A Close Run Thing
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