The Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Light Railway was always known locally as "The Potts". The line had a very chequered history having been, under various titles, closed twice and derelict for 30 years. Stephens’ line of 1911 was built reusing the formation, stations and much of the rail of the defunct Potteries, Shrewsbury & North Wales Railway. This line was to have linked the places mentioned but never did so, opening between Shrewsbury and Llanymynech in 13th August 1866. Probably also opening about the same time for goods were an extension to Llanyblodwell and Nantmawr Quarry and a branch line to Criggion, sometimes known as known as Breidden. Promoted and built at an outrageously inflated cost by a rather dubious contractor, Richard France, who promptly went bankrupt, the company succumbed to financial troubles in December 1866, and traffic ceased on 21st December of that year. The Shrewsbury - Llanymynech section reopened to passengers in December 1868 with that to Llanyblodwell following in April 1870, with the Criggion service commencing in June 1871. Intermittent quarry traffic and a limited passenger traffic caused recurring financial problems and consequent maintenance neglect. Government concerns with the state of Melverley Bridge triggered the directors to close the whole system on 22nd June 1880. An abandonment order was sought in Parliament but only passed with a proviso that the railway remain intact, which accounts for its continedl survival in a derelict state. Importantly, in 1881, an agreement was made with the Cambrian Railways on the use of the Llanymynech to Nantmawr line to maintain access to the quarry; something that was to have continuing adverse affects on the viability of the rest of the line.
After prolonged discussions a new company called Shropshire Railways was formed by statute in 1888 to take over the existing line with high ambitions for rebuilding and extending the line to the Potteries, and indeed further into Wales, as originally intended back in the 1860s. The remaining, and decaying, rolling stock was auctioned and the old company wound up over a prolonged period, finally completed in 1895. Meanwhile the Shropshire Railways company had already mired itself in financial and constructional disputes. A start was made on relaying the track in early 1891 but the contractor stopped work in July amidst considerably acrimony.
For tactical reasons the financier J H Whadcoat, then effective controller of the company, put the railway into receivership once again. Disputes continued for some years but Whadcoat, although by now apparently victorious, finally gave up the struggle to rebuild in 1895 and the line fell again to its slumber.
The Shropshire Railways company continued in enfeebled form. No directors were paid nor was the Secretary, although he was still engaged in the vestiges of business arising from the still active Nantmawr branch operated by the Cambrian Railways, property rentals and essential boundary fencing . Apart from a meeting in 1900 the Board was not active till 22nd November 1906 when the Board were at last considering selling off the rails and other fittings etc. However at the same meeting Whadcoat announced that he had been approached by Holman F Stephens whom he then met at Shrewsbury on 20th December. This was the start of what turned out to be a complex but successful proposal to revive the line. J H Whadcoat and his family gave or sold all their many holdings to Stephens, and subsequently to his rather mysterious associates named as the Severn Syndicate, on 15th July 1909. As a result the Shropshire Railways company continued in being till nationalization in 1948.
Holman F Stephens formed a further new company, initially to be called the North Shropshire Railway but altered to the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway, to become the operating company which leased the property from the Shropshire Railways. The Light Railway Order was finally issued in February 1909 and work commenced from the Llanymynech end in late 1910. The work largely consisted of clearance and replacing all the sleepers .However the Shrewsbury site required a lot of work having been largely cleared and the level raised above flood level in the abortive 1890s reconstruction. With limited space at Shrewsbury the locomotive centre was moved to Kinnerley. The connecting mainline companies proved extremely obstructive. At the eastern end they refused entry to the main Shrewsbury station (as they had since the 1860s) and goods interchange arrangements were completely changed, with the old junction to the Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton abandoned and a new interchange site created at Meole Brace on the Welshpool line. At the western end things were even more serious ; the Cambrian refused to allow the new company access to the line to Nantmawr quarries with severe effects on future revenue . Despite the SMLR having the apparent legal right on its side, possession proved nine points of the law and the company never broke the deadlock. Access to the important Criggion Quarry was now vital and work on reconstructing the branch which had been deferred for lack of finance, was commenced, using direct labour, in mid 1911. The branch reopened for mineral traffic on 21st February 1912 and for passengers on the 27th July.
With considerable rejoicing the formal reopening of the main line had taken place at Shrewsbury Abbey (sometimes called Abbey Foregate) on 13th April 1911.The delayed interchange yard at Moele Brace opened in time for Criggion mineral traffic on May 1912 and the economically reconstructed railway settled down to modest prosperity for a year or so. However the Great War and the introduction of bus services in the sparsely populated area dealt the railway blows from which it could not recover. Despite busy traffic in minerals from Criggion, the regular passenger service on the branch faded and died in 1929 with the branch engine Gazelle falling out of use. Stephens had introduced one of his Ford Railmotors to stem the loss on the main line, but the regular passenger service was withdrawn on 6th November 1933. The line was struggling, but the SMLR was not formally in receivership, and never was, but like so many light railways it had opened too late.
Criggion quarry traffic received a boost in the early 1930s supplying national building contracts and with the existing locomotive mainstays of the Ilfracombe Goods and the unsuccessful Terriers falling by the wayside further locomotives were required in the shape of the Colliers. With the continuing recession in the 1930s this traffic boost was short lived and the operation reverted to a daily goods only service. Apart from occasional holiday excursions, which finished in 1937, passenger stock was left to slowly rot.
A new life for the railway now emerged . With the coming of war on 1st September 1939, the railway came under government control. Of itself this did little to change the poor economics of the line and by May 1940, the directors were considering closure of the line between Kinnerley and Meole Brace leaving only the severed ends of the line as outlets for quarry traffic and increasing petrol traffic at Abbey served by loaned engines. This plan was however overtaken by the Military's decision to build extensive munitions depots in the area on the Shrewsbury to Llanymynech section which , with all rolling stock, was leased to the War Department formally from 1st June 1941 but in practice from the previous January. The Criggion branch, with its continuing problems with Melverley Bridge, remained with the company and the Military continued to handle civilian traffic on the whole line with SMLR personnel. The line became extremely busy, requiring extensive new yards, including a new interchange point at Hookagate, and the mainline was extensively re-laid. Even with the coming of peace the depots remained busy but the line itself was nationalised as part of British Railways in 1948. With the new regime general goods services on the Criggion branch ceased on 2nd May 1949, after which the branch became effectively a quarry siding operated by the quarry shunting locomotive. The Military had progressively disposed of the SMLR rolling stock and replaced it with its own stock so visually the line had became a military railway. The need for military depots declined with the loss of Empire in the late 1950s and the decision to close the whole line was made with the line closing at the beginning of 1960. All track was lifted by 1962, apart from the oil depot sidings at Shrewsbury, which had been given a new connection with the Severn valley line in 1960. This remnant remained in use till 1988 and was lifted soon after. The platform and station building remain on the edges of an extensive car park under which may even lie the remains of the original station of 1865. The line remains very much in local folk memory as 'The Potts' and even the new road built over the track bed in the town bears the name 'Old Potts Way'.
Tenterden had yearned for a railway connection for many years but finally received a connection in 1900.The origins of the line seem, in fact, to lie elsewhere than Tenterden. The new line was to be named the Rother Valley Railway (RVR), after the river whose course it was to follow for much of its length. The impetus for this route seems to have come from landowners and businesses in Northiam and Bodiam in late 1894. The railway was authorised by its own Act of Parliament in 1896, but with the passing later that year of the Light Railways Act, the directors obtained permission to bring the RVR under that Act for construction and operating purposes.
By Victorian standards construction progress was slow. The engineer, Holman F Stephens, had pegged out the centre line of the track by November 1897, but slow land purchase and a community that proved reluctant to invest in its sought-after railway caused delay. Construction work commenced in 1898 but it was not until 9th January 1900 that the line was reported complete from Robertsbridge Junction to Tenterden. Bad floods hit the Rother Valley in February and although no damage is known to have been caused this probably delayed the opening of the line, which finally opened to goods traffic on 26th March and to passengers on 2nd April.
None of the financial difficulties experienced seems to have deterred the promoters' enthusiasm for light railways, and extensions had been planned and approved as early as October/November 1898. Foremost amongst these was a planned Cranbrook-Tenterden-Ashford line but lack of finance cut it back to the essential Tenterden Town extension. On 16th March,1903 the existing Tenterden station was renamed Rolvenden and the line extended 1½ miles to a new terminus at Tenterden Town.
Simultaneously the South Eastern & Chatham (SE&CR), decided to rid itself of an obligation to build its long envisaged line to Tenterden. The RVR agreed to build and operate a line to Headcorn, in return for SE&CR’s financial guarantee to make up any losses. On12th March 1903 a contract to build the Headcorn and upgrade the Rother Valley line was signed. The wisdom of this upgrade can be seen by comparison with the similarly lightly constructed Selsey Tramway which, despite being profitable, did not undertake reconstruction and was thereby crucially handicapped in its later years by its light construction.
The line from Headcorn Junction was opened on 15th May1905 with further locomotives and coaches purchased with the SE&CR’s guaranteed funds, but the expansion programme had come to an end. Heady ideas of commanding enough finance to build lines to Rye, Cranbrook and Pevensey, all authorised over 1898-1900, together with Maidstone in 1905-06, faded. The early optimism probably led to the proposal to rename the RVR the South Kent Railway but this was ruled out by the Light Railway Commissioners on the dubious grounds that it was geographically inappropriate. So, in 1904 (officially on 1st June), the new title Kent and East Sussex Railway (K&ESR). was adopted, possibly in acknowledgement of the proposed Northiam-Rye line which had been dubbed the East Sussex Light. However the line was now as complete as it was ever going to be. The RVR had been an operational and commercial success, but it was probably fortunate that much of the wider network was not built.
When this extension fever was over, the K&ESR was established as a growing and mostly profitable concern. In 1910 the decision was undertaken to upgrade the rolling stock to more comfortable steam-heated stock and obtain more locomotives. Second-hand stock had to be used with consequent disposing of older stock to other lines. The ‘new’ stock was however at the time superior to virtually everything available on most rural branch lines. Indeed in the provision of steam heating it was in advance of many main lines. Such was the line’s reputation that when in 1913 Parliament inquired into the need for general improvement in rural transport it selected the line for study and found it to be the best solution. Ten years later it might be a very different story but before the Great War the K&ESR was seen as a progressive, and indeed model, light railway that served its community with distinction.
One question which must be asked about the K&ESR, and indeed other railways that Holman Stephens ran, is why and how it retained its independence in the face of continuous financial pressure for railway amalgamation and the statutory Grouping under the Railways Act 1921. The answer lies in Colonel Stephens’ mission to maintain independence for what he thought of as railways of local interest. He held the view that the centralised management of large railways meant that local interests were neglected. Economies could certainly be realised by the centralization of activities like accounts, legislation, engineering etc. and pooling of other resources but otherwise local management achieved through independence of ownership was a paramount consideration. This was the basis of Stephens’ organisation of his group of railways based at his offices at Salford Terrace, Tonbridge from which all centralised services were run.
As the Great War came to an end the Government decreed that the railways be re-organised into large private companies generally known as 'The Grouping'. In large part by pressure exerted by Stephens and his associates, it was decided to exclude Light Railways. The K&ESR kept independent but at heavy cost, The wear and tear on the line in the Great War was such that that the nominal amounts of post war compensation were totally inadequate. Now wider economic difficulties had set in and all railways faced a world of rapid change. Ex-army motor lorries and buses flooded the already diminishing transport market.
To compete for passengers Stephens then brought in some railmotors to supplement the existing somewhat minimalist steam services established during the Great War. The battle was however lost; in 1913 105,000 passengers were carried; by 1919 the figure had dropped to 85,000; and to 68,000 in 1922. The remaining passenger traffic continued to drop and, most importantly, the profitable general merchandise traffic followed. The railway was only sustained by reducing costs and a steady grip on the relatively less profitable coal and mineral traffic. By the 1930s it had lost much of the farming traffic it had been built to carry. General agricultural traffic could be considerable, but was very seasonal. The K&ESR settled into a period of greater quietude, useful primarily to the farmers and small tradesmen in the locality, as well as those travellers who were not on a bus route. Only in the brief hop-picking season did the bustle return as the hop-pickers and their friends arrived from London for their annual invasion.
These changes reduced the line's profitability dramatically. Dividends fell to 1% in 1920 ¾% in the following year and ¼% in 1926, and expenditure was continually postponed. Although never profitable, the Headcorn extension now became a near terminal millstone. The Rother Valley section would always show a favourable margin, however small, but losses on the Headcorn extension climbed to catastrophic levels which, even with the mainline subsidy, could not be sustained.
The railway went into by receivership in 1932 and looked increasingly to the Southern Railway as a patron. With some additional help from the mainline railways in the form of deferred debts, it continued. Hiring locomotives and engineering services became the usual practice. Formerly a model of its kind the K&ESR was now perceived as a run-down decrepit railway of the greatest charm.
On 1st September 1939, with the immanence of WW2, the railway came under Government control which proved a temporary salvation, for otherwise it would have closed in whole or part. It was, after 10 years of the most stringent economy, in 'a very low condition'. Some nine to ten miles of track had to be entirely or partially relayed in the war years. On 8th February 1941 the War Department brought in two rail-borne super-heavy battery guns for coastal defence, hauled by WD ex-GWR 0-6-0 Dean Goods which remained until 8th August 1944. Their arrival probably precipitated the clearance and disposal of the scrap stock that had accumulated in Rolvenden yard. As the war effort intensified with preparations for the invasion of France, heavy demands were made on the Railway. Heavy troop trains, composed of bogie corridor stock from the major companies, were worked over the line and from May 1943 to May 1944 some 110 special trains conveying materials for aerodromes in the vicinity were run between Headcorn and Tenterden. To cope with all this traffic several SR engines were drafted in from 1940 and as traffic increased class O1s tender engines were drafted in. The first came in late1942 and they became a feature of the northern section of line until closure, for nothing larger than a ‘Terrier’ was permitted from Rolvenden to Robertsbridge Junction in BR days. Through trains were worked by Southern Railway engines and one suspects that a quiet veil was drawn over the types used. The K&ESR had performed remarkably well for a rundown light railway with minimal resources. This is best summed up by the fact that goods train mileage (including through trains) comfortably doubled from a healthy mid-thirties annual average of 173,000 to an annual average in 1943 and 1944 of 377,000.
With the end of the War, the Transport Act 1947 took powers to acquire all railway undertakings and this spelt the end of the independent K&ESR and indeed its partial closure. As early as April 1948 it was considered for closure but 'it was generally considered that [closure] would not be a good policy to adopt so soon after the nationalisation.. of the railways and would bring forth an outcry from the public’. The commercial section tried to develop the K&ESR and introduced day excursion bookings with accelerated timings of Tenterden-Headcorn services to attract London traffic. Despite this, passenger traffic on this section remained minimal though the enhanced service continued until the end.
It could soon be seen that efforts to improve and integrate the K&ESR into the national system had come to an end and the writing was on the wall for the closure of the K&ESR. It had not, of course, made a penny since at least 1932, but other lines had not made a penny since they were built and lost far more. The line was taking £269 per day of which only £33 came from the Headcorn extension, which was only taking some 6 passengers a day; 15 parcels and 11 tons of goods (perhaps 1½ wagons at 1952 average loadings). The Tenterden to Robertsbridge section was stronger but 71 passengers per day was hardly healthy. Goods fared better with daily figures around 88 parcels and 100 tons (say 14 wagons). The obvious conclusion was to shut down the passenger service and retain the goods service on the old Rother Valley section only. The passenger railway finally came to an end on Saturday 2nd January 1954.
The Rother Valley section continued for goods with one morning and one afternoon service. In the hopping season special passenger trains commenced running to Northiam and continued at weekends for the three week season. Such workings continued on a diminishing basis until the 1958 season. Meanwhile, lifting of the Headcorn extension commenced in early 1955 near Tenterden and continued northwards for most of the year, leaving only the station buildings for further use. In the same year signalling on the Rother Valley section was simplified and all the buildings at Rolvenden were torn down leaving only watering facilities. Traffic began a further decrease in the wake of the disastrous ASLEF strike of June 1955, and, after 17th October, only the morning service continued.
Steam working with the immortal ‘Terriers’ was also coming to an end. The then new Drewry locomotives (later designated class 04) were chosen as replacements and in 1958 steam was finally displaced, a decision probably precipitated by the rundown of St. Leonards steam depot in the wake of the Hastings Diesel Electric Scheme (fully implemented from 9th June 1958). The first recorded diesel working on the K&ESR was on 27th May 1958 and a Drewry also worked the last hop pickers’ specials that autumn. Steam was now only seen for occasional failures and one or two enthusiasts’ and ramblers’ specials.
Despite this modernisation, the end was in sight and traffic decline was now steep. The final working was the 7.55 am working from Robertsbridge on Saturday 10th June 1961 followed the next day by a rail tour with coaches topped and tailed by ‘Terriers’. However preservation as a Heritage Railway beckoned.
A full list of the K&ESR's Locomotives and Rolling Stock can be found here.
A Short History of the Ashover Light Railway
The Ashover originated in Clay Cross Company's desire to access good limestone deposits on its newly acquired Overton estate, in the Amber Valley, for use in its ironworks. To this end it envisaged a short (4 mile) branch from the Midland Railway at Stretton. Probably because it was required to cross land that the Company did not own, the line had to be constructed with statutory authority as a light railway. This had the drawback that it would be required to carry passengers, but presumably this disadvantage was offset by other considerations. Colonel Stephens reportedly became involved as a result of a wartime meeting with the Chairman, General Thomas Jackson, during visits to North Wales. Whatever the circumstances of his involvement, a warm relationship developed with the Jackson Family which continued beyond Stephens' death, and Salford Terrace remained the railway's consulting engineers to the end.
The initial plan for the railway, as authorised in 1919, was a straightforward standard gauge branch line from the Midland main line at Stretton. After a few years, the advantages of a direct rail connection to the Clay Cross works became apparent and the railway assumed the shape of a 'U'; an indirect route of 7 miles that following relatively easier land contours. This led to a change of gauge with the awareness of cheap and readily available quantities of 60cm gauge locomotives, stock and rail from War Department sources. The usual disadvantage of transhipment costs between gauges did not of course occur as most traffic went direct to its final destination. The Acts for the extension of the railway and change of gauge were obtained in 1922.
Stephens was of course very much concerned with the creation of the Light Railway Orders and his active role in construction was summed up by him at the opening ceremony when he said 'General Jackson designed the railway himself' and he (Stephens) 'simply acted as tail to the kite... merely advised on certain matters' with the humorous aside that 'not always was his advice accepted'.
Construction was undertaken by direct labour from the Clay Cross Company under the supervision of Colonel Stephens. Stephens was also responsible for two key appointments. Captain John May came from the Festiniog and Welsh Highland railways. He seems to have been a progressive, popular and energetic Secretary and Manager but left all to soon in mid- 1927 after over-supervision by General Jackson; much of the early enterprise in running the railway went with him. The second appointment was Edward 'Teddy' Skinner who came from the Selsey, and was soon joined by his two sons Harold and Maurice. Teddy Skinner was initially foreman ganger in charge of eight men but, as the line ran down, finally worked alone until he retired in December 1945; thereafter the track had no regular maintenance. Harold was a driver from 1927 and became something of the public face of the railway until leaving in 1947 to return to Sussex.
Stephens almost certainly influenced the choice of rolling stock. He had already bought, well and cheaply, refurbished Baldwin locomotives for the Welsh Highland and Snailbeach District. The first four such locomotives were bought direct by the Company from the Disposals Board of the Ministry of Munitions. These were perhaps not such good buys as Stephens other engines but they were certainly cheap. These were used for construction during which time one was worn out and later used for spares. Two more, this time refurbished, engines were then bought from T W Ward, perhaps on Stephens' recommendation. The key rolling stock was of course standard WD 'D' bogie wagons which were durable and long lasting, and 70 wagons in all were purchased. These wagons also provided the running gear for the 4 passenger carriages bodies provided by the Gloucester Carriage and Wagon Company, and the eight semi-open coach bodies from the 1925 Wembley Exhibition 'Never Stop' railway. The Gloucester coaches were of an excellent standard and, when the service stopped, were found uses around Clay Cross works, and three found their way into preservation. The 'Never-Stop' coaches fell into dereliction after passenger closure and were scrapped during WW1.
Public opening came on April 7th 1925. Goods traffic was, of course, steady from the beginning once the quarries were fully developed, and in 1927 nearly 66,000 tons of goods were carried. Passenger trains were operated from both ends of the line and two trains provided a generous service of around 8 trains a day. Summer passenger traffic proved overwhelmingly popular as the public discovered the natural delights of the scenic valley, and the service required three train sets by 1927.
To enhance the natural beauties of the valley and the attraction of The Butts, a level area at Ashover, General Jackson had an octagonal shaped refreshment room built. Whimsically named 'Where the Rainbow Ends', after a contemporary children's play, it became popular but declined with the railway and closed in WW2. The building being later moved to act as a sports pavilion at Clay Cross.
However, in common with all light railways, year round passenger traffic became very poor as modern buses took away such local traffic as presented itself. One coach, perhaps with an open wagon for milk traffic, rapidly became more than sufficient. Economies were introduced with surplus staff absorbed by the parent company's works. No winter services ran after October 1931 and all regular summer passenger services were discontinued in September 1936. With the closure of Milltown quarry in 1936, mineral tonnage fell to 32,000 tons in 1937. With WW2 the railway struggled on, cannibalising some locomotives to keep going while the whole railway was wearing out. The last steam engine ceased work in 1949 and the line was worked by a small Planet Diesel purchased in mid-1948. The end was in sight, and duly followed on 31st March 1950, shortly after The Butts Quarry had closed.
The railway was torn up during 1950/51 with the exception of a small area round the Fluorspar plant at Millton which hung on for nearly another 20 years until 1969. This was worked by various small diesel locomotives and many of the bogie wagons, all of which were scrapped at its closure. The sole remaining Ashover associated wagon seems to be a fluorspar quarry tub from Milltown Quarry preserved at the Colonel Stephens Railway Museum.
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
Welcome to the Colonel Stephens Railways Index
The index contains details, maps and archive photographs of each of the Colonel's Railways, including his unfinished projects. Just click on the index to visit the Railway of your choice.
A Cranbrook and Paddock Wood
B Rye & Camber Tramway
C Selsey Tramway
D Kent & East Sussex Railway
E Sheppey Light Railway
F Plymouth, Devonport & SWJ
G Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley
H Shropshire and Montgomeryshire
I Weston, Clevedon and Portishead
J East Kent Railways
J1 The Kent Coalfield
K Edge Hill Light Railway
L Snailbeach District Railways
M Festiniog Railway
N Welsh Highland Railway
P Ashover Railway
Q North Devon & Cornwall Junction
Reconstructed and considerably extended from a 3' gauge china clay carrier, this railway was owned by an independent company but operated by the Southern railway from its opening in 1925. Planned before World War I, the reconstruction of this 20-mile line from Torrington to Halwill was taken over by Colonel Stephens as engineer and managing director in the 1920s and he oversaw its design and construction.The company contued as a seperate entity till nationalisation with Stephens as a director in his lifetime.
Although in construction details typically Stephens this was visually a Southern Region branch line. It survived to nationalisation and beyond, largely closing in 1965 although the northern part, reconstructed from the narrow gauge railway, continued to carry china clay until 1982.
A Short History
This railway had a long gestation period and was the last standard gauge public railway to be built before the modern era. It was based on the rebuilding of a narrow gauge industrial line and its extension south to a connection with the extended Cornish branches of the London & South Western Railway (LSWR) that become later known later as the 'Withered Arm'.
Standard gauge interests connected with the LSWR had extended into North Devon and a branch had extended south from Bideford to reach Torrington by 1872. In 1881 it was met by a 6 mile long private narrow gauge railway, the Torrington and Marland, to connect the China clay mines at Marland. This was lightly built in part on trestles to the patent principles of John Barraclough Fell.
These developments, though useful in themselves, did little to fulfil a presumed requirement to supply a railway link towards Plymouth, via Okehampton. Several proposals and two Acts of 1895 and 1901 came to nothing as the LSWR saw no new traffic worth having. Now it was the time to try a Light Railway and from 1905 Holman Stephens provided the driving force behind a new venture, personally negotiating finance and overseeing construction of the railway. The line was now to extend south from Torrington to the less convenient junction at Halwill rather than direct to Okehampton. This decision, made for reasons unclear but possibly on cost grounds, proved unfortunate for future traffic prospects.
An application for powers was made in 1909 and the line was authorised in 1914 but the Great War intervened. Plans were revived in 1919, but the monetary cost had more than doubled. Government support was necessary and, for once, sought successfully. Even this was something of a partial victory for Stephens as the funds, based on alleviating unemployment, had to be bid for in opposition to another of his proposals, the Gower Light. The Ministry of Transport required a firm undertaking by the LSWR to work the line. This caused Stephens to partially abandon his much loved policy of independence although the company itself was to retain nominal independence till nationalisation in 1948.
The first sod was cut in 1922 but work progressed only slowly. An established contractor was employed but local unemployed workers lacked the skills to build a railway, and labour problems and weather slowed progress. In 1925 the contractor became bankrupt and Stephens took over construction personally. The 20 mile long line, which incidentally ran entirely in North Devon, was completed and opened without formality on 27th July 1925, being operated by the Southern Railway as the successors to the L&SWR.
The poor choice of the southern junction, remote from any markets, and the thinness of population in the area ensured minimal passenger traffic and there was not a great deal of agricultural traffic. Clay traffic was however steady and growing, the new railway encouraged a new clay works at Meeth which opened in 1920 and connected to the ND&CJR.
Apart from china clay, all goods facilities on the ND&CJLR were withdrawn on 7th September 1964 and the passenger service went from 1st March 1965. At the same time the line south of Meeth, to Halwill Junction, was closed. Clay traffic continued for some years but the clay companies had turned to road and were unwilling to invest in modern railway wagons. Total closure came in March 1983.
The line was lifted and much of the route north is now an excellent foot and cycle path, part of the 'Tarka Trail'.
North Devon Clay, Micheal Messenger, Twelveheads Press ,2007.
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