The railway line to Thornbury was opened in 1872 after many delays and difficulties. The line went to Tytherington and on to Yate. The photograph above shows Thornbury station and in the distance the houses at the top of the High Street. The line always seemed to struggle to be viable economically and closed to passengers in 1944. It ceased coal and freight traffic on 20th June 1966. This is the story of the long and difficult process of planning and building the railway.
A public meeting in October 1863, presided over by Mr H H Lloyd, the Mayor, had been convened to discuss linking the town with a railway line from Bristol via a junction at either Patchway or Pilning. The former route was steep and tunnels were necessary; the latter along the marsh was cheaper and more easily constructed. The Midland Railway had already talked about a link for 10 years but nothing had been done.
There were many locally who were resistant to the idea of a railway at all. Sir George Jenkinson said that objections had been raised on the grounds that a railway would be prejudicial to hunting. Although he himself was fond of hunting, he was prepared to balance that against the general good. Sir George Banks Jenkinson was a major property owner and his family lived at Eastwood Park.
In early November 1863 another meeting was held, this time at The Swan Hotel in the High Street, to promote the project of a railway line to Thornbury. This time there were five different possibilities being investigated by the South Wales Union Railway.
- The Grovesend line of 7.5 miles which would cost £58,400 – if the line could be built without a tunnel
- The same line via Grovesend with the tunnel which would cost £90,000. Both of these lines would present problems because of the steep gradient.
- Priest’s-pool line which would run 6.5 miles and cost £35,000
- The Ship line 6.25 miles to Bull’s Lane which would cost £90,000
- The Greenhill line 6.25 miles which would cost £110,000. This line it was said would present difficulties as it was “an awkward country, and would interfere with good property.”
None of these estimates included the cost of acquiring the land, the stations, or the parliamentary and legal expenses. The routes appear to be linking either Grovesend to Thornbury where the railway is now or coming through Alveston (hence the references to the Ship and Greenhill). This is a steeper route and so the costs would have been greater and the land appears to have been more valuable.
The report of the discussion at this meeting shows how many aspects there were to these plans and gives an indication of why so little was actually achieved. It was clear from the surveys alone that the geography of Thornbury would be a problem – it was at the bottom of a hill and trains could not cope with hills. The report of the survey also alludes to another issue; the people with the most influence in the town owned the surrounding land and obviously some did not want the line to be built at any cost and others would want a lot of compensation – the line had somehow to avoid “good property.” It becomes clear in this account of the meeting that one of the most staunch objectors was Mr Howard (this would be Henry Howard, Lord of the Manor and the major landowner on the area). However Mr J. Crowther Gwynn defended Mr Howard, saying that he had only been given a rough sketch of a plan which showed that the line would go through eight or ten of his meadows, a portion of his park and would run three-quarters of a mile through his property.
The other complication was in the nature of the railways at this time. This was before nationalisation and there were many railway companies competing against each other and they all had shareholders to consider. The Great Western Railway Company would be willing to work the line from Pilning to Thornbury at 55% of the gross receipts. The Union Railway Company had also expressed an interest and would assist the new railway to the extent of £5,000 (possibly even £10,000 and would be willing to charge for 14 miles of rail in their fares to Bristol instead of 16 miles which would be the true fare. The Midland Railway had also expressed an interest but had not yet made an offer.
The first speaker, Sir George Jenkinson, declared that he had nothing to gain personally and so claimed to be impartial. He seemed to be very hostile to the Midland Railway Company which admittedly was being rather slow to commit itself to a proposal and he drew the meeting’s attention to yet another factor in this decision – the various railway companies used different gauge track!
Great Western Railway which was engineered by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel favoured broad gauge track which was seven feet and one quarter inch wide. Midland Railway used the standard gauge of four feet and eight and half inches.
This discussion took place at an interesting time. The “gauge wars” were still being fought by the different railway companies. At this time (1863) there were actually more miles of broad gauge track than there were of the standard narrower gauge. It was a battle that the Great Western Company was already beginning to lose and by the mid 1870s standard gauge and mixed gauge track were being used even in the West of England which was the heartland of the Great Western and broad gauge. However at this time it was felt that if the committee accepted a proposal backed by the Great Western Company the train could run from Thornbury all the way to London because the gauge would be the same. The Midland Railway Company used a narrower gauge and so there would have to be a break somewhere for a change over.
The meeting seemed to come close to accepting to pledging its support for the project for a line from Pilning via Priest’s pool to “some point in Kington Lane” providing that the South Wales Union Railway pledged £10,000 towards the costs and this proposal was made and seconded. However a statement made by Mr Owen seems to have swayed the mood of the meeting.
Mr Owen was manager of the Frampton Iron Mines and he was a supporter of a scheme that involved Midland Railway. This scheme would link his mines to Yate and Mr Owen said the mineral traffic alone would make the line profitable. The meeting at first seemed doubtful about this because it is not clear why the line would then need to go on from Yate to Thornbury. Mr Owen claimed because the line would be profitable the Midland Railway Company had offered only the other day to make the line at their own cost. This statement received applause, even though the problem of why the company would even consider extending the line to Thornbury was never actually addressed.
The meeting ended with a resolution to adjourn until the Midland Railway Company had met and determined a scheme that could be laid before the inhabitants of Thornbury.