Railway History Group

Wren Locos

By Robin Lake in South Africa 

There are a couple of tenuous leads pointing to the possibility of Kerr, Stuart & Co Ltd “Wren” class locomotives being used on the fourteen kilometre long 60 cm gauge service line laid from Brits West to Hartbeespoort Dam during the building of the latter over 1918-1925.

In 1921 the Director of Irrigation reported that in March of that year two steam locomotives were secured “from the Air Force Authorities” for use on the line. 

From KS records we know that four Wrens were consigned to “SAR Delagoa Bay” (no date given but before 1930), namely works numbers 4006, 4013, 4014 and 4015. This is gleaned from a manuscript entry alongside these numbers in the KS engine register. However, the KS shipping specification ledgers bear no evidence of such a consignment. This suggests that some party other than KS arranged the export of these four Wrens.

4006 was one of a batch built for the British Ministry of Munitions and ordered in July 1918 to be followed a month later by an order for another batch which included the other three mentioned. All four were intended for work at the British Air Ministry (by then) aircraft repair depot at Greenhill, Sheffield. 

Because of favourable port dues and other expenses it was not unusual for goods destined for South Africa to be sent via Mozambique. The meaning and significance of the “SAR…” (South African Railways?) are left for the reader to determine.

Was the Director of Irrigation referring to the British Air Ministry or to the South African Air Force founded in February 1920? In support of the latter we can have regard for what became known as The Imperial Gift being surplus post WW 1 aircraft and other material given to the British Dominions to assist with the setting up of their fledgling national air forces. The South African portion of this comprised 100 aircraft, hangars, complete workshops, trucks, trailers and numerous other items (no full listing seen). Is it too far fetched to surmise that this included the four Wrens which worked at Greenhill? It is interesting to note that at least 17 Wrens appear to have been ordered for use at air establishments in Britain. The first batch of aircraft arrived in South Africa in September 1919. 

In their issue of October 1922 The South African Irrigation Magazine reported that two locomotives had been supplied by the Irrigation Department to assist with the building of Grassridge Dam near Cradock (1920-1924), one from stock and the other from the works at Hartbeespoort Dam. The January 1923 issue reported that a third locomotive was due to be sent from Hartbeespoort to Grassridge. 

Whilst the obvious channels of research into the Grassridge locomotives were explored, with no luck, the name of an old-timer who grew up on a Grassridge farm came to light. He apparently had a great interest in vintage tractors, engines and things mechanical. He advised that the Grassridge locomotives (locomotive?) went to Lake Mentz and this was backed up by two friends, one in water affairs at Uitkeer near Somerset East, the other at Lake Mentz. He provided a copy of an article about the restoration of “Little Bess” maintaining that she was one of the locomotives. A case of identifying a look alike but not the persona in question? In actual fact “Little Bess” is the Wren originally restored by the Railway Enthusiasts Society, Port Elizabeth and was supplied in November 1919 by KS as new to the Sundays River Irrigation Board for Lake Mentz construction (1918-1922) and bearing works number 4031.



Makers photo of a Wren. Leith Paxton Collection KS 4031 at work at Lake Mentz. Leith Paxton Collection

One question is whether a Wren would have been able to cope on a 14 km line with a ruling gradient of 1 in 28.6. It is interesting to note that although most Wrens were specified for 61 cm (two foot) gauge it may not have been necessary for any adaption to 60 cm gauge. One of the sources referred to below makes the point that the wheel profiles were arranged so that running was possible on both gauges being a rather slack fit on the broader and slightly tight on the 60 cm gauge. 



KS 4031 as discovered at Lake Mentz in 1973. Leith Paxton

Personal research
Horsman in The Industrial Railway Record Nos 5 and 6
Plant in The Industrial Railway Record No 37
Jux – Compilation of Kerr Stuart & Co Ltd Locomotive Works List
The Internet
Department of Irrigation Reports
South African Irrigation Magazine 6



Railway History Group

We are strong supporters of the newsletters produced by Wally Greig under the heading of Railway History Group.

Wally has been accessing information on our Wren Class locomotive, No. 4031, Little Bess. The full history of this locomotive will appear in the next edition which we will publish in full due to the fact that Little Bess is in our possession at Sandstone.

In the meantime here is a tantalising glimpse of some of the archive material that has been unearthed.





The Railway History Group’s newsletters are published on Steam in Action’s web site



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