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Radley Rail Gala – Souvenir Programme

Radley Rail Gala Souvenir Programme

rail_gala_programme_1994_la

Index to Pages

Page
Contents
 
1 Foreward by Denis Standen  
2 ‘The Railway & RADLEY’ by David Heath  
3 ‘RailwayMen’s Reminiscences: Wally Turner’  
4 ‘RailwayMen’s Reminiscences: “Jobey” Grimes’  
5 ‘The First Stationmaster’ by Jean Deller  
6 ‘Rails to Abingdon’ by Peter Heath  
 

These articles are reproduced courtesy of the editor, Peter Heath, and the authors.

     

 

The illustration on the front cover is of the GWR 2-2-2 ‘Firefly’ class broad-gauge locomotive, ‘Actaeon‘ designed by locomotive engineer Daniel Gooch circa 1840.

 

FOREWARD by D J Standen

Bristol businessmen formed the Great Western Railway in 1833. They appointed a young engineer, I. K. Brunel, then 26, to build a railway linking their city with London. He had some imaginative and original ideas, one of which was a seven-foot gauge, as against Stephenson’s four feet eight and a half inches. Stephenson had merely followed tradition which was the width of rut tracks of stage coaches; one historian claims this was the distance between the wheels of Roman chariots!

The Bristol directors accepted Brunel’s suggestions for the route of the new track, following the Avon valley, sweeping round to Swindon, and then down the Thames valley to London, thus avoiding the Cotswolds, the Berkshire Downs and the Chilterns. Challow, Wantage, Steventon, Didcot, Cholsey, Goring and Pangbourne; all except one of these villages were in North Berkshire, so that the route chosen just fringed Oxfordshire, to negotiate the Goring Gap. Environmental considerations, even during the Victorian reign, must have influenced Brunel to span the Thames at Moulsford in order to conceal his track in a cutting below the Chiltern hills then through to Pangbourne.

Steventon was then the natural place for a traveller to Oxford to take a coach via Abingdon, while down the line, Didcot, a hamlet of thatched cottages clustered around All Saints Church, resented the invasion of rough navvies who built the railway, some of whom were to settle in this pretty North Berkshire location. They were provided for by the railway company, which built what they called Newtown, nearer to the village of East Hagbourne; first this was called North Hagbourne, later contracted to Northbourne. Meanwhile G. W. R. were negotiating an Oxford link on their successful Bristol-London venture.

Abingdon, with an eye on the prosperity a rail link would offer, favoured a junction at Steventon, which would have routed the line through Abingdon and thence enhanced its chance to become County Town. However, the chosen route was from Didcot, and had to cross the river in two places (could this have been the more economic route?) with a stop some distance from the village of Culham which was called Abingdon Road Station. Abingdon, thus thwarted, held a meeting and formed a railway company of its own: The Abingdon Railway Company (A.R.C.) was to link with the Didcot-Oxford line at a point on the Berkshire side of the river, near to Radley.

In 1894, Parish Councils were formed – we also celebrate this centenary this year and it would have been at this time, 100 years ago, that North Hagbourne and All Saints Church parishes lost their ‘siamese twin’ co-existence and became united under Didcot Parish Council.

Meanwhile, the junction at Didcot found new prosperity with the War Office and its concern for logistical support for the British Army; hence a huge depot developed beside and including the new rail system. South from the junction, a line ran to the coast, across the Downs and through Newbury, while northwards ‘our’ line reached Oxford through South Hinksey into Grandpont where it terminated in the early days, and to this day, south of Folly Bridge, you will see Western Road – this was the Great Western Station approach road.

Similarly in Radley, where the existing platform is placed was not the original site.
The A.R.C. ran trains out of Stert Street to converge with the Oxford line at what was then Abingdon Junction. Later parallel lines to the main line brought trains through a further half-mile to the present Radley Station site with road access on both sides.

At that time, the owners of Nuneham Courtenay were the Harcourt family, but Lord Harcourt’s Oxfordshire manor house was separated from the railway by the river. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1890s, it is certainly possible that he used some influence to have a convenient place to board a train for London. From Radley Boathouse can be seen the old Ferry Cottage on the Nuneham bank at a point where a ferry existed until 1946 and a causeway road ran into Lower Radley. I understand this was used by the Harcourts’ own coach to convey them to the station, and I have heard that, to this day, timetabling of the morning London train has this historical background – the 9.15 and 10.05 still stop at Radley, while Culham and App1eford are not similarly favoured. I wonder what influence may have been used when the new station was built right in Radley village with a roadway directly to the main entrance, on the ‘up’ platform (east side of the line)? However, this entrance is now fenced off in favour of a small housing development on the site of the pond, which had, for over 140 years, supplied water for thirsty steam locomotives.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Editor of this journal for all the hard work he has put in to assemble this unique collection of real stories from ‘our village’ history. The attention to detail is what Peter Heath is so good at. These memories, these pictures, are precious reminders of past glories – I wonder what is yet to come?

Denis Standen, April, 1994

 

The Railway & RADLEY
by David Heath

Radley lies some 5 miles south of Oxford and 2 miles east of Abingdon, and though there is evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age occupation, the village appears to have its origins in a Saxon fishing settlement situated on the River Thames. By the Middle Ages, Radley (in old English Read-Leah or Red Clearing) had become a small agricultural community and today it has developed into a parish of approximately 2,800 inhabitants, although it is perhaps more famous for the college which was established in the 1840s.

It was during this period that the people of Radley had their first contact with the Railway – the GWR’s Didcot & Oxford was opened on 12th June 1844, though the village was not provided with any station. In 1856 the Abingdon Branch opened and a junction station was built 3/4 mile south of Radley near Nuneham which was demolished in 1873 when the branch was extended northwards to a new station at Radley. Though originally envisaged by the GWR to serve the village and not the independent Abingdon Railway Company’s line, Radley station would be known for almost a century as the ‘Junction for Abingdon’ and indeed the branch generated much of the station’s traffic. London expresses would make their only stop en route at Radley to pick up passengers brought from Abingdon and it is interesting to note that it was not until 1883 that a footbridge was thankfully provided between the platforms.

Radley had quite an interesting layout – in addition to the two main running lines there were three loops and two sidings in the yard. The first loop, which ran on the opposite side of the Down platform, was used by the Abingdon train, the adjacent loop served as an overspill for storing wagons, and the far loop was primarily a run-round, though a cattle dock was established here in 1903. Goods facilities were actually introduced during the mid 1890s: the siding nearest the roadbridge served the coal traffic, and the other handled luggage for the college.
Access to the station was by means of a long drive which led from the Lower Radley side of the roadbridge. Radley station remained virtually unchanged until the Second World War, when the ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ running loops each capable of holding 250 wagons – were installed between Radley and Sandford. The approach to Radley from Oxford is on a down gradient and Wally Turner, who was the signalman at Radley during the ’50s and ’60s recalled several occasions when, particularly in wet weather, heavy goods trains, braking for the end of the loop, would slide past and derail on the catchpoints.

Stories of railway ghosts and haunted stations are not uncommon, and Radley was no exception. Percy Wright, who for many years was the station-master, reckoned something lurked in the shadows and would often tell his colleagues that when he walked home late at night he could hear footsteps following him. Although Percy really believed the place was haunted, his staff didn’t take it seriously, and when new employees started work they would be told of the ‘ghost’ and would become victims of practical jokes. One such instance is quoted in Harold Gasson’s book “Signalling Days” when he threw a bundle of cotton-waste, soaked in water, from the signal box late one night which landed with a thud on the platform just behind a porter who was locking up the station. With a shriek he fled from the premises and away into the village. Another instance was recalled by Wally Turner. He was on night duty and had been to the toilet, which was situated close to the box, about 11pm. He was on the phone to his colleague at Culham signal box at midnight when suddenly the toilet cistern flushed. He was petrified as the station was locked and otherwise deserted. Maybe the ball-cock had jammed an hour earlier, gradually releasing itself – or could it have been the ghost? Nobody will ever know …

One of the final services made by the GWR to Radley was in late 1947 when the platforms were extended. Then, in September 1963, the Abingdon branch closed to passenger traffic. The rationalisation of the Beeching period saw Radley downgraded to an un-manned halt; the buildings were demolished and the superfluous track in the goods yard lifted to form a car park. By the 1970s the station was only a shadow of its former self – weeds growing on the platforms which were devoid of all structures apart from a solitary brick shelter on the Up side which served as a waitingroom and, it appeared from the smell, an unofficial public convenience!
The situation did not improve much in the early 1980s. The graffiti-ridden station was now a notorious blackspot in the Oxford area, though one clever piece of graffiti read “America has Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan and Stevie Wonder. Britain has no Cash, no Hope, Maggie Thatcher and No Bloody Wonder! ” .

In 1983, B.R. engineers discovered that the old roadbridge was subsiding thanks to a continual pounding by the heavy lorries serving the gravel pits in Lower Radley, and during one weekend in November of that year, the line between Oxford and Didcot was closed whilst the bridge was demolished and replaced by a new and rather unattractive prefabricated concrete structure. This bridge has more clearance than the original to allow for overhead wires should the line ever be electrified – a prospect more likely at that time than at the present.

1986 saw the launch of ‘Network SouthEast’ and part of Director Chris Green’s “Operation Pride” was a clean-up for all of the sector’s nine hundred plus stations. Over the following months Radley received the customary red lamp-posts, the old monochromatic nameboards were replaced by new colourful Network signs, and the blue/grey footbridge was repainted in chocolate and cream – a fitting reminder of a once proud station.

Little has changed during the last few years other than the provision of a new set of lamp-posts and those hideous ‘bus-stop’ type shelters.

Despite the ‘Beeching Axe’ in the 196Os, when many villages bigger than this lost their stations, British Rail has not only kept Radley, Culham and Appleford open but has maintained a frequent service in both directions using the superior speed and comfort of the new ‘Networker Turbos’. There were plans a few years ago to re-open the branch line from Abingdon as a steam-hauled tourist railway. Unfortunately this was not to be, but if the little tank engine and auto-coach had been standing in the bay platform today as “Nunney Castle” pulled in on the main line maybe one could just have imagined it to be 12th June 1954! 

 

RAILWAYMENS’ REMINISCENCES

The following articles were first published in 1989 and 1990 in theOxfordshire Railway Society’s Journal and are reproduced by kind permission of the authors and editor (Peter Heath). Both feature Radley men, the late Wally Turner, and Bill Grimes who still [in 1994] lives in the village …

Wally Turner

 worked for British Railways for 18 years, joining in 1949 after a spell in the Royal Navy. He began his career at the Signal Training School in Reading in company with local author Harold Gassons, and from there was posted to Abingdon where he remained for about eighteen months before moving to Sandford for a short spell; in 1950 he was transferred to Radley where he stayed until 1967. Like most railwaymen of that era he had plenty of amusing tales to tell – even some of the more serious ones were tinged with humour.

Wally first became interested in railways at the age of five when, accompanied by his father who was employed by the G.W.R., he used to place detonators on the track in foggy weather. He remembered one incident in those far-off days when a certain individual was on ‘detonator duty’ at Sandford and spent the night in one of those old ‘sentry box’ line-side huts with a roaring brazier outside together with a pile of coal and a heap of detonators. The unfortunate man fell asleep and awoke to find his fire almost out. Grabbing what he thought to be a handful of coal, he threw it into the brazier. Several seconds later there was a firework display as the detonators exploded – luckily the chap was not badly injured, but he never went to sleep on duty after that!

Besides his father, Wally also had three brothers who worked on the railway doing such diverse jobs as Goods Guard, Fireman and Porter. Whilst Wally was at Abingdon not only was one of his brothers head shunter in the yard but there were also two uncles, who worked for Bernard Frost, a local coal merchant. When the private-owner wagons arrived the uncles used to shout out to their two ‘nevvies’ to position their trucks at the most convenient place for Frost’s staithes, and from that time onwards the two brothers were known as the ‘Nevvy Brothers’ wherever they went.

Life in a signal box was never boring and with trains passing through Radley roughly every five minutes during the daytime there was always plenty to do. Being the junction for the Abingdon branch caused problems when the daily freight train from Hinksey Yard arrived about 7am and some of the movements involved encroaching on the main line, especially when there were more wagons than usual. The freight for Radley consisted mainly of coal and items for the local farms. The branch line tank engine would come up from Abingdon mid-morning to collect the wagons for the market town, sometimes having to make two or three journeys if the traffic warranted it. Signalmen were very proud of their boxes and because of the highly polished floors shoes had to be removed on entry and slippers substituted. On one occasion a young porter, who always wore brown boots, removed Wally’s slippers and placed them on top of a telegraph pole, so he decided to get his own back! He waited for the porter to go into the toilets and followed him. The doors to the cubicles were all shut, so Wally bent down and looked under the first one and there, sure enough, were a pair of brown boots. Without hesitation he picked up a fire bucket full of water and threw the contents under the door, slipping silently back to the box to await developments. Imagine his surprise when a few moments later a six-foot Irish labourer came out of the toilet with sodden trousers and boots gushing with water! The Irishman didn’t even glance up at the box and calmly clambered through the fence into the neighbouring caravan site where he lived. Maybe the fact that he was illegally using BR’s toilet made him keep his mouth shut.

Other members of the public who helped to contribute – knowingly or otherwise – moments of humour or light relief included the local vicar, the Rev. Bruton, who during the 1960s would call at the station to collect his wife off the 6.05 pm from Paddington. He would shout up to the signal box and ask if the train was running to time. Wally would telephone up the line to maybe Slough or Ealing, and if the train was way behind schedule he would inform the vicar who would generally say “Do you fancy one?”. Wally didn’t refuse and the priest would nip through the hedge at the side of the goods loading bay and sneak into the “Bowyer Arms ” by way of the pub’s back garden. On his return, with two pint mugs filled with ale, he would be invited, against regulations, of course, into the box, when both men would be satisfied with the outcome!

Another such character was one of several in the village who bred homing pigeons. This particular chap used the railway for their inaugural flight, and it was arranged that they would be put on the first Sunday afternoon train to Didcot, where they would be released. On the day in question the birds were duly delivered but Lofty, the duty porter, forgot to put them on the train. The pigeon owner, whose house backed on to the line, shouted across to check they were on their way, only to be told the news. “Make sure you put them on the next one,” he replied. The second train came and went, but the birds got overlooked again! “Have they gone this time?” came the shout from across the line, and Wally replied in the affirmative. “What are we going to do?” asked Lofty, to which Wally replied “You are going to push them down the side of the track on your bicycle under cover of those wagons and the embankment to where the Abingdon line branches off and release them!”. Lofty spluttered but did as he was told. Not long afterwards the very excited voice of their owner exclaimed that the birds were back and must have broken the speed record on their flight from Didcot to Radley!!

Three of many incidents on the line stuck in Wally’s memory. Firstly the driver of an early morning light-engine stopped at the signal box to report a mutilated body on the line by the bridge over the Thames at Nuneham. In normal circumstances all trains should be stopped in these cases but Wally knew that the next working was the newspaper train from London and thousands of people in Oxford wouldn’t get their papers on time, so he let it through after phoning the police. They duly arrived and walked up the line, returning a little later with puzzled frowns.
They had not touched the body because it was on the middle of the bridge and the river was the county boundary, so they weren’t sure if it was their body or Berkshire’s! After some discussion the matter was eventually resolved, the body being taken on foot to Culham station where it was left in a sack under the signal box until a hearse came to collect it. There was also the crash at Appleford in September 1952. Wally was talking on the phone to Gordon Churchman, the duty signalman in the Appleford box, who told him that a light-engine was approaching his box on the down loop line from Didcot and that the next train for Wally to accept would be the Paddington to Worcester freight. Suddenly he shouted that the light engine was going too fast to stop. Wally heard a loud bang down the phone, then silence! He phoned Culham box, but not before managing to stop the York to Swindon passenger train which, if it had continued on its way, would have piled into the aftermath with possible catastrophic results. The Culham signalman could not raise Gordon either, so the stationmaster from there walked the line to Appleford to be met with two derailed locomotives, scores of smashed freight vans strewn across the mangled tracks and the signal box completely demolished, but no sign of Gordon. Eventually he was found lying in a field some distance from the lineside apparently none the worse for his ordeal, a very lucky man. It appears that the driver of the light engine thought he was on the down fast line and had misread the signals. When his loco ran out of track it ripped up the sleepers on the points which in turn damaged the adjoining line causing the following freight train to leave the rails, taking the signal box with it.

The third occasion was when the Hinksey signalman decided to send an iron-ore train from there to Didcot ahead of the Birkenhead-Paddington passenger train which normally left Oxford just after 3am, but was running about ten minutes late. After the freight passed Radley, Wally waited to accept the following train when suddenly the phone rang. It was the guard of the iron-ore train ringing from Didcot to say he had heard a terrific bang on the side of his van near Culham. The passenger train was fast approaching Radley as Wally spoke, so he threw the lever to put the signal at danger. The express, which was travelling about 70mph, made an emergency stop, slithering and screeching through the station. The restaurant car stopped right outside the signal box and Wally looked down to see cutlery and crockery allover the floor and several diners covered in soup! The Cockney driver walked to the box to ask what was going on. Wally told him and said that according to regulations one loco must be uncoupled (the express was double-headed) and travel light under caution to Culham in case there was some danger on the track, and then return to take the train forward if all was well. “To blazes with regulations, we want to get ‘ome to bed!” he retorted. Wally eventually conceded, but was naturally very concerned about the safety of the passengers and there is no doubt he would have been dismissed if any harm had come to the train or its occupants. As events turned out nothing was amiss and the mystery of the bang was never solved.

The above recollections are but just a few of many instances which occurred during Wally’s seventeen happy years at Radley. In 1967 the signal box closed – Wally was offered a transfer to Worcester but decided, sadly, to leave the railway and work in the car factory at Cowley like so many of his colleagues. Even there he could not get away from trains, as when his new employers discovered he was a railwayman they offered him the job of driving the factory’s diesel shunter even though he had never driven one before! Following a car accident three years later Wally returned to work after a lengthy absence to find that the Company had decided to do away with the loco.

 

William Charles Grimes

 was known for most of his working life as “Jobey” a nickname first applied to his brother who was a shunter at Didcot. He was born in Radley, where he still [in 1994] lives spending most of his time tending his neat garden, one of twelve children including 7 sisters! He started on the railway at the age of sixteen when he worked at Littlemore as a lad porter. After two years his employer, the Great Western Railway, wanted to transfer him to Langley, but he resigned as he didn’t fancy moving home. After a period at the Cowley car factory and helping out on a temporary basis at Radley station, he rejoined the GWR as a member of the permanent way gang, working in the Kennington and Radley area. He later transferred to driving and was based at Cowley depot for almost eight years during the Second World War in charge of a 7-tonner collecting, amongst other things, sugar beet from the local farms and worked a seven day week to make ends meet! When he got married he was earning 38 shillings a week (£1.90 in ‘new money’) of which 16 shillings was spent on two-roomed accomodation in Sunningwell.

After hostilities ceased, several vacancies occurred and Jobey applied for a transfer to Abingdon which was duly accepted. This was his second time at Abingdon, because in 1937, he drove a horse and cart around the town delivering goods to the local shops which had been transported by freight train from Paddington; seven wagons of perishables being attached to the ‘Bunk’ engine and coach at Radley, and arriving at Abingdon as a mixed train about 8am. When the goods stopped being sent by rail to Abingdon it was necessary to drive to Steventon station each day to collect the items for the Abingdon and Wantage areas. Ultimately the job was taken over by private carriers and from then on Jobey handled the M.G. Car workings, becoming foreman, and during the last four years he worked at the station alone; he was so popular that the Oxford Area Manager tried to persuade him to stay on when he retired.

In common with Wally Turner and most old railwaymen Jobey can recall many amusing and serious incidents which happened over the years…

One day some relief workers came from Reading to help out at Abingdon, and after 
the coal train had arrived, one volunteered to help with the shunting. He assured our foreman that he was perfectly capable but unfortunately he switched the points before the free-wheeling wagons had traversed them, resulting in several of them coming off the rails. This was one of three derailments Jobey witnessed at Abingdon. On another occasion the local freight train, comprising about a dozen coal wagons and box vans, was approaching the station when Jobey turned to his mates the messroom and said: “He’s never going to stop at that speed”. He proved right when the driver and fireman leapt from the footplate the platform as the train hurtled into the buffers.

Once, when he was at Steventon, a regular non-stop passenger train was approaching more slowly than usual following a signal check, and as it accelerated through the station at about 40mph, a carriage door opened and a shovel and two rabbits were flung onto the platform! Their owner then decided to jump but missed the platform and finished up under the roadbridge badly injured. Apparently he told Jobey that he had got on the wrong train at Swindon and decided to jump out at Steventon when he realised the train was slowing down! Another incident which turned out to be much more tragic occurred when Didcot station rang to say a driver had hit something near Wantage Road station, and Jobey was asked to drive over and check. It was a very foggy morning and he eventually found a group of gangers at the lineside after driving down a farm track. They told him that one of their colleagues had been struck by a train but they were too scared to go and look at him. Jobey walked up the line and found the poor chap sitting up against a fence with his severed leg lying next to the track, but unfortunately he was already dead.

One of Jobey’s in his early days on the railway was ‘fogging’, which involved placing detonators on the track. He vividly recalls the first ever occasion when he cycled to Kennington at 1 am to start his shift. 

He was naturally nervous at the thought of being alone all night, and hardly reassured when one of his mates said he would have a ghost for company, in the form of a ganger who had committed suicide at the same spot! It was a cold, still night; the only sound being the swirling water of the weir at Sandford Lock. As he bent down over the stream at the side of the track to get some water to make a ‘cuppa’, the signal above his head was suddenly pulled off, and Jobey almost took off across the fields!!

One of his journeys as a lorry driver took him to High Wycombe on relief; he was sometimes concerned when visiting new areas whether he would be able to complete all his deliveries in time to get home to Radley on the train. He, therefore, asked the foreman at High Wycombe if he could have a mate to show him round, but was sternly told that it was not necessary. After loading his lorry he mentioned his plight to the station master who instantly agreed to accompany him. “Oh no, not you! ” replied Jobey because he remembered that the regular driver once told him that he was always given a load of free cakes at a certain village shop, just one of several ‘perks of the job’! When the station master queried Jobey’s remark he decided not to say anything. Imagine his surprise therefore when, after they had been travelling a short time, the station master told him to go to a certain village shop where they would pick up some free lardy cakes! Not only that, but they had to make a detour because someone else had a bundle of beansticks for him!

Jobey was at Radley one day talking to Wally Turner in the signal box, when they noticed half a dozen gangers climb over the fence of a field adjoining the line and promptly start picking all the mushrooms. They were obviously observed by the farmer because shortly afterwards he came roaring down the station approach in his car and leapt out brandishing a double-barrelled shot gun which he discharged over their heads! Fortunately for the gangers, he did not report them but he did confiscate the mushrooms! Talking of mushrooms reminded Jobey, who had a reputation for being mischievous, but not a trouble maker, of the time when he collected bags of empty ice-cream tubs from the trackside where they had been thrown from passing trains. He took them into a field at Kennington armed with a load of sticks which he pushed into the earth, carefully placing the up-turned tubs over them. He then watched from the shelter of the platelayers’ hut, grinning broadly at the expressions on the ladies’ faces from Sandford who came down the lane with their baskets to pick the ‘mushrooms’! Jobey still remembers the railway with affection and proudly wears his inscribed watch, presented to him at Reading to mark forty years service. One thing that does upset him, however, is the state of Radley station today, especially as he often used to cycle over from Abingdon on a quiet day to help keep the village station neat and tidy.

Memories linger on, but the days of ‘taking a pride in the job’ have long gone.

 

The First Stationmaster

CHARLES AMBRIDGE

1832-1910

 

Charles Ambridge was born in Silsoe, Bedfordshire, and when he left school, worked hard, and eventually found employment on the railways with the London & North Eastern Railway. He subsequently transferred to the Great Western Railway.

Charles married Hannah Ballard from Kidlington and lived at Ladygrove Farm in Abingdon where their eldest daughter Lucy was born in 1859. He continued working as a Railway Policeman until he was given the post of Stationmaster at Radley when the station opened in September 1873. The new station replaced Abingdon Junction near Nuneham Bridge.

Radley and Crowthorne were the only two railway stations built to serve schools – Radley College and Wellington College.

Charles Ambridge became a friend to everybody and was affectionately known as “old Ambridge”. Charles and Hannah had ten children from 1859 to 1880 of which five survived. “Old Ambridge” remained as Stationmaster at Radley until 1897, but it was a further two years before the Great Western Railway provided a Stationmaster’s house.

He eventually died at their cottage in Lower Radley in 1910 and is buried in Radley Churchyard.

The above was written by Jean Deller, the great grand-daughter of Charles Ambridge.

Click to see Photographs of Charles Ambridge

 

RAILS TO ABINGDON

by Peter Heath
On 2nd June 1856, the first passenger train pulled into Abingdon Station. Just over 107 years later, on 9th September 1963, the last passenger train left the town along the oldest local branch line. If events had turned out differently in the 1830s and 1860s, Abingdon might have become the county town of Berkshire and the sight of the Great Western Railway’s carriage and wagon works which were eventually built at Swindon.

When Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s plans for a broad gauge line from Bristol to London were proposed, the people of Abingdon thought that the railway might be routed through their town, but, when Royal Assent was gained in 1835, the line was to go via Steventon, although a line from Didcot to Oxford via the outskirts of Abingdon was mooted. Several influential landowners opposed this however, but Brunel subsequently decided to make a more direct route saving a couple of miles and time. The townsfolk of Abingdon then apparently lost interest in the railway, but so successful was it, when it reached its temporary terminus at Steventon from Bristol in 1840, that they tried, two years later, to get Abingdon ‘on the map’; but, in 1844, the Didcot-Oxford line was built via Culham instead. Some years later, it was decided to lay a standard gauge track parallel to the existing broad gauge between Didcot and Oxford to provide a through north/south route, and in 1852 mixed gauge trains were arriving at Oxford from the north. The residents of Abingdon started to get interested in the railway again and decided to press for any kind of line to serve the town.

And so in 1856, the same year that standard gauge track was laid between Oxford and Didcot, a broad gauge single track branch line was built, from a new junction sited just north of the River Thames at Nuneham, into Abingdon, a distance of about 1.75 miles. Several properties had to be demolished in Abingdon in order that the station could be constructed, amongst them the Plough Inn, subsequently rebuilt, owned by Morrells Brewery. The station refreshment room was incidentally owned by the rival local brewery Morland & Co. The entrance to the station yard was gated, and, as all the buildings within the station area were on the Abingdon Railway Company’s land, the various owners had to pay rent to the Company. Although the Great Western provided locos, staff and rolling stock to operate the line, the A.R.C. paid all rates and taxes and were liable for maintenance. Besides the normal station buildings, stables were provided for the railway delivery horses and subsequently a coal yard was installed, which remained in use until the branch finally closed in 1984. The original locomotive shed did not remain intact for many years because of an accident in 1869 involving a passenger train. The points had been incorrectly set as it left the station and it proceeded into the shed, demolishing it in the process and damaging the locomotive resting inside.

The original loco, “Eagle”, worked on the branch for three years, whilst others of the same class, amongst them “Vulcan”, “Atlas” and “Venus” were employed until 1872. In November of that year, the track was lifted and replaced with standard gauge rails, the job being completed in just one day. By the end of the year, all broad gauge track in the Oxford area had disappeared, and subsequently Abingdon Junction station was removed and the branch line re-routed alongside the main line to a new station at Radley, increasing its length to 2 miles 44 chains (2.55 miles or 4.73 km). The change to standard gauge track meant that coal could be conveyed from the Midlands to the south without being transferred to other trains at Oxford, and this in turn saw a reduction in its price. As a result, the gasworks at Abingdon were re-sited in 1866 next to the town station and, for almost 100 years until complete closure of the line in 1984, coal traffic was the mainstay of the line. Several coal merchants were represented and some of these, notably R.S.Langford & Son Ltd., John North & Son and Pemberton & Co., had their own Private Owner Wagons.

G.W.R. had taken over the line completely in 1904 and, despite promises to improve services and spend money on the station buildings, nothing much happened until 1908 when force of circumstances meant that the station had to be re-built. This arose because of a serious crash which occurred at approximately 7am on 22nd April.   A freight train comprising of 17 wagons, about half the usual load, departed from Radley at 6.45am and approached the station where it should have stopped at the points short of the platform in order to carry out shunting manoeuvres prior to departing with the 7.05am passenger train.  When the brakes were applied, however, the train carried on, presumably due to the rails having been made greasy by overnight rain. It crashed into the four carriages of the waiting passenger train. Although the locomotive was undamaged and the crew unhurt, the carriages were badly smashed, the one nearest to the station being hurled upwards into the roof of the waiting room. There were, happily, no injuries although, ironically, the duty signalman, Harry Goff, who was demoted as a result of the accident, was killed at Radley by a passenger train in 1924. The new station building and overall roof remained intact from 1909 until it was pulled down by British Railways in the early 1970s.

There had been a few minor incidents at Abingdon before this, with trains failing to stop, and one or two along the branch itself involving agricutural vehicles on farm crossings.  Although coal was the main traffic, as has already been mentioned, there was naturally other freight carried on the branch, such as grain for Associated British Maltsters, skins for the Pavlova Leather Company and cattle on market days. Then, in the late 1940s, the world-famous M.G. Car Company started using the railway to transport its sports cars, most of which were exported to the U.S.A. Passenger services were less well patronised and the line began to be run down during the next decade and eventually this side of the business came under the ‘Beeching Axe’ and closure came about on 9th September 1963. The branch itself was in no danger of closing due to the quantity of freight carried, and by the mid-1970s there were several car-trains each week, carrying up to 70 vehicles on each trip; drive-on ramps having been previously installed at the station. The future of the line seemed assured.

But suddenly, in 1980, came the news that was to change not only the railway, but Abingdon itself; the M.G. Car Co. was closing down. Shortly afterwards there was talk of a possible major new coal depot being built on the outskirts of the town, which would have undoubtedly saved the line, but this was in fact built elsewhere. For the next four years, the only traffic was the weekly coal train, and the Royal Train occasionally parked there overnight. By 1984, Charringtons’ coal depot in the station yard was shut and the branch line was officially closed in June of that year. The oldest local branch, which existed for 128 years, was no more.

 

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