Part 2: Austen Lays Down The Burden
Independence Fades Away
By the time of Colonel Stephens’ death in October 1931, none of his railways had closed but most were in deep trouble. From the early twenties even his economy and management expertise had been unable to staunch the outflow of passengers and light goods to the roads. Now, with the Depression, the businesses were on a knife-edge. William H Austen had started his takeover with Stephens’ first illness in 1930 and brought with him a less optimistic view to running the railways. Nevertheless, as a true and faithful servant he used his not inconsiderable skills to keep the empire going wherever possible.
Stephens’ management of the narrow gauge Festiniog and Welsh Highland Railways had staved off closure in the 1920s and during 1930/31 Tonbridge had nearly managed, through the use of government political pressure, to offload the lines onto the LMS and GWR jointly. This was foiled at the last hurdle by the local councils (which both effectively controlled and benefited from the lines) refusing to guarantee against the inevitable losses. These railways then drifted away from Tonbridge’s management, sustained for a time by increasing summer tourist traffic and living off what little fat still remained. Austen finally threw in the towel in September 1936 in protest against vital maintenance staff redundancies, saying ‘…as long as the wheels turn round today that is all that matters [to you], no consideration for tomorrow’. Truly a Stephensonian riposte.
Of the other narrow gauges lines, the little Snailbeach District was, after ten years of struggle, turning into a successful, if limited, enterprise based on transporting roadstone. The Rye and Camber was living on the shoestring of summer traffic and, as far as Tonbridge was concerned, the Ashover was by now simply an engineering consultancy sustained by the friendship of the owning family.
The under-resourced Selsey, despite a notable effort to get the Southern Railway to take it over and rebuild it, was to succumb all too rapidly to a very frequent service of comfortable modern buses. It closed in 1935 to the accompaniment of much continuing nostalgia but little hardship for locals or holidaymakers.
Tonbridge’s core businesses; the Kent & East Sussex, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire, East Kent and the Weston, Clevedon & Portishead railways continued in emaciated form. Passenger traffic had virtually disappeared except for the summer traffic on the WC&P. Three of the railways were however sustained by mineral traffic, roadstone in the case of the S&MR and the WC&P, coal the EKR. General agricultural traffic could be considerable on the K&ESR and the EKR but was very seasonal. Receivership soon overtook the K&ESR and S&MR; the WC&P had been that way since before Stephens had taken over. Nevertheless with some help from the mainline railways, in the form of deferred debts, they continued. However in many areas the track had became almost dangerously worn. Austen had in fact suggested to the directors of the K&ESR in 1938 that early closure would be inevitable without some relaying. Fortunately track materials were made available by the Southern on easy terms.
With Stephens’ death the Association of Railways of Local Interest petered out. Austen had great problems sorting out Stephens’ affairs and many of his close associates died. The need for the smaller railways to consult together was also perhaps not as apparent in the early thirties as they struggled with the Depression, road completion and subsequent receivership or closure. The last Yearbook entry was for the 1933/34 edition issued in July 1933.
However this was not to be the end of the local railways co-operation. The road threat to the railways continued to increase, they were fighting the ‘Fair Deal’ campaign against road transport and there was further talk in the air of nationalisation. Stephens’ ideas of collective support regained its force and in October 1938 a meeting lead to the formation (some may say reformation) of an Association of Minor Railway Companies. It seems the moving force in this was that stalwart of the earlier Stephens’ association the Derwent Valley Light Railway, and in particular its General Manager and later Chairman, S J Reading. It had largely the same membership as the earlier organisation. The new body met as occasion demanded, with a lot of work behind the scenes by officers, till around 1952.
The Association now became virtually moribund but remained in the custodianship of the DVR. However the need to group together for mutual support in the face of Government was still potent and with the rise of a new group of railways, what we now know as Heritage Railways, its time had come again. In 1970 Allan Garraway, of the Festiniog Railway, set about reviving the organisation with the help of Derwent Valley officers. Becoming the Association of Independent Railways in 1988 it later merged with the Association of Railway Preservation Societies to become today’s Heritage Railways Association – a name familiar to us all.
May we therefore claim that Colonel Stephens was not only the primary architect of small railway independence after 1923 but also Godfather of today’s Heritage Railway Association?
The Government Steps In
Nationalisation of the Railways was being considered by the Ministry as early as November 1940 as part of an integrated transport policy that was seen, in particular, as a solution to the problems all railways had experienced in the 1930s, despite the palliative of the Grouping of 1923. Matters matured and with the incoming Labour administration in 1945 nationalisation became a fact.
The Transport Act 1947, in all its transport-enclosing glory, had powers to acquire all railway undertakings and initially listed those railways (virtually all) that had been brought under government control at the outbreak of war in September 1939 following secret considerations earlier in the year. In May 1939 the senior railway managers in the form of the Railway Executive Committee (REC), behind closed doors, had decided 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?
The results were necessarily somewhat subjective. Later, an assistant rightly pointed out in a note to Sir William Wood (the LMS President who sat on the Committee) that in equity independent minor lines should have and should continue to be treated no differently from minor lines worked by the main companies. In the event the only important minor railways that were not worked by the major companies, which came under control, were the Kent & East Sussex Railway, East Kent Railway and the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway, all ‘Stephens group’ light railways It was their temporary salvation, for they would have closed in whole or part had control not been imposed.
Another of the Stephens’ lines The Weston, Clevedon & Portishead was a significant marginal case which has been outlined elsewhere. Suffice to say that when the Government took control of the railways on 1st September 1939 the WC&P was excluded and it was closed in 1940.
The Kent lines continued their principal rural transport role, whilst also entertaining the military’s defence requirements, but the S&MR underwent the greatest change. Its war started with a real scare: declining traffic and deteriorating track forced the directors to consider shutting and lifting the central section from Kinnerley to Moele Brace. A firm decision to do this was made in June 1940, but in October the Military intervened. They quickly moved in and formally took over the railway from June 1941 to serve a series of ordnance storage areas that spread right along the main line. The central section of railway that had been proposed for closure was largely re-laid and became very busy, with 12 engines in steam each day and heavy trains, amongst which the remaining civilian goods traffic squeezed its way.
With the end of the War the new Labour Government made railway nationalisation a high priority. All controlled lines were to be swept into the net. There was to be no re-run of Stephens’ epic campaign after the First World War to retain independence. Men and machines were exhausted anyway. It was more a case of doting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s.
The Railways were to be run by the newly established Railway Executive (RE), a body that effectively emerged from the wartime Railway Executive Committee. Exercising overall control over all nationalised transport was the British Transport Commission (BTC), and it was they who initiated enquiries about the acquisition of the minor railways that had been, happily or otherwise, going about their business free of the State since 1939. To jump slightly ahead of our story, the newly formed British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive (trading as British Railways) considered whether they should mop up the previously uncontrolled odds and ends of the railway system that survived the war by, as they were empowered to do, absorbing these minor lines. The two, just surviving, remnants of Stephens’ former empire were discussed and dismissed in November 1948. The Festiniog was noted as carrying many summer passengers before the war but was in such a poor physical state that the heavy expenditure required made acquisition of ‘no advantage’. The Snailbeach was noted as of use to Shropshire County Council for roadstone but that ‘the railway should not be acquired’ .Two other railways that Stephens had engineered, the Edge Hill and the Ashover, were also considered but the former had of course never fully opened and was derelict. The Ashover still carried much limestone, but was worn out, and was noted as ‘being considered for conversion’ to standard gauge as far as the main line at Stretton. It was therefore cynically noted that if the line was not acquired, this would give the main line additional traffic without expenditure by British Railways.
Still, there were some flashes of the old independence. Austen and his Chairman were strongly attracted to a possibility that arose in August 1946 to take over the operation of the S&MR from the military. This involved employing 120 plus staff against the dozen or so pre-war employees (although the railway had employed around 70 in its heyday), but the imminence of nationalisation caused a fatal pause and the line was nationalised with the Army retaining operational control. However, the Stephens’s legacy of service to the community still endured. Melverley Bridge, over the river Severn, on the still civilian and relatively busy Criggion branch carrying roadstone, was severely damaged in the winter of 1945. The S&MR Coal engines that were specifically retained for the branch could no longer use it and fell out of use, with the Criggion quarry company’s Sentinel shunter used instead. Austen however persuaded the Ministry of Transport in July 1947 not only to accord the replacement of the bridge high priority at a time of material shortages but to loan the company the cash (it finally cost around £23,000) to do it! This of course he did in the certain knowledge that the newly nationalised railways would have to pay the bill. Later, the great white chief in charge of all nationalised transport, Sir Cyril (later Lord) Hurcomb, expressed retrospective dislike of the decision of the Ministry, even though at the time of the decision he had actually been its head civil servant, but could do nothing. Perhaps the more junior official who took the decision knew better than he, for the bridge still serves to this day as an invaluable road bridge for the local community.
In due course Salford Terrace were notified that they were to be pulled into the bureaucratic maw and became part of British Railways. However by the end of the War the centre of the empire at Tonbridge was a tired place and when nationalisation was proposed there seems to have been a sense of relief arising from a burden lifted. The railways were still theoretically controlled by the Government and although for a brief period there was a prospect of a prosperous and independent S&MLR running military traffic under contract that dream soon faded. Difficult times loomed for the two Kent railways and the staff were ageing (William Austen was 69 in 1947) and looking for an easier life.
Austen was however using the personal and friendly contacts established over the years with senior Southern officers to smooth the way. This affinity was clearly demonstrated when on 3 and 4 December 1947 the necessary letters were sent out to spell the end of Stephens’ Empire. Two, to the Shropshire Railways (the owner of the railway worked by the S&MR) and North Devon & Cornwall Junction Railway, were sent to the Secretaries J A Iggleden and his opposite number H L Brazier (at Waterloo) from someone in the Railway Executive Secretary’s office and were soullessly bureaucratic. However, those to Austen for the core companies came from Sir Eustace Missenden, the designated Chairman, and were extremely warm, beginning ‘My Dear Austen’ and ending ‘Yours Very Truly ‘. Austen, in a private reply, conveyed the air of wearily setting the burden down saying:
‘In a very few months from now, all being well, I shall have reached my three score and ten , and need hardly say , for health and other reasons, I am most anxious to sever my connections with these undertakings as soon as can possibly be conveniently arranged. I have the confidence to know that you will do all in your power with such object in view’
His friends met his wishes, but not immediately, for he was retained as a well appreciated consultant for 18 months, being paid £1675 a year, and finally leaving in June 1949. Further, being non-pensionable, he was released with a farewell payment of £400, arranged by the Railway Executive itself under the personal direction of one of the Executive, W P ‘ Bill’ Allen (ex ASLEF), no less, after some considerable internal consultation, so that it was tax free. He also picked up a £50 fee for his directorship of the S&MR which had taken 18 months to wind up.
So came an honourable retirement for a man who had seen Stephens’ Empire rise and fall. And there was to be a further bonus: Stephens’ estate had been owed £1,947/18/8 for rolling stock since before the KESR receivership in 1932. Now the railway was nationalised and not therefore technically insolvent, the ingenious and persistent Iggleden, despite his employment by BR, spotted that due to a technicality, the money could be reclaimed. He was quite unrelenting (being called at one point ‘most offensive’) but despite great wriggling by the BTC and the obtaining by them of Counsel’s opinion he got the money. A nice little earner split four ways between Stephens’ beneficiaries.
What do we have here?
Even though there was now to be a unified national railway the officers of the old major grouped company were still ruling the roost and were to do so for many years. The interest in the small fry by Paddington, which was to take in the S&MLR, was minimal especially as it was effectively in Military hands. However many years of close association with the Southern did bring a fair degree of interest in the Kent pair. The new management did start to give their futures some attention and on 9 January 1948, nine days after Nationalisation came into effect, Austen’s position and salary were confirmed in an acting capacity. Inspections of the new assets were undertaken on 4 February. A detailed inspection was made of the K&ESR and EKR by the Regional civil engineer on 28 and 30 January respectively and they were summarised by him, probably correctly, as ‘very poor’, although his concept of a light railway was probably very different to that of the Stephens’ camp. He maintained his stance on this and wanted to spend nearly £½ m on the two lines (£293K on the K&ESR and £161K on the EKLR) if they remained open .He took over the railways on 3 May ( which was the general date of actual takeover) but was still comparing the likely high maintenance of the two lines with the Torrington-Halwill (ND&CJR) in 1949 ; which either shows that Stephens who engineered them all had raised his standards or the engineer didn’t know as much as he claimed The Mechanical Engineers department woke up a little later and reported on 10 March that virtually all the rolling stock of both railways, with the exception of the recently arrived ex LSWR bogie coaches and some equally recently arrived wagons on both railways, should be scrapped . Perhaps surprisingly of the locomotives , only the K&ESR’s Beattie saddle tank No 4 was for the chop, although the others soon went, leaving that great survivor ‘Bodiam’ to soldier on . O V S Bulleid personally approving all this action.
Inaction by Paddington caused Austen to write to the Westerns CRO, K W C Grand, on 6 April that he and the staff were still running the S&MLR but it took until May for them to fully react, by which time the Southern had already made arrangements for the Salford Terrace staff. Much of the discussion at Nationalisation was naturally concerned with staffing about reconciling the rigid rules then placed on the Government and Railways by war and the Unions and the employment conditions arising there from, and somewhat different from the views that Colonel Stephens had on employment and pay. These were naturally settled in favour of the higher cost mainline options.
What do we do with them?
The overall theme of much of the early meetings by BR was that the Kent lines might be closed but it was thought in April that ' it was generally considered that [closure] would not be good policy to adopt so soon after the nationalisation... of the railways and would bring forth an outcry from the public ‘. This thinking was modified slightly when a study of the EKLR revealed that it carried less than one passenger a day and the line lost its passenger traffic on 30 October 1948 and Shepherdswell engine shed closed. However by that time more positive thinking had taken over.
In a meeting in August with the head organisation of all nationalised transport, the British Transport Commission (BTC), during an attempt to value the railway the Southern had summed up the traffic prospects of the K&ESR as:
‘This line runs through a rich agricultural district and freight traffic is now at a substantially higher level than before the war. I see no reason why this level of traffic should not be maintained. Passenger traffic is very light, partly due to the very poor passenger service, and it is hoped that by divorcing the passenger service from the freight service and possibly by increasing the passenger service, the longer distance passenger traffic from Tenterden to London could be increased’ .The East Kent was of course almost entirely dependent on the prospects for coal.
In November 1948 the Engineer laid plans for ‘developing' the railways. On the KESR this was to involve everything from the absurd: shortening all platforms to 120 foot (St Michaels was to be reduced to 12 feet!!); to the essential: installing Elsan chemical toilets for station staff (passengers now had facilities on many of the trains). Frittenden Road was to shut completely. Needless to say little was done although the carriage shed at Rolvenden was demolished as planned. Strangely the locomotive shed at Shepherdswell was to be maintained although virtually all other structures on the railway, such as they were, were to be demolished and some of this work was carried out .The civil engineers over-ambitious plans were finally shelved for the 1950 season leaving a basic infrastructure that was to remain until closures progressed in the early 1950s.
The Commercial Section too worked on developing the K&ESR. Picking up the comments made to the BTC earlier, they pointed out that Tenterden then had six direct bus services daily from Tenterden to London .In an attempt to compete they had introduced day excursion bookings from 17 November and accelerated timings of Tenterden -Headcorn services by 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Quite how much through traffic to London was anticipated is problematic, especially against the cheaper through buses, but in truth passenger traffic on this section was and remained minimal even after this greatly enhanced service was introduced. Nevertheless it continued until closure on 2nd January 1954.
The final paper on the takeover file at the National Archive is a reply to a request from the Chairman of the BTC no less, the great - in his eyes anyway - Lord Hurcomb who wanted to see the K&ESR’s traffic returns. The end was in sight.
In the difficult process of surrendering independence the Southern and Sir John Elliot in particular had shown themselves very sympathetic. His warm dealings with Austen have already been recorded but they extended even to the more humble. To take a case Albert Osborne of whom Austen said ,after attempting to describing his none too specific Salford Terrace duties, ‘To cut a long story short he was the late Colonel Stephens’ batman and in those days acted as chainman and general odd [sic]man ….Personally I do nor know what particular post I would recommend as being suitable.. he might however be useful on Stores’ .Waterloo came up with the idea of employing him as a stores labourer in Tonbridge shed and although Osborne’s pride was hurt by the Union imposed term ‘labourer‘ a small pay rise soften the blow and he accepted. A little later he seems to have found a more congenial post as crossing keeper at Stonegate.
Austen’s farewell to Salford Terrace was elegiac. In a letter of 3 June 1948 he said:
‘ These offices have now been entirely cleared of all that appertaining to the Kent & East Sussex, East Kent, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire and other little railways all of which have during the last 50 odd years been bred , born and controlled within its walls and which is finally being closed on Saturday next.’
Perhaps the old regime’s ghostly remains still lingered midst the encroaching bureaucracy and darkening future for the penultimate document in the files on the takeover was a letter from the Southern’s Chief Regional Engineer to the Chief Regional Officer no less, giving a return of the profit from apples sold from the little orchard at Shepherdswell that lingered from the days before the EKR came. They were sold to staff at a profit of £14/4/3. I am sure the Colonel would have approved.
This article is an edited version of a series of articles that appeared in The Tenterden Terrier , House Magazine of the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
National Archives (PRO) papers particularly PRO AN13/1373, 1376 and 1377, AN 157 360-2, RAIL 622, RAIL1057/191 and MT49 (the Geddes Papers)
Railway Amalgamations in Great Britain, W E Simnett, RG 1923
Railway Gazette Parliamentary reports
Colonel Stephens Railway Museum Archive
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