“Premier” – Back to the Future and an Award

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In 1905, Edward Lloyd Ltd, the owners of the paper mill at Sittingbourne in Kent decided to convert from a horse drawn tramway to steam power. They initially bought two ‘Brazil’ type engines from Kerr Stuart of Stoke on Trent. These were named ‘Premier’ and ‘Leader’. Their initial role was to haul wagons from the wharf on Milton Creek up into the large papermills which made newsprint. They were joined by a sister engine in1908 called ‘Excelsior’. Over the years they were modified to cope with the harsh weather conditions on the North Kent marshes. 

During World War one the line was extended to Ridham Dock on the Swale estuary over a one kilometre long viaduct and in 1924 a second paper mill was built at Kemsley about half way along the line. Several other engines joined the fleet many of which are still around to this day. When the then owners of the paper mill, Bowater UK Ltd decided to convert to road transport they didn’t want to dispose of their much-loved steam railway and leased it to the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway, who subsequently have purchased the majority ofthe line and now lease the land of their Kemsley Down station and workshops from DS Smith Ltd. 

In 1994 ‘Premier’ who had done sterling work for the railway since handover in 1969 was withdrawn for a overhaul with a need for major boiler work. Initially the SKLR had to raise the money to start this work and in 2006 following a grant from the local council, Swale Borough Council, the work commenced. The engine was stripped down to a bare chassis except for the cylinders which were in remarkably good condition. The decision had been made to return ’Premier’ to her original appearance from 1905 to the best of our ability with very limited funds. We had one black and white photograph which we could work from but we also had to remember that modern Health & Safety had to be acknowledged. 

A new saddle tank was made, and the boiler was sent to external contractor for overhaul, a new cab front had to be manufactured and vacuum braking installed. Several fund-raisingappeals were made. The final part of the ‘Back to the Future’ project was the painting and signwriting of the engine as in the original photograph. These culminated with ‘Premier’s return to steam in May 2022 with a highly successful ‘Three Brazils weekend’ when ‘Premier’ was joined by her two sister engines ’Leader’ and ‘Melior’. It had been decided that ‘Premier’ would also be going to the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway for their gala in September 2022 to allow us to test her vacuum braking and her reliability. She behavedbrilliantly and then returned to Sittingbourne where she worked the Santa Specials in December. 

We were extremely proud of the work of our volunteers and we nominated her for the CoileyAward for Steam Locomotive Engineering in the Heritage Railway Association Awards. In January 2023 we heard that we had been shortlisted with 3 other railways, the Bluebell, the Dean Forest and the Severn Valley. They were all much bigger organisations than we were and all standard gauge. Six of us made the journey to Birmingham for the Awards Ceremony where we all expected one of the others to win but were very surprised to be announced as the winners to big cheers. What next for our volunteers? Well they have already started the overhaul of Bagnall ‘Superb’ with all the work including a new inner firebox being undertaken in house. 

Liz Fuller

Chairman of the Trustees

Sitttingbourne and Kemsley Light Railway

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