The National Railway Museum’s archive holds many undiscovered treasures. Our most recent cataloguing project tackles the papers of Kenneth Cantlie (1899-1986), an engineer who carved an international career designing locomotives, coaches, bridges and railway lines in far-away places such as China, India and Argentina. However, Kenneth Cantlie was not only a railway engineer: his godfather was the legendary first president of China and he frequently rubbed elbows with the British and Chinese political elite, delivering secret messages and providing information to both governments during the volatile cold war era. Who exactly was Kenneth Cantlie?
Kenneth Cantlie is not a very well-known engineer in the UK, although his career spanned over seven decades and took him to all corners of the world. His career in railways started at the London & North Western Railway’s Crewe Workshops during the First World War, continuing at the Entre dos Rios Railway in Argentina and the Jodphur Railway in India in the 1920s. The Cantlie archive contains documents describing the life, personal observations and also expectations placed upon the young British men who were recruited by railway companies and sent to distant and exotic locations during the era (see CANT/1/100, CANT/1/101, CANT/1/102 and CANT/1/103).
In the early 1930s, Cantlie was instrumental in helping to rebuild the war-torn railways of China and he was the designer of famous class K7 4-8-4 locomotives. These were the first mainline engines designed in China and built at the Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire during the mid-1930s, being the largest engines manufactured in Britain up until that time. One of these enormous engines stands today in the National Railway Museum’s Great Hall and is one of the very few surviving locomotives of the class. The Cantlie archive contains rare documents, blueprints and correspondence from the early 1930s relating to the design and tendering of the 4-8-4 engines (CANT/1/5, CANT/1/6, CANT/1/7).
To find out more about the museum’s acquisition of the locomotive, have a read of Bob Gwynne’s blog post Six Degrees of Separation and the ‘Chinese Engine’.
Cantlie’s career wasn’t just about engineering: he was involved in rebuilding German industry in Westphalia during the Second World War as the head of mechanical engineering in the Control Commission for Germany and promoted British rail industry for almost three decades in Europe, India, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas working for Locomotive Manufacturers’ Association and Giesl, among others. His connections and expertise were used by businesses and governments alike, as he was well-versed in Chinese customs and negotiating with international organisations and companies.
However, one of the most intriguing aspects of his life started even before Kenneth was born. His father, Sir James Cantlie (1851-1926) was a surgeon and specialist in tropical diseases and one of the founders of the Hong Kong College of Medicine. Among his students was Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), a revolutionary who later became the first president of the first Republic of China. In 1896 Dr Sun Yat-Sen was held captive at the Chinese Legation in London by the Qing Dynasty and Sir James and Kenneth’s mother Lady Cantlie were instrumental in campaigning for his freedom. The collection contains article drafts and notes by Cantlie reminiscing the event and especially his mother’s involvement in protecting the identities of other revolutionaries, for example by going to Sun Yat-Sen’s home and destroying a revealing list of names during his captivity (see CANT/1/64).
Dr Sun Yat-Sen remained a close family friend and later became the godfather of Kenneth Cantlie. The Cantlie family was well-respected in China and were invited to several celebrations related to Sun Yat-Sen, such as his state funeral in 1929 when his remains were interred to a mausoleum on top of the imposing Purple Mountain in Nanking. There Kenneth Cantlie met the son of Sun Yat-Sen, Sun Fo, who was at the time the Minister of Railways and subsequently employed Kenneth as a Technical Advisor to the Ministry of Railways.
Cantlie made frequent trips to China throughout his career and was held in high esteem. He was one of the very few Westerners who travelled to China in the 1950s and 1960s promoting trade between Britain and China, not just railway-related exports but also for example foodstuffs, fur, Monotype printing machines, ships, road engines and agricultural engines through his company Verity-Orient Ltd.
Official documents and correspondence found in the collection also shed light on the political relations of the two countries in a tumultuous cold war era: Cantlie evidently provided information and photographic material on China to the British Department of Defence during the closed period. Crucially, he acted as a go-between for Premier Zhou Enlai and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivering messages relating to sensitive political issues such as UN membership, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Sino-British trade embargo in the 1950s (CANT/1/64).
This wasn’t the first time Cantlie was behind enemy lines delivering secret messages: in his publication Railways of China, Cantlie reminisces a mission in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation in 1931 and how he was delivering messages and gathering intelligence on the behalf of Chinese central government. An intriguing photograph from the same year shows Cantlie in the middle of men in air pilot uniforms, possibly referring to an era when the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) pilot training started in Nanking. The man on the left-hand side could very likely be an instructor training the new recruits. It is possible that some of the people in this photograph later took part in the largest and bloodiest battle of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 known as the Battle of Shanghai, where a majority of the ROCAF pioneer pilots of the era were killed and later celebrated as war heroes.
The Kenneth Cantlie archive is a diverse, visually rich accumulation of correspondence, official documents and reports, publications, articles, technical drawings, calculations, photographs, negatives and film. It was first acquired by the National Railway Museum over a decade ago and during this time the material has been mostly inaccessible. The newly published online catalogue aims to unlock the hidden content and research potential of these invaluable records with a scope reaching far wider than the life and career of one exceptional individual: it sheds light on the history and development of Chinese railways in the 1930s, trade, politics and Sino-British relations in 1950s and the overall influence of the British rail industry and engineering on a global scale.
In addition to the global themes, the archive collection paints a vivid picture of the man who accumulated it: a boy with a glass eye who, instead of being drafted to the battlefields of First World War, tinkered away in the railway workshops; a homesick 20-something listening to tango music and writing letters to his father in a steamboat in Argentina; an engineer who raised a family in China and a trade consultant embroiled in international espionage.