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150 years of the railway in Gillingham

Sam Woodcock gives a personal view on how the railway has affected life in Gillingham over a century and a half

The parade celebrating the 150th anniversary of the railway’s arrival in Gillingham processes through the High Street. The traction engine is hauling a tableau display depicting the opening ceremony.

In May 2009 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the coming of the railway to Gillingham. I say ‘to’ because for a short time Gillingham was a terminus – Waterloo-Salisbury-Gillingham. This was due to the delay in building the Sandley tunnel which, when eventually completed the following year, joined up Sherborne, Yeovil and Exeter, thus completing the line.

In Gillingham Museum you can see a poster proudly proclaiming the opening of the railway between Salisbury and Gillingham on Monday 2 May 1859. Three years before this event, despite years of wrangling, controversy and financial problems, the first turf was turned at Gillingham on 3 April 1856. The ceremony was performed by Miss Caroline Seymour of East Knoyle, the sister of Henry Seymour, MP for Poole and Chairman of the newly formed Salisbury and Yeovil Railway Company. Miss Seymour used a silver spade and an ornate hand-carved wheelbarrow for the purpose. These are on display in Gillingham Town Museum. Three years later, on the arrival of the first train, the Sherborne Mercury reported: ‘There were handsome arches across the streets, bands from Buckhorn Weston and Milborne Port played and Church bells rang out. More than 2000 of the working classes were supplied with cake, tea or beef and bread in two large tents on Chantry Field. At 6 o’clock a public dinner was held in the Phoenix Hotel and the day ended with a firework display.’

We in 2009 in some ways mirrored these celebrations, but naturally in a more 21st-century style. We held a traction engine procession through the High Street, with the Town and Pipe bands leading the Mayor and various dignitaries to the station yard. The leading engine hauled a tableau display depicting the Victorian ceremony, complete with the actual silver spade. Witnessed by over 1000 people, a plaque was unveiled at the station. The station yard then became an area of much merriment, with side shows, stalls, dance, music and drama displays. The evening, much as in 1859, was given over to a buffet supper, this time at the Olive Bowl, where further entertainment took place by way of archive films and drama. The whole weekend was rounded off the next day by a steam train excursion to Minehead.

‘Miss Caroline Seymour’ and ‘Mr Henry Seymour’, as portrayed by members of the Gillingham Arts Workshop, at the unveiling of a plaque at Gillingham station commemorating the anniversary celebrations

What has the railway meant to Gillingham and its residents over the years? Until 1859 Gillingham was just a very small market town in a rural backwater. With the advent of the railway, however, everything was to change and the effects of that change are still felt today.

By the end of the 19th century London could be reached within hours rather than days. This fact alone revolutionised the dairy industry, for milk, butter and other dairy products could now be within the reach of the ever-expanding London market. Milk produced by Gillingham cows could be drunk within 24 hours by a London resident! Other goods traffic increased in Gillingham as more industry arrived, using the railway for collecting raw materials and delivering the finished products. The size of the goods yard was enlarged several times to cope with the increased trade, including local bricks and tiles, coal from Wales, timber, slate and stoneware and a great variety of live and dead stock.

The station area and Station Road became a hub of local industries. The cattle market was just one of the many sources of employment in Station Road. When the 5pm hooters sounded, the road was choked with the many workers walking and cycling, swarming like ants from the Oake Woods bacon factory, the laundry, the egg packing station, sawmills, glue factory and brick works. The stench from the rotting bones in the glue factory, the deafening noise of the circular saws, the squeal of pigs and the roar of the express trains made Station Road an intriguing area in my youth.

The station yard on market day about a hundred years ago. The impressive building is the South Western Hotel; the large barn-like building on the extreme right is Market Hall.

My late uncle used to recount the following story. When he was a lad of about eight years old (circa 1912) he was sent by his grandfather with another farm worker to collect some highland cattle from a goods train at the station. In those days, before refrigeration, beef cattle were transported ‘on the hoof’ to be fattened up on local farms ready for the Christmas market. It was a hot autumn day and the cattle had travelled all the way from Scotland, so they were restless and thirsty. It was the custom to drive them down the High Street to the Town Mill where they could be watered in the mill stream.

At this point the farm worker left the lad in charge, while he in turn quenched his thirst in the Red Lion. One drink must have led to another, for he failed to return. The cattle by this time were getting restless, so my eight-year-old uncle decided to drive them to the farm on the outskirts of Gillingham. All went well until they came to a road junction, so to prevent them turning the wrong way he shouted and clapped. This startled the herd and they began to stampede and it was now impossible to stop them. They eventually reached the farm but not before two beasts had collapsed with exhaustion. My uncle was admonished, but history doesn’t record what happened to the farm worker. I suspect he was soon looking for another job!

Such movement of livestock continued to a greater or lesser extent right up until the 1960s, such as pigs to the slaughterhouse (the Oake Woods bacon factory had their own siding) and cattle going to and from the market. The last major consignment of animals took place in 1963, when horses from the National Stud at Sandley left Gillingham for relocation at Newmarket. I guess that even then such a precious cargo must have been insured for several million pounds!

The Sandley tunnel, going as it does right underneath what was then the National Stud, has caused many problems over the years. Major works were carried out between 1958 and 1961. Water continuously dripping through the roof damaged the brickwork and caused the clay to swell at ground level. This ground movement lifted the track to such an extent that in some cases parts of the locomotive cabs were scraping the tunnel lining! There was no alternative but to underpin the whole tunnel.

An engraving from the Illustrated London News of 12 April 1856 shows Miss Seymour ‘turning the first turf’ for the railway on 3 April 1856. Note the appalling weather!

The working conditions were appalling and made considerably worse by the trains passing through just inches away from the workforce. On one occasion, a steam locomotive hauling a full load of freight got stuck in the tunnel with near disastrous consequences. Retired fireman Colin Robins describes in his own words that hair-raising scene.

‘Now we really had a problem, for as soon as the steam was shut off, up went the safety valves. I whacked the injector on while Bill (the driver) gently eased the regulator across but the drive wheels skidded again. Up goes the exhaust (smoke) as does the steam from our boiler safety valves, hitting the tunnel roof and immediately rebounding and swirling around the driving cab and footplate. We, the driver and mate, tied wet cloths around our mouths, but the panic-stricken pilotman, with eyes like organ stops, had only his handkerchief. The situation was claustrophobic and very alarming, as heat from the steam and smoke was cutting the ceiling of available air down to knee level. I continued to jerk the sand lever between the open and shut positions, but it was pitch black and we couldn’t see a thing.

‘Bill shouted, “Push the shovel against the wall – I don’t know whether we’re going forwards or backwards!” I did as I was bidden and shouted, “Hell, we’re slipping backwards!” The pilotman was physically sick, so we decided that as we were slipping back anyway we’d best reverse back out into the fresh air. Clear air had never been more welcome!’

There was, however, a happy and somewhat amusing ending to the story. Once out of the tunnel the decision was made to split the train, leaving half where it was, and to proceed to Gillingham sidings with the lighter load, then to return for the remainder of the wagons. The guard in the guard’s van may have been overcome by fumes, for he was found asleep and when roused he thought he was in Salisbury!

Over the years the railway has had its high points and low points. Narrowly missing the Beeching cuts in 1963, it was reduced to single line working. Despite this, the railway is still a big asset to the town and over recent years a number of improvements to the service have been made. It is now possible to reach London Waterloo within two hours and ten minutes and an hourly service has just been introduced. We look forward with eager anticipation to the re-instatement of a double track – but we are not holding our breath!

The goods yard at its largest, in the heyday of rail freight traffic

[The author would like to thank Gillingham Museum, Colin Burfoot, Ben Carver, Colin Robins, Cliff Lloyd and Merv Biss for their help with this article.]

1-2. David Lloyd
3-5. Gillingham Museum

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