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.


April 1866 – Frizington to Marron Junction

Substantial growth generated by a rise in the fortunes of the iron-ore industry was primarily responsible for the incorporation and building of the Whitehaven, Cleator & Egremont Railway from 1854 onwards.

Following the building of an initial line to Frizington, completed in 1856 and opened for passengers on July 1st 1857, a five mile extension was authorised to the head of the Marron valley at Kidburngill (later re-named Wright Green, and still later, Lamplugh), in 1861, primarily to move iron ore and limestone deposits from the mines at Rowrah and Eskett to the coast. However congestion caused by the single-line tunnel at Whitehaven persuaded the WC&ER to construct an alternative line north to Workington and Carlisle. This was constructed up the valley alongside the River Marron, until it created a triangular junction north of Bridgefoot with the Cockermouth & Workington Railway.

As was the case with the previous line to Rowrah, severe gradients and curves were experienced over the six mile line (the steepness of the line responsible for a runway mineral train at Frizington in 1857). Primarily built for goods traffic, and travelling through sparsely-populated countryside, remarkably it was opened for passenger traffic on April 2nd 1866, with intermediate stations at Ullock and Branthwaite, and remained open until closure in 1931.

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March 1857 – The Flimby Sprinter

March 1857 saw an accident at Flimby on the Whitehaven Junction Railway, which fortunately was not serious, but could have caused loss of life due to sloppy working and poor management of a pointsman.

At Flimby a set of sidings served the nearby Seaton Moor Colliery, and two trains were sent daily to the sidings to collect full coal wagons, or return empties. The sidings were under the control of one Isaac Carr, who lived in a hut at the trackside.

On the morning of March 17th at 9.55am, Mr. Carr had let in and out a coal train from the sidings, and then returned to his hut, completely forgetting to change the points. The next mainline train (the 10.05am from Whitehaven to Maryport) was diverted onto the colliery sidings, the second of which turned right at an angle of almost 90 degrees. Although the driver had spotted that the points were still set for the sidings, travelling at possibly 30mph he was unable to stop, with the result that the engine, although passing through the first set of points, hit the second set too fast and derailed, being unable to cope with the sharp angle of turn.

Fortunately the coupling connecting the engine with the rest of the train snapped, preventing the rest of the carriages being dragged round the curve, with the result that none of the passengers were hurt, although shaken up.

Carr was brought before the Whitehaven Magistrates’ bench, confessing his guilt and admitting he had forgotten about the passenger train. He was sent to Carlisle prison for two months, with hard labour. There was some scepticism about the quick justice meted out to Isaac Carr as both magistrates, George Harrison and John Spencer, had railway interests, the latter being a sitting director of the WJR. The Board of Trade Inspector made mention of the fact that he was not able to question Mr. Carr before he was sent to prison, and that prior to the incident, he had been considered “a steady man”, albeit prone to drink!

The main conclusion was that drivers of trains should stop on approaches to junctions, unless they could see the pointsman in attendance. If not visible, they should report this fact at the end of their journey. Since it was assumed that this was not the first time Isaac Carr had been absent from duty, the railway company was due some blame for its lack of proper supervision of an potentially un-reliable employee.

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(With thanks to an original article by Mike Peascod in CRA Journal May 1989)


February 1881 – Viaduct Disaster!

February marks the anniversary of the final closure in 1933 of the old Solway Junction Railway (SJR) system, which had been taken over by the Caledonian Railway in 1895. This month is also of particular note due to the severe damage suffered in 1881 by the route’s main attraction, namely the Solway Viaduct, which carried the line from Bowness-on-Solway to Annan in Scotland. The story was told by John B. Howes in his article on the SJR Railway in the 1950s.

“A painful unforgettable year in the history of the Railway was that when the Viaduct was severely damaged by ice-floes; the edges of the Solway were frozen, as also were the rivers Esk and Eden. The high tides of the estuary lifted the ice and jammed it into the mouths of the rivers which began to flood as the thaw came, so forcing the packed ice out to sea; ice-bergs 6 to 10 feet and as much as 27 yards square crashed into the stanchions of the Viaduct. The keeper of the bridge, Mr John Welch, together with three stalwarts, remained in the cabin of the Viaduct, whilst the supports creaked and groaned on that fateful night. They stuck to their posts until 3.0am when disaster seemed imminent, whereupon John Welch gave the order “Every man for himself – I’m for Bowness.” Forty five pillars were smashed and 37 girders plunged into the Firth, but fortunately there was no loss of life.”

The resulting damage was estimated at £30,000, and the re-building took more than three years to accomplish. The structure, although re-built, continued to cause problems. By 1910 there were only three return crossings per day and a 20 mph speed limit was in force. In 1914 the railway was restricted to carrying freight only. On September 1st 1921 the viaduct was closed entirely. After it closed, the viaduct had a guard’s hut and gates installed to prevent its use on Sundays by pedestrians crossing from Scotland into England, where the alcohol licensing laws were less strict. Finally in 1934-35 it was demolished, although its remains can still be seen today.

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The Corkickle Brake – January 1932

January 1932 say the end of the initial use of the Corkickle Brake, which was built by the Furness Railway in 1881 to carry coal from Croft Pit down onto the main line. The Earl of Lonsdale was looking for a new outlet for the coal from his Whitehaven pits, one that was not via the Whitehaven Harbour Trustees’ network. He entered into discussions with the Furness Railway, requesting that access from his Croft Pit be improved. The Furness Railway agreed to build a line from Corkickle up to Croft Pit at a cost of £5000, repayable by Lord Lonsdale in annual instalments.

The line was constructed almost immediately and was 525 yards long, with a gradient ranging from 1 in 5.2 to 1 in 6.6. A passing loop half-way accommodated four wagons and the maximum descending load at any one time was 72 tons. Local people referred to the line as “the brake”, a usual term in the area for such a rope-worked line.

Although Croft Pit was abandoned in 1903, the Whitehaven Colliery Company (WCCo) had by then sunk Ladysmith Pit nearby, and this caused the brake to be brought up to date to cope with the increased traffic, at the expense of the WCCo, who now owned the line, rather than the Furness Railway.

1915 saw the erection of coke ovens at Ladysmith, which meant that both coal and coke travelled down to the main line via the brake.

The industrial climate post-war became extremely difficult for many colliery companies, and the WCCo was forced to close the Ladysmith operation in December 1931, with the brake formerly abandoned in January 1932.

This was not the end of the story however, as the chemical company, Marchon, took over the long-disused brake in 1953, and by 1955 it was back in use, only finally closing in October 1986.

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(With thanks to Howard Quayle’s “Whitehaven” book published by the Cumbrian Railways Association)


Accidents near Hellifield – December 1933 and 1955

December has seen two separate accidents near Hellifield over the last 80 years – one in 1933 and a second in 1955. The latter caused no fatalities, but the former led to two deaths.

In 1933, during shunting operations at Hellifield South Junction, a goods brake van ran away down the goods loop and onto the down main line, colliding head-on with the 11.15pm Ancoats (Manchester) to Carlisle freight train. Both the driver, J. Farrell, and fireman, W. Murphy, were fatally injured.

It was established that the previous train (the 11.55pm Huskisson Dock, Liverpool to Hellifield) had arrived in the goods loop earlier, and the brake van had been detached. The rest of the train was divided up, but one of the portions was shunted too vigorously against the detached van causing it to run away as its own brake had not been applied tightly enough. Rather than blaming the driver of the Huskisson Dock train, the yard “shunter”, a man called Hoggarth, was held primarily responsible as the weather conditions were poor and care should have been taken to warn the driver to back up the engine more slowly. Criticism was also levelled at the signalman, F. Thompson, for allowing the Ancoats train to proceed along a section of track when he knew the goods loop was open.

The 1955 accident report again blamed a signalman, but the collision this time was very different. The 9.05pm express passenger train from St. Pancras to Edinburgh was booked to stop at Hellifield and as it was standing at the Down platform it was struck heavily at the rear by the 9.15pm express passenger train from St. Pancras to Glasgow, which was booked to run through the station. The latter train had been travelling at 50-55mph but the brakes had been applied and had reduced the speed to 25-30mph when the collision occurred.

Fortunately, the brakes of the Edinburgh train were off and the force of the impact was largely absorbed by the destruction of the two bogie brake vans at the rear, and by the forward movement which was imparted to the train. Consequently, the casualties were confined to two passengers in the Edinburgh train who proceeded on their journey after treatment, and three railway servants in the same train, only one of whom was detained in hospital.

The enquiry attached blame to the signalman who, due to “irregular working”, had allowed the Glasgow express to enter the occupied platform.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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02 April 2014 DM

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