Light Railway Viewpoints
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The Edge Hill Light Railway was formed to exploit the large ironstone reserves which lay just under the surface on the Northants / Oxfordshire border at a time when the enormous demands of Word War 1 were really making themselves felt. Initially promoted as the Edge Hill District Minerals Light Railways, the driving force behind the proposal seems to have been the proprietors of the Stratford on Avon and Midland Junction Railway who saw it as a means of increasing traffic on their railway. These proprietors were well connected City operators who specialised in increasing the value of railways before selling them on.
The initial directors of the light railway were also the directors of two related Black Country iron companies, T & I Bradley Ltd. of Bilston and T & I Bradley & Son of Darlaston. Harry Willmott, the SMJR Chairman, later became chairman and Arthur E Diggings of the SMJR was its secretary and subsequent traffic manager. The promoters acquired mineral rights to over 600 acres around Edge Hill. Unusually, instead of going for a simple mineral railway they opted for a public light railway and appointed Holman F Stephens, recently released from his army commitments, as engineer. This use of light railway powers for an essentially mineral railway has echoes of the still far from completed East Kent Light for which Stephens had been responsible since 1910. Stephens had previously been briefly connected with the Willmotts and Herbert on the Isle of Wight Central before being ousted as engineer by Willmott's son Russell, a portent of things to come.
Stephens's office in Tonbridge proceeded to draw up plans and initially it seemed that he wished to tackle the principal problem of building the railway, that of surmounting the 300 foot high scarp, by starting at Fenny Compton and proceeding diagonally up the slope to lessen the gradients, a proceeding planned for several of his projects notably the Headcorn – Maidstone line. However this was soon scotched on the grounds of cost, and probably more importantly that the railway could connect directly not only with the SMJ but also the main GWR line. With hindsight this decision was the Achilles heal of the enterprise for it increased operating costs by imposing an incline that was to prove a literally disastrous engineering error.
The resulting proposal was a most unlikely railway for Stephens ; 11 ¼ miles of railway, including a triangular junction with the SMJR at Burton Dassett and after two miles a rope-worked incline followed by three branches serving different parts of the ore field. These branches stretched well south into the ironstone field into an area later successfully exploited by a more conventional mineral line, the Oxfordshire Ironstone Quarries at Wroxton, stretching westward from the GWR near Banbury and promoted at the same time but built quickly in 1917/18.
In August 1917 an application for a Light Railway Order was submitted. Stephens gave evidence at a public enquiry by the Light Railway Commissioners, held at Banbury town hall on 8 and 16 November 1917. In view of objections from landowners and the local authorities, the proposals were scaled down to a total of 5 ½ miles, and it was agreed to construct bridges instead of a number of level crossings, again very unlike Stephens but not unprofitable as the excavations were through exploitable ironstone.
The SMJR would have running powers from Burton Dassett to the foot of a cable-worked incline (just over two miles) and passengers might be carried over this portion. A high-level line from the summit of the incline to the quarries would be for mineral traffic only. The maximum permitted speed was 12mph on both parts of the line. The Light Railway Order was finally approved on 17 July 1918.
Once the Light Railway Order had been obtained and probably early in 1919, Colonel Stephens seems to have stood down as engineer in favour of Russell Willmott and apparently ceased all connections. Perhaps the promoters were merely using his skills with the procedures of obtaining an LRO rather than wishing to take advantage of his management expertise, although many see his influence in the acquisition of the two Terrier engines (which arrived in 1919 and 1920) and the only other mainline rolling stock, two ex GER ex Army brake vans.
The two Brighton 'Terriers' were purchased from the LB&SCR to work the low-level line, No 1 (an A1X, No 673, formerly named Deptford), in April 1919, and No 2 (an un-rebuilt Al class, No 674, formerly named Shadwell) in July 1920. The Edge Hill had no engine shed, though strangely there was a turntable at the junction, and the engines were serviced and largely kept at the SMJR's Stratford-upon-Avon locomotive shed, under a 'gentlemen's agreement', facilitated by the two companies' shared chief officers. As a quid pro quo, the SMJR is said to have used one of the 'Terriers' for its Stratford to Broom Junction trains at times when it was short of locomotives.
Construction of the Edge Hill Light Railway (which had by now become a subsidiary of the Banbury Ironstone Co. Ltd.) began sometime in 1919, with the expectation that that it would be feeding traffic to the SMJR by the end of the year. However construction work was very slow and may have been suspended for a while. This was no doubt because the railway had been started at the time of a post war industrial boom which ended in 1920 resulting in poor economic prospects for a line dependent on iron ore. Further the SMJ, still government controlled, was soon to be nationalised or grouped and the proprietors could now see their investment being compulsorily matured somewhat sooner than expected.
Russell Willmot died prematurely from cancer at his home at Newport, Isle of Wight in June 1920. He was replaced by another engineer on a consulting basis, 74 year old Edgar Ferguson. He had more or less retired from largely mainline line railway appointments, but also had experience of engineering light railways, including the Derwent Valley Light. It is unclear however how much of the physical engineering of the railway was down to him except perhaps the incline mechanisms and the limited upper line works.
During construction some limited traffic had developed when the incline was finished in summer 1922, as the ground through which construction was taking place at the top of the ridge was usable ironstone under a light overburden. This traffic was assessed in later years by a former engine driver, Mr H Green, to have been about 180 tons, or three 60 ton trains, a day. A siding agreement for the junction had been concluded with the SMJ on 1st March and ore was dispatched to Midlands and Staffordshire ironmasters.
The 'self acting' or gravity worked incline was still only partially completed but plant could now reach the top and a small Manning Wardle 0-4-0ST (1088/1888), named Sankey from its original employment on the building of the Manchester Ship Canal, was obtained from Topham Jones and Co ( who had built the Oxfordshire Ironstone line) in June 1922. The railway started from a small yard (that had previously been used for other ironstone workings) adjacent to the SMJ's Burton Dassett platform (a station that was never recorded in public timetables) , on the Banbury to Warwick Road ( the B4100 ) It then proceeded on slight gradients for some 2½ miles to a fan of sorting sidings at the foot of the 1 in 6 cable worked incline. At the top of the incline the line extended some yards to finish at an uncompleted cutting near the road to Ratley village; near the incline top there was a back shunt and a few yards of track towards Nadbury.
These small beginnings soon came to an abrupt halt. On Tuesday 10 October 1922 a directors' inspection took place in connection with the incline mechanisms. John Brenchley, an old Stephens' construction hand from the EKR, was the ganger in charge of running a rake of wagons and this was set going. However the rake ran away and ploughed into the sand drag at the bottom (not into a Terrier as sometimes reported) and the wagons on the counterbalancing rake came hurtling over the top hitting Edgar Ferguson a glancing, but soon fatal, blow.
Twenty years later driver Green testified that the incline was not repaired and that traffic ceased. Some small scale activity seems to have taken place later as the Burton Dassett yard foreman's book records a load of ore on 27th January 1925, but in effect commercial traffic ceased in 1922. A solitary caretaker was employed from 1922 till around 1937, but undertook no maintenance and simply kept an eye on matters. At some stage standard gauge stock was assembled in the siding fans at the top and bottom of the incline. Photographic evidence seems to show little change except encroaching vegetation and rot although a few construction tipper wagons seem to have disappeared at an early date and Brake Van No 1 was moved by persons unknown and ran away towards the junction, coming to a halt after about a mile. Tonks records that the Terriers were considered for purchase by the Southern Railway in 1938, but although they were assessed as 'reasonable' later in 1942, they were rejected due to their condition.
Resurrection of the line was considered early in WW2 but, probably rightly, the Oxfordshire Ironstone line was considered adequate to serve the area. Then came the coup de gras; the lower part of the line was requisitioned in autumn for the construction of a vast ordnance depot, now called Long Marston. From 2 furlongs to 1mile 7.8 furlongs the line was taken over and the track and earthworks removed by June 1942 and the rail was reused in the depots .The errant brake van had disappeared into army stock many months before; something the army never admitted, though they later admit to removing some track that they had not requisitioned and did not pay for. There is evidence that they issued a requisition in error for the whole line and stock but this was withdrawn on 4th March 1943. This may have saved the locomotives from early salvage for by then they were hopelessly isolated and the main line connection gone. In 1941 the Ministry of Supply salvage drive was at its height and had they not been thought army property they might have been scrapped then, but by 1943 the USA had joined the war and war equipment was pouring in, lessening the demand for scrap metal.
As part of the process of acquiring the line a full survey was conducted in December 1941. It describes a largely completed railway in its bottom section, though vegetation was getting out of hand and 50% of the sleepers needed replacement; but at the top it was a construction site complete with workmen's huts. The condition of the Terriers at the lower level was thought reasonable, but the hard worked constructors 'muck' wagons and Sankey were scrap.
A set of photos was taken of the line in early 1942 and although there are some changes since the report and rail removal had started it is a useful record taken before most was swept away leaving only the more familiar dumped locomotives and other stock. These were finally cleared away with the renewed demand for scrap that swept the bankrupt nation after WW2 and were all cut up by James Friswell and Son of Banbury over spring and summer 1946. However enough equipment and rail remained to justify its purchase by James Simms (Leamington) Ltd for £1,250 in February 1958 which they had removed in April-September 1957.
The company story did not quite end with WW2. The owners, claiming they wished to take advantage of the boom in UK ironstone production during the 1950s, sought compensation from the MoD to reinstate the bottom end of the line via a deviation. This was probably simply a device to obtain greater compensation and no detailed plans seem to have been submitted. The Lands Tribunal gave the claim short shrift. The Company was finally wound up in November 1957.
The Edge Hill had been a dead duck of a railway from inception but its brief association with Stephens, its almost unique light railway status and the apparently inexplicable retention of derelict ex main-line engines through 25 years of disuse proved an irresistible draw for railway enthusiasts and its legend lives on.
Articles on Aspects of His Railways - Other Railways
'The editors intend that this section will have regular articles on individual Colonel Stephens Railways, how they came about and how they were run. The Museum is in being to promote interest and research into his railways. Should you wish to contribute original, suitable and well researched material we will be happy to consider it, just E-mail us.'
The list of Topics Articles is below.
28th November 2010
The Edge Hill Light Railway was formed to exploit the large ironstone reserves which lay just under the surface on the Northants / Oxfordshire border at a time when the enormous demands of Word War 1 were really making themselves felt.
16th December 2008
In 1942, perhaps as an intellectual exercise to clear his mind, the WC&P’s last Receiver, Henry Edward Fulford, set down on paper his recall of the circumstances surrounding the shut down of the line. These passed, with other papers from the Excess Insurance Co, via a house loft to the Colonel Stephens Museum.
1st February 2006
New light on the closure of the Weston Clevedon and Portishead Railway. Closure in 1940 was not as inevitable as previous historians have thought.
27th July 2005
A Short History of the Bere Alston and Calstock Light Railway (Plymouth and South Western Junction Railway).
24th February 2005
The Snailbeach District Railways, originally envisaged as a public railway, had evolved, because of lack of capital, as a 2’3 ¾’’ narrow gauge mineral railway.
6th January 2005
Brian Janes has put together this article tracing the history of the railway from its opening in 1869, Stephen's involvement to upgrade the line for passenger traffic through to its closure.
14th March 2003
The late Ken Clark spent many years researching the Rye and Camber Tramway with the intention of publishing a book that was never published. However he published articles and gave many talks the text of which is held together with his extensive correspondence in the Museums Archive. The text of his talk is hereby reproduced in memory of his research achievements.
12th March 2002
These reminiscences by Humphrey Brandram-Jones first appeared back in 1976 in The Tenterden Terrier, The House Magazine of the Kent & East Sussex Railway.
2nd April 2001
Much of this edited report by Stephen Garrett originally appeared in the Tenterden Terrier.
A broader view of these events may be found here.
On the 18th June 19401 the last train of the Weston, Cleveland and Portishead Railway started on its last journey. For some thirty years the line had [whilst in receivership- Ed] performed a modest but conspicuous public service. The passenger service was of special value both to residents in and visitors to the locality: the goods service admitted indeed of replacement but was likewise valuable. Moreover these services had been self supporting, or nearly so. The first receivership closed indeed with a deficit of some £4,5002 which was for a time a great difficulty but the constant and minute care of the management during the second receivership provided for this deficit and, if, on closing the accounts, a sum of about £650 had to be provided to effect a final settlement, this was due entirely to special circumstances brought about by the war.
These excellent results were due to the fact that the line possessed in Mr. Austen, who for 8 years held the position of Engineer and Manager, a gentleman of great business capacity who spared no efforts in his endeavours to preserve its life. The long record of public services (among which may be reckoned the line's services as an employer of a staff - some [omission in original -Ed ] whole time men and [ omission in original -Ed] part time men) to which brief allusion has been made is the result of the minute care and attention which Mr. Austen has devoted to his work3.
It will be understood however that no efforts of Mr. Austen or of others who aided him could do more than keep the line alive4. The creditors secured and unsecured, the stock and shareholders have not and could not have ever received anything. It is therefore right that a tribute should be paid to the great public spirit which has continued for so many years the Chancery proceedings which have provided the legal foundation for the receiver's operations.
The outbreak of war followed by the death of the petitioner5 in the proceedings referred to (to whom no successor could be found) marked the final stage of the history of the line. The receivership could not in the circumstances be continued and after a period of some seven months during which the great neighbour the GWR and the Ministry of Transport were fully and continuously apprised of the position, the receiver caused a party attending the proceedings to apply to the Court for a time limit to be fixed for the exercise of the managerial powers of the receiver. For this period Mr Austen and the Receiver on the [ omission in original -Ed] April 1940 drew up, after attending the Court the following programme:-
All parties concerned and more particularly the Ministry and the G.W.R. were to be apprised that within a period of four months the managerial powers of operating the line would cease to be exercised. A short period of reflection (comprising the Easter recess) was then allowed for so that the choice which was offered to these bodies - offered indeed since the beginning of the war - of continuing the line as part of a larger system might be prominently brought before them. This period was followed by a formal six weeks notice that on the 18th June 1940 the traffic would cease. But such notice was still in the nature of a "decree nisi’’ and it was still contemplated that in the event of a choice to continue the notice might require extension or modification. In particular the Receiver wished to run the motor coach6 for the full period of four months but circumstances rendered that course impracticable.
The final two months of the last managerial period were reserved (In the event of a negative choice as to continuance) for the performance of the last public service the line could render. The large quantities of rails sleepers and other materials were of Incalculable value to the national effort. This was impressed on the Receiver when attending the board meetings of a Durham Colliery Company. The impression was fortified by a circular from the Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Transport urging in the strongest terms that railways no longer used should be dismantled. Now Mr. Austen pointed out in very clear terms that by retaining staff, steam power and transport during the first four months the dismantling could be promptly and efficiently performed under his guidance. But should the receiver operate for the full four months then dismiss his staff (except a caretaker) and close down his power, the dismantling would encounter great difficulties. The final two months were therefore reserved (in the event of a negative choice) for the dismantling of the line.
In the event of an affirmative choice as to continuance the final two months were reserved (after a suitable modification of the notice to shut down) for the conclusion of an agreement as to the passing over of the line followed always with the period of four months by the cesser (sic) of the exercise of managerial functions by the receiver. During the currency of the notice to close down the closest touch was kept both with the Ministry and the GWR. In particular the gentleman, whose official duties at the Ministry placed him in charge of the matter, having enquired why if the powers of management could be exercised over a period of four months, the traffic was to be discontinued after two, was furnished with particulars of the scheme dealt with above. It was added that in any event a deficit must be faced as the result of the continued operations, that it was not desired to increase this deficit by a further two months operating, but that the predominant consideration was the public service which would be rendered by a dismantling effected by a manager still functioning, having a staff at his disposal together with power and transport ready to work. The fullest approval was expressed and the decision of the Ministry as to the alternatives of continuance or dismantling was promised as early as the inevitable complications of official formalities would allow.
Before the period of two months had elapsed, the GWR and the Ministry both decided against continuance. The Receiver therefore ceased to operate on the 18th June 1940: Mr. Austen made all ready to commence dismantling: the Receiver who continued his contact with the Ministry urged that sanction should be given for Mr. Austen to begin and it was intimated it would be given forthwith.
It may be claimed with some confidence that the foregoing record shows a continuous regard for every public interest. The distinction between an application that the Receiver should cease to operate within a certain period and an application that he should so cease at its expiration was in the circumstances a very material one. The language in which the application under review was expressed, the well founded observation that the limitation of powers sought was analogous to that commonly imposed in debenture holders actions, the exposition in outline of the programme here expounded could leave no doubt (or no reasonable doubt) both as to the formal character of the application or as to its substantive merits.
But in times of cataclysm the most carefully laid plans are liable to defeat. The dismantling of the line was imminent when as a consequence of the collapse of France possession of it became urgently necessary to the GWR for purposes of national defence - not indeed that it might be operated for passengers and goods - but for other purposes.
Sir James Milne acted without delay. He acquired (I believe in the course of a half-hour meeting) the rights of all the creditors of the railway company, of all the stockholders, and of all the shareholders (except a parcel of shares which cannot be traced and are of no value.) He then asked the Receiver through the solicitor to the GWR for possession of the line with all its rolling and other stock at midnight on the [ omission in original -Ed] 1940.
The Receiver acceded to the application and thereupon ceased to exercise his managerial powers. The sanction of the Court could not indeed be sought for the Court had no jurisdiction to give it. But the Ministry of Transport supported the application, the G.W.R. had itself acquired all material beneficial interests, the Receiver was himself prepared to meet all his creditors and finally to extinguish the debts of the first Receiver and has in fact done so. The Receiver further thought that the consideration of the public interest required him to accede to an application which was only technically defective.
The line therefore begins a new period of public usefulness. A final word may be added as to its legal destiny. The Receiver was invited to a meeting at the Ministry of Transport to discuss this matter. It was attended by the Treasury Solicitor the GWR Solicitor and many official gentlemen of various departments. The public services rendered by those for -whom the Receiver answered – the creditors who had assigned their claims to the GWR and Mr. Austen - were amply recognised. An explanation of the legal position was welcomed and it was generally agreed that the GWR would in due course perfect its title by Act of Parliament7.
1This was the originally planned date. In fact the line closed a month earlier.
2 This was a sum owing to the GWR for traffic forwarded in the last 3 months of the first Receivers custody and appears to have arisen from an error in his receivership duties.
3 This is a view shared By the Chairman of the Excess Insurance Co , E Merrick Tylor, who in a letter of 18 April 1941 to W H Austen sent a cheque for £500 as compensation for loss of office and said ‘I want to write and tell you how very great an obligation I feel this Company is under to you for your faithful service and the great help that you have been to us at all times in connection with a most difficult matter. This obligation on our part for the helpful and cheerful way in which you have assisted us in bringing the matter to a conclusion, although that conclusion meant a financial loss to you, is I feel in no way liquidated by the payment which is being made out of the proceeds of the Sale, and I wish to add to this the expression of sincere thanks for all that you have done, and warmest regards to you personally.’
4 Austen recorded in his reply to Tylors letter above ‘There was a time, of course, when I felt that the Weston Clevedon & Portishead Railway had really turned the corner and that better days were in store for the little line, but the change over at the Black Rock Quarries was, I fear, the death knell of the railway.’
5 C E Heath principal of the Excess Insurance Co
6 Presumably the larger Drewry Railmotor.
7 This never occurred and indeed the WC&P was not included in nationalisation so anomalies of ownership continued for many years
New light on the closure of the Weston Clevedon and Portishead Railway. Closure in 1940 was not as inevitable as previous historians have thought.
The Weston, Clevedon & Portishead (WC&P) had never really been out of financial trouble. Following the building of the Portishead extension the railway had fallen into Receivership in 1909, and the railway's debts were gradually concentrated in the hands of the Excess Insurance Company; in particular it’s Founder and Managing Director Mr. C. E Heath who showed a special interest in the affairs of the railway. Stephens was appointed as engineer and manager in 1911 and got the running and maintenance costs under control and with the benign hand of the principal creditor the railway had usually covered its costs.
By 1939 the railway was nevertheless in a pretty precarious position, being totally reliant on summer passenger traffic; quarry traffic from the Black Rock and the Conygar Pennant Quarry Company quarries; and the Clevedon Gas Company traffic. With war looming H Austen, as Stephens’s successor, was getting worried about the potential loss of passenger traffic when Black Rock quarries suddenly withdrew their business transferring to road from early in 1939. Then on 3rd March C E Heath died and the Insurance Company was increasingly nervous about the utility of keeping the railway going.
In May 1939 the Railway Executive Committee (REC), behind closed doors, were considering what minor railways should be included amongst those to be brought under government control in time of war. They subsequently articulated their key criteria as:
(1) Can a railway continue to run if it is not controlled? And
(2) Is its traffic essential for the prosecution of the war?
On the 27th April 1939, the REC, at that point an advisory rather than an executive body, advised that whilst control of the WC& P was not essential from the overall operating point of view, it was considered desirable that this line should be taken under control because it served important roadstone quarries. Transport Officials initially took the view that operation was likely to continue without Control. The REC recommendation was duly passed to the Ministry of Transport whose initial decision was that it should be controlled. The Defence (Transport) Council on 8th June considered the question and left the decision with Transport Officials as their principal concern was that the quarries continue to be served. Eight days later in a formal meeting with the REC it was recorded ‘[the Ministry were] not convinced that control should be taken of this Railway in an emergency. [The REC] did not dissent from this view.’ When the Government took control of the railways on 1st September the WC&P was excluded.
Austen wrote on 20th September, after the outbreak of war, for a review of the decision. He was supported with letters from the Clevedon & Yatton Gasworks; Roads Reconstruction Ltd (Black Rock Quarries) (who were concerned about the loss of Lorries); the British Quarrying Co (Conygar Pennant Quarry); and one or two other firms served by the railway. Mr Fulford, the Receiver, actually wrote a day earlier to support Austen’s letter, which they had clearly drafted together. When this correspondence was received, the Ministry commented internally that “The Company wrongly think that by our refusing to take over we have condemned their railway to closure for the duration.” This was of course Austen’s thinking for he had a more realistic assessment of the underlying financial situation. At this point the local MP, Mr Orr Ewing, became involved and they all met the Ministry of Transport’s Parliamentary Secretary (Mr Bernays) on 22 December.
Austen told the Ministry that the railway was not benefiting to any extent from traffic diverted from road (because of petrol rationing), since their traffic was almost exclusively mineral and summer passengers; all the general goods going by GWR (which of course served all three principal towns). In view of the increased use of the railway by the Clevedon Gas Company and by the quarries, Austen urged there was a stronger case for control now than ever before In 1937 the railway carried some 100,000 passengers (chiefly holiday-makers) and some 42,000 tons of heavy goods. Austen explained that it was only a question of meeting running costs; there were some 25 men employed, and they were receiving wages something less than the National Agreement. He suggested that it would cost only some £400 or £500 a year to keep the railway open. Recent losses on the railway were 'being met from a fund of a few thousands of pounds, created during good years (1933-5) to liquidate certain liabilities[originally] due to the GWR “.
Mr. Fulford, who was a notably sympathetic Receiver, explained that the Excess Insurance Company, as principal creditors, did not wish him to continue. They had drawn nothing from the railway for thirty years, they were anxious to ‘be rid of the responsibility’. They were therefore withdrawing from the petition which had resulted in the appointment of the Receiver. He would, therefore, have no legal status, and there was no other creditor by whose petition he could be appointed. The normal course would have been to ‘hand back’ the undertaking to the railway company, ‘but this no longer exists except as a name’. On the withdrawal of the Receiver there would be no one to carry on the undertaking which would perforce close down. He would be seeking the guidance of Judge in Chancery shortly; Government control would postpone the abandonment of the Receivership. The Ministry suggested that the railway should have a contributory value to the GWR, but Fulford replied that the GWR had refused to take them over - a course which the creditors would not oppose. Officials also suggested, with true disregard to practicalities, that those interested locally in the traffic on the line might be approached to assist in keeping it in operation.
Meanwhile the Urban District Council of Clevedon (although they had long wanted to see the closing down of the light railway, mainly to abolish a large number of level crossings) called for retention as it was not an appropriate time for the railway to cease operation. The consequential transport difficulties would considerably affect the Clevedon and Yatton Gas Company, who supplied gas and most of the coke requirements of the district. Representations in favour of the continued operation of the line had also been received from the Portishead Urban District Council and the Pennant Conygar quarry.
By 23rd February 1940 officials had, in their painstaking way, thoroughly reviewed the situation and on 19th April were writing to the REC seeking a change of view and asking whether they would consult with the GWR as to the possibility of assuming responsibility for the operation of the line. The REC replied that they saw no reason why the earlier decision should be modified. They continued to be opposed because the railways they represented would have to meet the, admittedly small losses, and did not wish to set a precedent. Nor was control necessary for the efficient operation of railway transportation. Nevertheless, they did ask the GWR to look at a takeover.
The Ministry was now in a vice of its own making, as they now appreciated the financial position (which they had not when taking the control decision) and were under pressure from local interests, but were powerless in the face of the opposition of those running the country’s railways, the REC. Further the REC was backed by the Regional Transport Commissioner (a crucial wartime post) who advised that the value of the line for passenger services was negligible, that no extensive traffic was carried from the Weston and Clevedon ends of the railway; and that the closing of the railway would not adversely affect transport.
Darkness now gathered. On 2 March 1940 Austen had told the Ministry that if control was not forthcoming he would have to shut down, and on the 18 March the Receiver was ordered by the Court to withdraw within a period of four months. The GWR finally wrote to the Ministry on 6 May to say that the take over of the whole or part of the light railway had been very carefully considered but could not be justified for the following reasons:-
(l) The cost of putting the line into a workable condition would amount to well over £30,000, and to this would be added the cost of repairing the existing engines which were in a very poor condition.
(2) The three principal trading interests concerned, viz. the Clevedon Gas Company, the Conygar Quarry Company and the Black Rock Quarry Company, had been interviewed, and they recognized that it would not be a commercial proposition for the Great Western Company to take over and work any portion of the Light Railway.
Austen had meanwhile briefly considered around 1st April whether closure of the Weston to Clevedon section, leaving open the Portishead half ,might restore the finances but had abandoned the idea by 6th April and put round the word to the concerned parties that the closure would take place. Closure was announced for 18 May. Austen had lost the battle to keep the railway open to the public and the railway was duly closed.
The Minister of Transport was of course continuing to try to keep the railway operating but on 30th April , the day after they had finally written to the REC, Fulford wrote to them that he was intending to dismantle the line ‘in the national interest’. Shortly after, though, he came back to report that he had found that he, as Receiver, had no powers to dismantle the line. The ever pragmatic Austen now pressed the Ministry of Supply, who in the absence of a legal company, were the only source of the necessary powers to compulsorily purchase and dismantle the line, but they could not grant them.
Now the prospect of dismantling a potentially useful Railway in wartime was too much for many to stomach, and the War Office jumped in saying it wanted it as a railway training centre. For a whole month it looked like the Railway was to be turned over to the Army, but the imminent fall of France in late May changed all that. On 10 June the Army then said they had no further need for a training facility and its only use was for idle wagons. The REC also thought that requisition for this purpose might be useful, particularly as the position of loaded coal wagons in South Wales was getting critical, not least because of the blockage of exports to France.
The GWR’s Interest and dismantling
The GWR came under pressure to clear up the mess left by the withdrawal of the Receiver and closure and so, in a legally very dubious transaction, paid the Receiver £10,000 for the railway’s materials, including rolling stock on the line. The Great Western finalised this transaction on 22 June but its General Manager, Milne, continued to be concerned about the legal position and questioned what the Great Western had bought. This question became a running sore for nearly 15 years and was never really cleared up.
The stabling of loaded coal wagons commenced, and some 200 wagons of coal were eventually stored on the line. Nevertheless, this particular crisis passed quickly. After a period when no wagons were stored the railway authorities were saying in September 1941 the railway was no longer needed for storage. However the Ministry of Food might now require it to serve food storage depots. They took till 15 December to decide that they did not. Even then consideration was given to retaining the Walton Park-Clevedon section for access to Conygar Quarry and the Gasworks.
Meanwhile, a couple of MPs had jumped on the bandwagon asking why the Railway was not being scrapped. The question now arose as to who owned the track and to whom the required Notice of Requisition could be served. The Great Western did not consider it owned the track, the Receiver was no longer interested, and the company had been defunct since 1911. The Ministry of Works & Buildings, which it was now decided, was responsible for serving notice, got cold feet and the matter dragged on until June 1942 when they finally passed it back to the Ministry of War Transport. They in turn were still dithering about whether a section should be retained for the quarry traffic, for they were under pressure from the Council, who wanted the Black Rock Quarry traffic back on rails. However, the Great Western again refused to do the necessary repairs on cost grounds and that was that. The order to dismantle was finally made on 21 July 1942. The Great Western started the dismantling work on 3rd September and it was largely completed by early June1943, although the Wick to Ebdon Lane section was not removed till later. They were still unhappy about the legal situation, but it was eventually held that although they owned the rolling stock and certain bits of property, they only held the deeds of the land as trustees for the long defunct WC&P Company. In dismantling the track they were acting as the Minister’s agent.
The WC&P had in the end closed with a whimper in deepest wartime conditions and was dismantled under extremely dubious legal circumstances. However, but for a few finely balanced decisions, it might have been taken over by the government, or even its neighbouring railway. Its sister line the K&ESR, whose financial situation was not dissimilar, had survived in this fashion. However it had a friendly neighbour in the Southern and not the perennially hostile GWR or the rarefied and extraordinarily parsimonious REC to decide is fate. Had the WC&P been treated like the K&ESR, it might have survived to nationalisation, for in the post war holiday boom its holiday passenger carrying might have been astonishing. But it was not to be.
NA (PRO) MT6/3459
A Short History of the Bere Alston and Calstock Light Railway (Plymouth and South Western Junction Railway)
Like many of Stephens’s projects this line has ancient roots, but it is unique for him in being a reconstruction and extension of a narrow gauge line. It had its origin in the need to serve the East Cornwall mining area around Gunnislake and Kit Hill, where there were lodes rich in copper, tin and arsenic, and its surrounding rich agricultural area. For hundreds of years the area had been noted for its rich mining and its products were transported away by the river Tamar that wound its way through the area. By the 1850s production was at its peak and the need for more efficient transport arose. After the usual abortive starts and one or two name changes a railway, the East Cornwall Mineral Railway (ECMR), finally fully opened on 7 may 1872 as a 3ft 6in gauge line from Kelly Bray, 640 feet above sea level, some 7 miles to the quay on the River Tamar at Calstock, reached down a steep valley side by a rope-worked incline. Two identical Neilson 0-4-OST engines built in 1871 were obtained to work the line.
Success attracted the attention of others and proposals were made to connect the railway with the national system but the decline in the mineral prosperity of the area dampened this initial enthusiasm. However the London & South Western Railway's long held desire to bring the standard gauge to Plymouth now influenced events. This railway had reached Plymouth in 1876, but only by running powers from Lydford over the South Devon (later Great Western) Railway. Several proposals were made by local interests to create an independent access for the LSWR. One of these, the Devon and Central Cornwall was authorised to absorb and convert the ECMR. In the event the Plymouth, Devonport & South Western Junction Railway, a line heavily influenced by the LSWR, and always worked by them, was successful in opening the way in 1890.
It was part of the parliamentary bargain that the Plymouth Company should acquire the Cornwall Minerals Railway and connect it to the standard gauge passenger line. After complex negotiations stretching over ten years purchase was completed on 4 January 1894. Although he PD&SWJR Act required a branch to Calstock to join the ECMR, the LSWR had achieved its main objective and put pressure on them to drop new branches. The ECMR trundled on as a subsidiary, but the coming of the Light Railway Act revived interest in railways in this isolated area and a firm proposal was made for a light railway to the area from Saltash (designed to, and ultimately successfully, attracting GWR involvement). In March 1898 the Secretary was instructed to investigate the possibility of constructing a railway "on the East Cornwall" gauge from Bere Alston to Calstock. Powers were obtained in 1900 but construction was held up by the usual shortage of capital and LSWR opposition. More dealing with the LSWR had by 1903 secured their support provided the line was kept as a separate light railway undertaking.
Whilst all this was going on preparations were proceeding to plan and construct the new line and adapt the ECMR. The long standing Consulting Engineers to both the LSWR and PD&SWJR were Galbraith & Church and they undertook all the initial work, including the specification for the necessary connecting Viaduct over the Tamar. The contract for this was placed in March 1904 with a relatively inexperienced contractor from Liskeard, John Lang, under the supervision of a Galbraith & Church employee, Henry Byers. Shortly before, in February 1904, the Engineers, probably realising the need for light railway expertise, asked the PDSWJR board to agree to their desire ‘to associate themselves with Mr Holman F Stephens for the construction of the light railway’ The Board accepted him as a representative of Galbraith & Church. So began Stephens’ involvement and he was to remain actively involved for the next six years. His influence was soon apparent for the Board decided in April 1905 to use standard rather than 3’6” gauge and a further Order in 1905 allowed this.
There is some division of opinion about the extent of Stephens’ involvement in construction and engineering design of the new railway and the conversion of the old. However there seems little doubt, if only because of Stephens personality, that the major responsibility for the construction and initial operation of the line was his and he attended virtually every Board meeting during his association with the Company.
The line structure that has attracted most interest was the magnificent twelve-arched viaduct at Calstock and its steam-driven, vertical wagon hoist that was built at the Calstock side of the viaduct to lower wagons to the ECMR's terminal quay. The viaduct was constructed of concrete blocks and has twelve arches, each of 60ft span. The rail level is 120ft above river level. The wagon lift was one of the highest in England, the difference in levels being 113ft. The cage could hold one four wheeled open wagon, weighing laden approximately 15 tons. It is clear here that the design and concept was squarely with Galbraith and Church although the use of concrete blocks was unusual for such a long established and essentially conservative firm. The die was cast before Stephens came on to the scene and certainly the contacting method used and the over engineering of a feature such as the wagon hoist to replace a perfectly serviceable incline would have been most uncharacteristic. However Stephens was actively involved in overseeing the work and was highly critical of the contractor’s methods, drive and commitment throughout construction. There was certainly trouble enough in plenty for the overseeing engineers for the viaduct was commenced in mid 1904 but was not finished till August 1907. Problems were experienced with two of the river piers and construction of some of the arches. Some of this was not the contractor’s fault but some was and Stephens was convinced that the contractor should have finished his work long before he did. The end result was however a lasting credit for all concerned and Stephens proprietary interest in the viaduct was clear from the photo he kept on his office wall.
The LSWR refused to work the new branch, so Stephens was asked in October 1905 to obtain some second hand LSWR engines, the Board even deciding at their following meeting on the three names to be used (all directors). He was also ordered at the same time to obtain carriages and wagons. However no second hand locomotives were available so in January 1906 he was asked to obtain tenders for new. Tenders were received by September and after Stephens had met Hawthorne Leslie, his preferred supplier, the tenders were accepted on 10th October and the order placed on 13th October 1906. They were for an 0-6-0T, that became No. 3, A.S. Harris, and two 0-6-2Ts, No. 4, Lord St. Levan, and No. 5, Earl of Mount Edgcumbe. The engines were delivered late in 1907. In addition, one of the ECMR 1871 narrow gauge Neilson tanks, which had received a new boiler in 1899, was converted around 1908 to a standard gauge 0-4-2T, No. 2. > > >The LSWR Locomotive & Stores Committee Minutes of 24 Jan 1906 show that they agreed that the PD&SWJR could buy 16 old carriages at £70 each. Wagons were acquired from R Y Pickering & Co of Wishaw in 1907 painted 'bright red' with white lettering; two new brake vans, two second-hand ex-Midland Railway Goods Vans (nos 51 &52) and 20 high side and 30 low side open wagons from the same source. In its enthusiasm the company ordered its rolling stock too early and in too great a quantity and eight carriages and the converted locomotive had been disposed of within a few years.>>
By December 1907 all the trackwork was laid, but the stations at Calstock and Gunnislake were not complete. Major Pringle of the Board of Trade carried out the official inspection of the line on 5th February 1908.
The branch opened on 2 March 1908, with stations at Calstock, Gunnislake, Latchley, Stoke Climsland (later renamed Luckett) and Callington Road (later renamed Callington, despite being a good mile from the village). A halt was opened at Chilsworthy in 1909 and another serving the Seven Stones pleasure ground existed from 1910 to 1917. All were classically Stephens’s stations and demonstrated his firm stamp on detailed constructional and operational features.
There was now considerable local pressure for the railway to be extended from Kelly Bray to Callington proper, but the company would only undertake this if the land were given free. In May 1907 the directors had considered a proposal from mine owners that the railway be extended from Kelly Bray to the Cheesewring quarries, but although they were willing to work such a line they were not prepared to construct it. Six months later however the directors unanimously reported in favour of an extension from Kelly Bray to a terminus in North Hill Parish, either at Congdon's Shop or Goad's Green. Stephens surveyed this and the North Hill Light Railway Order was granted by the Board of Trade on 11th February 1909, but this line was not to be.
With the railway opened and running as a separate enterprise from its main line in July 1908 the LSWR was approached with a view to it leasing the branch but they advised the PDSWJR to run the branch itself. Stephens' was appointed as engineer and as manager with a salary of £250, and he was required to attend on the line two days every week, something he could not do. The Company naturally wished to have a resident manager and in March 1910 asked Stephens to be engineer for maintenance purposes. Stephens was however very committed elsewhere by this time and couldn’t be contacted so in June 1910, although they still wanted him, his appointment was terminated. He obviously remained on good terms with the company, as in 1911 he bought some of the recently acquired exLSWR carriages for the S&MR, and in 1912 the converted Neilson tank, which became the Selsey Tram's "Hesperus". Soon after he probably also acquired the two ex Royal Saloons.
The initial train service comprised four journeys throughout in each direction, and one short working between Bere Alston and Gunnislake. The volume of traffic must have exceeded expectations for early in July the 6.05pm from Bere Alston was extended to Callington Road on Saturdays, and a late evening train was run from Callington Road to Bere Alston and back on Wednesdays and Saturdays during July and August. In March 1909 it was reported that passenger traffic was good. On the whole the business of the line was giving every sign of satisfactory and efficient management but goods and mineral traffic was poor (and indeed by 1912 the goods lift at Calstock was rarely used) due to the bad state of trade, which was practically at a standstill in the district.
The line was marketed as "Bere-Alston & East Cornwall line", with connections at Bere-Alston for LSWR mainline stations specified stations, and Tourist return tickets to various resorts served by the LSWR and associated companies. Tourists were exhorted to travel by the "new route" to see the "most beautiful and picturesque scenery in Cornwall", and cheap excursions were offered.
Expansion now ended. In place of Stephens Mr T. H. Gibbons was appointed Engineer and Mr S. G. Hartnell, Traffic Manager. Gibbons regrettably soon died and was replaced by Mr William T Foxlee, a London consulting engineer and former Engineer-in-Chief of the New South Wales Railways. In January 1913 he re-presented the plan for an extension to Callington but recommended that it be not carried owing to insufficient traffic and that arrangements be made for motor omnibuses to connect Kelly Bray with Callington, the railway paying a subsidy of 5s per week. Later in the year it was decided not to apply for an extension of time to construct the North Hill extension, as the GWR had abandoned its plans for extending into the district in favour of a bus service, and it was felt that road motor transport was adequate. Truly the Stephens influence was at an end.
After the war the line had a fairly uneventful existence. In 1921 four bogie coaches were purchased from the LSWR for £800 each to replace stock that was said to be worn out. It was hoped to hire the coaches pending absorption by the LSWR under the Railways Act but this approach had to be dropped because of legal difficulties.
The PD&SWJR was absorbed by the LSWR immediately before the latter company became part of the Southern Railway; indeed thay had always owned all the shares in the Callington branch. The working of the line continued much as before but A S Harris soon left the line to be replaced by LSWR O2s, and most of the repair work which had been carried out in the workshops at Callington was transferred away.
Goods traffic continued to be affected by the progressive decline of the local mining industry, and by 1934 several of the numerous sidings on the branch were out of use. In October 1934, the wagon hoist at Calstock was finally removed; it had been used mainly for wagons loaded with bricks, and when this traffic declined it was not thought worth maintaining. Other traffic at Calstock was however doing well, with no less than 231,577 packages of fruit and flowers despatched in 1936, more than three times 1931's total.
Nationalisation and the 1950s saw the branch become part of the Western Region of British Railways, but other changes were limited, one of the most obvious being the introduction of 2-6-2T engines of LMS design and the final departure of Stephens’ 0-6-2Ts. However, the opening of the Tamar road bridge in 1961 bought an old rival to life. When the GWR dropped the Saltash–Callington light railway they substituted a bus service and this could at last be extended to Plymouth. The poorly sited Callington station lost all purpose, but the residents of the more inaccessible villages fought the Beeching inspired cuts and gained a limited victory, although much was lost. From 28 February 1966, freight trains were withdrawn and the Callington branch was closed completely beyond Gunnislake from 7 November 1966. A Gunnislake–Plymouth via Bere Alston passenger service was retained and still continues. The last survivor in the national network of all the Stephens influenced passenger light railways.
PDSWJR Minute Books PRO RAIL 567
The PD&SWJR Today, Tom Burnham, Article, The Tenterden Terrier Magazine
The London &South Western Railway Volume2, R A Williams, David& Charles, 1973
Building Calstock Viaduct, N Park house, Article, Archive Magazine Issue No 2, Lightmoor Press
The Snailbeach District Railways, originally envisaged as a public railway, had evolved, because of lack of capital, as a 2’3 ¾’’ narrow gauge mineral railway. It was a railway tied to the ups and downs of the Mining and extractive industries For the first 30 years it was run largely as a subsidiary to the Snailbeach Lead Mining Company, its principal customer. After extensive mine closures great efforts were made to revive it in the early 1900s by its managing dynasty, the Dennis family, in wake of revivals in traffic processing mine waste and road stone, from a quarry promoted by the Dennis’s (the Granhams Moor Quarry Co at Eastridge). Closure was considered again as early as 1913 with the final failure of the Mining company (although pumping continued until 1919) but the railway was kept going though the First World War by healthy wartime quarry and barytes traffic. It was again brought to its knees by the failure and final closure of Eastridge Quarry in around 1920 and traffic dropped below 3,000 tons in 1922.
In early 1923 Stephens bought the railway company, virtually as his personal property, and set about re-equipping it. He was successful in this and with steady felspar traffic from the old mine tailings, and particularly with the opening of a new road stone quarry at Callow Hill (albeit too near to the terminus at Pontesbury to gain satisfactory mileage), the railway enjoyed a modest prosperity. Shropshire County Council took over the quarry in October 1930 and, with assured traffic flows, more wagons were bought in 1935 and plans laid 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.
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. However as the war in Europe was reaching its climax, another enemy emerged at home.
The engine shed, coal yard and carpenters shop and their associated water supply stood on land leased by the mining company (by the thirties Halvans Ltd) from the landlord the Earl of Bath, and successive subleases had been signed. However Halvans surrendered the head lease at the end of March 1944 to Mr Joe Roberts of Snailbeach Mines, Ministerley (trading as the Snailbeach Barytes Company), who mined barytes from the shallow mine workings. Roberts proved a vindictive landlord. By June he was claiming an increased rent (in the middle of a fixed lease) and that land on which rails were laid on the main line was now on his land. By March1945 Roberts had cut off the water supply at Snailbeach and removed two lengths of rail with sleepers on the main line by the Snailbeach Wharf Bridge. Luckily one of the engines was customarily stabled below this point but the other two engines were stranded at the engine shed at Snailbeach. An injunction was applied for against Roberts, and given that he had removed rails from a statutory railway in wartime this was speedily delivered!
Final settlement was however more prolonged and the court delivered its final judgement on 16 August 1945. The settlement was that Roberts agreed that the Company were the owners of the main line of the Railway from Pontesbury to Snailbeach and the branch leading to the engine shed at Snailbeach. He also agreed to give the company a 14-year lease (with a 7 year termination option for the company) of the engine shed, and its immediate service siding and water supply for £10 per annum. Roberts agreed to pay £50 or the Snailbeach's costs provided the company’s counter claim for loss of water supply and costs of track restoration was dropped. Tenancies of the coal yard and carpenters shop, no longer necessary for the railway, were surrendered to Roberts.
This strange and destructive little spat was taking place while the railway was in deep financial trouble and within weeks closure was considered and moves initiated to lease the railway to its sole remaining user, Shropshire County Council. By mid 1946 the steam engines, and hence the engine shed and the top part of the line, fell into disuse, with a hired agricultural tractor hauling the Callow Hill traffic. The bottom end of the line was leased to the Council from 14 April 1947 and the top end went to sleep until, with Mr Roberts’ lease window looming, the engines were scrapped. The loco shed building and its approach lines reverted to Mr Roberts, who carried on working the tips until the 1970s. And by one of those odd quirks of history they remain in existence to this day as part of a mines museum.
Snailbeach District Railways Board Minutes in the Colonel Stephens Archive
Shropshire Mines Trust
More reading - The Snailbeach District Railway