Part 1: Stephens Fights
By the middle of the Edwardian era Stephens had begun to acquire a substantial collection of railways and managed them from Salford Terrace. This minimised costs whilst leaving local staff to deal with day to day issues. However at national level the voice of small railways’ was not apparent in such a efficient and collective way. He therefore began to attempt to assemble a collective voice with other small independents. The timing was propitious. The larger railways had their Railway Companies’ Association which had been in existence since the 1840s and had recently reorganised to be in a better position to present their case to the incoming Liberal government of 1906. They were proposing action that would adversely impact railways with proposals for significant legislation involving the railways, in particularly in recognition of trade unions by the railway companies in the aftermath of the landmark ‘Taff Vale’ case.
Stephens recognition of need for mutual support amongst the many small independent railways was one of the key tenets of his management philosophy throughout his life and he acted. The first indication we have found is a letter to the Festiniog Railway Secretary on 27th May 1907. Stephens explained that at a meeting on 26th April representatives of seven railways (unfortunately not specified but at least four would have been controlled by Stephens) had decided to form an association of such railways with the following objectives;
(1) Mutual support generally.
(2) Combined representation to the Government, Board of Trade, and Light Railway Commission,
(3) Combined representation to the Main Line Companies.
(4) Combined action in Test cases,
(5) Information re Technical subjects.
(6) Scheme of combined General Insurance.
(7) Labour questions.
(8) Financial questions.
(9) Standardising general stores with the object of combined purchases if desirable.
(10) Rating and Taxation questions, combined action.
(11) Issue of a quarterly pamphlet giving information as to the proceedings of the Association, and notes on matters of interest to the smaller railways.
(12) Occasional Meetings for the purposes of discussion. Arrangements for the use of small club room in London.
Stephens further proposed that the Association be controlled by a Council consisting of a President, a Vice-president, and four Members who shall be nominated and elected year by year by means of postal Ballot. James Ward Burchell of the firm of Messrs. Burchell, a firm of solicitors in Westminster who had experience of light railway law was to act as Secretary for the first year with Stephens as hon. Organiser.
This Association, if indeed it ever emerged from its embryo at this date seems to have no impact on events and no trace of its activities have yet been found. However Stephens himself henceforth counted 1907 as its founding year. Perhaps the railways he was approaching like the Festiniog itself were fiercely proud of there independence and the thought of working with others even to save costs was seemingly distasteful to them . Light and small railways in the UK never came to terms with collective action or larger service companies such as were found abroad and were the poorer ( literally) for it .
The next foirm knoweledge we have of an association is, by Stephens own account, an initial meeting with several, unspecified, railway companies at some time by mid-1915 (one wonders whether in fact this was the 1907 meeting ) He then stes that this meeting had set up an ‘Association of Minor Railways’ with himself as honorary Secretary. At mid-1915 he approached the Exeter Railway, which was a short, GWR worked, line from Exeter to Ashton. It had the virtue of having a grievance against the GWR and a Chairman, Vincent W Yorke, who was a well-connected City man and Director of the Westminster Bank. It is through this company’s records that papers from this time have survived.
A document formally setting up the organisation was circulated in proof in June 1915 and restated the programme in the 1907 Festiniog letter with the key extra proviso to item 2 above
“…also protection of interests in the event of a scheme for the nationalization of Railways being brought forward: also questions arising during controlled period and on the cessation of the same.’’
This is of course Stephens trying to latch onto the concerns of the time in the same way as he did when he first proposed the Association Stephens was most anxious to get Yorke involved and wrote ‘I may tell you that the question of a subscription is immaterial’. This was an echo of the Festiniog letter. Influence was more important to Stephens than cash.
Stephens then used the final outcome of the Biddenden court case as a pretext to write around to many railways using the document as a recruiting flyer.
He also wrote to his close acquaintance, Sir Herbert Walker, at the time the acting Chairman of the Government’s Railway Executive Committee that ran all the railways of Britain in wartime, to alert him to the formation of the Association. On 31st August 1915 he wrote
‘’ My Dear Walker,
I also send you for your private information some particulars of the Association of Minor Railways which has been formed.
It is rather a job for me to work at it as I should like to as I am mobilised.
However it passes the time o’ nights.
Yours Very Truly
H F Stephens’’
In a letter to the Exeter Railway in October Stephens claimed that several companies had joined the Association but, possibly due to his military commitments, any trace of the Association now disappears for some months.
In May 1918 we can pick up the threads again when Stephens proposes a new recruitment letter and circular to be sent out to 83 British and Irish (Southern Ireland was of course not separated till 1922) independent Railways signed by the Chairman of 12 Companies (1). By June 1918 the Association had 15 members with F Ullmer of the Shropshire Railways (which were controlled by the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire which Stephens effectively owned) as its Secretary. Stephens and his associates were in the driving seat of the Association and were to remain so, although with important contributions from C E Drewett of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and W T D Grundy, the General Manager of the Derwent Valley Railway. Initially Yorke, and probably others, must have also been active till the events of 1920 (see below). By now the Association was renamed ‘The Association of Railways’
The underlying reason for the revitalisation of the Association was that although the War was still raging (indeed the last massive German offensive was only just being halted) eyes were turning to reorganising the railways after the War. The June circular stated
“It is felt that if the railways are ‘controlled’ the Board of Trade [soon to be Ministry of Transport –Ed] should be approached as to their position after the crisis, if they are not ‘controlled’ the government should be approached for assistance if necessary. It seems essential that assistance should be secured from the government in order that the companies might have reasonable protection after a termination of the present crisis.
‘’ The Railway Companies Association is engaged in looking after the interests of the larger companies which interests are not in all respects identical with those of the ‘lesser undertakings’, it is in direct touch with the government.
‘’It is most desirable that companies should band themselves together for defensive purposes, in the event of a proposal for Nationalisation, or even a form of Control, being brought forward by the government hereafter.”
Stephens’s precious independence was threatened.
With the Association now properly established it began to make some impact on Government. In summer 1918 a Parliamentary Select Committee had been formed to study transport. As early as August 1918 H Bonham Carter, at the Ministry of Reconstruction, had written to the Committee Chairman ‘few [light railways] are commercially successful concerns, although several are well worked, notably those by Colonel H F Stephens of Robertsbridge’. In November the Committee recommended that all the railways be brought into a unified control; although Light and other smaller Railways were not specifically mentioned. By Early 1919 the Government set out to implement change and introduced a Bill to set up a Ministry of Ways and Communications (soon changed to the simpler Transport) with the full power and structure to run the railways centrally itself. The authoritarian Sir Eric Geddes was appointed to run it. The Times later compared him to a ‘’pike in a carp pond stirring up all the little fishes [and] gobbling up a good deal [of them]’’ Light railways were to come specifically under his remit.
The Association got to work both behind the scenes and in Parliament .In the Commons debate on the Bill in March, Geddes was quite rude about the more primitive sort of light railway, proposing road transport to meet such needs. So on April 4 in the Bill Committee there were moves by several MPs (Messrs Green, Marshall Stephens and Joynson Hicks) to remove light railways from the new Ministry’s remit. A promise was made to review the situation and status of light railways. In those days such a commitment had meaning.
The battle was joined. Stephens had written to Yorke the previous day
“I have been asked to write to you and ascertain if you will agree to be co-opted on the Parliamentary Committee of this Association.
‘’Two members have responded owing to the fact that they do not reside in London it is desirable to have a member who is available for meetings in London without inconvenience.
‘’ I am glad to say that our efforts greatly assisted the fight to get Clause 4 of the Transport Bill (3) withdrawn by the government and Sir Eric Geddes has agreed to receive a deputation from the Association at an early date.”
Yorke accepted and in his thank you letter Stephens commented
‘’Geddes is quite unsympathetic with the minor lines and this means his people are putting all the things they can to oppose the claims of the smaller companies and to get hold of them at break-up prices.
‘’Your friends at Paddington are not the best of settlers in a purchase deal I fear.”
Behind the scenes Stephens was also at work. Can it be co-incidence that at this time the Eccentric Club, of which Stephens and his close associate Jeremiah MacVeigh were prominent Members, entertained the entire Railway Executive Committee at its premises in Ryder Street and the future of railways was reported as being discussed?
With the powers of the Ministry of Transport settled it got down to work. During the War the Board of Trade had established a Railways Advisory Panel in addition to the Railway Executive Committee. Although apparently superfluous, this Panel must have influenced the powers that be, for when the new Ministry was created it was required to establish advisory committees for all sectors of transport including one for Light Railways.
Stephens now wrote to Yorke on 20th September 1919
“Sir Eric Geddes has asked the committee [of the Association] to nominate some persons with practical knowledge of location and administration of secondary railways and it is suggested that Mr C E Drewitt [sic] of the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway and myself should be nominated to render any assistance that Sir Eric may require.
‘’Do you agree to this please?
‘’It is as well that the Association should be in close touch with the Ministry of Transport without doubt as otherwise we stand but little chance of getting any inside information. The Railway Companies Association will give us none of course.”
Yorke must have by this time become Chairman of the Association for Stephens to address him thus.
Geddes stated in Parliament in May 1920 that the Light Railways Committee had been appointed in March (arrangements had been finalised in January) but had not met. In the meantime its members had been asked to inquire into the operation of Light Railways (see below). In practice all the transport Advisory Committees seem to have been little used and I have been unable to locate any records of a formal meeting of the Light Railways Advisory Committee. It was of itself however already virtually irrelevant because of other moves behind the scenes.
Geddes, who was noted for his authoritarian, pushy nature was probably becoming irritated by the gnat bites of special interest pleading for light railways .He cut the Gordian knot by deciding, probably in November 1919, to exclude Light railways from the re-organisation that we now know as The Grouping. His Director General of Traffic (a typical Geddes title this!), Sir Philip Nash, after wide consultation within the senior officers of the Department, wrote to Stephens:
“There remains the question as to the organisation which will be necessary for the purposes of co-ordination of Light Railway systems, when or if a system of grouping the main railway companies is adopted as the solution of the railway problem at the end of two years. It is thought that in the event of the main line railways being grouped it will be found more convenient to exclude light railway undertakings from such groups, particularly in regard to ownership, although possibly for operation the group railway may conveniently undertake the same in certain instances. Under such conditions of exclusions it will be necessary for light railway interests as a whole to be co-ordinated, and the Light Railway Advisory Committee, which is now suggested, could then be enlarged to include all such Light Railway undertakings as are not covered by the main line groups.
‘’If the suggestions now made in regard to the formation of a Light Railway Advisory Committee to represent such Light Railway undertakings as are not now represented in the Railway Clearing House, appear to you as a suitable proposition, I would suggest that you should get to work and formulate definite proposals to that end to be placed before the Minister.”
The decision to exclude Light Railways was formalised when a clumsily titled and poorly written, but concise, four page Government White Paper came out in June 1920. Entitled ‘Outline of proposals as to the future organisation of transport undertakings in Great Britain and their relation to the state’ it set out the proposals for future groupings of the main line railways. It stated
“In each case the new group would absorb any independent broad [i.e. Standard -ed] gauge lines within its area, but railways which may be classified as ‘light’, whether existing or future, will be wholly excluded from this grouping arrangement…”
“… It is proposed to exclude Light Railways from the grouping arrangements. Light Railways must rely largely for their prosperity and development upon the goodwill and assistance of the main line companies… It is essential [however] that they should have no grounds for fearing competition from [Light Railway Companies]. It should therefore be provided that if the Light Railway is changing character and is in fact becoming an ordinary railway or is competing for main line traffic, the group company may absorb the Light Railway on fair terms…”
“The construction and management of Light Railways … should be in the hands of separate undertakings… The policy of grouping Light Railway systems so far as possible as a means of securing economy in management, maintenance, repairs etc is considered wise and experience has already shown that this can be done successfully.”
This must have been music to Stephens’ ears and the last sentence icing on the cake – direct praise for Stephens’ methods that he might have written himself.
Geddes was clearly closely engaged in writing this most personal White Paper and the direct reference strongly suggests that Stephens had been bending exalted ears. Stephens had certainly made friends in the Department itself. General Sir Philip Nash, the Director General of Traffic, was close enough to Stephens to send him a note of thanks for the pot of cream he had sent him! The Director of Finance and Statistics, Sir George Beharrell - a long term associate of Geddes - became a friend of Stephens and was his first choice luncheon companion . Working directly with Beharrell was one John Pike, later to be a director and chairman of several Stephens' lines
Unfortunately, soon after this victory, Stephens suffered a setback for his Association and his desire for a world filled with independent small railways. The crushing financial power of the big companies was beginning to be felt. Those small railways who were already worked by the bigger companies or who were financially weak saw a way out of their management and financial problems. These companies did not share Stephens’ enthusiasm for independence and foresaw that their future was to be absorbed by the Groups. By July 1920 several of these railways had formed what was effectively a breakaway ‘Association of Smaller Railways’. This was led by the likes of Sir Sam Fay of the Freshwater, Yarmouth & Newport (and at that time still GM of the Great Central and just out of a very senior War Office job) and Sidney Herbert of the Stratford on Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a noted financier who profited by turning round share prices of minor railways.
The new association focussed aggressively on financial matters in the run up to Grouping and met Geddes on several occasions. Stephens, with huge magnanimity, not to say generosity, suggested to the Exeter Railway that its best interest now lay with the new Association. It must have come very hard for Stephens after fighting the independent corner so successfully. Yorke and the Exeter Railway faded out of Stephens’ purview although they had before them a stiff and influential fight with the GWR before being absorbed.
Geddes had been clear about the need to exclude Light Railways that he considered as irrelevant to his wider purpose but there was still infighting in the industry and his officials had difficulty sorting out the sheep from the goats amongst minor railways. What was the definition of an independent light railway? As late as January 1921 the Ministry’s Traffic Department was trying to draw up categories and in frustration was suggesting that most should be included in the groups, or, in extremis, be operated as Light Railways Group. This confusion persisted in the first draft of subsequent legislation. Behind the scenes however each railway seemed to be finding its own salvation. For instance the prosperous Burry Port & Gwendreath Valley Railway, that Stephens had so successfully reconstructed, was told by the Ministry of Transport that it could remain independent but the GWR’s terms were too tempting.
Strangely a member of the founding group of the ‘Smaller Railways’, the Festiniog, ultimately remained ungrouped, whereas Stephens’ close ally, the Lynton and Barnstable, became part of the Southern after some behind the scenes deals with the London South Western Railway management. But that, as they say, is another tale. The new grouped companies subsequently absorbed most of this breakaway Association’s members so it had a short life and was last recorded in 1922.
Looking to the Future
Stephens’ Association had already achieved, in public, its primary objective and despite the Ministry’s internal qualms there was very little attempt by other interested parties to change the Governments mind and attempt to include Light Railways in the Groups. But there was still work to do. Stephens presented what was for him a long paper to Nash in the run up to the legislation, which was considered in depth. He now concentrated on more detailed financial questions like compensation for the period of Government control. It seems he and the rival Association together may well have been influential in securing what was a relatively good deal for the independents. He was also concerned about charging powers (and gave evidence in person to a government panel) in case it lessened light railways income, local authorities’ powers to lend to small railways and the powers of large companies to take over independents. Jeremiah MacVeagh, who was an MP, spoke for the light railway case during both the Second Reading and Report Stage of the Railways Act 1921 that implemented the White Paper proposals
Elsewhere Stephens and his Association continued to have influence on the new Ministry’s thinking. As will be recalled the members of the Light Railway Advisory Committee were asked to serve on a new committee that came to be called the Light Railways (Investigation) Committee to review light railways and their legislation. And they were an illustrious company Very senior Ministry people dominated the Committee. Sir Alexander Gibb, Director General of Civil Engineering and also head of one of the largest consulting engineers in the world; his deputy Mr Bradford Leslie previously an Indian railways engineer ;Sir John Aspinall the Ministry’s Consulting Engineer and one of the few locomotive engineers to rise to be GM and Director of a major railway (the Lancashire and Yorkshire) who had a long-standing interest in light railways; V M Barrington Ward the Director of Railway Operations Branch and later knighted after being a senior officer with the LNER and on the Board of the British Transport Commission (British Railways); Col. J W Pringle Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways and Col. J A S Gray an assistant director. Stephens had with him Messrs Drewett, Grundy and A H Loring (Chairman, East Kent Railways). The final member was a Mr E W Oakley, of the Saundersfoot Railway & Harbour Co
The Committee reviewed all the Light Railway companies in Great Britain and Ireland, and technical and financing aspects thereof, meeting regularly from April to July1920. It is clear from correspondence that Stephens was central to the operations of the Committee. He advised in several areas and wanted Light Railways to be defined (always a hazardous exercise) as Railways of Local Interest (heavily influenced here by the French term ‘Chemins de Fer Intérèt Local’), a term that would have stood the test of time. One of the findings of the Committee was that many Light Railways were often efficiently run but weighted down by heavy construction costs.
Unfortunately matters conspired against the effectiveness of the Committee. The Ministry was under heavy fire for being overbearing and officious and Geddes was to leave the political scene after the passing of the Railways Act. As we have seen, the Groups swept in many independents .The Irish independents went their own way to be grouped in the Great Southern Railways in 1925. Road transport was moving into the ascendant and 1922 was a catastrophic year for branch and light railways as traffic decamped to the roads. As Geddes had foreseen, the days of light railway expansion, and even need, were done.
In the whole Grouping saga Stephens had fought hard and won a major battle but he had lost the war. The Groups were not going to let any new independent railways become established if they could help it. Most of Stephens’ railways were either to fall under the influence of the Main Line companies or fail in the next twenty years. Even Stephens’ great projects of the 1920s, the ND&CJLR, the Gower Peninsular Light, the Worcester and Broome, the Newport and Four Ashes and the Southern Heights, were all designed to be worked by those companies. At the very end of his life Stephens was forced by circumstances to try to negotiate with the GWR and LMS to jointly or separately work the Festiniog and Welsh Highland railways. A complete reversal of the position taken 10 years before. Independence certainly had a price.
The Aftermath and Decline
Stephens Association still had life in it. Entries in the Railways Year Book commenced in 1921 when its influence was at its peak. According to the Year Book entries it ‘’… was formed in 1912 in the interests of the smaller railway companies not party to the Railway Companies Association, with the object of co-ordinating action and realising mutual support in the event of the nationalisation of railways. Also in regard to combined representation to the main line companies, schemes of combined insurance, standardisation of stores etc. In 1914 it was decided to extend the functions of the Association to include questions that had arisen during the period of Government control and with the cessation thereof, so far as the controlled undertakings represented in the membership of the association were concerned.’’
Stephens seems to have been elaborating for effect; if the Association existed in 1912 it was only in his own head.
In 1921 its Officers were listed as Chairman: A.H.Loring: Council: C.E.Drewett, W.T.D.Grundy, Lt Col H.F.Stephens, Hon Secretary R.Ullmer Address: 12 St Helens Place, Bishopsgate, London. The secretary later moved to 16, Devonshire Square E.C.2 situated in an unfashionable part of the city off ‘Petticoat Lane’. This personnel was largely unchanged till 1927 and even though the Lynton & Barnstable had lost its independence Drewett continued to serve in a personal capacity. Then H Montague Bates and Jeremiah MacVeagh, Stephens close associates, took over, as the council members and A Chick became secretary. By this time it was very much Stephens personal committee although 20 railways were claimed as members. In 1929 the ever interested Grundy came back, Stephens had finally taken the Chair and renamed the group with his now favoured title ‘The Association of Railways of Local Interest’. Over the next few years death took its harvest, and membership and the Secretariat then circulated amongst Stephens’ friends, heirs and employees.
Meaningful work was still being undertaken. We can see from surviving records that Stephens still had good relations with the Ministry with his projects and concerns. The last papers I have so far been able to trace that show active lobbying are from 1928 in connection with the Railways (Road Transport) Bill. There was probably a lot more activity but the papers now seem lost.
Standing Alone 2
Part 2: Austen Lays Down The Burden
Independence Fades Away
By the time of Colonel Stephens’ death in October 1931, none of his railways had closed but most were in deep trouble. From the early twenties even his economy and management expertise had been unable to staunch the outflow of passengers and light goods to the roads. Now, with the Depression, the businesses were on a knife-edge. William H Austen had started his takeover with Stephens’ first illness in 1930 and brought with him a less optimistic view to running the railways. Nevertheless, as a true and faithful servant he used his not inconsiderable skills to keep the empire going wherever possible.
Stephens’ management of the narrow gauge Festiniog and Welsh Highland Railways had staved off closure in the 1920s and during 1930/31 Tonbridge had nearly managed, through the use of government political pressure, to offload the lines onto the LMS and GWR jointly. This was foiled at the last hurdle by the local councils (which both effectively controlled and benefited from the lines) refusing to guarantee against the inevitable losses. These railways then drifted away from Tonbridge’s management, sustained for a time by increasing summer tourist traffic and living off what little fat still remained. Austen finally threw in the towel in September 1936 in protest against vital maintenance staff redundancies, saying ‘…as long as the wheels turn round today that is all that matters [to you], no consideration for tomorrow’. Truly a Stephensonian riposte.
Of the other narrow gauges lines, the little Snailbeach District was, after ten years of struggle, turning into a successful, if limited, enterprise based on transporting roadstone. The Rye and Camber was living on the shoestring of summer traffic and, as far as Tonbridge was concerned, the Ashover was by now simply an engineering consultancy sustained by the friendship of the owning family.
The under-resourced Selsey, despite a notable effort to get the Southern Railway to take it over and rebuild it, was to succumb all too rapidly to a very frequent service of comfortable modern buses. It closed in 1935 to the accompaniment of much continuing nostalgia but little hardship for locals or holidaymakers.
Tonbridge’s core businesses; the Kent & East Sussex, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire, East Kent and the Weston, Clevedon & Portishead railways continued in emaciated form. Passenger traffic had virtually disappeared except for the summer traffic on the WC&P. Three of the railways were however sustained by mineral traffic, roadstone in the case of the S&MR and the WC&P, coal the EKR. General agricultural traffic could be considerable on the K&ESR and the EKR but was very seasonal. Receivership soon overtook the K&ESR and S&MR; the WC&P had been that way since before Stephens had taken over. Nevertheless with some help from the mainline railways, in the form of deferred debts, they continued. However in many areas the track had became almost dangerously worn. Austen had in fact suggested to the directors of the K&ESR in 1938 that early closure would be inevitable without some relaying. Fortunately track materials were made available by the Southern on easy terms.
With Stephens’ death the Association of Railways of Local Interest petered out. Austen had great problems sorting out Stephens’ affairs and many of his close associates died. The need for the smaller railways to consult together was also perhaps not as apparent in the early thirties as they struggled with the Depression, road completion and subsequent receivership or closure. The last Yearbook entry was for the 1933/34 edition issued in July 1933.
However this was not to be the end of the local railways co-operation. The road threat to the railways continued to increase, they were fighting the ‘Fair Deal’ campaign against road transport and there was further talk in the air of nationalisation. Stephens’ ideas of collective support regained its force and in October 1938 a meeting lead to the formation (some may say reformation) of an Association of Minor Railway Companies. It seems the moving force in this was that stalwart of the earlier Stephens’ association the Derwent Valley Light Railway, and in particular its General Manager and later Chairman, S J Reading. It had largely the same membership as the earlier organisation. The new body met as occasion demanded, with a lot of work behind the scenes by officers, till around 1952.
The Association now became virtually moribund but remained in the custodianship of the DVR. However the need to group together for mutual support in the face of Government was still potent and with the rise of a new group of railways, what we now know as Heritage Railways, its time had come again. In 1970 Allan Garraway, of the Festiniog Railway, set about reviving the organisation with the help of Derwent Valley officers. Becoming the Association of Independent Railways in 1988 it later merged with the Association of Railway Preservation Societies to become today’s Heritage Railways Association – a name familiar to us all.
May we therefore claim that Colonel Stephens was not only the primary architect of small railway independence after 1923 but also Godfather of today’s Heritage Railway Association?
The Government Steps In
Nationalisation of the Railways was being considered by the Ministry as early as November 1940 as part of an integrated transport policy that was seen, in particular, as a solution to the problems all railways had experienced in the 1930s, despite the palliative of the Grouping of 1923. Matters matured and with the incoming Labour administration in 1945 nationalisation became a fact.
The Transport Act 1947, in all its transport-enclosing glory, had powers to acquire all railway undertakings and initially listed those railways (virtually all) that had been brought under government control at the outbreak of war in September 1939 following secret considerations earlier in the year. In May 1939 the senior railway managers in the form of the Railway Executive Committee (REC), behind closed doors, had decided what minor railways should be included amongst those to be brought under government control in time of war. They subsequently articulated their key criteria as:
(1) Can a railway continue to run if it is not controlled? And
(2) Is its traffic essential for the prosecution of the war?
The results were necessarily somewhat subjective. Later, an assistant rightly pointed out in a note to Sir William Wood (the LMS President who sat on the Committee) that in equity independent minor lines should have and should continue to be treated no differently from minor lines worked by the main companies. In the event the only important minor railways that were not worked by the major companies, which came under control, were the Kent & East Sussex Railway, East Kent Railway and the Shropshire & Montgomeryshire Railway, all ‘Stephens group’ light railways It was their temporary salvation, for they would have closed in whole or part had control not been imposed.
Another of the Stephens’ lines The Weston, Clevedon & Portishead was a significant marginal case which has been outlined elsewhere. Suffice to say that when the Government took control of the railways on 1st September 1939 the WC&P was excluded and it was closed in 1940.
The Kent lines continued their principal rural transport role, whilst also entertaining the military’s defence requirements, but the S&MR underwent the greatest change. Its war started with a real scare: declining traffic and deteriorating track forced the directors to consider shutting and lifting the central section from Kinnerley to Moele Brace. A firm decision to do this was made in June 1940, but in October the Military intervened. They quickly moved in and formally took over the railway from June 1941 to serve a series of ordnance storage areas that spread right along the main line. The central section of railway that had been proposed for closure was largely re-laid and became very busy, with 12 engines in steam each day and heavy trains, amongst which the remaining civilian goods traffic squeezed its way.
With the end of the War the new Labour Government made railway nationalisation a high priority. All controlled lines were to be swept into the net. There was to be no re-run of Stephens’ epic campaign after the First World War to retain independence. Men and machines were exhausted anyway. It was more a case of doting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s.
The Railways were to be run by the newly established Railway Executive (RE), a body that effectively emerged from the wartime Railway Executive Committee. Exercising overall control over all nationalised transport was the British Transport Commission (BTC), and it was they who initiated enquiries about the acquisition of the minor railways that had been, happily or otherwise, going about their business free of the State since 1939. To jump slightly ahead of our story, the newly formed British Transport Commission and the Railway Executive (trading as British Railways) considered whether they should mop up the previously uncontrolled odds and ends of the railway system that survived the war by, as they were empowered to do, absorbing these minor lines. The two, just surviving, remnants of Stephens’ former empire were discussed and dismissed in November 1948. The Festiniog was noted as carrying many summer passengers before the war but was in such a poor physical state that the heavy expenditure required made acquisition of ‘no advantage’. The Snailbeach was noted as of use to Shropshire County Council for roadstone but that ‘the railway should not be acquired’ .Two other railways that Stephens had engineered, the Edge Hill and the Ashover, were also considered but the former had of course never fully opened and was derelict. The Ashover still carried much limestone, but was worn out, and was noted as ‘being considered for conversion’ to standard gauge as far as the main line at Stretton. It was therefore cynically noted that if the line was not acquired, this would give the main line additional traffic without expenditure by British Railways.
Still, there were some flashes of the old independence. Austen and his Chairman were strongly attracted to a possibility that arose in August 1946 to take over the operation of the S&MR from the military. This involved employing 120 plus staff against the dozen or so pre-war employees (although the railway had employed around 70 in its heyday), but the imminence of nationalisation caused a fatal pause and the line was nationalised with the Army retaining operational control. However, the Stephens’s legacy of service to the community still endured. Melverley Bridge, over the river Severn, on the still civilian and relatively busy Criggion branch carrying roadstone, was severely damaged in the winter of 1945. The S&MR Coal engines that were specifically retained for the branch could no longer use it and fell out of use, with the Criggion quarry company’s Sentinel shunter used instead. Austen however persuaded the Ministry of Transport in July 1947 not only to accord the replacement of the bridge high priority at a time of material shortages but to loan the company the cash (it finally cost around £23,000) to do it! This of course he did in the certain knowledge that the newly nationalised railways would have to pay the bill. Later, the great white chief in charge of all nationalised transport, Sir Cyril (later Lord) Hurcomb, expressed retrospective dislike of the decision of the Ministry, even though at the time of the decision he had actually been its head civil servant, but could do nothing. Perhaps the more junior official who took the decision knew better than he, for the bridge still serves to this day as an invaluable road bridge for the local community.
In due course Salford Terrace were notified that they were to be pulled into the bureaucratic maw and became part of British Railways. However by the end of the War the centre of the empire at Tonbridge was a tired place and when nationalisation was proposed there seems to have been a sense of relief arising from a burden lifted. The railways were still theoretically controlled by the Government and although for a brief period there was a prospect of a prosperous and independent S&MLR running military traffic under contract that dream soon faded. Difficult times loomed for the two Kent railways and the staff were ageing (William Austen was 69 in 1947) and looking for an easier life.
Austen was however using the personal and friendly contacts established over the years with senior Southern officers to smooth the way. This affinity was clearly demonstrated when on 3 and 4 December 1947 the necessary letters were sent out to spell the end of Stephens’ Empire. Two, to the Shropshire Railways (the owner of the railway worked by the S&MR) and North Devon & Cornwall Junction Railway, were sent to the Secretaries J A Iggleden and his opposite number H L Brazier (at Waterloo) from someone in the Railway Executive Secretary’s office and were soullessly bureaucratic. However, those to Austen for the core companies came from Sir Eustace Missenden, the designated Chairman, and were extremely warm, beginning ‘My Dear Austen’ and ending ‘Yours Very Truly ‘. Austen, in a private reply, conveyed the air of wearily setting the burden down saying:
‘In a very few months from now, all being well, I shall have reached my three score and ten , and need hardly say , for health and other reasons, I am most anxious to sever my connections with these undertakings as soon as can possibly be conveniently arranged. I have the confidence to know that you will do all in your power with such object in view’
His friends met his wishes, but not immediately, for he was retained as a well appreciated consultant for 18 months, being paid £1675 a year, and finally leaving in June 1949. Further, being non-pensionable, he was released with a farewell payment of £400, arranged by the Railway Executive itself under the personal direction of one of the Executive, W P ‘ Bill’ Allen (ex ASLEF), no less, after some considerable internal consultation, so that it was tax free. He also picked up a £50 fee for his directorship of the S&MR which had taken 18 months to wind up.
So came an honourable retirement for a man who had seen Stephens’ Empire rise and fall. And there was to be a further bonus: Stephens’ estate had been owed £1,947/18/8 for rolling stock since before the KESR receivership in 1932. Now the railway was nationalised and not therefore technically insolvent, the ingenious and persistent Iggleden, despite his employment by BR, spotted that due to a technicality, the money could be reclaimed. He was quite unrelenting (being called at one point ‘most offensive’) but despite great wriggling by the BTC and the obtaining by them of Counsel’s opinion he got the money. A nice little earner split four ways between Stephens’ beneficiaries.
What do we have here?
Even though there was now to be a unified national railway the officers of the old major grouped company were still ruling the roost and were to do so for many years. The interest in the small fry by Paddington, which was to take in the S&MLR, was minimal especially as it was effectively in Military hands. However many years of close association with the Southern did bring a fair degree of interest in the Kent pair. The new management did start to give their futures some attention and on 9 January 1948, nine days after Nationalisation came into effect, Austen’s position and salary were confirmed in an acting capacity. Inspections of the new assets were undertaken on 4 February. A detailed inspection was made of the K&ESR and EKR by the Regional civil engineer on 28 and 30 January respectively and they were summarised by him, probably correctly, as ‘very poor’, although his concept of a light railway was probably very different to that of the Stephens’ camp. He maintained his stance on this and wanted to spend nearly £½ m on the two lines (£293K on the K&ESR and £161K on the EKLR) if they remained open .He took over the railways on 3 May ( which was the general date of actual takeover) but was still comparing the likely high maintenance of the two lines with the Torrington-Halwill (ND&CJR) in 1949 ; which either shows that Stephens who engineered them all had raised his standards or the engineer didn’t know as much as he claimed The Mechanical Engineers department woke up a little later and reported on 10 March that virtually all the rolling stock of both railways, with the exception of the recently arrived ex LSWR bogie coaches and some equally recently arrived wagons on both railways, should be scrapped . Perhaps surprisingly of the locomotives , only the K&ESR’s Beattie saddle tank No 4 was for the chop, although the others soon went, leaving that great survivor ‘Bodiam’ to soldier on . O V S Bulleid personally approving all this action.
Inaction by Paddington caused Austen to write to the Westerns CRO, K W C Grand, on 6 April that he and the staff were still running the S&MLR but it took until May for them to fully react, by which time the Southern had already made arrangements for the Salford Terrace staff. Much of the discussion at Nationalisation was naturally concerned with staffing about reconciling the rigid rules then placed on the Government and Railways by war and the Unions and the employment conditions arising there from, and somewhat different from the views that Colonel Stephens had on employment and pay. These were naturally settled in favour of the higher cost mainline options.
What do we do with them?
The overall theme of much of the early meetings by BR was that the Kent lines might be closed but it was thought in April that ' it was generally considered that [closure] would not be good policy to adopt so soon after the nationalisation... of the railways and would bring forth an outcry from the public ‘. This thinking was modified slightly when a study of the EKLR revealed that it carried less than one passenger a day and the line lost its passenger traffic on 30 October 1948 and Shepherdswell engine shed closed. However by that time more positive thinking had taken over.
In a meeting in August with the head organisation of all nationalised transport, the British Transport Commission (BTC), during an attempt to value the railway the Southern had summed up the traffic prospects of the K&ESR as:
‘This line runs through a rich agricultural district and freight traffic is now at a substantially higher level than before the war. I see no reason why this level of traffic should not be maintained. Passenger traffic is very light, partly due to the very poor passenger service, and it is hoped that by divorcing the passenger service from the freight service and possibly by increasing the passenger service, the longer distance passenger traffic from Tenterden to London could be increased’.
The East Kent was of course almost entirely dependent on the prospects for coal.
In November 1948 the Engineer laid plans for ‘developing' the railways. On the KESR this was to involve everything from the absurd: shortening all platforms to 120 foot (St Michaels was to be reduced to 12 feet!!); to the essential: installing Elsan chemical toilets for station staff (passengers now had facilities on many of the trains). Frittenden Road was to shut completely. Needless to say little was done although the carriage shed at Rolvenden was demolished as planned. Strangely the locomotive shed at Shepherdswell was to be maintained although virtually all other structures on the railway, such as they were, were to be demolished and some of this work was carried out .The civil engineers over-ambitious plans were finally shelved for the 1950 season leaving a basic infrastructure that was to remain until closures progressed in the early 1950s.
The Commercial Section too worked on developing the K&ESR. Picking up the comments made to the BTC earlier, they pointed out that Tenterden then had six direct bus services daily from Tenterden to London .In an attempt to compete they had introduced day excursion bookings from 17 November and accelerated timings of Tenterden -Headcorn services by 5 minutes to 30 minutes. Quite how much through traffic to London was anticipated is problematic, especially against the cheaper through buses, but in truth passenger traffic on this section was and remained minimal even after this greatly enhanced service was introduced. Nevertheless it continued until closure on 2nd January 1954.
The final paper on the takeover file at the National Archive is a reply to a request from the Chairman of the BTC no less, the great - in his eyes anyway - Lord Hurcomb who wanted to see the K&ESR’s traffic returns. The end was in sight.
In the difficult process of surrendering independence the Southern and Sir John Elliot in particular had shown themselves very sympathetic. His warm dealings with Austen have already been recorded but they extended even to the more humble. To take a case Albert Osborne of whom Austen said ,after attempting to describing his none too specific Salford Terrace duties, ‘To cut a long story short he was the late Colonel Stephens’ batman and in those days acted as chainman and general odd [sic]man ….Personally I do nor know what particular post I would recommend as being suitable.. he might however be useful on Stores’. Waterloo came up with the idea of employing him as a stores labourer in Tonbridge shed and although Osborne’s pride was hurt by the Union imposed term ‘labourer‘ a small pay rise soften the blow and he accepted. A little later he seems to have found a more congenial post as crossing keeper at Stonegate.
Austen’s farewell to Salford Terrace was elegiac. In a letter of 3 June 1948 he said:
‘These offices have now been entirely cleared of all that appertaining to the Kent & East Sussex, East Kent, Shropshire & Montgomeryshire and other little railways all of which have during the last 50 odd years been bred , born and controlled within its walls and which is finally being closed on Saturday next.’
Perhaps the old regime’s ghostly remains still lingered midst the encroaching bureaucracy and darkening future for the penultimate document in the files on the takeover was a letter from the Southern’s Chief Regional Engineer to the Chief Regional Officer no less, giving a return of the profit from apples sold from the little orchard at Shepherdswell that lingered from the days before the EKR came. They were sold to staff at a profit of £14/4/3. I am sure the Colonel would have approved.
This article is an edited version of a series of articles that appeared in The Tenterden Terrier , House Magazine of the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
National Archives (PRO) papers particularly PRO AN13/1373, 1376 and 1377, AN 157 360-2,
RAIL 622, RAIL1057/191 and MT49 (the Geddes Papers)Railway Amalgamations in Great Britain,
W E Simnett, RG 1923Railway Gazette Parliamentary reports
Colonel Stephens Railway Museum Archive