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Train at Bishop's Castle in the 1930s
The Bishop's Castle Railway
Shropshire's had no shortage of failed railway lines, but the strangest of all is the Bishop's Castle line. Its 70 year history is peppered with financial blunders, bizarre incidents and bad luck.
The Bishop's Castle line's chequered history wasn't helped by the fact that the company set up to run it went bust within months of it opening, and the railway then spent 69 years in receivership!
The people of Bishop's Castle spent much of the great age of the railways watching Shropshire's other major towns getting brand new railways, while they missed out.
Bishop's Castle Station in its heyday
It all started in 1860 when Bishop's Castle's tradesmen met to hatch a plan for a new railway linking the town with the Shrewsbury to Hereford railway at Craven Arms.
It was an ambitious plan and was to be the first phase in a scheme to link Craven Arms with the Cambrian Railway at Montgomery.
Plans for a single track line were deposited later that year and the whole route was surveyed.
The Bishop's Castle Railway Company (BCR) was formed in June 1861. It proposed a railway linking the Oswestry & Newtown Railway at Montgomery with the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway at Wistanstow Halt, later to be called Stretford Bridge.
A branch via Lydham Heath made up the final link to Bishop's Castle.
Route of the BCR marked in red
The Bishop's Castle Railway Bill received Royal Assent on 28 June 1861. The line was to be 19 and a half miles long, stretching from Montgomery to Wistanstow, with a branch from Lydham Heath to Bishop's Castle.
This was the signal for final surveys and working plans to be completed and during 1862 the company started buying up land all along the route.
The contractor, Thomas Savin, was hired and work started in March 1863 but it didn't progress very far. Three years later Mr Savin went bankrupt.
The BCR took legal action to recover £20,500 already advanced and a new contractor, Mr G M Morris of Plowden, was appointed.
Mr Morris did a good and thorough job, even building the line and bridges wide enough to accommodate double tracks in case of later expansion, but such foresight was to be optimistic to say the least.
Train at Lydham Heath in May 1932
Work eventually started on 24 October 1864 on the Lydham Heath to Bishop's Castle section.
It was completed a year later but the BCR decided to start services without waiting for either the Government inspection of the line or the Montgomery extension.
According to Edward Griffith in his booklet, 'The Bishop's Castle Railway 1865-1935', passenger services began with a locomotive and 11 coaches probably borrowed from the Mid-Wales Railway for the occasion.
Bishop's Castle station had not yet been built but, despite this, large crowds turned out to see the locomotive carrying the inscriptions 'Better Late Than Never' and 'Long-Looked-For Come at Last' hauling the coaches laden with shareholders.
Trains often had to reverse into Bishop's Castle once they reached Lydham Heath. Extensions to the line to Montgomery and Minsterley were planned but never built. It has been speculated that the line could have been a success had these links been built.
Formal opening of the BCR came on 1 February 1866 when regular passenger services began. Initially there were four trains daily in each direction.
The fastest time for the 9½ mile journey between Bishop's Castle and Craven Arms was half an hour although many trains took up to 50 minutes for the journey - an average speed of about 12 miles per hour!
Passenger traffic remained light throughout the life of the BCR apart from the numerous excursions to local football clubs or the annual Shrewsbury Floral Fete.
On Friday, 11 May 1866, the Overend, Gurney and Co bank in London collapsed with debts totalling £11m, causing widespread panic.
The knock-on effects of 'Black Friday' were immense. Within three months 200 companies had gone under, and many small railways under construction were badly hit.
With money drying up and no investment to replace it, the BCR's plans for the extensions to Montgomery and Minsterley were dropped.
This proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the BCR. By the end of the year it was close to bankruptcy and, when creditors could not be satisfied, the company went bust.
Bailiffs were brought in with one at each terminus while a third accompanied the trains which continued to provide a service.
In January 1867 an auction was organised at the George Hotel, Shrewsbury, and many of the company's assets, totalling £880, were sold so that creditors could be paid.
The Bishop's Castle Railway remained in receivership for the next 68 years until its closure in 1935.
In February 1877 another crisis hit. The widow of a director began legal action against the company. She claimed her late husband had sold a parcel of land close to Horderley to the railway for £800 - but had never been paid.
She won her case, but when it was not settled by the BCR, an extraordinary state of affairs was to follow.
Workmen arrived at the piece of land and repossessed it. They removed one of the rails and built a fence across the track marking the boundary of the property.
As Horderley was the first station along the line from Craven Arms, this meant that most of the line was suddenly cut off from the rail network.
The makeshift solution was a shuttle rail service between Bishop's Castle and Horderley. At Horderley passengers had to get off their trains and continue by horse-drawn coaches to Craven Arms.
But it was only a temporary solution and before long Bishop's Castle ran short of coal and other supplies.
Lured to the pub
Desperate measures were needed and a 'council of war' was held in the back parlour of a Craven Arms inn.
Horderley Station, now a private house
According to an account in the Railway Magazine, two bailiffs who were guarding the track were lured to the Red Lion at Horderley where beer - cunningly tempered with gin - proved more comforting than keeping watch outside on a cold dark night.
No sooner had the bailiffs retired to the pub than a gang of men with lanterns crept onto the disputed land, put back the removed rail and took down the offending fence.
The all-clear was given and an engine quietly made its way along the tracks. When the bailiffs heard the train coming it was too late for action. Like a scene from an Ealing comedy, they rushed from the Red Lion, waving their lanterns in a desperate attempt to stop the train.
Although Bishop's Castle had been relieved, the event had not solved the BCR's problems. A meeting was held and a group of local people raised enough money to clear the debt.
On Monday, 2 July 1877, flags were hung in celebration once again in Bishop's Castle when the line re-opened. But in the years that followed, the line continued to struggle and several unsuccessful attempts were made to get the GWR to take it over.
By 1931 rumours of closure were rife.
A Railway Users Committee was formed to help the line but with road traffic, particularly buses, successfully competing there was little it could do.
Finally the receiver, who had been running the line for 70-odd years, decided that the line could not be made to pay and directed that on 20 April 1935 it would close completely.
It was the third branch line in Shropshire to close and a taste of things to come in the 1960s, when 15 lines went in the Beeching cuts.
Shortly before the Bishop's Castle Railway closed a train travelled the length of the line with just one passenger.
Eaton Station in need of repair
During a stop at Eaton, the passenger noted with regret that the time-table posters had been torn from the walls of the waiting room. When this was pointed out to the station-master, back came the reply, 'No, not torn off. The goats have eaten them'.
According to the Bishop's Castle Railway Museum, most of the rails, sold for scrap, eventually found their way to Cammel Laird shipyard in Birkenhead.
So effectively a piece of the Bishop's Castle Railway lies to this day on the bed of the South China Sea.
Today the line is remembered by the Bishop's Castle Railway Society.
In 1989, local enthusiasts clubbed together to open a museum commemorating the railway. A vast archive of documents including tickets, photographs and even crockery were collected.
But in October 2000 disaster struck, yet again, when fire swept through the building, destroying a third of the artefacts on display. It re-opened in 2002.
last updated: 29/10/2008 at 11:41