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Warwickshire's Industrial Railways

Edge Hill Light Railway

A Short History of the Edge Hill Light Railway

Brian Janes, Curator of The Colonel Stephens Railway Museum

The Edge Hill Light Railway was formed to exploit the large ironstone reserves which lay just under the surface on the Northamptonshire / 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; 11¼ 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.

Select an image below to view the larger version with accompanying text:

This photograph is being taken from the base of the incline looking across the plain towards the SMJ junction
Ref: ehlr7
LGRP
This photograph is being taken from the base of the incline looking across the plain towards the SMJ junction
Close up view showing the two abandoned ex-LBSCR Terrier locomtives standing in the SMJ exchange sidings
Ref: ehlr7a
LGRP
Close up view showing the two abandoned ex-LBSCR Terrier locomtives standing in the SMJ exchange sidings
EHLR 0-6-0T No 2 is seen coupled to the brake van whilst being protected from the elements with a tarpaulin
Ref: ehlr3
LGRP
EEHLR 0-6-0T No 2 is seen coupled to the brake van whilst being protected from the elements with a tarpaulin
EHLR 0-4-0ST 'Sankey' is protected from the elements both by a tarpaulin as well as standing under the bridge
Ref: ehlr4
LGRP
EHLR 0-4-0ST 'Sankey' is protected from the elements both by a tarpaulin as well as standing under the bridge
EHLR 0-6-0T No 1, an ex-Brighton 'Terrier' stands with a  tarpaulin covering the cab, boiler and fittings
Ref: ehlr5
LGRP
EHLR 0-6-0T No 1, an ex-Brighton 'Terrier' stands with a tarpaulin covering the cab, boiler and fittings

View of the connection between the EHLR and the SMJR with 'Burton Dasset Platform' beyond the bridge
Ref:ehlr6
Anon
View of the connection between the EHLR and the SMJR with 'Burton Dasset Platform' beyond the bridge
EHLR Brake Van No 1 is seen in good repair whilst standing on the EHLR's exchange sidings with the SMJ
Ref: ehlr2
LGRP
EHLR Brake Van No 1 is seen in good repair whilst standing on the EHLR's exchange sidings with the SMJ
View of EHLR 0-6-0T No 2 ex-LBSCR No 674 'Shadwell' standing in front of the EHLR guards van circa 1930
Ref: ehlr8
Treloar collection
View of EHLR 0-6-0T No 2 ex-LBSCR No 674 'Shadwell' standing in front of the EHLR guards van circa 1930
Looking up the EHLR incline with EHLR 0-6-0 No 1 standing on the left of the photograph on 28th May 1935
Ref: ehlr9
HC Casserley
Looking up the EHLR incline with EHLR 0-6-0 No 1 standing on the left of the photograph on 28th May 1935
View of the EHLR's Ruston Steam navvy No 3022 seen standing at the end of the track on top of Edge Hill
Ref: ehlr10
ES Tonks
View of the EHLR's Ruston Steam navvy No 3022 seen standing at the end of the track on top of Edge Hill

View of the top of the EHLR incline showing the hut used to house the cable controlling equipment on 11th May 1930
Ref: ehlr11
Dr JR Hollick
View of the top of the EHLR incline showing the hut used to house the cable controlling equipment on 11th May 1930
View of a section of bullhead rail which was primarily found in the EHLR and the SMJ exchange sidings
Ref: ehlr12
Treloar collection
View of a section of bullhead rail which was primarily found in the EHLR and the SMJ exchange sidings
View of EHLR 0-6-0T No 2 ex-LBSCR No 674 'Shadwell' standing in front of the EHLR guards van circa 1930
Ref: ehlr13
Treloar collection
View of EHLR 0-6-0T No 2 ex-LBSCR No 674 'Shadwell' standing in front of the EHLR guards van circa 1930

Robert Ferris transcribed the following article

The Railway Magazine’ No 406, Vol LXVIII, April 1931

by GJ Aston, JR Hollick and DS Barrie.

Of the many unfinished chapters of British railway history, few are more fascinating than that of the Edge Hill Light Railway – a line the construction of which was suspended with such apparent haste that after a lapse of several years the mechanical excavator employed is still to be found with its grab half-raised to load a bucketful of earth! On this line the locomotives and wagons still stand on the tracks in the positions in which they were left, apparently, when the construction work ceased, and there are many other evidences of dereliction which seem strangely incongruous in the heart of England.

The story of the Edge Hill Light Railway is in fact one of the most remarkable that has ever attended railway development. The line, which was promoted in association with the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway (now amalgamated in the LMS) had its origin in the opening-up of the rich ironstone deposits which have been known for many centuries to exist in this part of the South Midlands, and which are still tapped by light railways in the vicinity of Banbury and elsewhere. Wartime requirements intensified the demand for British ironstone, and the EHLR was promoted to tap these deposits which exist in the immediate vicinity of Edge Hill.

In 1919 confirmation was given of a Light Railway Order for a line 5 miles 58 chains in length, from a junction with the SMJ ay Burton Dassett sidings to Nadbury Camp and Sunrising on the top of Edge Hill and it was stated that ‘great developments’ were anticipated from the opening-up of the ironstone field. The fact that the line was not opened until after the cessation of hostilities, when the changed economic conditions occasioned a gradually lessening demand for British ore, may however have had a considerable effect in bringing about the fate which ultimately overtook the railway. The chairman of the company in 1922 was Mr Harry Willmott, chairman of the SMJR and the chief officers of the Edge Hill Light Railway were also those of the SMJ. Rather less than four miles of the line were actually laid for traffic or commenced, but quarries on Edge Hill were worked until January 27, 1925, when the last load was brought down the EHLR to Burton Dassett. Since that date the line has been disused.

The Edge Hill Light Railway, which is of standard gauge throughout, starts from a junction with the SMJ (LMS) at Burton Dassett sidings approximately half-way between Fenny Compton and Kineton stations on the Stratford – Blisworth line, and adjacent to the main road between Banbury and Warwick. The LMS company still maintains a goods depot here, and there is also a platform which was constructed for the use of the workers at Edge Hill quarries, but which was never brought into service. The shelter on this platform now serves as an office for the goods depot foreman. The light railway branch leads out of a siding on the south side of the SMJ line and quickly curves away to the south-west. It is protected by a signal of SMJ pattern, while 100 yards up the line there is a runaway siding. The limit of LMS maintenance is marked by a plate on the sleepers not far from the point of junction.

Single throughout, the branch runs over slightly rising ground for two-and-a-quarter miles to the foot of Edge Hill, where a series of sidings are provided. The face of the hill is ascended by a cable-worked incline of about half–a-mile in length and set on a gradient of about 1 in 9. The first 250 yards of this incline is single track followed by a double track loop, which in turn merges into a three-rail formation in which the centre rail is common to trains in both directions. Working on the incline was controlled by a small foreman's cabin located at the top. From the summit the line runs over level ground for some three-quarters of a mile, with several intermediate sidings, to a point at which it ends abruptly in a cutting, where the steam excavator employed still stands as it was left. A further quarter-mile beyond is a partly completed brick arch bridge through which the railway was to run on its continuation to Ratley Road, but the bridge has never been properly cleared out beneath, although the presence of a few rails leaves no doubt as to the builders’ intention.

The greater part of the permanent way on the EHLR is flat bottomed, spiked directly to the sleepers, a method much favoured in light and industrial railway construction. Much of the permanent way appears to have been bought second-hand, while in the vicinity of the junction and in the sidings, chairs and bull-headed rails are used, the chairs being largely of Hull & Barnsley origin, with a number from the SMJ. As regards locomotives and rolling stock, the line between Burton Dassett Junction and the foot of the incline at Edge Hill was worked by two ex-LBSCR 0-6-0T engines of the famous Stroudley ‘Terrier’ type, many of which are still to be found on various light railways throughout the country. These engines were originally LBSCR Nos. 673 and 674, and although renumbered and lettered EHLR Nos. 1 and 2, the original ‘Brighton’ painting and lettering still shows through, while No 2 still retains its Brighton works plate (1882). Both these engines stand derelict in a siding, partially covered with tarpaulins and in quite good repair considering that they have been for five years exposed to wind and weather.

Traffic beyond the top of the hill was worked by a Manning-Wardle 0-4-0T which is also standing derelict. A stationary engine operated the cable-worked incline. Two brake-vans, numbered EHLR 1 and 2, together with a number of four-wheeled open wagons of standard type, are also in evidence. Although the locomotives and rolling-stock are still in good condition considering the ordeal to which they have been exposed, time and weather have played sad havoc with the permanent way, which in several places is almost buried under falls of earth and subsidence of the cutting walls. Generally, however the line does not give the impression of having been left derelict for nearly five years, and no doubt it could easily be reopened should such a fortunate eventuality be made possible by future trade developments.

Barry Freeman GRA writes 'both locomotives stood derelict at Kineton for 21 years, until 1946 when they were at last scrapped. I remember, as a nine year old, seeing them there not long before they were broken up'. To view Barry's painting of EHLR No 2 in a similar state to those portrayed on this page see image 'bf2'.