly rivalry comparing their different public schools and Oxbridge colleges, so did the railwaymen compare the British railways where they had started. LMS V. LNER or GWR v. LMS, was just as important as Eton v. Harrow or Oxford v. Cambridge.

These two clubs with all the European housing were on our side of the railway which cut through the town. On the other side of the tracks was the "African Town" (how could it be anything but African?) and The African Club. That was different, but probably much more fun.

Our Side of the Tracks
Minna, 1929
The evening after the first storm of the rainy season had broken, members of The Minna Club were sitting out drinking sundowners after their golf, as was their custom. They looked at the twice-weekly train from Lagos as, very slowly, it pulled up the steep incline in the valley below, which separated them from the African town. It took about half-an-hour to pass out of sight round the hill, with its large locomotive in front and an auxiliary tank-engine pushing behind. Sometime after it had disappeared, the little tank engine would reappear by itself, running back at much greater speed to the station. Bets were laid on the timing of these events. The sundowner chatter was that, without cuttings, embankments and tunnels, gradients on the Nigerian Railway must be much steeper than on British railways and that the enormous wind-pressures in last night's storm might have stopped the slow and laboured progress of the train we had been watching; particularly so as its locomotive was not streamlined like the Coronation Scot.

Our Side of the Tracks
Coronation Scot
"No" said the Locomotive Superintendent, "You are all wrong. I was an LMS man myself. On the west coast line we had many more steep gradients than the LNER, which ran through the fens and flat country. The streamlining of trains like the Coronation Scot is mostly for show. What appears to be streamlining on the big Gresley LNER locos is really to keep smoke and steam clear of the driver's line of sight. It is cross-winds which matter, not head-winds. They didn't matter too much driving a passenger train with corridor-coaches. But to take a local passenger with old-style separate coaches along Morecambe Bay with a westerly gale blowing off the sea was trouble that you will never find on the Nigerian Railway." He gave details of maximum wind-velocities in Nigeria and Morecambe Bay.

Turning to gradients, he said "Mostly, the N.R. goes along contours, because embankments and cuttings are expensive and difficult with these heavy rains. When it comes to rainfall, Britain is not in the Nigerian league, but British railways have many much steeper gradients than the Nigerian Railway. That is why, waiting here in the Club after dark for the North Mail you first see its headlight appearing far to the right, over there, and then it takes half-an-hour meandering from right to left and back, all over the place, until it gets to the station. A British railway over the same sort of ground would come straight here".

"When I was a loco fireman, we took long goods trains up very steep gradients. They had the old style small goods trucks with handbrakes, not the hydraulic brakes that are replacing them. My driver would stop his train when it was half way over the summit. Then I would get out and go back down the train putting on the handbrakes of alternate trucks until I met the guard, who did the same for the back half of the train. We would have a word and decide what would be a winner at Doncaster, or what about Everton's chances next Saturday. Then we would both turn back, him to his brake-van, and me to the engine. Up there alone on the moors, it could be cruelly cold with a high wind. The driver was all right. He had a furnace and a bloody great boiler to keep him warm. Stopping the train was tricky. If it stopped too soon you couldn't get it over the top; if you went too far over it would go downhill for some miles out of control and all you could do was blow your hooter. Either way, you got some nasty ribbing from your pals".

On a way of life which he knew from experience, he was the only authority. His story had exposed the idle talk of the club for what it was worth. Many of the others knew a great deal about the tribal customs of the African people on the other side of the tracks, but almost nothing of the kind of life in their own country, on our side of the tracks, of which the Locomotive Superintendent had been speaking. Only in Africa had they been able to find out about life in the other half of England.

But two years later there was a war. After that, life was different on both sides of the tracks.

British Colony Map
Map of Central Nigeria
Colony Profile
Nigeria
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 54: October 1987


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