Weekly Exhibit

A recent addition to the museum collection is a replica numberplate from Australian NA class locomotive ‘3A’, which is on the Puffing Billy Railway, east of Melbourne. The plate is on loan from Michael Chapman, and the photograph shows the plate being handed over to Keith Theobald on as cold December day in Tywyn.

Michael explains how he acquired the plate, and the risks of spontaneous bidding on eBay.

Watch out for snipers (or the lack of)!

If you’re familiar with the internet-based auction site; eBay, you’ll be aware of snipers. They can be really irritating; you find the item you want, place your bid, and excitedly watch as the clock counts down. Seconds before the auction ends, and you’re on the brink of acquiring the item, then suddenly someone jumps in at the last minute ‘snipes’ and out-bids you…

I am very fortunate to have been to Melbourne several times and visited the 2’6” gauge Puffing Billy Railway which is twinned with the Talyllyn Railway and associated with the Welshpool & Llanfair in Wales.

On my last visit to Melbourne, I was ‘enjoying’ (ahem!) the wine whilst browsing the narrow-gauge items on the Australian version of eBay. Then I came across something that made me sit up and take notice; a brass plate from the side-tank of an NA class 2-6-2T ‘Puffing Billy’.

The description said the plate was 46cm in length, by 27cm wide and 1.2cm thick; made from brass and weighed 8.6kg – so quite heavy.

The plate is a replica of one carried by the NA class locomotive ‘3A’ and is mounted on a piece of hardboard 45cm x 62cm. There are two shades of green on the hardboard. The dominant lighter green is thought to be near to the original Baldwin colour, the darker green is presumed to be for trim. They are delineated by a thin white line.

The seller said he could not guarantee these were the actual colours; however, the above information was told to him by the original owner of the plate; an elderly Victorian Railways fitter called Mort Clark.

So, slightly lubricated by the wine I thought “I’m having that” and a bid was duly placed. Later whilst in a more sober state I logged back into eBay. I assumed an Australian railfan would spot the plate and outbid me, or snipe at the last minute. The clock clicked down as the auction drew to a close. Come on, somebody outbid me… where are the snipers?

I won and the invoice arrived. Oh!

Communication with the seller commenced about postage and shipping to the UK. The parcel weighted nearly 10kg so would be expensive to send back home.

Options were considered including a trip on the Victorian Metro to see the seller in person and collect the item. In the end, and in a scene reminiscent from Brief Encounter, we met at the clock at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne and the deal was done. It turned out the seller was the former Vice President of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society. We could have chatted for ages but we both had our respective trains to catch.

Safely back at the digs in Melbourne the enormity and the weight of the purchase became apparent; it filled the suitcase! Items had to be moved to the hand-luggage and bags weighed several times. The case was perilously close to the 30kg allowed by the airline.

Safely back in the UK – what to do with the 3A plate? It’s a bit big for the wall and I’m not sure my wall would take the weight.

The plate has now been placed on loan to Puffing Billy’s twin; the Talyllyn Railway and should be on display at the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at Tywyn very soon.

Let this tale be a warning; don’t go on eBay whilst under the influence and you can’t always rely on snipers to out-bid you!

Michael Chapman”