The Railway

Transporting coal from pit-head to harbour was a huge problem faced by the Lowthers. For decades pack horses and ponies were used to transport coal. In 1683 John Gale, the Lowthers steward, constructed a causeway from Woodagreen Pit to the harbour.

The track was made as level as possible, then timber was laid on which the wheels of carts would run. The horse drawn carts had to be then steered down the steep incline. Although the causeway was very primitive, it was effective and reduced transportation costs significantly. This method of transportation was the forerunner to today's railways.

In 1847 steam powered engines finally reached Whitehaven following an agreement between the Earl of Lonsdale and George Stephenson. Stephenson was the engineer placed in charge of the construction of the new railway line. The railway became known as the Whitehaven Junction Railway.

With the advent of the railway, the Lowca Engineering Company began to produce locomotives, 260 in total were produced - mainly sturdy engines which were used in the local mines. A famous engine produced by the company was the 'Baxter' which was used on the Bluebell Railway. Two engines produced by the company are still in use today on the Talyllyn Railway, Wales.

One of Lowca's most significant achievements was the construction of the first Crampton locomotive. T. R. Crampton had been trained as an engineer on Brunel's Great Western Railway, he devised a method of constructing engines that could be run on narrow gauge tracks with power equal to that of conventional locomotives. These narrow gauge engines did not prove to be popular, but they were an important step in the development of standard gauge railways.

The Whitehaven, Cleator and Egremont Railway was an English railway company which built and operated a standard gauge railway in Cumberland, England intended to open up the hematite orefield to the south-east of Whitehaven. It opened for goods traffic in 1855 and for passenger traffic in 1857.

A prospectus for the company promoting the railway was issued in December 1853. The line was to run for four and a half miles from a junction with the Whitehaven and Furness Junction Railway at Mirehouse, two miles south of Whitehaven to Egremont via Moor Row, and iron ore mines at Bigrigg and Woodend; a two-mile branch was to run from Moor Row to Frizington,[a] serving an ironworks in Cleator Moor, and assorted ore mines in the district. The line was supported by the principal landowners (including the Earl of Lonsdale) and was predicted to be highly profitable. It was claimed that five to six hundred carts were employed to transport over a hundred thousand tons of ore a year raised in the area the railway would serve to Whitehaven; because of this traffic, the yearly rent of the tollgate at Hensingham had increased from £820 a year to £2770 a year over the previous decade.

An act was obtained the following summer, and work promptly began on the Mirehouse-Frizington section; by December 1855 it was possible to run a trial train over this, particular attention being paid to the demonstration that trains could safely be stopped and started on the steep climb from Mirehouse to Moor Row. Opening for general mineral traffic followed in January 1856; the safety of the steep descent to Mirehouse being again insisted upon in a contemporary report: "This incline was descended at the rate of six miles per hour without the appliance of any break except to the engine. This is sufficient to set at rest any doubts which may have been entertained by any one respecting difficulty arising from the gradient on this section of the line."

The Egremont branch was sufficiently complete by May 1856 that the directors were taken on an inspection tour of the entire line but a Board of Trade inspection of the line in August 1856 insisted on better siding accommodation at the Whitehaven & Furness's Corkickle station and a more permanent arrangement with the W&FJR before passenger services could be authorised. The WC&ER contributed £2000 towards the required work and the agreement with the W&FJR was extended to ten years. Formal opening ceremonies took place 16 July 1857, but passenger services had been running since the start of the month. In the last week of July 1858, about 6,400 tons of ore were transported by the WC&ER, three-quarters of this being shipped to Wales through Whitehaven harbour, despite its inadequate provision for the export of ore. An embankment failed at Woodend in October 1858, an adjoining viaduct was then condemned because of mining subsidence and (January–February 1859) services on the Egremont branch terminated at Woodend whilst the suspect section of viaduct was replaced by an embankment. The railway was so profitable that it was decided to pay the £500 cost of this out of current revenue, which still allowed an interim dividend of 4% for the first half of 1859. In 1862, Frizington branch services terminated at Cleator, again because of subsidence.

The powers and authorised capital obtained by the 1854 allowed only very limited operations, and further acts were obtained; in 1857 increasing the capital (and hence authorised borrowing) of the company; in 1861 authorising the doubling of the line from Mirehouse to Frizington and (the shareholders having voted against its inclusion in the 1857 bill) a 'Lamplugh Extension' which did not run to the village of that name, but to Collier Yeat (near Rowrah) in Lamplugh parish. Passenger services on the extension began 1 February 1864; the WC&ER preferred to let new track bed down thoroughly under mineral traffic before seeking a Board of Trade inspection and mineral traffic over (part of) the extension had been running since 15 September 1862. Six hundred and thirty thousand tons of ore a year were now being hauled over a line projected on the basis of a hundred thousand tons a year and £20 shares of the WC&ER (regularly paying dividends of 10% or more) were traded at £50.

In 1863, an act was sought for extension of the Frizington branch to a junction with the Cockermouth and Workington Railway at Bridgefoot, thus removing the need for ore to be exported through the tunnel at Whitehaven; authorisation of deviation in the Cleator area to avoid subsidence was also sought. Objectors to the bill drew attention to the high mileage rates charged by the WC&ER and claimed the extension was being promoted primarily to protect the WC&ER's monopoly by preventing other companies accessing the orefield, but the WC&ER got its act. Mineral traffic over the Marron extension began 15 January 1866, it being claimed that it reduced carriage costs by 1s. 6d. per ton, compared to the route via Whitehaven: the line opened for passenger traffic 2 April 1866, but provision was limited, and the revenue from mineral traffic dwarfed that from passengers and parcels; the WCE&R "although chiefly a railway for the conveyance of iron ore, also holds itself out to carry passengers" was the comment of counsel for a passenger injured in an accident on the line. By 1871, mineral traffic on the Marron extension was so heavy that the directors thought it necessary to double the line.

Hearing of plans of the Whitehaven and Furness Junction to build a branch from Sellafield to Egremont to give a more convenient route for south-bound ore, the WC&ER took steps to promote a line of their own (to give a better basis for opposition to the W&FJR's project). An Act for the Sellafield-Egremont line (as the Cleator and Furness Railway - a joint line of the W&FJR and the WC&ER) was obtained in 1866.

Also in 1866 the W&FJR was absorbed by the Furness Railway, and the Cockermouth and Workington by the London and North Western Railway, but the WC&ER had suitable safeguards on tolls and powers inserted in the relevant Acts. An offer from the L&NWR to lease the WC&ER was rejected by the directors; the dividend having dropped to a mere 8% there were stormy scenes (and a motion for a committee of inquiry into the management of the railway) at the next half-yearly shareholders' meeting, a year later the dividend had recovered to its traditional 10%, and the shareholders' meeting passed off smoothly.

In February 1870, however, a shareholders' meeting voted for a committee of inquiry, passed a motion of no confidence in the board and called upon it to resign: this followed the admission that the company solicitor had been so dilatory in his completion of land purchases that the owners of land taken for construction of the original line some sixteen years ago had not yet received the purchase money, and were instead being paid interest at up to 10% per year on the sum owed them. The board did not resign, admitting to procrastination by the company solicitor, but pointing out that the effect on company finances (and in particular the dividend, which had averaged over 10%) had been minimal: instead they called another meeting to affirm confidence in the board. Although the meeting was again stormy the directors had exerted themselves sufficiently to gather enough proxies to reverse the earlier vote.

Many iron- and steel-works had set up in West Cumbria to be close to the orefield; their owners (faced with increased competition in the mid-1870s) thought the high dividends of the WC&ER indicated that its freight charges were too high; they were sufficiently united, determined, and able to secure local support, that their promotion of the Cleator and Workington Junction Railway obtained its parliamentary Act in 1876, despite the opposition of the WC&ER, the LNWR, and the Furness Railway. Since the choice of railway routing lay with the consignee, not the consignor, the C&WJR (the 'track of the ironmasters') was thought likely to take considerable traffic from the WC&ER, which therefore now accepted the LNWR's offer of amalgamation in return for a guaranteed 10% dividend. This alarmed both the C&WJR and the Furness, which now joined forces and both objected to the amalgamation Bill. The C&WJR came forward with a further Bill for extension to a junction with the Cleator and Furness at Egremont and with the Maryport and Carlisle at Dearham; the system was to be operated by the Furness (which supported the Bill). A compromise was reached between the LNWR, the Furness and the C&WJR, and the WC&ER amalgamation Act was obtained in June 1877 (the LNWR having to promise the ironmasters a significant reduction of the freight rates): as envisaged by the compromise, the C&WJR did not proceed with its extensions, and a further Act was passed the following year making the WC&ER system a joint line of the LNWR and the Furness. At the final shareholders' meeting of the company it was noted that the value of WC&ER £100 shares had been £170 before the intention to amalgamate had been announced; now that amalgamation was complete they were worth £230; by 1879 the Furness chairman was reporting a loss on the Furness's half-share of £9000 during the first half of the year because of the reduced freight rates and a downturn in the iron trade.

At the 1923 grouping, both the LNWR and the Furness Railway (and therefore also the WC&ER) were absorbed into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). The LMS became part of British Railways at nationalisation in 1948.

As mines closed, the branches serving them were closed. Passenger services over the system were withdrawn in the 1930s (northern arm 1931, southern arm 1935) The northern arm beyond a quarry at Rowrah was closed in 1954 (the track was lifted in 1964). After 1970, the southern arm was open only as far as the Florence iron ore mine at Egremont. British Steel ceased operations at the Rowrah quarry in 1978, and at Florence mine in 1980; complete closure of the line followed soon thereafter.

Whitehaven Steam Train
Whitehaven Steam Train On The Harbourside


Whitehaven had been small harbour and fishing village from 13th century or earlier. Expansion began in mid-17th century with building of piers by Lowthers 1632-4 and 1679-81 and granting of market charter 1660. By the 1680s it had grown rapidly, expanding from village of c.30 households in early 17th century to a town of over 1,000 inhabitants by 1685, which more than doubled to 2,281 by 1696. Sir John Lowther had laid out grid of streets by 1680s, making Whitehaven the earliest planned new town in post-medieval Britain.

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