Richborough Port: The Lost Hope of the East Kent Light Railway
As has been explained elsewhere our view of the East Kent Light Railway is somewhat 'upside down'. Never intended as a railway from Shepherdswell to somewhere else it was planned by Stephens and his backers as an outlet for coal from several collieries to a sea outlet at Sandwich Haven, now more usually called Richborough Port. Indeed early pre-statutory and land negotiations hinged on the intention that the railway should be constructed using materials imported by sea to the Haven.
Sandwich Haven was the great entry port to England in Roman times with Dover a relatively unimportant port squeezed into a gap in the cliffs. However, progressive silting up by the action of the Great Stour River, and the huge river loops and marshland it created, had rendered the port virtually useless by the industrial era. Still people dreamed of its resurrection and the creation of a port on the river closer to the sea than Sandwich town.
At the turn of the century Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson, head of the contracting firm S Pearson & Son Limited, latched onto the area to extract gravel to build the Admiralty's formidable outer harbour at Dover. The bulk of the work was to be achieved by casting massive concrete blocks at Dover.The sand and gravel for these blocks was to be extracted from land leased from Lord Greville who owned most of the land within the great loop of the Stour called Stonar Marshes. Smaller concrete blocks for the initial works were cast at Stonar, using cement shipped in from the Wouldham Cement Works near Thurrock in Essex, and then shipped by sea to Dover. To expedite this a wharf was developed on the Stour adjacent to the gravel workings. This small wharf formed the southward end of the developments that would come to be called Richborough Port. To bring in other materials for this work a railway, that came to be known as Pearson's Tramway, was constructed across the marshes from a point on the SE&CR's Dover–Ramsgate line near Richborough castle. This activity continued for some years as the great outer breakwaters at Dover slowly came to completion in 1910.
Such work and the creation of the small wharf seem to have stimulated interest by Sandwich businessmen seeking to compete with Dover which, with Folkestone, had been growing as a ferry port since before the railway age. These personalities, led by a local estate agent named G C (Christopher) Solley, encouraged a lot of speculation in the Edwardian era. Solley was instrumental in the formation of land syndicates to buy up marshes in the wider area of the Haven. In particular he and his partners set up a company in 1907 going by the rather strange title of St Augustine's Links. This was an allusion to the reputed point where St Augustine landed to convert England to Christianity and to the rising fashion of golfing, and also apparently to cover its real purpose. The company was used to buy all the land necessary for a decent wharf at the mouth of the River Stour at Pegwell Bay, though speculation as to underlying coal measures was a secondary consideration. Meanwhile inland interest in coal measures, led by the speculator (and charlatan) Arthur Burr, became the driving force behind the nascent East Kent Light Railway which Solley probably hoped to hold to ransom. There were a lot of inflated egos here however and when Christopher Solley was giving evidence against the later compulsory purchase of the Syndicate's lands by the government, he stated that the EKLR was his own conception and that the idea was "first explained by him to the late Mr Arthur Burr on 24 December 1908."
The conflicting interests of Lord Greville with his now disused wharf and the Solley group with their grander plans further downriver became a major stumbling block to the development of the port. Indeed the East Kent, as authorised, was forced to terminate at a remote point in the marshes pointing vaguely north to the intended upriver development, whilst also able to turn east to Pearson's old wharf along the existing tramway. Shortly afterwards the EKLR sought powers to connect with, and run, Pearson's tramway and agreed a lease on the wharf with Lord Greville. However, the uncertainties of the port site may have caused further thought and, probably in an attempt to secure control of its own port facilities, the Burr organisation set up a development company for the bay between Reculver and Birchington ( A most unsuitable site - the author's family lived near there) with a connecting EKLR line. The start of the collapse of the Burr empire in summer 1914, and the coming of World War 1 in August, put a temporary end to all these plans without any evidence of dock or East Kent railway works in the area. Solley stated to a later government hearing that "...by the Spring of 1914 the EKLR had been constructed as far as the Sandwich -Woodnesborough road, and the track laid, and partially constructed, as far as the Goss Hall Stream [ just beyond the later Sandwich Road station - ed]..."
There matters stood until the need for improved transport of materials to the static front lines in France brought rapid developments. The Directorate of Inland Waterways and Docks, War Office (IWD), who were responsible for the equipment and working of such operations overseas, initiated in the early months of the war the inspired idea of loading French and Belgian barges in the UK and taking them direct to France. The first recruits of the IWD received their training at Longmoor, Hants, and despatched their first craft from Dover. Overcrowded Dover and the initial store depot at Ashford proved unsuitable so, after a search for a suitable port from which craft could proceed to France, they settled around the wharf built by Pearson. The operations proved very successful and by June 1916 they began to develop storage areas which marked the beginnings of a huge military operation to build an even more flexible port that would relieve the overburdened established channel ports. By September 1917 the new port was shipping nearly 15,000 tons a week.
By this time the large new port had involved reclamation, straightening, widening and deepening of the Stour, and the construction of a wharf and jetty nearly a mile in length. The work had been rapidly pushed forward, the workers at one time numbering 20,000; and eventually a self-contained town encampment arose, with store-sheds, and the laying of some 50 miles of railway sidings served by up to 50 locomotives. Indeed these works eventually stretched from upriver of the old Pearson's wharf to the river mouth at Pegwell Bay. This encompassed the requisitioned land of both Lord Greville and the Solley syndicates. Further docks also developed nearer to Sandwich town for the building and repair of barges and one of the officers overseeing this work, which included pioneering welding techniques, was one O V S Bullied, who later pioneered the technique for use in locomotives, carriages and wagons.
With the massive materials drive initiated by the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, and with the speed of transport of material becoming extremely urgent, it was decided to establish a pioneering train-ferry service. This came into operation at the end of 1917. A lifting bridge was constructed at the extreme seaward end of the new wharf and three train ferries shuttled to Dunkirk, Calais and Dieppe.
For a year after the Armistice in 1918, Richborough continued to deal with vast quantities of material returned from the western front but the cessation of the war made much of the development a white elephant. It was initially very useful in bringing war materials and equipment back from the Continent, but the logistics of handling the vast piles of stores that accumulated proved a problem for the Government which proved sensitive to resultant press criticism. It was full of potentially valuable equipment, for there were still barges and ships on the stocks of the shipyard, and large numbers of motor vehicles in store or awaiting repair in the workshops. As a ﬁrst step the operation of the railway facilities was handed over to the SE&CR. It was then decided to advertise the port for sale as a going concern, the purchaser having to undertake to operate it as a commercial operation for at least five years. The interests of the East Kent Light Railway were largely trampled over, no doubt because the failures or the Burr empire and the effects of the war had left it impoverished. It had a half built railway which had never reached the port to enable it to share in wartime activity. The Government sold the whole area (1,500 acres) under special terms for £1,447,000 in 1921 to the Queenborough Development Co. The company proposed to work Richborough as a barge and train-ferry port, ancillary to Queenborough Port, on the Isle of Sheppey. The sale included all its remaining equipment, including locomotives (reportedly anything between three and 15) and a large number of barges and tugs. They seem to have thought that the accumulations of machinery and the shipping ﬂeet could be sold quickly to finance the deal. The Company made an initial deposit of £250,000 in Government securities (purchased for the purpose at a discount) funded by loans from Lord Queenborough and the Westminster Bank. Within a year the whole deal collapsed.
The Company had hoped it could develop coal ports in the light of the many proposals to develop the Kent coal reserves. It started well, even proposing to spend money to build the EKLR's un-built harbour connections. Plans were initiated to establish a train ferry service to the Continent, but although the ferry continued to bring back material for the Government, a regular commercial service failed to be established. With the supine SE&CR unwilling to operate a service, a bid by the more progressive LB&SCR management to establish a Newhaven-Dieppe service with the equipment was defeated by its soon-to-be partners in the Southern Railway. The ferries and associated equipment were eventually sold to Anglo-Belgian companies that were effectively part of the LNER group, for a Harwich-Zeebrugge service. The Queenborough's wider operations were soon in trouble. The agent delegated to sell the marine craft was only able to dispose of part of the ﬂeet, and while initial sales of plant, including locomotives, seemed promising, it was soon found that the market was glutted. Sales could only be made at low prices, and the agents went bust.
The position was not helped by the coal miners' strike in 1921, shortly after the company had taken over the port, and by March 1922 it was obvious that they had made a poor bargain. In an effort to walk away from its contract the company asked for its rescindment on the grounds that, since the ordnance survey map used to delineate the land to be taken over was out of date (a new cut being made to the river channel in establishing the port during the war), it would be impossible to fulfil the contract. The Government disputed this, but eventually decided that it would not be possible to obtain more funds from the company, which had been placed into receivership in 1922, and took back the assets in July 1923.
Meanwhile Colonel Stephens had slowly resurrected the EKLR from its near grave. Powers to join Pearson's tramway were granted in 1920. The Queenborough Company were at this stage very supportive, seeking approval from Government to construct a large portion of the un-built railway across their controlled land including the bridges over the SE&CR and the River Stour. The Queenborough interest of course stood to greatly benefit if coal exports could be encouraged by this access. It is not known whether any of this promised support was actually forthcoming, though it might have been. Whatever the position the erstwhile EKLR main line was creeping across the fields and marshes as funds permitted, including temporary bridges over the railway and river authorised many years before. The ofﬁcial announcement of the Richborough sale (see below) said that the Port had "availability for connection with the EKLR..." which could be seen to suggest that the Light Railway was already over the River Stour, but this is unlikely. By August 1924 it had reached within 600 yards of a junction with the former Pearson's Tramway and by 1925 had established a passenger service of sorts to Sandwich Road.
Negotiations on the use of a wharf and a junction point had been continuous since the end of the War and negotiations had continued with the Queenborough Liquidators and the Government Disposals Board but nothing could be settled.The latter's reprehensive Colonel Cobb, shifted, in late 1924, to work for the estate agents Cluttons, and then arranged a sale to Cluttons clients, the specially created and later well-known company, Pearson Dorman Long (PDL). Now PDL were deadly enemies of the Burr Colliery interests and the new owners of Tilmanstone Colliery, the only viable colliery served by the EKLR. PDL owned the other advanced or working Kent Collieries (except Chislet), shutting out the EKLR in particular from Betteshanger by building its own line to the SR rather than the authorised EKLR line. PDL completed purchase from the Official Receiver in 1925 with the immediate object of using the extensive workshop facilities for the repair and servicing of their heavy mining machinery.
Surprisingly however this apparently unfavourable sale broke the log jam. PDL suddenly, for little understood reasons, softened its attitude to the Light Railway to the extent of talking about acquiring an interest. Cobb in particular seems to have got on well with Stephens and the line crept over both the SR line and the river on what were obviously temporary (but ultimately 'permanent') bridges during the year. 1926 brought permanent peace as the Southern Railway acquired the controlling interest in the EKLR and PDL secured Government funds to develop the Port for coal shipment. The light railway crept forward to a junction with Pearson's Tramway and their former wharf and this was opened for occasional traffic in 1928 complete with a, never to be used, passenger platform. Plans continued to be made and PDL raised visions of a massive iron and steel works at the Port. However the 'Great Crash' of 1929 and accompanying world recession loomed and plans were permanently shelved. Neither EKLR nor the port was destined ever to realise the industrial dreams of a generation.
Richborough Port, Robert Butler, Sandwich, 1993
The Industrial Locomotive, No 147, 2013
National Archives files: BT 31/20100/116543, BT 31/18278/95736, BT 31/32092/114846, BT 297/767, MT 10/1499, MT 39/296, HO 45/11085/431719
J 13/10242A, J 107/10, MUN 4/6043, MUN 4/5079-81, MUN 4/6296