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A Short History of The Snailbeach District Railways

A Short History of The Snailbeach District Railways

The Snailbeach opened in 1877 to serve the ancient and well-established lead mining district along the western flank of the Stiperstones range of hills in Shropshire. Originally envisaged as a public railway it evolved, because of lack of capital, as a 2’3 ¾’’ * narrow gauge mineral railway. Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1873, it was intended to consist of two railways. Railway No 1 ran some three miles along the hillside, from sidings near Pontesbury on the GWR & LNWR joint Minsterley branch line, to a terminus at Crowsnest, also known as Snailbeach Station or wharf. From Crowsnest a reverse branch ran, on a gradient of 1 in 25, into the lead mine of the Snailbeach Mine Company. The railway's locomotive shed was built there. Railway No 2 would have been a continuation of Railway No 1, just under two miles long, to lead mines at Pennerley but apart from the station works at Crowsnest it was never to be built. Another extension to Tankerville seems to have been considered on at least two other occasions but was not undertaken.

The Snailbeach was engineered by Henry Dennis and built by a local contractor, Elias Griffiths, and was well constructed. The interchange yard at Pontesbury was in accordance with the best theories of load transfer, with discharge by gravity from standard to narrow and visa versa and, at least till the early years of the century, included a transhipment shed. From the Junction the line ran at an uninterrupted gradient that did not exceed 1 in 37 from Pontesbury to Crowsnest. The roads it encountered crossed its course by bridges rather than level crossings. It was therefore ideally suited to gravity working of outward minerals. Although there was for many years a heavy inward flow of coal to mine pumping engines and processing plant, this layout, like that of the Festiniog Railway, permitted the inexpensive power of gravity for the heaviest traffic flows. Although there do not appear to be any accounts of the working of the line in its early years, the main function of the locomotives in later years was to haul trains of empty wagons back up the line that had previously come down loaded by gravity.

Although desperately short of capital from the beginning the Snailbeach prospered at first, paying dividends of 3% for a few years, but the failure of one of the largest lead mining companies in 1884 more than halved the line's traffic. As foreign competition increased the market for English lead declined and further mine closures followed. It was a railway tied to the ups and downs of the mining and extractive industries. Indeed for the first 30 years it was run largely as a subsidiary to the Snailbeach Mining Company (reconstituted as the Snailbeach Lead Mining Company in 1885), its principal customer, with whom it had a largely common directorship. Traffic must have been at low ebb in 1887 for both locomotives were loaned during the year for reconstructing the Glyn Valley Tramway, reputedly at the same time. In 1892 the railway for the first, and by no means the last, time actively considered closure and an unsuccessful attempt seems to have been made to sell it. From this point the reliance on the mine was almost total and the railway ceased to be a stand-alone business and appears to have been run as part of the mining company.

This was a most unsatisfactory state of affairs and at the turn of the century great efforts were made to revive the railway and separate the accounts of the companies by its managing dynasty, the Dennis family. Henry Dennis was engineer from inception and was closely associated with the owning shareholders, led by the Lovett family. In late 1899 Dennis revived the old company, without the Lovetts, and set about reviving the railway. Snailbeach mine had not been as affected as its neighbours by the turn of the century slump in lead prices as it had particularly rich reserves. However, in the early 20th century the price dropped so low that no profit could be made. Output fell to only 200 tons in 1905, rising to 1000 tons in 1910 but lead ceased to be the important railway traffic it had been. However the Mine Company proved crucial in providing injections of capital to the railway through the buying of debentures, on which there was little or no prospect of a return. This was a drain on slim resources of the mining company but it had little choice if it was to continue to have efficient transport.

The railways revival proved, if proof was needed, that Dennis was a very effective manager and, in wake of revivals in traffic processing mine waste and road stone, he secured enough traffic to ensure that the railway was reasonably solvent and borrowing had ceased by 1907. Regrettably Henry Dennis did not see the full fruits of his work for he died in 1906, to be succeeded, after a short time, as Chairman by his son H Dyke Dennis. But Henry Dennis’ memorial was the continued existence of the railway and an innovative approach to traffic promotion. In particular the Dennises promoted, with a local businessman contractor and County Council inspector of explosives Mr William Toye, a stone quarry, the Granhams Moor Quarry Co at Eastridge. This quarry was actively exploited and a branch to the Snailbeach main line to was opened in 1905. This, and quarry waste processing (barytes, gravel and fluorspar) initiated from 1900 at Snailbeach mine by a company called Halvans (named after the word for low grade dirty ore and mine waste), was the mainstay of the railway until after WW1.

Dennis was further commemorated by the naming of a new locomotive ‘Dennis’. On takeover one of the revived company’s first move was to secure the thorough overhaul of the Henry Hughes locomotive 0-4-2ST 'Belmont' but both it and the other engine was worn out by 1905 and the prospect of the new quarry traffic meant that ‘one locomotive must be repaired or a new one bought’. The board borrowed the money from the Mining Company and acquired ‘Dennis’, a new Bagnall 0-6-OT in 1906. The Snailbeach's other locomotive at this time was an 0-6-OST named 'Fernhill'. It is likely that one of the locos, possibly Fernhill, was disposed of when Dennis arrived and the other dismantled and written off in 1912 when the company sold a locomotive boiler to Halvans.

Snailbeach traffic was now restored to a very healthy level with a record 38,000 tons being carried in 1909. However, by 1912 traffic had fallen to 8,800 tons when quarry traffic dramatically declined. With the final failure of the Snailbeach Lead Mining company (although pumping continued until 1919) closure was considered in 1913 and the railway was unsuccessfully offered at a knock down price to the local landowner, Lord Bath. However quarry traffic picked up, probably connected with the passing of control of the Granhams Moor Co from somewhat confused ownership and management (the Dennis family having apparently given up their interest) to those associated with the Criggion and Ceiriog Quarries (later to become the British Quarrying Co). The railway was kept going though the First World War with this revived quarry and barytes traffic. It was however again brought to its knees by the final closure of Eastridge Quarry around 1920/21 and traffic dropped below 3,000 tons in 1922. There have been suggestions that the line's sole surviving locomotive, 'Dennis', had to be taken out of traffic about this time and that the line was reliant for a period on gravity and horse power, but there seems to be no hard evidence for this.

It was at this stage that Colonel Stephens, and a group of his friends including H Montague Bates and J C White, took an interest in the Snailbeach. The new Board of Directors probably took control in January but were not formally in office till 12th February 1923. In practice Stephens bought the railway company, virtually as his personal property, and set about re-equipping it. Worn out sleepers were replaced with second-hand standard gauge sleepers cut in half, and much of the 'main' line was re-laid with 45lb rail. The Eastridge branch seems to have been taken up about this time.

Skylark Class 0-4-2TThree second-hand ex-government locomotives were acquired and converted to Snailbeach gauge. The first of these was a Kerr Stuart 'Skylark' Class 0-4-2T. It became Snailbeach No.2 and 'Dennis' was given No. 1. The other purchases were two of the familiar War Department surplus 60cm gauge Baldwin 4-6-OPTs, also used by Stephens on the Ashover and Welsh Highland lines. The Snailbeach examples were from a batch that had been refurbished by Bagnall after war damage and then held in the UK. They were numbered 3 and 4.

It was not just the locomotives of the Snailbeach that had been worn out. Its wagon fleet was severely depleted. The line had started out in 1877 with 29 coal wagons, 12 hoppers, 6 timber wagons and 6 goods wagons. In 1912 the line's official return claimed 8 open wagons, 1 covered wagon, 41 mineral wagons and 7 timber trucks. By 1913 the figures had dropped dramatically to 4 open wagons, 1 covered wagon, 17 mineral wagons and 4 timber trucks. This drop may have been due to revised arrangements with the Granhams Moor quarry, and it is possible that the new management took wagons into their ownership only to sell them back much later (see below). By 1922 the stock was recorded as only 8 mineral wagons and 4 timber trucks, appallingly low even for the traffic figures recorded. Stephens certainly augmented the wagon fleet by the purchase of some surplus War Department class C bogie wagons but it is not known what other purchases he made. The return for 1924 gave 3 open wagons, 33 mineral wagons, 4 timber trucks and 1 'miscellaneous' vehicle. These returns continued unchanged for many years but, as so often with Stephens, they concealed as much as they revealed. For instance the Snailbeach minutes recorded on 24 April 1935 '18 4-ton hopper wagons had been purchased from British Quarry Co Ltd ex Granhams Moor Quarry at £2-15-0 per wagon including haulage to the company's line'. The arrival of these hoppers does explain why in notebooks of wagon movements in the Colonel Stephens Archive, new numbers suddenly appeared. It is possible that the wagons had previously been private owner, probably since the 1913 restock reduction, and were bought back into company ownership. Presumably they had been left behind when the Eastridge quarry closed about 15 years before and had been unused all that time.

Pontesbury c.1926Although initial traffic results were disappointing, Stephens was ultimately successful in his reconstruction. Steady traffic from the old mine tailings near Crowsnest, together with fluctuating quantities of barytes from the mine itself, accounted for the bulk of the line's carrying until 1928. However the tide turned with the opening in 1927 of a new road stone quarry at Callow Hill by Haywards’ Quarries. Stone traffic, only 199 tons in 1924 and 2589 tons in 1927, leapt to 4821 tons. In 1928, and from then on the railway enjoyed a modest prosperity. Stephens initially seems to have had plans to start a passenger service and bought land to build a half-mile extension to Pontesbury station. But it was not to be and a mineral line it remained.

Shropshire County Council took over the Callow Hill quarry in October 1930 to exploit the high-grade stone (Ordovician siltstone –not granite as often reported) and although it was too near to the terminus at Pontesbury to gain satisfactory revenue mileage they had a good contract with assured traffic flows. A loop siding was put in over which a crushing plant was erected. Crushed stone could therefore be loaded directly into Snailbeach wagons that would run to Pontesbury by gravity. At Pontesbury the County Council erected a tarring plant, thus creating an efficient unit for the supply and delivery of road making materials. Also, steady traffic from Snailbeach from another company named in railway traffic records as ‘Gravel Trading’, ensured very good traffic flows through the 1930s. As we have seen, more wagons were bought in 1935 and plans were made in 1937 to reduce engine mileage by moving the locomotive shed to Pontesbury from its remote site at the end of the line amongst the old mine workings.

Stephens had by this time died and the traffic of the thirties was overseen by Austen as manager and engineer, and indeed as one of Stephens’ legatees and therefore part owner. He was assisted by two long time associates and retired railwaymen. John Pike (formerly Goods Commercial Manager LMS) became Snailbeach Chairman and James Ramsey (formerly Goods and Mineral Plant Superintendent of the Caledonian Railway) joined the Board. This same team were also running the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Railway. One of Austen’s first actions was to realise his inheritance by trying to sell the railway in 1931/2 to its principal customer, Salop County Council. As the Council did not have the necessary legal powers this fell through.

It is often said that the railway operated only three days a week and although this may have been true for the 1940s, fragments of movement sheets show that in Autumn 1927 locomotives steamed on four days a week. During the 30s they seem to have worked for five days every week and a record fragment for January 1934 confirms this. It has also been claimed that services on the Snailbeach at this time were entirely in the hands of one man, Driver-fitter Gatford (Thomas James Gatford), reportedly a veteran of the Bishops Castle Railway. This is simply incorrect and would indeed have been impossible during the 1930s, even if not the mid 1940s. One man could not have worked as brakeman on the gravity trains, driven and repaired the locomotives, kept the track in order and carried out the myriad other tasks necessary on even a small line such as the Snailbeach. Austen gave the Snailbeach staff as four; one driver-fitter, one platelayer, one junction man and one brakeman with occasional casual assistance. Certainly at the beginning of July 1946 the staff were 'Junction man [William Arthur] Jones', who left on 3rd July after at least 30 years service, Platelayer John Rawson and a driver-fitter (possibly George Edwards). Other driver-fitters named in correspondence around this time were Messrs Gostow and Richard Preece.

With World War 2, as the county council was forced to cut back on road repairs, this modest prosperity disappeared. The railway survived with traffic at about half pre-war levels but the longer haul felspar traffic had gone. The Halvans company seems to have stopped shipping under its own name in the late 1920s but may have continued through Gravel Trading (although they may have been a completely separate company). However the waste processing companies had stopped shipping early in the War. Gravel Trading finally closed its doors for good and was reported as dismantling its plant in March 1944 and Halvans gave up its lease on the mine area in the same month. The railway had become dependent on Shropshire County Council traffic and was making a loss. Gravity trains ran from Callow Hill as required, and two or three times a week a locomotive would be steamed at the far end of the line to run light to Pontesbury to bring back the empties. The company was in any event nearing the end of its operational life, actively considering closure in February 1946, and approached the Council’s Chairman for help. This was none other than Thomas Ward Green, an associate of Stephens from early in the century and briefly a Snailbeach director.

A crisis soon arose. Stephens is reported to have devised a rota for the operation of the locomotives that was intended to extend their working life and reduce maintenance costs. Each locomotive would run for a spell of 2-3 weeks and then enjoy a period of rest and recuperation until its next turn came. The system may have worked well and was reputedly continued under Austen. However the system had changed subtly for during June to November 1943 the engines worked a rota of one week each. It has been speculated that the uniformity of wear of this system could have brought about the simultaneous failure of all three locomotives by a boiler inspector around July 1946. However it is more likely to have been through the lack of boiler making skills and money during the war, combined with inspection by a more meticulous inspector sent it by Shropshire County Council during leasing negotiations. The Snailbeach was without motive power.

The solution was to hire an agricultural tractor to haul the empties back to Callow Hill. By chance the original Snailbeach District Railways Act had required sufficient land to be acquired, and formation laid out, for conversion of the line to standard gauge if so required in the future. This meant that there was sufficient level ground on either side of the Snailbeach track for a tractor to run with one pair of wheels between the tracks and the other outside. The earliest confirmed use of the tractor was January 1947 with a hire bill for £24, but its use was probably initiated when the locos were failed.

On 14th April 1947 Shropshire County Council effectively became the sole operators of the line when they leased the Pontesbury to Callow Hill section of the Snailbeach. They continued to use tractor operation. The locomotives sat idle in the shed until cut up by T W Wards in 1950. The line between Callow Hill and Snailbeach, which was only used for light engine workings from about 1940 and unused after the locos failed, was lifted shortly afterwards. However the engine shed and its approach tracks, which were leased, remained and do so to this day. By 1959 road access had been provided to Callow Hill Quarry (which is still in production today) and the remaining section of line fell out of use. The final lengths of rail were lifted in 1962, some being sold to the Talyllyn Railway, and the last wagons disposed of; although one survived and has been rebuilt and is on display at Snailbeach. The Snailbeach District Railways Company however remains in legal existence to this day.

* The gauge of the Snailbeach has been variously quoted as 2’4” and 2’3 ¾”. In all the surviving engineering based paperwork 2’ 3 ¾” is used and this was almost certainly the actual gauge. 2’4” is usually used in public and official returns probably because Section 23 of the original Act specified, “The gauge of the railways shall be not less than two feet four inches”. Any admission of a narrower gauge might have attracted unwelcome official interest.

Sources
Colonel Stephens Archive-SDR Minutes and records
Industrial Railway Record- Various articles by Rodney Weaver, Allan Baker and Andy Cuckson
PRO Files particularly Company files BT 285/506,BT31/17523/85429 and BT31/14691/15895
Shropshire Mines Trust
Snailbeach District Railways, E Tonks (IRS 1974)