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.
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.
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.
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
"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