A SHORT HISTORY OF THE LYNN & DEREHAM RAILWAY
[Source: Glen Kilday]
In the early 1840s, as ‘Railway Mania’ gripped Great Britain, East Anglia saw the promotion of many small unco-ordinated railway schemes, as did many parts of the country. Most of these lines were floated recklessly with no attempt to consider need for them or their long-term viability.
Around the town we now call King’s Lynn, which the Victorians generally referred to simply as Lynn, several such railway schemes were put forward. These included the Lynn & Ely, Lynn & Dereham, Lynn & Huntingdon and the Lynn & Fakenham Railways. Just a little further afield schemes to link Ely and Huntingdon, Wells-next-the-Sea and Thetford and lines to Newmarket and Bury St Edmonds were proposed. Note - King’s Lynn is referred to as Lynn, Wells-next-the-Sea as Wells and Bury St.Edmonds as Bury throughout this history.
So far as Lynn is concerned one of the earliest schemes to make progress was the 25 mile Lynn & Ely, forming an important link from Lynn and its busy harbour to a junction with the Eastern Counties Railway at Ely. The company’s Act was passed on 30 June 1845 with an authorised capital of £300,000, such a large sum necessary because of the boggy nature of the land to be crossed.
Speculators saw Lynn as an important town and port along routes that might soon join the prosperous towns of the Midlands and North with Norfolk and Suffolk’s sea-ports and provide access to agricultural produce and North Sea fisheries. A local solicitor, JC Williams, had ‘a finger in many pies’ in this regard and used his extensive contacts to promote his schemes. He played a significant role in promotion of the Lynn & Dereham, a company very closely linked to one of his other interests, the Lynn & Ely. The plan, or perhaps more accurately hope, was to extend such a line east towards Norwich and westwards to Nottingham and Manchester. Wild claims were laid before investors and locals as to how much essentials like coal would fall in price in places such as Swaffham should the railway open.
A Bill went to Parliament early in 1845 and, receiving little real opposition, passed through Commons and Lords to obtain Royal Assent on 21 July 1845. Twenty-six miles in length, its capital was £270,000, a sum that was reported as quickly subscribed. There was, however, a problem afoot. The Norwich & Brandon Railway, building westwards from the regional centre, sought permission to vary its consent to build a branch from Wymondham to East Dereham, the proper name for the town generally called Dereham. Fiercely opposed by the Lynn & Dereham company who saw it as a spoiler for its ambitions to reach Norwich, the line was just as strenuously supported by communities along its route. The battle was played out in Parliament and, on 31 July 1845 and the scheme, now part of the Norfolk Railway company, was granted Royal Assent.
The board of the Lynn & Dereham lost little time in getting started on their project. The route posed few engineering obstacles. It headed nine miles east from Lynn across flat land as far as Narborough after which the builders had to cross a ridge of higher land around Swaffham, where deep cuttings and high embankments would be needed, before completing the twenty-six mile railway to Dereham. Overseeing the work was entrusted to John Sutherland Valentine, a thirty-two year old engineer from Derbyshire, who was tasked with simultaneous construction of the Lynn & Ely and the Lynn & Dereham lines using iron rails supplied by Bailey Brothers and consigned by sea from Liverpool. A local builder, Walker, made good time as far as Narborough but Valentine had to inform the Board that he had been unable to find engineers and draughtsmen, such was the demand given the number of railway and industrial projects under construction, slowing progress on scoping the remaining distance.
The section from Lynn to Narborough was ready for traffic on 27 October 1846: the Ely line was also complete as far as Downham. On 26 October the directors took an excursion over both lines, enjoying a formal luncheon at Lynn between trips. In the afternoon they and two hundred guests went to Narborough where they enjoyed a substantial ‘cold collation’.
In 1846 and 1847 financial crisis gripped Great Britain, caused by successive crop failures. Many railway schemes were shelved and revenues for the Lynn routes, like others, became drastically reduced.
On 22 July 1847 the Lynn & Ely, Lynn & Dereham and Ely & Huntingdon Railways wisely merged to form East Anglian Railways. It was in financial difficulty from the start and had to face the prospect of completing its projects from limited resources. The Dereham railway was completed to a temporary terminus at Sporle, east of Swaffham, on 26 October 1847.
Meanwhile the newly formed Norfolk Railway made fast progress from Wymondham and opened its line to Dereham, to the chagrin of the Lynn directors, for goods traffic on 7 December 1846 and to passengers on 15 February 1847. It was not until 11 September 1848 that the Lynn & Dereham company’s first train entered Dereham, almost certainly to a separate station about three hundred yards from the Norfolk Railway’s facility. The L & D’ s own station appears to have been very short-lived, a junction was created with the Norfolk Railway and both company’s trains began to use a shared station. Please refer to our online page ‘Dereham (East Anglian Railway)’ for much more information about the L & D’s Dereham station.
The Lynn & Dereham had acquired a fleet of ten locomotives, eight of them light-weight 2-2-2s and two 0-4-2 goods engines, all from Sharpe Brothers of Manchester. All were housed at Lynn, hauling an assortment of coaches and trucks built both locally and by more distant manufacturers.
The railway’s stations, largely built in combinations of local flint and brick, reflected a mock ‘Tudor-Gothic’ style, their designs differing in considerable detail one from another. Swaffham’s station, perhaps reflecting the larger town’s standing, was a grander and more ornamental building. Valentine apparently skimped on operational buildings, constructing engine sheds as simple wooden structures. There were no signal boxes provided: simple signals were operated by station staff. The line was of iron rail resting on Ransome and May’s patent chairs, also of iron, fastened to sleepers by two bolts each. The Great Eastern Railway later provided signal boxes on the route and rebuilt the line with steel rail.
Swaffham engine shed was built on an embankment above Northwell Pool. Access to the shed was gained from a turntable. In this 1904 photograph it appears that a driver has selected reverse instead of forward when leaving the turntable on the way to the station or has failed to stop on the way to the shed! The locomotive is a Great Eastern 2-4-0..
In working the line engine-men faced only one gradient worthy of note, a short stretch at 1 in 100, probably a good thing given the diminutive size of their motive power! At the start traffic was thin and no more than four daily trains plied the route each way. With hardly any passenger traffic forthcoming most trains were ‘mixed’ with coal and produce wagons running in the same consist as passenger vehicles.
There were nine intermediate stations on the route, serving, with the exception of market-town Swaffham, small rural communities. The stations at Bilney and Scarning and the temporary terminus at Sporle did not survive for long. Stanley C. Jenkins, in his book about the railway, asserts their demise somewhere in the late 1860s. Scarning was not in Bradshaw by the early 1850s. Both Bilney and Sporle appear in the 1866 timetable: neither was present in the 1882 book. The line was single throughout with passing places at East Winch, Narborough (later called Norborough and Pentney), Swaffham, Wendling and Dunham stations.
The story of railway development in East Anglia is one of financial hardship, amalgamation and take-over. After trying and failing to arrange a sustainable deal with the Great Northern Railway, the former Lynn & Dereham line, now itself part of East Anglian Railways, was leased to the much larger and generally hated Eastern Counties Railway (ECR) with effect from 1 January 1852. The ECR was already working the Norfolk Railway and its acquisition of the line allowed for better co-operation at Dereham, with through working to Norwich and the coast now more readily available. By 1862 the ECR had rounded up other smaller concerns and an Act finalised on 7 August 1862 formed the Great Eastern Railway (GER), making the Lynn & Dereham just one small part of a 700 mile system.
In 1869 the completion of the Thetford to Swaffham line offered the Lynn to Dereham route opportunities to increase traffic. The new line remained independent until 1879 when the GER leased it, absorbing its two constituent companies in 1897.
The amalgamation of many smaller railways into the Eastern & Midlands Railway, itself re-born as the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway (MGNJ) in 1893, brought about through routes from Midland cities all the way to the East Anglian coastal towns. This had the effect of smashing the GER’s stranglehold on East Anglian transport and by-passing the Lynn & Dereham line. It caused the GER to improve its own routes to counter the competition. However, there was co-operation too, notably for this study completion of a new terminus at Lynn, used by GER and MGNR trains. At Dereham the line from Lynn came in over a trailing junction with the Wymondham line meaning that trains for Norwich and the coast had to reverse. As part of its efforts to wrest trade from the MGNR upstart the GER constructed a double-track curve directly from the Lynn line to the Wymondham and Norwich route, creating junctions at Dereham West and Dereham South where new signal boxes, recently built, were used to control traffic for the cut-off. Whilst this new line by-passed the important town of Dereham it offered through running between East Anglia’s two largest settlements. In practice passenger operations changed little with the two routes continuing to interchange at Dereham. Goods traffic, passenger excursions, holiday trains and even diverted main line trains benefitted.
An examination of timetables in force from time to time suggests that passenger traffic was never heavy. In 1866 just four weekday trains were offered in each direction. Up trains left Dereham at 8.05am (this train stopped only at Swaffham), 9.52am, 1.30pm and 4.20pm. In the Down direction Lynn departures were at 9.00am, 12.02pm, 5.05pm and 7.27pm, the last stopping only at Swaffham. The expresses in each direction ran to and from Peterborough. On Saturdays a special all-stations market train left Lynn at 7.50am for Norwich. The return special ran only from Dereham leaving there after the arrival of the 5.20pm from Norwich. A footnote to the table indicates that trains would call at Middleton, East Winch, Bilney, Fransham and Wendling upon request only, passengers to inform the guard at the previous station to alight and to arrive at their station five minutes early to board. This suggests that, even so soon after opening, few passengers availed themselves of the train service at the smaller settlements along the way. Sunday trains were at 1.20pm Up and 7.12pm Down.
By 1882 patterns had changed. The Great Eastern was working the independent Watton and Thetford line and one through train from Lynn to Thetford, going forward to Bury except on Mondays, showed in the table. It left Lynn at 6.55am on Mondays and at 8.05am on other weekdays. On Saturdays it appears that the carriages forming the Norwich Market train were combined with the Bury train as far as Swaffham. Other Down trains left at 8.53am, 12.32pm, 3.12pm, 4.40pm (this limited stops), 8.25pm on Tuesdays (Market Day in Lynn) and 8.45pm on Mondays. On Wednesdays a Mixed ran from Swaffham to Dereham at 8.50pm. A special footnote stated that the 4.40pm express would carry ‘hunting horses’ from Swaffham to Dereham. Up departures from Dereham were at 7.51am on Tuesdays, running as a Mixed on other days at 8.02am, an express followed at 9.40am. A 10.18am train was a Parliamentary running through to St. Pancras and Liverpool Street and an 11.03, Tuesdays only, took passengers to Lynn Market. Afternoon trains were at 1.45pm, 4.18pm and 6.58pm. The returning Bury and Thetford working left Swaffham at 8.45pm for Lynn, ten minutes later on Tuesdays allowing for crossing the 8.25pm Down train at Swaffham. Sunday trains had gone from the schedules. Incidentally, there is no indication as to how the hunting horses reached Swaffham!
Following grouping of the railways in 1923 the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) expanded the destinations that might be reached on through trains though, oddly, did so to a greater extent with up services than with down trains. In 1932 Dereham’s 7.22am departure travelled to March; that at 9.06am started back at Yarmouth Vauxhall, ending its trip at Peterborough North. The 11.33 am and 1.32pm (Tuesday only) and 7.33pm simply plied only the Lynn & Dereham line, whilst a 2.02pm train ex-Dereham ran from Norwich to Lynn as did the Saturdays 4.47pm. The longest journey taking this route left Dereham at 4.16pm but had originated at Yarmouth Vauxhall more than two hours earlier and ran through to Doncaster Central. The down Working Timetable for 1932 shows six trains on all weekdays plus Lynn departures for Norwich on Saturdays at 10.23am and at 3.30pm on Tuesdays (worked by a Sentinel Steam Railcar), reflecting the Market Days in Norwich and Lynn. Curiously, only the 8.50pm ex-Lynn is identified as starting back, this one at Peterborough North. The March and Doncaster through workings are absent. The Operating Department’s planners made little effort to offer any meaningful connections, in either direction, at Swaffham for the Watton and Thetford line. Only at around 9.30am might passengers avoid a long wait at Swaffham to continue their journey.
The same tables show several goods trains using the route, mainly ‘pick-up’ trains. Daily goods trains on the Swaffham to Thetford line were worked from King’s Lynn and terminated at Roudham Junction.
The War years brought a reduction in public passenger trains to four each way. But, particularly after the end of 1942, the gigantic effort to build and operate air-fields, many for use by arriving American forces, brought huge amounts of goods traffic to the line. The Lynn & Dereham, together with the Thetford branch, had airfields nearby, but not all directly beside the railway, at Swanton Morley, Marham, North Pickenham, Shipdam, Wendling and Watton. As construction traffic waned the need to transport armaments and personnel dramatically increased and special trains came from far and wide to stations in East Anglia.
The steam era, so far as passenger traffic is concerned, ended at the close of the summer timetable in 1955. In the LNER years many of the older GER locomotives were taken out of service. In the latter years of the LNER and after Nationalisation the principal classes in use were D16 4-4-0s, E4 2-4-0s, and J15 and J17 0-6-0s. ‘Interlopers’ from other pre-Grouping railways included N7 0-6-2 and C12 4-4-2 tank classes. In the 1950s ex-LMS Ivatt Class 4 2-6-0s appeared on excursion and holiday season trains. Lynn engine shed closed to steam in 1959. Probably the last steam train to traverse the line between Lynn, Dereham and Thetford was a J17 0-6-0 heading a Railway Correspondence and Travel Society special on 31 March 1962, four days before Norwich shed closed to steam.
The last train, a Metro-Cammell 79xxx DMU, crossing the A47 at Scarning on 7 September 1968. The bridge was demolished in April 1970.
East Anglia was amongst the first regions to receive DMUs into traffic. Derby-built ’light-weight’ and Metropolitan Cammell 2-car units, working out of Dereham, took over all services in the autumn of 1955. Passengers immediately benefitted from an increased service on the Lynn & Dereham with twelve through trains (weekdays only) and one more available by changing at Swaffham. One train each way was a Norwich service. Despite the efforts at modernisation the government of the day had little interest in the railway. The MGNR lines closed, almost entirely, in 1959 and the Beeching Report set the seal on wholesale closures of many East Anglian branch lines in the mid and late 1960s. The Thetford branch closed to passengers on 14 June 1964 and to goods a year later. In 1966 all the line’s intermediate stations became unstaffed halts and, finally, most of the line closed on 7 September 1968. The section between Lynn and Middleton Towers was retained for freight traffic from the extensive high-grade sand quarry.
D5520 seen ready to leave Middleton Towers with a sand train circa early 1970.
The Middleton Quarry shunter seen during a visit to Middleton Towers by the Fakenham & Dereham Railway Society's West Norfolk Freight Lines Railtour on 29 March 1980.
The line remains open in 2018 and terminates where a loading gantry spans the line on a run-round loop a few hundred yards east of Middleton Towers station. The Working Timetable (WTT) shows several paths available for freight trains. In the early hours of Tuesday provision is made for a track-testing train to run along the line and back. 3Q65 is a ‘Q’ (runs when required) train and starts from Derby Network Rail Yard. It leaves King’s Lynn (as the table now identifies the town) at 01.31 and reverses at Middleton Towers between 02.01 and 02.11. It reverses again at King’s Lynn and sets off for Cambridge Network Rail yard.
6L85, minerals empties, arrives from Arpley Sidings at Warrington at 09.26 on Saturdays and at 10.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The full working is 6M88 bound for Ince and Elton, near Warrington, leaving at 10.40 on Saturdays and 14.35 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other trains run as required to glass manufacturers in South Yorkshire and the North-West.
Route map dawn by Alan Young.
See stations on the Lynn - Dereham line: Middleton Towers, East Winch, Pentney & Bilney, Narborough & Pentney, Swaffham, Sporle, Dunham, Fransham, Wendling, Scarning & Dereham (EAR Station)