If it’s not `God’s Wonderful Railway`, then, what is it? (The red livery might give you a clue).
Swindon’s other Railway – By Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons).
Well, I must make a very big confession; I have never been much interested in the railway. It’s not for lack of suitable breeding either. My father, uncle and grandfathers on both sides worked for the Works – a typical Swindonian family history, I imagine. Anyway, in this article I’m talking about Swindon’s Other Railway. The Midland and South Western Junction Railway. (M&S.W.J.R.) to be precise.
In the heady days of the mid Victorian age, everyone wanted a railway. Apart from the obvious economic benefits there was also status to consider. The Victorians were firm believers in adopting modern technology. Thus it was that, in 1872 James Townsend, a Swindon solicitor arranged a meeting in the Savernake Forest Hotel to discuss this route.
As early as the 1840s, there appeared the suggestion that a connection between the industrial midlands and the southern ports would be desirable. But the GWR routes crossed that region from north-south. The terrain, in part, took the blame for this oversight. Early trains were not so powerful as they later became. Nor did they have good traction on their rails. Indeed, the first railways, such as the London Paddington to Bristol route were routed with much care to avoid this. But to travel north to south it was necessary to traverse the Cotswolds and chalk Downland. In particular, getting from Marlborough to Swindon was difficult. The image below shows the Marlborough Downs in the winter of 2010. Getting across in this weather was difficult; imagine doing it in the old days?
A new railway line proposed
So it was that the formation of a new railway line was proposed to cut across GWR territory. This would make the desired industrial-port connection. The GWR, needless to say were not enthused. The intricacies of the Marlborough routes are a side effect of this antipathy with both Marlborough and Savernake having TWO stations.
The complete M&SWJR ran from Andoverford Junction outside Cheltenham, to Red Post Junction near Andover. The first big problem it had was getting up Swindon hill.
The geology of Swindon hill is a varied sandwich of clay, limestone and sandstone. Needless to say work petered out, leaving a large mucky hole in the middle of Swindon. This route was clearly not feasible and the line rerouted via a long ambitious cutting south of the hill to Rushy Platt, where it joined the GWR line. This cutting is now a footpath and because it shows Swindon hill strata very well, a SSSI. The nasty hole was partially filled in and lies under Hunt Street. ** Meanwhile, Swindon Town station opened in 1881.
Frances Bevan writes that the proposed route for a tunnel that never was, would take the railway line beneath what is now Queen’s Park. Prospect Place, Devizes Road and Newport Street … ‘
Locomotives and carriages
The M&SWJR was never over encumbered with rolling stock, most seems to have been borrowed from other lines. Nevertheless it did run some interesting trains. Tank engines, the small trains designed for goods work, but on the M&SWJR used for everything. The ever-money-strapped railway was not proud.
Dubs & Co., and Bayer Peacock built most of the company’s locomotives. Locomotive No 16, named Galloping Alice, we might rank as the most interesting. This girl was built for a South American line but never delivered.
The cash dried up
At length company ran out of cash and the Directors approached their ally, the L&SWR for advice. But they did better than that. They very generously gave the M&SWJR Sam Fay, their best man. He became the General Manager in 1892.
Sam Fay is one of those industrial heroes you never hear about. Single-handedly he transformed the M&SWJR from a joke to something resembling economic function. This guy got stuff done.
The Work of the M&SWJR
A major user of the M&SWJR was invariably the military, with it running alongside Salisbury Plain. Horse manure comprised another freight. The predictable by product of a still very equestrianised military, this went to the Hampshire strawberry fields.
There was a horrible incident in at the depot in Savernake on the 2nd January 1946. A locomotive had arrived with wagons of ammunition. The engine was uncoupled and ran round the train. Then came an explosion in one of the wagons, the train reattached and pulled some of the wagons clear. The incident killed eight men seriously injured many more.
This being mostly a rural line farm produce was an important freight, there being several milk trains. Not only milk, but racehorses (in luxury padded carriages) and racing pigeons freighted also. The students of Marlborough College were regular passengers.
One of the last users of the railway was the coal fired power station at Mordon, Swindon, that closed in 1973. Your scholar can recall going with her grandfather to see the demolition of the chimney in 1979.
1932 saw the amalgamation of the M&SWJR into the GWR.
The End of the line for the M&SWJR
This railway petered out rather than closing all at once. The last scheduled passenger service was in 1961. And some of the last freight carried on the railway ironically being for the building of its replacement, the M4 motorway.
Visible remains of the M&SWJR today
Today almost nothing remains of this interesting little railway line, apart from a few bridges. Using Ordance Survey maps and satellite imaging, it’s easy to follow the route, including the notorious intricacies of the Savernake stations.
The trackline from Chiseldon to Marlborough has a new life as a cycle path. The cutting round Swindon hill is also a pathway, and interesting for those wishing to explore the geology of Swindon in the field.
In spite of its potentially important link-up route, the M&SWJR had financial difficulties for most of its existence. As a result it never reached its full potential.
It is popular with the model railway enthusiasts for its cute little rural stations and appealing red livery, giving much opportunities for authentic scale models in limited areas.
Swindon and Cricklade Railway society are based upon a section of the line and are well worth a visit.
Thank you very much to Neil Lover of the Swindon’s Other Railway website for letting me use the Galloping Alice and Chimney pictures; The rest are mine.
Swindon and Cricklade Railway Society 1 Home Page – The Swindon And Cricklade Railway (swindon-cricklade-railway.org)
Swindon’s Other Railway – http://www.swindonsotherrailway.co.uk/home.html
Swindon’s Other Railway; the Midland and South Western Junction Railway 1900-1990. Brian Bridgeman, David Barret and Denis Bird, 1991 Allen Sutton
A M. & S.W.J.R. Album: A Pictorial History of Swindon’s Other Railway Vol 1 1872-1899. Brian Bridgeman, David Barret and Denis Bird, 1981, Red brick
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