Light Railway to Port Eynon
Colonel Stephens involvement with the Light Railways Syndicate Ltd ceased in mid –Edwardian times but the scheme was to occupy Stephens' attention long after that company had disappeared. This was the Gower Light Railway opening up the Gower Peninsula to the west of Swansea Bay.
Swansea Bay is of considerable importance in railway history. In 1804 Parliament authorised the opening there of the first public railway to carry passengers, the Oystermouth Railway, later known as the Swansea & Mumbles Railway. Despite the presence of this historic line there had been little effort to drive railways into the Peninsula itself during the greater part of the Nineteenth Century though the L.N.W.R. had a branch along its northern flank from Gowerton to Llanmorlais.
It is against this background that a letter from Stephens, staying at Clydach, to his father in August 1895 attracts attention: "A client of Mr. Peterson who is a solicitor and whose acquaintance I have made at Cranbrook some lime since wants to make a light railway here to some coal villages up this valley." At this time Stephens were engaged in planning and promoting the Rother Valley Railway and the "client" at Clydach is to be presumed to be a Mr. H.N. Miers, a resident of Ynyspenllwch, who appears with Peterson and Stephens as a shareholder on the registration documents for the Light Railways Syndicate in July 1895.
Writing to his father from Cranbrook on 10th August 1895 Stephens reports that: "... a Syndicate has been formed to promote 4 Provisional orders in Parliament this year, viz; a line in South Wales from the Mumbles to the Worms Head called the Gower Light Railway Coy, the Rother Valley Railway, the Hadlow & Shipbourne Railway, the Cwm Clyddach & Pantcae-Gurwen Railway.” The last-named was presumably the scheme for which Stephens had visited Miers at Clydach but the Gower Light Railway was a narrow gauge line which Miers had already been promoting before the formation of the Syndicate.
At the end of September Stephens again wrote to his father, "The promoters of the Swansea & Worms Head Railway have instructed me to take the matter up and we go to Parliament next session for 16 ½ miles of line. I have been attending public meetings all over the Gower Peninsula re this matter and from the local support we seem to have I hope it may go then (sic)." Whether the mention of the Worm's Head, a famous rocky outcrop near the village of Rhossilli, was a serious intention or only promoter's licence is not clear. When Stephens surveyed the line in November 1895 its actual destination was the coastal village of Port Eynon, at least two miles from Rhossilli.
The passing of the Light Railways Act in 1896 led to the Gower plans being revised. Instead of seeking an Act of Parliament for a narrow gauge railway it was decided to apply for a Light Railway Order for a standard gauge line. The application for the Gower Light Railway Order was lodged in December 1896.
The proposals had three parts. The first was to be a new line from Port Eynon running through Knelston, Frog Moor, Cillibion and Three Crosses to a connection with the L.N.W.R. at Killay. From here the second part proposed running powers over a derelict mineral line, the Clyne Valley Tramway, and thence over the disused Clyne Valley goods branch of the Swansea & Mumbles Railway to its junction with the Swansea & Mumbles main line at Mumbles Road. Since both of the Clyne Valley lines were out of use there was little serious objection to the proposed running powers though the Light Railway Commissioners considered it very unusual for one railway to propose the rebuilding and maintenance of another railway company's track.
Far less acceptable was the third part of the scheme which audaciously proposed not only that the Gower Light Railway should have running powers over the Swansea & Mumbles main line between Mumbles Road and Swansea but that it should also have the power compulsorily to purchase the Mumbles Railway's offices and running sheds to build a Swansea terminus for the Gower Light Railway! Objections from the Mumbles Railway and amazement on the part of the Light Railway Commissioners led to the withdrawal of this third part of the Gower proposals. It should be noted that the Mumbles already had enough troubles of its own as for a number of years up to 1896 its services had been operated by two rival concerns, one using steam locomotives and the other using horse trams.
This was not, however, the only part of the Gower scheme to which the Light Railway Commissioners took exception. It was proposed that the Gower might be operated by steam, by electricity or as a rack railway. Again the Swansea & Mumbles' own example may have been partly to blame as it had already seen operation by horse, wind, gas and steam power and was in the years to come to see further diversity with electric, petrol and diesel operation. The Light Railway Commissioners felt that a little more precision was required and struck out the powers for operating the Gower by rack or electricity although leaving the Board of Trade free to consent to operation other than by steam upon the making of firm proposals.
Stephens' engineering was not to the Commissioners' satisfaction. It was proposed that more than a quarter of the new line should be on gradients steeper than 1 in 50 with a stretch from milepost 1 to milepost 2y on a continuous gradient of 1 in 43 ending in a 7 chain radius curve beneath the L.N.W.R. line. The Commissioners demanded that this curve should have a radius of at least 10 chains and that another five curves of 7 chains should be modified to at least 9 chains. Another proposal that there should be an unmanned level crossing near Port Eynon at which both the road and the railway would be in cuttings led the Commissioners to insist that the crossing should be manned or that trains should stop before traversing the crossing.
At the public enquiry held on 23rd April 1897 no general objections were received though the Glamorgan County Council were concerned about certain level crossings and bridges. The Swansea & Mumbles formally opposed the running powers over the Clyne Valley branch but much stronger objections came from a landowner, Mr. Vivian. Mr. Vivian's only access to his land was along the disused track of the branch, erosion by the River Clyne having washed away much of the cart track which had originally run alongside the line. Following an inspection of the line by Colonel Boughey for the Light Railway Commissioners a compromise was reached by which the Gower Light Railway undertook to make good the cart track and lay the Clyne Valley branch along this while Mr Vivian was to be given the use of the branch's erstwhile trackbed for access to his land. This compromise evidently satisfied Mr. Vivian but did not answer the question he had posed when first putting his objection: since the Gower Light Railway connected with the L.N.W.R. line to Swansea at Killay why was it necessary for them to have a separate route to Mumbles Road at all? The answer seems to have been that negotiations were now proceeding between the Swansea & Mumbles and the British Electric Traction Company for the latter to take over the operation of the Swansea & Mumbles. The B.E.T. had shown interest in taking over the Gower Light Railway and running it and the Swansea & Mumbles electrically. For such a scheme to succeed a direct connection between the Swansea & Mumbles and the Gower Light Railway would have been essential. Although the B.E.T. did eventually take a 999 year lease of the Swansea & Mumbles in 1899 they seem to have lost interest in the Gower scheme and it was not until 1929 that the Swansea & Mumbles was electrified.
Despite the loss of B.E.T. as a customer the Light Railways Syndicate persisted with their application for a Light Railway Order for the Gower and this was eventually confirmed on the 4th October 1898. A rail weight of at least 56 Ib. per yard was specified with a maximum axle weight of 12 tons and a speed limit of 25 m.p.h. with 15 m.p.h. on gradients steeper than 1 in 50 and a 12 m.p.h. limit on the Clyne Valley section. Locomotives were to be fitted with cowcatchers at both front and rear unless turning facilities were provided on the line. Despite Stephens' usual plea to be excused from continuous brakes on trains of fewer than three carriages these were to be fitted. There would be five years to complete the line and the capital was to be £90,000 with borrowing powers for a further £30,000. This was more generous than the £75,000 capital and £25,000 borrowing that the Light Railway Commissioners had originally been minded to allow.
Despite Stephens' mention of local support for the line which would have opened the Gower Peninsula to the growing tourist trade and considerably helped local farmers by cutting transport costs there seems to have been little attempt to raise money for the scheme locally. Indeed Miers had assured the public enquiry that local finance would not be needed as capital would be available from London. This was an over-optimistic view and no such funds appear to have been forthcoming. However, the Gower scheme was not entirely forgotten by the Light Railways Syndicate and they applied for and received an extension of time to build the railway in 1902 but nothing came of this either. With Peterson bankrupt in 1910 and the Syndicate itself wound up in 1912 one might have expected the Gower Light Railway to be extinct.
Quite the reverse occurred. A Swansea solicitor, C J C Wilson, enlisted the support of Miers and Stephens in 1912 to revive the scheme under the title of The Gower Peninsula Light Railway. An enquiry was held by the Light Railway Commissioners at Swansea in March 1913 which led them to express general approval for the revived scheme though they would not grant an order until satisfactory means of raising funds had been secured. Wilson managed to gain promises of £5,000 each from the Gower Rural District Council and Swansea City Council which the Treasury was prepared to match with a grant of £10,000. Another government department, the Development Commission, was empowered to grant up to half the capital cost of such a scheme but only to public bodies rather than to private promotions. In September 1914 Swansea resolved to apply for such a grant of £26,000. Added to these sums was £16,000 promised by investors, the agreement of most of the landowners concerned to take payment in the form of shares and an agreement by the L.N.W.R. in June 1914 to work and equip the line for 65% of the profits if the Gower Peninsula Light Railway built the line and maintained it for one year. Had it not been for the outbreak of the First World War construction was certain to have begun in 1915. As it was, the War brought all progress to an abrupt halt.
Undaunted, Wilson and Stephens revived the scheme when the War ended in 1918. Wilson had been approached by the Board of Agriculture to get the scheme going again and revised plans estimated the cost at £84,000. The Ministry of Transport, set up in 1919, was sympathetic and promised a grant as soon as half the cost had been raised locally. Wilson promptly obtained Gower R.D.C. support, at first for £5,000 but increased to £15,000 in October 1920. Swansea was also likely to grant £15,000 but other sources of finance proved elusive.
By November 1921 the position was becoming critical as other schemes, including Stephens' North Devon & Cornwall Junction Light Railway, were making strong claims to the limited Government money available. Gower R.D.C. raised its grant to £25,000 but Swansea would only grant £10,000 on terms that were unacceptable to the Light Railway. In February 1922 a plea from Wilson for immediate action led the Gower R.D.C. to raise their promised support to £35,000, and extra l/10jd rate for the next sixty years! Unfortunately this was still £7,000 short of the target needed and the Treasury offer expired.
Even now Wilson refused to admit defeat. In November 1922 the Ministry of Transport confirmed that the Light Railway might qualify for support as a means of alleviating unemployment though a firm undertaking by the L.M.S. to work the line would be needed. Such an agreement was reached in March 1923 only to see the scheme dashed by the withdrawal of £7,000 promised by a local colliery owner who had hoped to develop a mine along the route of the railway but now saw the market for coal collapsing. Gower R.D.C. abandoned hope of the line being built and withdrew its promise of £35,000.
It was Stephens who made a last effort to save the scheme. Under the 1921 Railways Act it was possible to build the line if, instead of directly investing in it, local authorities were prepared to guarantee interest on the capital. Stephens attempted to persuade Gower R.D.C. and Swansea to guarantee £22,000 each and Glamorgan County Council to guarantee £10,000. Gower R.D.C. approached both Swansea and Glamorgan in January 1924 but failed to obtain their support. So ended the hopes of the Gower Peninsula Light Railway.
Judging by the losses sustained by the local authorities which invested in the Welsh Highland Light Railway at this time there is little doubt that Gower R.D.C. had a narrow escape. The coming of the motorcar, lorry and bus meant that the Gower no longer needed a light railway. Stephens' dogged perseverance with the scheme is remarkable - up until the end he was showing the Gower on general letter headings as being a line under his control; one wonders who would have thanked him had it succeeded?
This article is a slightly edited version of that printed in The Tenterden Terrier No 28 of Summer 1982