Historic Events of the Month
A fairly random selection of events of which the anniversary is in the month denoted below. If you have any historic happenings associated with the railways of Cumbria or nearby which you would like to see here, please contact the Archivist.
Heysham Railway Steamer Launched! – November 1927
Grouping in 1923 saw the new London Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) bring the Midland Railway (MR) and the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) under the same ownership, thereby creating a degree of overlap for the railway steamer services then operating from Fleetwood (LWNR jointly with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway) and Heysham (MR) to Belfast. In 1926 the LMS decided to transfer all services to Heysham then operating out of Fleetwood, and at the same time rationalise the ships operating the Irish services by ordering three new vessels to replace numerous older ships. Operating two ports in such close proximity made no sense for the newly-amalgamated LMS, and Fleetwood was becoming very congested. The new arrangement was to take effect in April 1928, subject to the prompt delivery of the new ships.
Three new ships were ordered from Wm. Denny & Brothers of Dumbarton. The first of these, named The Duke of Lancaster, was launched in November 1927. She was the second ship to use this name, the first having been built at Barrow in 1895 but sunk by a German torpedo in the North Sea during World War I whilst being used as an Armed Patrol Vessel.
The Duke of Lancaster (II) was destined to have an eventful career. Costing £216,000 she was registered out of Lancaster (which was impossible for her to visit), and with a gross tonnage of over 3,600, was larger than any of her predecessors. She was propelled by steam turbines driving twin screws, could achieve a speed of over 21 knots, and her hull was designed to taper in slightly below main-deck level, which was intended to give greater steadiness at sea. With 68 crew, she was able to carry 1500 passengers (with over 400 cabins – important as the service was overnight), and also conveyed cargo and cattle (300 could be accommodated).
Despite being a modern vessel (to quote the Railway Magazine, “the fastest, largest, and most luxuriously equipped on any cross-channel service”), accidents seemed to follow her round. In November 1928, just seven months into the new service, she ran aground entering Heysham and was stranded for several hours. The following May, she collided with her sister ship, the Duke of Rothesay, and in 1931 caught fire and sank in Heysham Harbour, was salvaged and then re-built at a cost of £107,000. Back in service in 1932, she then went aground on Copeland Island in fog, collided with a trawler in Morecambe Bay in 1934, and went aground again at Point of Ayre, Isle of Man in 1937. Finally, before being requisitioned for war service, she hit and sank a coaster, Fire King, in 1940.
A glorious finale awaited however, as she took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy as a hospital ship, before being transferred to British Railways’ ownership in 1948 and finally being withdrawn and broken up in 1956.
Closure of the Coniston Branch passenger Service – 1958
This month marks the 55th anniversary of the ending of passenger services on the Coniston Branch on October 6th 1958. Copper ore found near Coniston led to the sinking of a number of mine shafts in the area, and a means of transportation was required. This led to the Coniston Railway Act of 1857 authorising a railway from Broughton to the mines above Coniston. Opened in 1859 and worked by the Furness Railway, it passed through delightful scenery and soon became an attractive tourist line of about 10 miles in length.
At its height post-1923, the line boasted eight trains daily, all well-used by local people and in summer by tourists, giving rise to excursions from Blackpool and Morecambe twice weekly.
However, by 1957, annual losses were claimed by British Rail to be running at over £16,000 per year, and a passenger survey was carried out to demonstrate its lack of use. The main problem was a typical one for the area – bus competition from Ribble Motors, which operated a service form Ulverston to Coniston.
The inevitable closure notice was issued – and protests were loud and numerous, ranging from Local Authorities, Friends of the Lake District, to individual residents and users. The volume of objections delayed closure by a month, the original date being September 15th, but it still went ahead, conditional on a replacement bus service.
The last passenger train arrived at 9.20am on Saturday October 4th, and then returned to Barrow for the final time. Closure caused widespread inconvenience and bitterness. Had the accounts been falsified? Why was there no attempt to cut operating costs? What were the estimated costs of the replacement bus service, road improvements and loss of trade? None of these questions were answered satisfactorily – and predictably the replacement bus service did not last long either, ceasing in 1968.
Accident at Ais Gill (1913)
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the serious accident that took place at Ais Gill on September 2nd 1913. Two passenger trains had left Carlisle at 1.35am and 1.49am respectively, both bound for St Pancras. For reasons which will be explained below, the second train caught up with the first and ploughed into the back of it, wrecking the brake van, and most of the rear passenger (third-class) coach. A fire then broke out affecting three coaches, causing the deaths of 14 passengers in the first train (two more died later), and serious injury to a further 38 people most of whom were travelling in the second train.
Several causes of the accident were identified by Major J.W. Pringle in his Report on the tragedy. The Midland Railway had a policy of using small engines, with the result that both barely had sufficient power to cope with the steep gradients on the line. A banking engine was requested by the first driver, but not supplied, with the result that the train stalled half a mile short of Ais Gill summit. Danger might have been averted but the guard was not instructed to lay detonators on the line, or walk back with a light to protect the train.
Meanwhile the second driver was also having problems with his train. Bizarrely both engines had been supplied with “small coal”, which did not fire well, and both drivers spent much time helping their firemen to keep the grate clear, and the boiler pressure up. This distraction caused the second driver to miss a red signal at Mallerstang, further up the line, a red light being waved from the signal-box by the Mallerstang signalman, and then ultimately a red lantern being belatedly shone back down the line by the first train’s guard.
The subsequent enquiry blamed the crew of the first train for neglecting to protect the rear of their train, and the enginemen (particularly the driver) of the second train for failing to proceed with caution knowing that they must have passed several signals without observing them. However the Mallerstang signalman also came in for criticism for allowing the second train to proceed past the “distant” and “home” signals, to the “starting” signal, assuming it was moving slowly under caution., In fact it was steaming hard, and the signalman was unable to change the “home” signal back to danger until the train had passed.
The Midland Railway seems to have escaped most of the criticism despite its small-locomotive policy – which ironically had indirectly contributed to a similar accident three years earlier at Hawes Junction.
Furness Railway drivers’ retirement party (1921)
“A representative meeting of the Furness Railway drivers, presided over by Mr. W. Cleece, was held in the Lodge Room on August 21st, with the object of honouring three of their retiring members, who can all boast of long service with the Company, viz: Mr. W. Dent, 54 years; Mr. C. Sell, 49 years; and Mr. J. Noble, 47 years; or an average of 50 years each; a period (the chairman said) during which they had seen many changes in the Railway service, but in which at the same time, a pleasant feeling of good fellowship had always existed between them and as they wished to show practical appreciation of friendship with their colleagues, he would call upon Mr. G. Atkinson to make a presentation.
In handing to each in turn a gold mounted ebony walking stick, suitably engraved, Mr. Atkinson made at least three most felicitous speeches, in which he made mention of the long and pleasant associations he had had with the three gentlemen, and of the feeling of regret they all shared at the severance of such a long connection.
He wished each of them continued good health, and trusted they would find their sticks real help to them in the future, as well as a reminder of the days they had spent together.
Several other drivers added their tribute of esteem and good fellowship, and Mr. Dent, in responding for the recipients, sincerely thanked all present, and assured them that the stick would be looked upon as a most treasured possession.”
(With credit to the Furness Railway Magazine of October 1921)
The “West Coast Postal”
Early in 1885 the Post Office put forward a proposal for an overnight postal service between London and Scotland and, after much planning with the railways involved, it commenced running on July 1st 1885. New vehicles were built for this service, all with corridor connections, some years before these were to appear on passenger trains. A crew of three railwaymen were on board (driver, fireman and guard), with about 30 postal officials.
The service became known as the West Coast Postal, having initially been known as the Up Special TPO and Down Special. Timings varied but a report from 1927 gives a good indication of its basic route north from London. It left Euston at 8.30pm, and besides the automatic “exchanging” of various mailbags along the route, it stopped at Rugby (for between three and five minutes), Tamworth (seven minutes), Crewe (13 minutes), where deliveries for Ireland were transferred onto the “Irish Mail” (which left Euston 15 minutes behind), and then Preston and Carlisle, arriving at about 3am.
From Carlisle, the train headed north to Beattock, where a compulsory stop for the assistance of a banking engine was required (again as reported in 1927). At Carstairs the train was divided, the front portion heading to Stirling, Perth and arriving at Aberdeen at about 8am, the rear going to Edinburgh, and the front to Glasgow, arriving at 5.25am.
If you lived in Aberdeen and wished to reply the same day to a letter received that morning, this was possible too. The return service left Aberdeen at 2.45pm (later extended to 3.40pm), arriving back in London at 4.15am in time for morning deliveries.
This TPO ran for many years, ceasing only in the mid-1990s.
Passenger Services on the Harrington & Lowca Light Railway
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of passenger services on the Harrington & Lowca Light Railway. These commenced on the June 2nd 1913 following the publication of a Light Railway Order in May 1913.
Passenger services had their origin in a decision by the Workington Iron & Steel Co. who operated the existing mineral railway (the “Workington Iron & Steel Company tramway”) from Harrington Harbour up to Lowca Colliery, to provide for their ever-increasing workforce in the locality. In 1911 it was decided to run a passenger service to Lowca, with intermediate stations at Rose Hill (also known as Archer Street), Copperas Hill and Micklam. It took over two years to reconstruct the line to conform to the requirements of the Light Railways Act and get formal approval. An additional stop at Church Road Halt (Harrington) opened on November 1st 1913.
The complete service ran from Seaton on the coast, through Workington Central, to Lowca. Unusual in that it was staffed by the Cleator & Workington Junction Railway, and operated by the Furness Railway, the line was the steepest adhesion-worked gradient on any British passenger railway. The entire journey from Seaton to Lowca was timetabled to take 35 minutes, with the first service leaving at 5.05am, and the last return journey from Lowca at 10.15pm. Miners mainly used the trains, but a workmen’s train was introduced during the war in September 1915.
Both Church Road Halt and Rosehill (Archer Street) Halt were under the supervision of the High Harrington Station Master (John Rae from 1913 to 1931). Joseph Holmes was the travelling Station Master, who rode the trains between Lowca and Church Road and retired in 1924. From 1924 to 1926 Joseph Holmes’s assistant John Irving, a retired Cumberland & Westmoreland Police inspector known as “Long John”, was the ticket collector on the afternoon and evening trains.
Like so many in West Cumberland, passenger services did not last long, mainly due to competition from Cumberland Motor Services’ buses. Copperas Hill ceased to be in the timetable from 1921, and the General Strike in May 1926 killed off all passenger services for good, the line being closed to such traffic on May 31st. However, mineral trains continued until 1973, when the Solway Colliery closed thus negating the need for transport to the coking plant at Lowca.
May 11th 1983 – Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway Disabled People’s Day
Getting a disabled person from a wheel-chair into another wheeled vehicle has always proved a challenge, especially where railway carriages are involved. In 1982 the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway (R&ER), prompted by the late Sir Douglas Bader, a tireless campaigner for disabled people, decided to build three semi-open coaches which could easily and quickly be adapted for the purpose of conveying wheel-chairs.
The centre side-panels could be taken out by unscrewing a single nut, and the centre seats removed. Each vehicle carried a ramp so that a wheel-chair, and its occupant, could be pushed into the space left, with the centre panel then being replaced. A further vehicle, a closed saloon, was converted from the middle coach of the R&ER’s “silver jubilee” railcar, and had seats at each end with tip-up seats around the sides, thus leaving the centre space clear for wheel-chairs.
Following the construction of the coaches a special day was held on May 11th 1983, with invited parties from various localities. The special coaches were for once all in a single train set, with numerous volunteers on hand to assist the usual permanent staff, and meals were arranged for the various groups at Eskdale (Dalegarth).
The special train made three return journeys with motive power provided by the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway’s 4-6-2 Black Prince (on an exchange visit), and 0-4-2 well-tank Bonnie Dundee.
The day was so successful that two further special trains were run on September 23rd for the disabled of Allerdale district, many of whom could be not accommodated in May due to the demand for places.
April 10th 1875 – Accident at Frizington on the WC&ER
The Board of Trade reported on the collision of a mineral train with wagons at Frizington in 1875. The 1.30 pm. mineral train from Marron Junction for Whitehaven became unmanageable in descending a steep gradient, and after running a distance of about three miles came into collision with a break-van and five empty waggons (forming part of a train from Marron to Moor Row, the remainder of which was shunting) standing on the main line 20 yards on the Whitehaven side of Frizington station.
The driver of the train was injured jumping off his engine (a tank engine, running coal-box first), which had its coal-box knocked in, and frame, smoke-box, and buffer-beam destroyed. The break-van was destroyed and 30 wagons in total damaged. Of more importance was the fact that part of the Frizington station building was also knocked down.
As was stated at the enquiry, Frizington is situated at the bottom of an incline nearly 3 miles long. The loaded train had been pushed up almost to the top from Marron by another engine, at a slow speed of 5 miles an hour. It was left to complete the climb between Rowrah and the summit, and then should have descended slowly to Winder, where the train would normally stop, unload some wagons and pin down brakes for the rest of the descent. However, half way to Winder driver Grundell said he became aware that he would not be able to stop as required, although his speed was no faster than usual, and the engine-break had been applied. He maintained that the problem was due to the loaded wagons being mainly at the rear of the train, which required him to keep up steam longer than usual going up to the summit.
Guard James Wood (9 years on the Cleator line) agreed the speed near the summit was indeed about 5 miles an hour, but stated that after getting to the summit it gradually increased and got faster than usual, reaching 30 mph through Yeathouse and dropping slightly to 25 mph at the collision impact.
This somewhat damning evidence caused the enquiry to find driver Grundell to be the main cause of the accident by allowing the train to pass the summit at too high a speed, which on the descent he was unable to control. Two recommendations were made; firstly that all goods and mineral trains should stop on the level track at the summit so that a proportion of the brakes could be pinned down before descent; and secondly that serious consideration should be given as to whether double trains should be run at all – “if an engine has no greater load attached to it that it can haul up a gradient, it will generally be master of that load on descending a somewhat similar gradient, and thus not be likely to be overpowered.”
PGW 04/13 (taken from the Board of Trade, Railway Department Report of May 31st 1875)
March 1972 – Closure of Keswick Station
On March 6th 1972, Keswick station formally closed marking the end of the Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway (CKPR) that first opened in 1864.
The land on which the station was built had been acquired from General le Fleming and the contractors, Boulton & Sons, agreed a contract in 1863. The plot was just to the north of the town centre with views of the summit of Latrigg beyond. The original plan had merely a waiting shelter on the Up passenger platform, whilst a two storey gabled stone building was built on the Down side.
Immediately adjoining the station, the CKPR built a hotel in similar vein, which opened in 1864, and had a conservatory connection to the Down platform.
Because the station was the headquarters of the CKPR from the 1860s, a Boardroom was constructed in the upstairs west wing, the Secretary’s office under the west gable, the Traffic manager’s under the east gable, and finally the Accountant’s premises in the east wing. Downstairs were the usual waiting rooms and ticket office. Briefly between 1965 and 1872 there was a refreshment room, but this closed after the Board agreed it would be “desirable” to withdraw such facilities – possibly due to rowdy or drunken behaviour of passengers from the many excursion trains that ran during that period.
From the 1940s increasing car usage caused railway traffic to decline to the point that, in 1960, just 20% of visitors to Keswick arrived by train. The effect on the line was predictable, and although the introduction of diesel multiple-units reduced journey times, the line was losing around £50,000 per annum. Goods traffic stopped in June 1964, and the service between Cockermouth and Keswick was discontinued in 1966, leaving only the line to Penrith open. From December 1967 the signal boxes along the line closed, leaving Penrith to control traffic on a “one-engine” basis, and as a consequence all stations inevitably became unstaffed in 1968. The line staggered on, worked by a diesel-unit shuttle service, until its final closure on March 6th 1972, with mineral trains from Penrith to Flusco quarry west of Blencow continuing until June 19th.
Keswick’s 1860s station building survives as a hotel today, and outwardly looks little different from its time as an important station and railway headquarters.
February 1903 – Leven Viaduct Accident
February marks the 110th anniversary of the overturning of a passenger mail train at Leven Viaduct in 1903.
The area around the Leven Viaduct suffered the effects of a severe westerly gale on the morning of February 28th 1903, which brought down the telegraph wires onto the bridge structure. The early morning mail train, travelling from Carnforth, ploughed into the wires with the result that the vacuum brake pipe was cut on one coach, bringing the train to a halt.
The wind was so strong that, whilst the train was at a standstill, a severe gust blew the passenger coaches onto their sides on the up line. The Board of Trade enquiry report published on 13th March 1903 described the result thus –
“...as the 4.25am down mail passenger train from Carnforth to Barrow was standing on the viaduct all the vehicles on the train, 10 in number, were overturned on to the up line during a terrific gale. All the passengers in the train, 34 in number, were injured, but only one is reported as being in a serious condition. The two guards were also injured, one rather severely, and one Post Office sorting clerk.”
Whilst the enquiry accepted that gales of this type did happen only rarely, it pointed out that if the train had been on the up line, then the coaches would most likely have fallen into the river, causing “terrible results”. Therefore it recommended that some means be devised for warning signalmen on either side of the viaduct that strong winds were present. A wind pressure gauge was duly placed at the west end of the Leven Viaduct, which sounded a warning bell in the signal box at Plumpton Junction if a set level of wind pressure was exceeded.
This remained in use until the closure of Plumpton Junction signal box in March 2000.
Opening of the Rowrah & Kelton Fell Railway (R&KF) – January 1877
The railway came to the small hamlet of Rowrah in 1862 when the Whitehaven, Cleator & Egremont Railway (WCE) extended its line from Whitehaven (and later in 1866 to Marron Junction on the Cockermouth-Workington line).
The upsurge in both coal and iron mining provided the impetus towards further development of the railway network in this part of Cumbria, as it was thought necessary to have an alternative means of transport other than road for the iron ore being brought out. The early 1850s saw prospecting for ore in the Kelton area, east of Rowrah, but the only means of transportation was by via a road which was virtually impassable in winter – carts became stuck in red, muddy, greasy haematite slurry.
In 1872 the current owners of the mines (William Baird & Co – of Baird’s Line fame) decided a branch line was essential to convey the vast quantities of ore being mined from Kelton & Knockmurton. They approached the WCE for permission to build a junction at Rowrah, and an Act authorising construction of the R&KF Mineral Railway was passed in 1874. It was built by Messrs. Harrison Hodgson of Workington at a cost of £25,000 and was anticipated to be of 3.5 miles in length with 11 bridges, climbing from about 177m at Rowrah to 274m at the Kelton Fell mines. This obviously favoured loaded trains, but haulage of empties back to the mines was hard work!
Despite the completion of the line by November 1876, legal disputes with the WCE over the junction at Rowrah continued, delaying the official opening until mid-January 1877. This, and previous issues with the WCE, persuaded William Baird that it should build its own line from Rowrah north to Distington, and eventually via the Maryport & Carlisle Railway to Scotland. “Baird’s Line” joined the R&KF near its junction with the WCE, and offered better rates, ensuring that it soon took all the available mineral traffic.
Prosperity for the R&KF was brief, and by 1900 the mines were mostly exhausted. Limestone traffic continued for a while, but from 1927 the railway became virtually disused until it was eventually dismantled in 1934.
Yet More Trouble at Carlisle Station – December 1886
On December 21st 1886, the LNWR suffered an accident that proved to be decisive in the adoption of the automatic brake vacuum on passenger trains.
Up until 1882 the LNWR had been the only Company resisting the introduction of any vacuum system, having long been using the chain brake, which was neither automatic nor effective in making the carriages brake in unison. However in 1882 the Railway Inspectorate insisted and the directors, despite still in opposition, agreed, to adopt the simple vacuum brake, rather than the automatic version, as a cheap solution.
However, four years later, the LNWR found itself having to defend its decision in front of the Board of Trade Inspectors following a serious incident at Carlisle. One of the Company’s down expresses ran through Citadel Station and struck a Midland engine standing 300 yards to the north. A simple vacuum brake was fitted to all fourteen vehicles on the train, but a plug of ice was found about one foot either side of the junction of the vacuum pipes, water having collected within them. Apparently this was not the first time the problem had been acknowledged, as freezing of the pipes had often been named in the LNWR’s “vacuum returns”, along with other types of obstruction such as cotton waste.
New rules requiring separation of vehicles, with differing types of brakes, into different train sections had recently come into force. These were causing the Company acute problems because of the widespread practice of conveying vehicles from many different companies, such as saloons, horse boxes, and son on, into one train However, the directors were by now concerned at the increasing number of brake failures, and it became obvious that the automatic vacuum brake would have to be adopted across the Company. This was duly commenced, and by the end of 1889 over 50% of all vehicles were fitted, with the task being finally completed in a further two years.