Gillingham railway station
Published in February ’16
A landmark event in Gillingham’s history took place 160 years ago. The day was wet and windy and described by Louis H Ruegg, a Sherborne journalist, as follows, ‘That fickle Jade, the Weather, whirled sheets of water on our heads, blew garments into ribbons, and cast our speeches back into our teeth. And when the sodden field was left, and the party sought some protection from the bitter elements under a large marquee, Pluvious made his unwelcome way through the canvas, and, crowning insult of all, mingled wine with water.’ The description related to the ceremonial turning of the first turf at Gillingham for the new railway link from Salisbury to Yeovil, as part of the plans of the London and South Western Railway to connect London with Exeter.
The ceremony was performed on 12 April 1856 by Miss Louisa Caroline Harcourt Seymour of East Knoyle, sister of Henry Danby Seymour, Chairman of the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway Company and MP for Poole. A very elegant barrow and spade were prepared for the occasion. The barrow is formed of walnut; the shafts terminate in griffins’ heads, and the spokes are fashioned as sheaves of corn. It bears the arms of the South-Western Company, the Salisbury and Yeovil Company, the Seymour family, of Mr Locke, and of the contractor; and the sides are of silver lattice work. The spade of solid silver is beautifully engraved and ornamented, displaying the arms of the South Western and the Salisbury and Yeovil Railway Companies on one side and on the other an inscription stating that it was presented to the Hon. Miss Seymour on the occasion of turning the first turf. The canvas referred to by Louis Ruegg was a splendid marquee erected for a lavish ceremony which included lunch for 300 people and numerous speeches. Even the rainwater trickling into the champagne glasses could not prevent the day being successful.
It was to be a further three years before the line was completed and on 1st May 1859 it was formerly opened at Gillingham, with passenger traffic commencing the following day. Once again Ruegg reported the occasion: ‘The event was marked by various local rejoicings; the town was decorated with arches and flags, and no fewer than 2,300 persons, working men and their wives, were regaled under large marquees; the sick and infirm being visited next day by a Committee, and supplied with beef, bread and beer. There was of course the inevitable dinner, but only one director, a resident of Gillingham, attended to reply to the toast of “Success to the Railway”. Bands played and the day ended with a fireworks display. The town was transformed almost overnight.
Growth of Industry and Commerce
Gillingham station soon played an important part in both passenger and freight traffic. London could be reached in a few hours rather than days. Dairy farms in the area could now use rail transport to carry milk to London in good time enabling fresh milk for breakfast. The effect on agriculture was the rise in the number of Gillingham farmers; 12 in 1842; 34 in 1859; 45 in 1875. In 1860 and 1893 the station platform was extended to cater for the vast numbers of milk churns which were brought in each day. Close to the railway was Oake Woods & Co., bacon curers. Pigs arrived in cattle trucks to be delivered just yards away to the bacon factory. Next to Oake Woods was the Salisbury, Semley & Gillingham Dairy which acted as a collection depot and purchased milk from farmers whose production was in small quantities. The milk was then sent on to London by train. In 1892 Eden Shute gave up farming and opened a butter factory using the railway to extend his client base.
Local industry developed around the new facility and the new Station Road became occupied by industrial businesses. In 1865 the Gillingham Pottery, Brick and Tile Co. was formed and operated a brickworks to the south of the railway line, due to the thick bed of Kimmeridge clay available. Bricks could now be transported easily and the Company supplied their products all over the south west. Production lasted for a hundred years and only closed because the business became unprofitable. The railway also enabled coal to be easily delivered in bulk to the town and firms like J H Rose & Sons and Maloney’s developed their coal businesses. The returning trucks carried pit props from Hudson & Martin’s sawmill business in Station Road.
In June 1889 the Liberal Party leader and four times Prime Minister William Gladstone arrived in Gillingham in a train hauled by a locomotive adorned with flowers. His visit was to rally his political supporters in what was then a strong Liberal area.
The Salisbury & Yeovil line was originally built with a single track but was later doubled with Gillingham gaining the benefit in 1866/67. Railway traffic improved steadily reaching a peak in about 1910.
When World War 1 arrived in 1914 the railway was used to transport troops and as Gillingham had mobilised two Red Cross Hospitals, along with Mere and Sutton Veny, a number of those troops were the wounded sent back from the Front for treatment and nursing.
Besides regular services, excursion trips were put on during holiday times. One major event in the Gillingham calendar was the annual Sunday School Outing when hundreds of local children travelled by train to Weymouth for a day at the seaside. A whole train was chartered for the occasion.
During the re-organisation of the railways, in the twenties, Gillingham became part of the Southern
Railway from 1923 – 1948. Following nationalisation in 1948, Southern Railway became Southern Railway of British Railways.
On 3 July 1952 the uncrowned Queen Elizabeth II arrived at Gillingham Station at 2.15pm. She was to visit Duchy land and the National Stud at Sandley where her horses were bred. Hundreds of school children lined the station yard and Station Road. Elizabeth King, the youngest girl in the Secondary Modern School, accompanied by Isobel Case, Head girl of the Grammar School, presented a bouquet of flowers.
The station was still well used by local companies. Braddicks of Station Road received their agricultural machinery by train. Coal arrived for Messrs Rose and Wiles. Cattle, pigs and sheep arrived for sale at the Station Road market. Chicks arrived for the Zeals Hatchery, newspapers arrived on the first train and Royal Mail used the service extensively. Racing pigeons were often seen in baskets for despatch and watercress was sent from Wolverton, fish from Mere and brushes from the Mere Brush Company. WH Smiths ran a newsagent business from within the station premises.
During the 1960s many of the early industries of the 1860s started to decline and businesses shrunk or closed. Coincidently, Dr Beeching who produced a report known as the Reshaping of British Railways threw a blanket of doom over the area. It was likely that Gillingham station would close along with many others at that time. The result however was that all goods yards between Salisbury and Yeovil were closed between 1964 and 1967. The timetable was reduced. Diesel took over from steam resulting in trains consisting of three coach Diesel Multiple units. Wilton South, Dinton, Semley, Templecombe and Yeovil Junction stations were all closed to passenger traffic by 1967. The final insult was the singling of the line between Wilton and Templecombe in 1967.
In the late 1980s traffic growth was evident, caused no doubt by increased population following the surge in house building in Gillingham and the resultant increase of commuters to London. South West Trains now operated the Waterloo to Exeter line. The station car park was greatly expanded. From 1994 it was possible to travel from Gillingham to Paris via Waterloo in just a few hours until the Eurostar station changed to St Pancras International in 2007.
Gillingham was once again privileged to receive the Queen at the station when she arrived in February 1991 to visit her grandchildren Peter and Zara Phillips who were at Port Regis Preparatory School.
The influence of the coming of the railway on Gillingham was immense. Initially there was an influx of workers, the railway navvies, to boost the population. When they moved on new industries were set up and agriculture expanded providing employment opportunities. Locally made bricks enabled house building to expand and the orange-red brick houses built in Victorian and Edwardian times is very evident in the town. In the new millennium Gillingham, often referred to as ‘the fastest growing town in the south west’, continues to grow with the attraction of reasonably priced housing, excellent education facilities, good road links with the nearby A30 and A303 and last but not least a continuing regular rail service between London and Exeter. ◗
❱ Additional Information.
On 2 May 2009, the local population celebrated 150 years of the railway with a programme of events. A procession of the Mayor and dignitaries led by the Town Band, Pipe Band and the Town Crier moved from the town car park to the station yard. A blue plaque organised by the Local History Society was unveiled at the station by the Mayor. There were displays, stalls, sideshows and musical entertainment. A special buffet supper was held at the Olive Bowl which included a performance by Gillingham Arts Workshop and a film and photographic show. The following day a steam train excursion took place on the West Somerset Railway.
The wheelbarrow and spade used by Miss Seymour can be seen in Gillingham Museum.