A look at the inter–railway politics that led the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire to be starved of traffic at its Western end.
When it ceased operations in 1880 the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales Railway (the ’Potts’)* left a mess. Over the next thirty years its prolonged death throes left a scattering of, mostly derelict, railways, unused formations, unused construction powers and an inheritance of uncertain user rights over a large swath of border country stretching from Shrewsbury to the Berwyn Mountains. As a latecomer in this saga Holman F Stephens was able for a time to produce a useful, and for 20 years profitable, railway from much of the old track by the creation of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway (SMR). Nevertheless the major traffic sources at the western end were to be denied him by the machinations of the much larger, if usually impecunious, Cambrian Railways.
Starting from Shrewsbury, the SMR followed the old Potts formation designed for express connection to Wales. This led through deeply rural countryside and when the new line opened in September 1911 it ended at the apparently inconspicuous and remote country junction of Llanymynech on the Cambrian Railways’ Oswestry to Welshpool line. This station and the village from which it was named was in fact a prosperous place of 1000 souls and was only six miles from the larger market and engineering town of Oswestry. West of Llanymynech station and the Cambrian line was an area rich in stone, lime and minerals that had been a principal destination of the Ellesmere (later Shropshire Union) Canal promoted in the late 18th century.
So how was it that Stephens never managed to tap this traffic source and the SMR had to make do with the pittance that a junction with the Cambrian Railways offered? Well it was not for want of trying, but the depths of the mess left by the old Potts and the combative attitude of the Cambrian Railways simply defeated the smaller and weaker railway.
When built, the Potts had an interchange station at Llanymynech and then crossed the main Oswestry to Welshpool line of the Cambrian by a double junction with , for reasons unknown, an additional single connection also in the south-westerly direction. The old main line then proceeded towards the Tanat Valley and the mountains, throwing off a branch to large quarries at Nantmawr owned by the Lilleshall Coal and Iron Co. This short (three mile) extension probably generated more traffic than the whole of the rest of the railway, and in fact was to remain open after all other railways in the area were closed.
Surrounded by hostile lines and deprived of its through-line status the Potts had struggled from its opening in 1866 and by 1870 ended its services from Shrewsbury at Llanyblodwell on the Nantmawr branch, with a through service to Oswestry on Market days. By 1880 it had got into a very decrepit state and it was closed on safety grounds by the Board of Trade. Fatally for the prosperity of companies that attempted to reopen it the Potts asked the Cambrian to take over the Nantmawr quarry traffic for two years. It is not clear how long this arrangement initially persisted, if at all, for Richard France seems to have gone bankrupt at some time in 1881. The branch certainly closed for a period. The lease of the quarry was taken up by John Parson Smith, and he was forced by the Cambrian to advance £800 to repair the track on the line (offset by a rate rebate until it was repaid) and did so by an agreement dated 24th July 1885. On the same day the Cambrian signed a running powers agreement with the Potts to maintain and use the branch till the end of 1892, and this drifted on beyond that as an informal arrangement until formallised in 1894. Parson Smith surrendered his lease in September 1899 and his principle customer, the Lilleshall Co, took it up. They also signed a special rates agreement with the Cambrian. No doubt triggered by this and the fact that since 1894 they had been also using part of the branch for their Llanfyllin traffic, the Cambrian seem to have finally pushed for a long term formal agreement. This was finally signed on 1 May 1900. It was to be fatal to the prosperity of the yet to be born Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Light Railway.
Reopening Attempts by the Shropshire Railways
Uniquely amongst British railways the Potts main line then lay derelict awaiting its re-awakening by Stephens. In 1888 another company, the Shropshire Railways, had obtained take-over powers. These included reciprocal running powers with the Cambrian to balance the powers that company had to run to Shrewsbury and enabled the smaller company to reach Oswestry. This attempt to resurrect the line failed as they ran out of money before they could do anything useful.
The Cambrian had meanwhile exploited the weakness of the Shropshire to consolidate its hold on the area. Anxious to improve its access from Llanymynech Station to its Llanfyllyn Branch (which had to be reached by a back shunt east of Llanymynech to pass over the Ellesmere Canal) and to secure the Nantmawr Quarry traffic it made some astute moves. In 1894 it negotiated full running rights on the Nantmawr Branch to a new junction, authorised by the Shropshire Railways Act 1891, with its Llanfyllyn Branch. It then signalled and interlocked the Nantmawr part of Llanymynech’s double junction for its own use. Further in 1895/6 despite opposition in writing from Ullmer, the Shropshire’s secretary, Aslett, the Cambrian manager, citing Board of Trade requirements, severed the original Potts junction line and rebuilt Llanymynech station platforms over it. To add insult to injury the Cambrian also built their junction signal box on Shropshire Railways land.
In the mid to late 1890s the Tanat Valley Light Railway (independent but soon to be worked and later absorbed by the Cambrian) had been formed to supplant the old Potts’ and Shropshire Railways 1891 lapsed powers to build a line up the Tanat Valley. But, with the active participation of its solicitor Joseph Parry-Jones (who was quite co-incidentally Oswestry's town clerk and a little later the Cambrian’s Solicitor) and a substantial bribe of free running powers over the Cambrian into Oswestry, it had decided by 1898 not to use the line to Llanymynech. Instead it was to thrust east to join an older Cambrian mineral line (at Porthywaen) giving a direct railway to Oswestry.
This caused an unholy and prolonged row with Shropshire Railways. Viscount Newport (later to be Lord Bradford, a Shropshire Railways director and later one of Stephens founding co-directors on the SMR) had, as a local landowner, tried to block the Tanat’s Porthywaen connection in favour of the earlier line. In this he was assisted by that company’s solicitor, F C Matthews, later to be a long time associate of Stephens and indeed co-contractor in the SMR rebuilding. These men realised that mineral traffic was essential to Shropshire Railways revival for, as Matthews told the Cambrian, it would ‘take out the eye’ of the concern. In protracted and disputatious negotiations they caused the Tanat to join the Nantmawr line. It did this for a short distance at Llanyblodwell (renamed Blodwell Junction) station with an east facing junction, using it for only a few yards then leaving to join the Porthywaen line. Their pressure also ensured that a direct west-facing junction (known contemporaneously as Lord Bradford’s loop) was authorised.
The Coming of the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire
Into this devil’s cauldron of conflicting rights stepped Stephens with the SMR. In its Light Railway Order this railway was authorised to reconstruct and operate Shropshire Railways and thus acquired most of the rights, including running powers, of that company although this continued to own the track bed etc and had a legal existence and financial structure. After an initial and unsuccessful attempt to interest the essentially hostile LNWR and GWR in jointly running the authorised line, Stephens was forced to adopt his customary independence. With characteristic energy he rebuilt the SMR with new sleepers (brought in via Aberdovey Harbour and the Cambrian) and stock, and re-opened to Llanymynech in March 1911. Although already in dispute over running trains further west he cheerfully refurbished the double junction installed during the railways dark ages. An open and clubbable character Stephens was, in Matthew’s stated judgement, someone who did not excel as a negotiator, and in late 1911 he belatedly wrote to the Cambrian in an almost naive fashion to discuss in particular running powers:
1 over the Tanat Valley Light Railway;
2 to Nantmawr;
3 to Oswestry via Blodwell Junction;
4 for goods to Ellesmere and interchange with the Great Central Railway. (Stephens had earlier written to the Cambrian in connection with the Light Railway Order ‘In view of the fact that you have running powers over 18 miles of our line and in return …we have only 6 [over yours] we are of the opinion that we [should have more]’).
Well the Cambrian didn’t mind the occasional market or even regular passenger trains to Oswestry but they were not going to allow anyone else access to the lucrative Nantmawr Quarries or the Tanat Valley, let alone let Stephens’ trains run further.
The Cambrian losing out in the negotiations over Lord Bradford’s loop had then ensured that it was not built. Furious though this made the good Lord he had only been able to secure in its place, as a temporary two year measure, a through coach connection from Llanymynech to the Tanat Valley- Oswestry trains at Blodwell Junction. Provided by the Cambrian one coach trundled, thrice, later twice, daily, on the back of the local goods. Year-on-year they stalled so as not to build the loop to enable a direct connection into the Tanat. Consequently the service carried very little traffic and it was eventually to peter out in wartime conditions in January 1917. In all this the Cambrian had proved thoroughly obstructive to the Shropshire interest and
now proceeded to do all in its power to bottle up the infant SMR. They used in particular their formal and informal agreements with the Shropshire to suggest that as they had running rights on the Nantmawr branch no one else (the SMR) could have as well.
After characteristically pithy Stephens’ correspondence with the Chairman and General Managers of the Cambrian, there were over the next few years prolonged discussion and disputes. These culminated in legal cases that finally went to the High Court. Desperate to protect the £2000 (£125K in 2004 values) they were pulling in each year for the short haul involved the Cambrian, was, by this time deliberately stalling to disadvantage the weaker company. It changed its stance by arguing that running powers could only be exercised over the original junction that they had unilaterally removed! To bring matters to a head Stephens, on behalf of the Shropshire companies gave notice on 19th June 1913 that he wished to work 1 goods and 2 passenger trains over the Nantmawr line and on 7th July served formal legal notice that such services would be implemented.
Sixty years earlier railway politics conducted like this had several times ended with trains trying to force the junction only to be blocked by locomotives chained to the rails. Unfortunately for our entertainment but continuingly fortunate for lawyers pockets matters had progressed to less physical methods. Not surprisingly, given the specific provisions of the LRO and the Cambrian’s high-handed unilateral decision in 1895 to remove the original junction, the SMR finally won in court, on appeal, on 27 October 1913.
Had David finally slain Goliath? Regrettably not. As we know the SMR never terminated its passenger services in Oswestry nor got its happy ending tapping the lucrative mineral traffic opened up by its progenitors. The Cambrian's Counsel after its High Court defeat had written to W Kendrick Minshall (the Company’s Solicitor) ‘…keep them [the SMR] busy over something else’. This Machiavellian approach seems to have worked. At one stage they even stooped to informing the Earl of Powis, a powerful force in the Welsh Borders, one of their directors and a debenture holder in the SMR, of likely irregularities in SMR reporting of Debenture interest. An honourable man, he seems to have taken no action.
Earlier in 1913 in an attempt to end the dispute to forestall more legal costs the SMR had appointed, with Cambrian acquiescence, a special negotiator. This was Sir Charles Owens, the recently retired General Manager of the LSWR, a director of that company and a debenture holder in the SMR. Stephens was obviously by now disgusted at the whole thing and told the Cambrian directly in early 1916 that he was leaving it to Owens. The court case had concentrated minds but the Cambrian still dragged it out and War came. Eventually on 19th December 1916 a formal agreement was drawn up by Sir Charles and agreed. This provided, amongst other things
1 The Cambrian, regardless of whether Nantmawr quarry traffic went via Porthywaen or Llanymynech, would pay tolls to the Shropshire.
2 Lord Bradford’s Loop need not be built but access would be provided to the Tanat
3 If traffic from the Lilleshall company to its works at Hollinswood (near Wellington) was consigned via the SMR then the Cambrian would receive a sum equal to the rate it would have received [for Nantmawr-Oswestry] out of the through rate paid. [This effectively reduced the SMR's take, probably to unremunerative levels, and the Cambrian knew that the GWR would also be obstructive, as they too would be losers]
4 The Cambrian could keep its signal box and other structures on Shropshire land at Llanymynech and would remove the fence and move the shelter obstructing SMR passengers’ access to its station platforms [This was carried out and completed on 20th April 1917]
5 The Cambrian would render correct accounts and pay dues promptly (a bone of contention for at least 30 years)
As can be seen this agreement was of little or no direct benefit to the SMR/Shropshire interests. However given Cambrian attitudes, Sir Charles Owens was unable to negotiate more. At least it bought some peace and reduced legal fees.
With the railways under wartime controls none of this counted anyway.
The Cambrian continued in general to be unremittingly hostile. The SMR did not help when in 1919 it attempted to gain an outlet to Potteries markets and the friendly North Staffordshire Railway with its resurrected Market Drayton extension, a move that directly threatened Cambrian traffics.
At this point Stephens renewed his attempts to open the Llanymynech bottleneck and more pithy correspondence and meetings ensued. He sought access to the quarries, a resumption of the mixed service to Llanyblodwell, and a through coach from Oswestry to Shrewsbury (later modified to Ford!). The Cambrian dragged matters out and Stephens, infuriated, threatened to try again the 1913 tactic of presenting a train from the quarry for passage over the SMR , serving notice to that effect on 27 November 1920. Forestalled, he wrote a fierce letter to Williamson, the Cambrian General Manager, on 21st December which ended;
“Hope you have a merry Christmas, and that your conscience will be clear, and that the ghost of the starving Shropshire and Montgomeryshire Company will not haunt your, troubled, Christmas sleep”
The whole of 1921 was devoted to arguing about the S&MRs rights to receive Nantmawr traffic including, again serving notice on of their intention to run on the branch in 6months from 17th May 1921 . In private, the LNWR, one of the partners in the traffic, showed signs of agreeing with Stephens, but the Great Western and Cambrian had no qualms and suppressed this split. Meanwhile the Cambrian threw in every delaying tactic from quoting spurious rates to submitting unduly high costs for reinstatement of facilities for through traffic-despite the fact that they were all in place and in use- to simply refusing to meet or reply to letters. This tactic worked, the Cambrian amalgamated with the Great Western on 25 March1922 and S&MRs case became hopeless as virtually the whole route of Lilleshall's traffic was now in that company’s hands. And anyway the GWR, unlike the Southern that was run by many of Stephens’ friends, was by inclination hostile to any surviving small company in its territory.
Llanymynech became literally and metaphorically the end of the line. With precious little to gain financially, thanks to the 1916 agreement, the SMR gave up on quarry traffic and after a few more years passenger traffic gave up on them. The Llanymynech –Blodwell Junction line was finally closed as a through route in 1925.
Nantmawr quarry traffic, one of the principal movers in the Potts, Shropshire and SMR promotions continued to enrich others until traffic finall ceased in 1971. The line was mothballed untill finally closed in 1992, the last of the railway lines in the area.
*First promoted as the West Midlands, Shrewsbury and Coast of Wales heading for the chimera of an Irish packet port on the Lleyn Peninsular. This failed but the more modest West Shropshire Mineral railway was then promoted as a line to connect the Nantmawr and Criggion area quarries to the Welshpool - Shrewsbury line. This in turn rapidly evolved through amendment and amalgamation into the modest potential main line the Potteries, Shrewsbury and North Wales, a line from Market Drayton via Shrewsbury and the Berwyns. It nearly became a creature of the Great Northern Railway, no less, during that railway’s great competitive expansionist period. At this early stage the Potts was very friendly with the Cambrian and its predecessors. This changed when the Cambrian got its hands on the Quarry traffic.
Cambrian Records at the Public Record Office, in particular RAIL 1057/1922.1924-27, 1928 and 741.
The Tanat Valley, W J Wren, D&C, 1968
Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain Volume11 North & Mid-Wales, P E Baughan, D&C, 1980