Tracking the past - the preservation of the railway archives of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s railways thrived from 1893 to 1961. They closed in 1975 and the infrastructure was destroyed in the civil war. This project digitised images and documents including timetables, operating manuals and so on, that provide a rich picture of the role of the railways in the development of the country.

The Sierra Leone Railway was built in 1893. It changed the nature of society, opening up the hinterland behind the Freetown Colony and port. It thrived until independence in 1961 but closed in 1975 and much of the infrastructure was lost, along with the academic memory of the role of the railways in the development of the country.

What remained were some locomotives and carriages in a small museum, and inside these, in unsuitably hot, dusty and humid conditions, was found a significant amount of archival material: documents, tickets, photographs, postcards, stamps, files, notebooks, wagon labels and operating manuals, which was assumed to have been destroyed. Sierra Leone is a young country and few people remember the railways.

The Museum partnered with the National Railway Museum in York, who trained local staff in archive handling and digitisation techniques as well as how to use archival material in education work. In the event just over 3.5k digital images were created. It has brought interesting things to light, including the discovery of a study that may have precipitated the premature closure of the railways as its authors had underestimated the resourcefulness of the workers in being able to source components and maintain carriages.

Project Details

Location: Sierra Leone Organiser(s): Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) Project partner(s): National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone Funder(s): Arcadia Funding received: £15,266 Commencement Date: 09/2013 Project Status: Completed
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