From Headcorn to Maidstone
The Kent & East Sussex Railway's Maidstone Extension
Maidstone, the county town of Kent, had been connected to the railway network in 1844 with the opening of the South Eastern Railway's (SER) branch line from Maidstone Road (now Paddock Wood). The SER's North Kent Line was extended southward from Strood to make an end-on connection with this branch in 1856. Headcorn Station on the SER's main line had been opened in 1842. Even with these lines the railway route from Maidstone to the Channel, particularly the ports of Dover and Folkestone, was circuitous and a basic reason for promoting a second route south, besides serving local interests, was to improve this link.
The country south of Maidstone is not conducive to railway construction. The land rises gradually to the greensand ridge where the scarp slope drops steeply to the clay vale of the Weald wherein Headcorn is situated, some nine miles south-east of Maidstone. The villages of Chart Sutton and Sutton Valence are found on the scarp. The Paddock Wood-Maidstone Branch had already taken the one gap in the ridge made by the River Medway. The key to climbing to the ridge was the Loose Valley, a steep sided narrow and still picturesque feature which runs south from the Medway at Tovil, one-and-a-half miles to the village of Loose, there swinging east for a further mile to Boughton Quarries and Langley. During the Nineteenth Century the valley was the centre of papermaking and corn grinding.
During the latter half of the Nineteenth Century various schemes sought to exploit this route, the earliest plans had been for lines solely to serve the local needs of the Loose Valley area. Later the intended lines were part of a larger scheme to connect North Kent with a seaport at Dungeness or a shorter route to Ashford. The only outcome of these schemes had been a short line, albeit with an impressive bridge over the Medway from Maidstone to a goods depot at Tovil. The wider need of Maidstone for an outlet to the southeast had been met by the rivalry between the SER and the London Chatham and Dover when the latter had forced a line through Maidstone direct to Ashford, aiming for Folkestone in the 1880s.
Nevertheless, the impetus for a Maidstone to Headcorn line was still there and in his customary fashion Holman F Stephens made an application in November 1904 for a Headcorn and Maidstone Junction Light Railway which came nearest to completion of all the schemes. The Headcorn extension of the Kent & East Sussex Railway, itself a result of many other schemes, was nearing completion and this application was envisaged as continuing this line northwards.
The proposal was for a single line 9 ¾ miles long commencing on the upside of Headcorn Station with an end-on junction with the KESR. It would then have crossed over the main line via a 60ft span bridge and continued northwest and north towards Sutton Valence. Two-and-a-half miles from Headcorn the proposed route would have crossed the Headcorn-Maidstone main road by a level crossing and as it reached the bottom of the steep scarp to the east of Sutton Valence it swung sharply west, again crossing the main road beside the village's gas works. The proposed lined struck diagonally across the scarp slope through Chart Sutton to reach a summit near Chart Corner 5 ½ miles from Headcorn. This represented a climb of 244ft in 2 ½ miles, the last 1 ½ at a gradient of 1-in-47/50. The route now fell equally steeply all the way to Tovil dropping 300ft in 4 ¼ miles, with an initial gradient of 1-in-50 for ¼ mile and two further sections of 1-in-50 totalling about 1 ½ miles. The line passed Boughton Quarries and on through Loose to join the SECR at Tovil.
A feature of the line was the 17 level crossings, all ungated, although later bridges were substituted in 4 places. H F Stephens, as engineer, estimated the cost at £75,413 excluding rolling stock. Although the Headcorn and Maidstone Junction Light Railway was promoted as an independent concern, powers were sought for either the SECR or the KESR to construct and/or work it.
When the scheme was advertised, as required by the Commissioners, several objections were received, and a public enquiry was instituted. Among those with an interest in the scheme was Herbert Green of Hayle Mill who had previously battled against a railway on his property. This time the proposed route passed in a cutting on the opposite side of the road to the Mill entrance; however, it cut across Hayle Mill Road on the level and cut off the end of the mill pond, before passing very close to a row of 7 cottages occupied by mill workers. Furthermore, Herbert Green was concerned that blacks from the locomotives pounding up the 1-in-50 gradient from Tovil would damage the paper being produced at the Mill. H F Stephens offered to provide a siding for the Mill and undertook to purchase all the cottages; he also assured Herbert Green that there would be no damage from locomotive blacks, promising to use smokeless coal. Unlike previous occasions, Herbert Green did not intend to oppose the scheme at the hearing - it was an expensive business to brief counsel as he had previously found out - although he was prepared to give evidence as to the undesirability of several level crossings.
In opening the enquiry at the Star Hotel, Maidstone on 17 March 1905, counsel for the promoters said that earlier schemes had failed because of the costs of construction, especially of the tunnelling. However, no tunnels were now proposed and the line was to be built to light railway standards. The KESR had agreed to work the line at 50% of the gross receipts.
H F Stephens, giving evidence, spoke of the benefits that the line would bring, especially traffic from the development of local stone quarries, then in a state of decay. Fruit and manure would also be important goods traffic. It was considered £20 a mile a week would be taken in receipts; The Cranbrook & Paddock Wood Railway, which did not have as much traffic, had taken an average of £22 per week in its first 18 months. Admittedly population in surrounding villages had fallen but the advent of the railway would bring people back, making the places "suburbs of Maidstone". He was somewhat derogatory about the scenic beauty of the Loose Valley - "there being paper mills and a polluted stream running through it. What beauty there was has been spoiled long ago". It transpired that Sir Robert Filmer was also promoter of a motor omnibus company, already running between Maidstone and Headcorn - a question of not putting all your eggs in one basket. He was prepared to stake a large sum of money in the railway project and that was all important. Jesse Ellis, another promoter, was a successful traction engine proprietor in the vicinity.
H F Stephens was asked where he proposed placing stations at Sutton Valence and Chart Sutton. In reply he suggested one at the top of the hill and another at the bottom, adding "I suppose you know what we mean by a station, it has a corrugated roofing; it is not a Clapham Junction".
Other witnesses came to give evidence as to the value of the line, concluding with a William Rigby, who considered the estimates for the construction reasonable and was prepared to undertake the contract, carrying out the work for £56,000. At the time he was within 2 months of finishing the construction of the Headcorn extension of the KESR.
Then came the opposition. Level crossings at Old Loose Hill, Hayle Mill Road and at Farleigh Hill, Tovil came in for criticism. At the time of adjournment on the first day, various alternative ideas were being put forward. With the distinct possibility of a second level crossing being accepted at Cave Hill, Herbert Green now decided to oppose the scheme, instructing counsel to that effect. He suggested two alternative routes himself in the vicinity of his mill. The first, to avoid his workmen's cottages, involved the line following the side of the valley as far as Tea Saucer Hill crossing by a bridge under the road. The second was somewhat more ambitious. Instead of the line going into the valley by a bridge under Straw Mill Hill, close to Cave Hill (as planned), he suggested that it should go into a tunnel in the quarry close by, going diagonally under the road and continue for some 400-500 yds. south of Hayle Mill, thence re-joining the original line near to the Ivy Mill. A further proposal, of a Mr Middleton, to keep the line on the west side of the valley, thus passing through Herbert Green's own grounds, did not meet with his approval.
Loose Valley from Hayle Mill 1889
At the resumed enquiry, this time in London on 10 April, further opposing voices were heard. The subject of level crossings was well to the fore and it was eventually agreed that the crossing at East Farleigh Hill would be replaced by a bridge over the road. A consequence of this was a level crossing at Cave Hill - as Herbert Green had feared - although with gates and an increase in the gradient to 1-in-40 into Tovil. This amendment caused the Maidstone Corporation to immediately withdraw their opposition. Opposition came from several property owners, in particular from a Mr George Marsham, the owner of Hayle Place. This was a residence standing in its own parkland on high ground overlooking the Loose Valley; it was bounded along the edge of the valley by a steep slope and a belt of trees. Both Mr Marsham, and his tenant, Colonel Pitt who rented the place for £650 per annum, were concerned that the residential value of the property would be ruined. The belt of trees would be removed exposing 'things now hidden'. The owner of Park House Farm, Chart Sutton, objected that his house would be separated from the farm buildings. Herbert Green again alluded to the smoke and blacks from locomotives which would be driven into his drying loft and vat house. He considered a screen or covered way, as at Turkey Mill, Maidstone the only solution. He had been informed by his insurance company that greatly increased premiums would be payable because of the increased danger from fire.
The enquiry concluded on 27 April, the Commissioners deferring a decision until they had made another visit to the Loose Valley. H F Stephens told a Kent Messenger reporter that he was "not at all sanguine - the opposition was very strong". A further meeting was held between Mr Stewart, the Commissioner and others on 9 May. He discussed earlier schemes and their deviations, and then considered the alternative proposals of Messrs Green and Middleton, none of which proved practical. A tunnel was then suggested from near Upper Crisbrook Mill to a point nearly opposite Hayle Mill. After another site inspection, the Commissioners considered that the tunnel should be prolonged 70-80 yds, and instead of crossing Hayle Mill Road should cross at the foot of Tea Saucer Hill. H F Stephens had the proposed entrances of the tunnel marked out with flags for a fourth visit to the site.
In June 1905 the Light Railway Commissioners decided to grant the application for a Light Railway Order. To avoid Upper Crisbrook Cottages the tunnel was further lengthened to 428 yds instead of 390 yds, and as Herbert Green's Solicitor commented "this was all to the good because the longer the tunnel the less chance of raising money". Herbert Green was satisfied as the tunnel mouth lay some 100 yds beyond Hayle Mill with no danger from blacks.
The tunnel was to be on a gradient of 1-in-60 and a short deviation in the road at Cave Hill approved, with level crossing. Other amendments to the plans included a bridge over the main road at Sutton Valence - this necessitated some changes to the alignment up to Sutton Bank, the gradient being increased to 1-in-40 for a short stretch.
In their report to the Board of Trade, the Light Railway Commissioners said that the tunnel under the high ground forming the park of Hayle Place would result in preserving the amenities of the property by avoiding interference with the scarp slope and belt of trees, it would avoid injury to Hayle Mill from smoke or sparks and eliminate one of the three level crossings. The cost of the tunnel would be considerable but the Commissioners considered that the original works would also have been heavy and serious claims for compensation would be avoided. An extra mile could be charged on all traffic passing through the tunnel.
The owner of Park House Farm decided that he, too, wanted a tunnel under his property but the Commissioners firmly turned down that idea, considering the suggestion extravagant and impracticable.
The Light Railway Order, sanctioning the HMJLR Company, was signed by David Lloyd-George, President of the Board of Trade, on 6 May 1906. The named promoters were to be the first directors of the company. They had 3 years in which to effect the compulsory purchase of land and 5 years for the railway's completion. Clauses were written in, as usual, to protect the interests of various landowners. Under Provisions as to Workings, trains were not to exceed 25 mph and were permitted to work over the KESR to Tenterden Town Station. Tolls for the carriage of goods and minerals were to be 25% higher than the corresponding SECR rates. The normal maximum passenger rates per mile - 3d, 2d and 1d for 1st, 2nd and 3rd class respectively - were to be charged, although for a distance of less than 3 miles the company could charge as for that distance.
The authorised share capital was £96,000, not £78,000 as originally sought. Loan borrowing was increased to £32,000. The additional monies were intended to meet the costs of the tunnel. Both the SECR and KESR were authorised to subscribe. Finally, in small print at the end of the Schedule, there appeared the now familiar clause "There shall be no obligation on the Company to provide shelter or conveniences at any station or stopping place".
The company proceeded to acquire much of the land along the intended route. In 1907 an Amendment Order was sought, and obtained, to vary the borrowing structure.
However, in their Annual Report to 31 December 1913 the KESR reported "The Headcorn & Maidstone Railway has not yet been commenced, but further powers are being asked for by the promoters, and it is understood that a large portion of the land has already been secured. As before reported, this should considerably increase the traffic on the Company's system." There is no record of further powers being obtained and the Great War intervened: the prospect of the line being built receded into obscurity. Purchase monies were refunded to landowners in 1917. Notwithstanding the line continued to appear on Annual Report Maps of the KESR until the mid-1930s.
There remains one enigma about the "Maidstone Extension". Was KESR locomotive No 4 Hecate really purchased to work this line? This eight-couple loco had been ordered from Hawthorn, Leslie & Co in February 1904, at a cost of £2,340 and was delivered in April 1905, a month before the opening of the Tenterden-Headcorn line. The HMJLR was not publicly announced until late 1904. It seems out of character for H F Stephens to have ordered a locomotive for a line until its necessity was proven, especially for a line as yet unauthorised and with no guarantee that the KESR would work it once built.
This article is an edited combination of two articles by Neil Rose in the Tenterden Terrier, The House Magazine of The Kent & East Sussex Railway Company Limited. If you would like to join in and help restore the Railway more details can be found on www.kesr.org.uk