Seven years in Sierra Leone: my great grandfather and the Sierra Leone Government Railway

I recently gave a talk at the National Railway Museum, York, at a conference entitled ‘Tracing Your Railway Ancestors’. I spoke about my search for my great grandfather, Benjamin Stephen Armes. The aim of the talk was to outline the sources used to trace ancestors. The following is the part of my speech referring to his time in Sierra Leone.

I traced Benjamin Armes’ early years through the UK Census data and found his application to join the Institute of Mechanical Engineers which listed his CV, and was therefore most helpful.

From that application, I know that my great grandfather was employed in Sierra Leone: November 1897 – to date (1902) as Locomotive Superintendent Sierra Leone Government Railway and Acting General Manager July-Dec 1901.

In the National Archives, Kew, I found ledgers logging correspondence between Sierra Leone and the Colonial Office and was excited to find my great grandfather mentioned quite a few times. Most of the actual correspondence has been destroyed, but the ledgers summarise the contents. The earliest dated 29/10/1897 said it was a copy of the agreement with B S Armes – passage taken for 2 November.

I later confirmed, using an online genealogy website that he left Liverpool on the SS Biafra on 2 November arriving in Freetown on 15 November. He travelled alone, leaving behind his pregnant wife, and three young children.

The railway accounts for 1897 show that at the end of 1897 he was Locomotive Superintendent on a salary of £50 (about £28000 today). The job of Locomotive Superintendent was responsible for the building, maintenance and modification of locomotives and rolling stock, responsible for housing the stock and running the repair sheds. So in 1897 with the railway under construction there wouldn’t have been many locomotives, only those ferrying supplies along the emerging track, but the role would have been a rapidly expanding one.

The first section of the railway was opened by Acting Governor Major Nathan on 14 January 1898 and a trial trip to Waterloo was run on 1st April, days before the arrival of Anna Dorothea and children. They left Liverpool on 26 March aboard the SS Bakana – 3 Armes children appear on the passenger list. It is not clear if these included baby Frederick who had been born in January. Isaac would have been only 7, Emma 6 and Benjamin 4, so it would seem strange if any of them had been left behind.

Sadly, only 2 months later on 23rd May 1898, Anna Dorathea died, of what, I have yet to find out, but malaria is a strong possibility. Malaria, blackwater fever, dengue fever and many diahorreal diseases killed a high proportion of Europeans, earning Sierra Leone the moniker “White Man’s grave”.   She was buried in Cline Town, which is where the railway workshops were located. I employed a local researcher to go to the Racecourse cemetery, which is nearby, to see if he could find the grave for me, but no luck so far.

In November, little Frederick also died, but not in Sierra Leone, in Middlesex, so the family must have returned to London at some stage. The registry entry for Frederick’s death shows 9 other infants age ‘0’ years and one 68 year old woman, so possibly one of the flu pandemics of the era.

That same November Benjamin Armes was recommended for appointment as Locomotive Superintendent and Storekeeper and on 10th December he took passage on board SS Angola from Liverpool, leaving the three children in England. From addresses on some postcards, it looks as though they were left with their grandparents Isaac and Emma in Cricklewood. I have school attendance cards for Emma and Ben for a school not far away. It would appear that this photograph was taken around that time.

Benjamin Stephen Armes with  (L to R) Emma, Isaac and Benjamin

Benjamin Stephen Armes with (L to R) Emma, Isaac and Benjamin

Benjamin Armes missed the start of regular Saturday services to Waterloo which began in October 1898, but would have been in Freetown when the first passenger train ran to Songo on 18th March 1899 and for the official opening of the railway on 1st May 1899. This is also the day on which he was officially appointed by the Secretary of State Joseph Chamberlain. There was evidently some misunderstanding about the terms of his appointment and a letter from Joseph Chamberlain says that his salary should be £600 rising in two increments to £650 because Mr Armes was specially recommended.

This appointment was a significant elevation in status for him. There is mention that his leave was difficult to calculate because of service in the construction branch. During the construction phase employees do not seem to have been paid by the Colonial Government because they don’t feature in the list of government salaries in the Blue book of 1898.  His salary listed in subsequent years of £650 would be equivalent to about £350,000 today; a good salary and an explanation of how he would later pay for his children’s private education. In addition to his salary he was provided with Quarters.

salary and appointment 1899 showing Gammon deceased (2)

Government salaries are recorded in the Blue Books which survive as part of the National Archives of Sierra Leone. It is amazing that some archives did in fact survive in the brutal war which engulfed the nation for over 10 years to 2002. Some of the collection is in archive boxes, but even though there are index books, the location of boxes on the shelving no longer corresponds to the careful cataloguing. This does present some problems! However the Blue Books, which were the annual summaries of what happened in the Colony, were easy to find as was the Sierra Leone Gazette, which lists ships movements and Government ordinances and numerous wills. There are shelves of ledgers in random order which contain correspondence between the Colonial Government and the Colonial Office in London. Locating Volume 1 of a given year is no guarantee of finding Volume 2 anywhere nearby, if at all.

As I was leafing through the ledgers I was struck by the wealth of information they contain. There are numerous applications for vacancies, in particular nursing positions, which give great biographical details. They would be so useful to anyone researching the person, but are pretty inaccessible in these dusty volumes. We have become so used to clicking on a screen and receiving instant information from all over the world, that it is perhaps good to get a taste of how research was done in the past! At least the digitisation project for the railway records will ensure that some records will be available to a wider audience.

One fascinating photograph in the National Archives of Sierra Leone, which was posted on Facebook page of the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone, shows those present at the opening of the railway: to the right of centre front row I have identified the Acting Governor, then Major and later Sir Matthew Nathan and to the left of centre, one row back, I think I have found my great grandfather

P1130475 (2)

Opening of the Sierra Leone Government Railway 1st May 1899

My great grandfather seems to have spent the whole of 1899 in Sierra Leone and took long leave in 1900 from January to May – 120 days on full pay. He returned on the SS Roquelle in May accompanied by Mrs Armes. The second Mrs Armes was according to the 1911 Census, Mathilda and they married in 1899, but I have yet to find where and when, although it seems it must have been in Sierra Leone. The Census also reveals that she was born around 1866 in Geldern, Germany – which was also the birth place of Anna Dorothea’s mother. I suspect they are related, but have yet to establish the connection – possibly cousins – a mystery yet to be solved. This is the only entry I can find of her on passenger lists.

The main route of the railway in Sierra Leone, was from the capital, Freetown, into the interior with the intention of improving trade and transporting agricultural produce to the coast. In September 1900 the local chiefs were taken for a ride and the advantages of the railway were explained to traders and the people. The Rotifunk to Songo line opened at the end of that month.

However another shorter railway was also built, shown on the plan by Messrs Shelford the consulting engineers. This railway was to enable the building of Hill Station, a settlement high above Freetown intended to provide the British Government Officials with a healthier place to live. It had just been established that Anopheles mosquitoes are the vector for malaria, so the houses were to be ‘mosquito-proof’. Many are still there today, although somewhat dilapidated. The houses were ordered from England, shipped to Sierra Leone and transported to site on the newly completed railway in 1904. The hill railway was “on one of the steepest grades ever attempted for its type of locomotive.” The rolling stock for this section, like the rest of the railway would have been under the supervision of my great-grandfather.


Chief Justice’s bungalow 2014


Chief Justice’s bungalow when newly built 1904

The Hill Railway was run entirely for the convenience of the Colonial Officials living at Hill Station, bringing them down to Freetown in the morning and taking them back at the end of the day. Trains left the main station at Water Street westward, past the Cotton Tree, which is the symbol of the centre of Freetown, and wound on over the Congo River, through the barracks at Wilberforce up to Hill Station. Once motor cars became available, this section of the railway was closed and parts of the old track now form roads.

The houses at Hill Station were not the first mosquito-proof ones built in the colony. A letter to Ronald Ross of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine from a colleague in the Colony dated February 1901 said “malaria proof buildings are being erected at Cline Town Station 4 miles out.”

The First Mosquito-proof house in the Colony of Sierra Leone

The First Mosquito-proof house in the Colony of Sierra Leone

So it seems that one of these is the house in a photograph found in an album inherited from my grandmother. It appears that Benjamin and Mathilda may have been the first occupants: the house certainly looks newly built, possibly not finished, as the outdoor kitchen is not apparent – kitchens, with their open fires were kept separate to reduce risk of fire spreading. Railway tracks run across the picture in the background with some wagons on the left, which confirms that it was near the line and probably the workshops. Elevation on concrete pillars was useful for the rainy season when rainfall is torrential.

In 1900 the Governor Sir King Harman had some difficulty in replacing the General Manager who had transferred to the Lagos Railway.  Correspondence shows: “Mr J M Stanley Acting Resident Engineer of Railway should not be appointed because of “his open defiance of the Govt”. And in April 1901 the application of B S Armes for post of General Manager of Railway: “cannot be recommended.” But he was appointed Acting General Manager from July to December 1901. In July the Governor recommends against the appointment of Mr Waller, stating: “He has a bad temper and his repellent manner is shown by his dealings with subordinates and public.”

On 16 November the Governor “Requests immediate appointment of a competent Gnl Manager, as a series of derailments have shaken the public confidence in Mr Armes the Acting General Manager and are affecting the popularity of the railway. Consulting Engineers to be referred to as to the causes of derailments.” It was later reported that a lack of ballast had caused the problem. Finally in April 1902 a new General Manager Mr Comber was appointed on a salary of £700 pa.

At the end of November 1901 Benjamin Armes took another long leave until 20 August 1902. While he was away, it was proposed to split his post into two separate jobs, Locomotive Superintendent and Storekeeper, and that his service was not to be continued. However in June copies of letters appointing Mr Armes as Locomotive Superintendent and Storekeeper in the Railway Department are logged.

In September 1902 he applied for the post of Locomotive Superintendent on the Natal Railway, but it seems nothing came of this, but may show that he was somewhat dissatisfied with his job.

In January 1903 the line to Bo was opened, but on 28 July Benjamin Armes was invalided home. The report specified that he should undergo a Medical examination before being allowed to return. He returned in December, leaving Liverpool on SS Jebba, alone, but Mathilda may have followed.

Soon after, in January 1904 a letter from Governor King Harman cryptically “Deals with allegations of Mr Armes resp his position as regards Genl Manager. Recommends that he should be got rid of…. Defends Mr Comber Gen. Mgr”. This is followed in April by a letter saying Mr Armes was called on to resign and did so. He was granted 20 days leave and free passage, which he took arriving in UK on 8 May.  On 6 May the Governor writes that he understands that Mr Armes intends to submit his complaints to the Secretary of State. I haven’t been able to find out what these complaints were but his departure was certainly sudden.


My second cousin has an appreciation which was signed by 21 colleagues, expressing their sincere regret at his departure within 4 days. They declare the high esteem with which they hold him and “our unflinching attachment to your person” and “ without flattery we unanimously testify to your loyalty to duty, respect for merits, sympathy with even the youngest apprentice, as also your love for justice without favouritism – these are the shining qualities which have… gathered us here .. to pay our farewell respects to one who has ably ruled the hearts of his subordinates for so many years.” It appears that he was truly liked and respected.

After he left Sierra Leone it seems that he never again held such a prestigious job, despite his experience and membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. In the 1911 Census he is a licensed victualler in the East End of London. I suspect he looked back at his time in Freetown with some nostalgia.

No one in our family had been back to Sierra Leone until I arrived in February 2013, 109 years after my great grandfather departed. I am still hoping to find out more about his time in the country and the years he spent before that in Brazil.


9 thoughts on “Seven years in Sierra Leone: my great grandfather and the Sierra Leone Government Railway

  1. Pingback: So long Salone! | Impressions of Sierra Leone

  2. Hello-
    I was very interested on your entry about the Sierra Leone Railway and your great grandfather. I am currently writing a book about the Railway in that same time period. In your entry – you mention going to the Sierra Leone Archives. I was wondering if you gathered any archival material there that I could use – seeing that I am unable to visit there at present (although I have been there several times) and whether you would be willing to share it with me?
    Thank you,
    T Hogg

  3. Hi Julia
    Excellent piece of research and a fascinating and hugely adventurous man from those times.

    I have been doing some recent research on his life after 1914 which you may be interested in.

    I’d be interested in having contact with you to discuss further.
    regards -Keith

  4. Hi Julia, Wow what a fantastic job on the research. I was so blown away of the pictures, especially of my Great grandfather and of course yours and my grandfather Isaac .. I will with permission use some of the info in my history of the Armes family Take care happy hunting.

    • Hi Jessie! Good to hear from you. I have some other photos which might interest you. Can you let me have your email address ( I will not approve it to appear here so it doesn’t become public) so we can find a way to let you see them.

  5. Hello, I am doing research on Malaria, and your page came up because you was writing about Mosquito Proof Houses. It feel weird, I often think that modern man has no capacity to think, it is quite obvious, that mosquito proof homes in Africa would greatly stop malaria in a comfortable way. Yet, the NGO”s keep sending mosquito nets, which get used for fishing nets, or never used. While the cost of installing screens on 1-2 rooms homes is almost never talked about, something that people really want. I have been in 20 African countries, and in Africa over 8 times. I am Andy Lee Graham of

    • Hi! good to hear from you. I agree that the distribution of nets is really over rated – it provides profits for those who produce them, but only limited value to those to whom they are given: as you say, being used for anything but their intended use. Most houses in Sierra Leone do not allow the proper use of nets, and if they are used prove to be hot and uncomfortable to the users. Screening could well be one answer, but public information about the lifecycle of the mosquito would also be really beneficial. If all the stagnant water were removed, or covered in a film of oil, breeding sites would be drastically reduced and with that transmission of the disease. Unfortunately there is no profit in this…..

  6. Excellent research! Such an interesting story Julia! Amazing that his great granddaughter should be stationed in Sierra Leone 100 years later. It must have taken determination to dig through the dusty railway archives. Yet, through diligence you found a treasure chest of useful information for present and future generations. What satisfaction! Thank you!

    Sent from my iPad


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