There have been recent debates in the UK media on the need (or not) for the high speed train, HS2, that is being proposed to run from London to the central belt of Scotland. This brought into my remembrance the establishment of the railways in Nigeria beginning from 1895, and its 29 year extension into the hinterlands that concluded in 1926. The establishment of Nigeria’s railway system has often been credited to Sir Thomas Carter, who was the colonial Governor of Lagos from 1891 to1897.
Sir Gilbert Carter in 1893
Certain events however built up to the coming of the railways. After the annexation of Lagos in 1861, the British initially adopted the policy of non-interference with the Yoruba hinterland. Lagos had therefore being administered from Sierra Leone and later the Gold coast. Around 1886, Lagos was detached from the Gold Coast, became an independent colony and began taking a kin interest in the affairs of Yoruba land, particularly with the looming threat of French intervention in the region. Yoruba inter-ethnic squabbles were not only at their pick within this period, the disputes had also resulted in trade route closures to the interiors. This generated a lot of frustration for Britain’s quest into the interiors, as well as for British and native merchants who desired to trade in the hinterlands. By the third year of his appointment in 1893 therefore, Governor Carter set out on a grand tour of Yoruba land, concluding treaties and agreements with the native Egba and Ibadan chiefs. On the successful completion of the tour, he was able to obtain control over routes and the right to build railways.
Construction of rail tracks
The PWD was therefore authorized to conduct a railway survey by the colonial office in 1885 under the then colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain. By 1896, construction began from Ebute-Meta on Lagos mainland towards the interior. By April 1899, the line was extended to Abeokuta, and by 1900 the following year, the line was open for traffic to Ibadan, a 120 mile distance from Lagos. The next major construction was the 1909 extension from Ibadan to Jebba, after which several other extensions and new lines were added. By the end of 1926, the total mileage of the system had attained 1,597, with a plan in place for an additional 150 miles of construction every year.
Railway map of Nigeria, Circa 1928
Though the PWD survey and engineering units undertook the land surveying and rail track constructions in this all new transportation project, its architectural unit had equally designed and constructed the train station buildings. These buildings currently constitute part of Nigeria’s vast colonial architectural heritage, and help raise questions about the PWD’s building programme; For example, were PWD standardized practices employed in the production of these buildings? Was there a ‘type design’ for the larger and busier stations and another for the less patronized? Were these ‘type designs’ strict prototypes enforced country-wide, or were there variants introduced? Where the designs a direct replica of train stations from Empire’s metropolis, or did they reflect local realities? These and other questions of interest could present a basis for further study.
Old Ebute-Meta, Lagos, Platform (Undated)
New Ebute-Meta, Lagos Terminus, Circa 1955