Peppercorn Rent

The Emu Bay Railway was a very successful private railway company that ran trains on its own line between Burnie and Zeehan, in Tasmania’s north-west.

The Tasmanian Government ran trains between Zeehan and Strahan, while the Mount Lyell Mining Company ran trains between Strahan and Queenstown. During the 1920s it was possible, with three changes of trains, to travel continuously by train from Burnie to Hobart.

In 1947 the Electrolytic Zinc Company (EZC), whose headquarters were in Melbourne, purchased a Wolseley 18/85 Sedan for the exclusive use of its Director.

This was transferred to EZC’s workshops at Rosebery, in Tasmania, in late 1951 for conversion to a Director’s railcar for the company’s use on the 3’6” gauge Emu Bay Railway, between Rosebery and Guildford Junction.

The conversion was quite substantial considering something like a Ford Prefect could be converted to run on 3’6” gauge by simply replacing the road wheels with flanged ones and locking the steering.

Obviously, the Directors recognized quality and wanted to travel in style when visiting their site at Rosebery. The cost of conversion could not have been an issue.

The conversion entailed shortening the rear axle assembly by gas cutting and welding, and fitting new, shortened axles to match. The chassis was altered to provide support for the front and rear spring hangers, which were moved inwards.

A new front axle was fixed to the stub axles and all steering components were removed. The horn switch was relocated to the dash.

The bumper-mounted fog lights were removed, as were the side lights fitted to the front guards and all unnecessary wiring. Only one rear red light remained, as per railway practice. A large roof rack was fitted. Interestingly, only one windscreen wiper was retained.

The specially-cast railway wheels bolted directly to the original hubs and the original braking system was retained throughout.

At this time, EZC was the Emu Bay Railway’s best customer, and with no road between Guildford and Rosebery the railway was the only connection to Burnie and the rest of Tasmania.

However, the Emu Bay Railway refused to allow the converted Wolseley to traverse its line because the railway unions were strongly opposed to anything on the line not under the control of the EBR.

The solution was to lease the Wolseley to the EBR at a “peppercorn” rental, to then be run by EBR for the exclusive use of EZC.

What follows was unearthed from the records of the EBR by Lou Rae while researching the Centenary Edition of his book, The Emu Bay Railway. With acknowledgement and thanks to Lou Rae, an abridged version of events is related here.

(Note: For those who are not familiar with peppercorns, the Schinus Molle or “Peppercorn Tree” as found in many Australian gardens, though native to Central America, is sometimes referred to as the ‘false’ peppercorn. True peppercorn, as usually associated with food, comes from the flowering vine Piper Nigrem, hence the request for the real one. Nothing like being pedantic! This just goes to prove that a sense of humour can prevail between heads of company departments.)

So, to continue with the story…

All went well until the EBR Secretary questioned the exact amount of rental to be paid. The EZC Secretary replied that a payment was not necessary.

Because the Drivers and Firemen Union was “stirring the pot”, the Emu Bay Railway was forced to pay something to the Electrolytic Zinc Company for the lease of the Wolseley, even though it was used exclusively for EZC

So the EBR sent a packet of seeds to the EZC with a short note: “I’m not sure if we are required to pay one peppercorn per annum or per use of the car, so here are 599. Please let me know when our credit runs out and I will make a further remittance. An official receipt for audit purposes is awaited”.

The EZC replied: “Thanks for the flowers but the payment is in the wrong currency. We need Piper Nigrum, one dried berry of the legal variety – not the Schinus Molle of our gardens. I am sorry I cannot give you a receipt for one year’s rental until you pay in the proper coin!”

Not to be outdone and wanting the matter to be settled, the EBR replied: “Your learned letter of 14 April 1953 to hand and your need noted. We had to go on the black (piper nigrum) market to get your required currency, dried berries to you. May we now have our receipt?”

The receipt was duly received by the EBR for nine and one-quarter peppercorns, representing payment for the next nine and a quarter years; with the next payment due in 1962, and it is not known if the rental was paid at that time!

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The BMC Experience Issue 18. Jul-Sep 2016 Magazine

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