The Swindon & Highworth Light Railway - A History

Construction
A Note on Costs
Great Western Ownership
British Railways: Decline and Closure
The Branch Today


Construction

The Swindon & Highworth Light Railway Company came into existence on 21st June 1875. The House of Commons passed a Bill authorising the incorporation of the Company with authority to raise 28,000 by sale of shares and debenture stock. The S&H proposed to construct a single-track line with passing places at three stations. It would run from a junction with the Great Western Railway's main line 1 mile east of Swindon Junction station (1) to the town of Highworth, a further distance of 5 miles, 45 chains (2). It was agreed that the GWR would work and maintain the line for 10 years in return for 60% of the receipts. S&HLR trains were granted running powers from #8 box (to be renamed Highworth Junction) to Swindon.

There had been two earlier proposals to put Highworth on the railway map, one in 1845 and another in 1864. Both were speculative schemes and both failed from lack of local support. The S&H however comprised local interests and so had the support of what must have been a truly committed, if not fanatical, local land- and business-owning group.

Arthur C Pain (of Culm Valley fame) was appointed engineer, and a local firm, James Hinton and James Haynes were the contractors. A Highworth firm, Chick's, was responsible for other buildings, most notably Highworth goods shed and station master's house, both of which were built some time after the line opened.

Raising the capital to build the line was a slow and painful process and it was not until 6th March 1879 that the first sod was cut amid joyous celebrations in Highworth.

The line was built to light railway standards and suffered from lack of cash from the outset. Problems with unstable earthworks and construction delays at Stanton bridge caused serious setbacks in both time and cost. This over-bridge was a constant drain on funds and eventually it was abandoned and replaced by a level crossing (3). After further canvassing for local support sufficient cash was raised - just. The line was completed in mid-February 1881. The GWR then laid in the connection to the main line.

The line had taken three years to build and the final cost to the S&H was over 45,000.

However Colonal Yolland of the Board of Trade was not impressed. He inspected the line on 5th March 1881 and found fourteen serious faults with the line's construction that included ballast of insufficient depth, a complete lack of signal to point interlocking, no locking bars to the facing points and incomplete lineside fencing. There were numerous minor faults also.

The S&H was in serious trouble. It did not have the money to make these improvements and it could not raise any further cash having already trawled for additional capital for the escalating construction costs. The company had only one effective option, to sell out to the GWR. This was duly done at a special meeting in the GWR boardroom at Paddington station on 7th June 1882.

On this date the Swindon & Highworth Light Railway Company ceased to exist. In reality it could be said that it had never existed as a railway company as it never ran any trains and it never had a proper railway line, but a company it was and one that will not be forgotten.

A Note on Costs

It is worth reflecting that Arthur Pain's original estimate to build a light railway was 4,000 per mile, compared to an average of 12,900 for a conventional line. It was this enticing estimate that gave the promoters of the line the impetus to put their plans into reality in the first place. The estimate, however, proved to be woefully low. As a comparison the cost per mile for three similar local lines was:

Calne Railway 12,305 
Marlborough Railway 10,478 
East Gloucestershire Railway 16,000 (est)

The final cost of construction of the Highworth branch, including the GWR's essential improvements, raised the final bill to 14,340 per mile and then additional expense was incurred in later years when the deteriorating lightweight wooden bridges were replaced with concrete structures. However it is sobering also to realise that if these costs were known at the time of the line's promotion, it would almost certainly never have been built.

Great Western Ownership

The GWR lost no time in making all the required improvements, and more. A further 18,000 was spent in bringing the line up to the safety standards required by the Board of Trade and with the final bill amounting to 78,872 the line was passed as fit to carry members of the paying public on 30th April 1883. It was operated on a "one engine in steam" basis.

The first public passenger train ran on 9th May, again amid scenes of great celebration in Highworth. Details of services for the period the line is modelled, with timetables, are given in the Traffic Section. Essentially the character of the line's services for the 1917-1926 period was five or six passenger trains a day, with additional workmen's trains taking men to and from Swindon Works in the early morning and in the evening. Until the late 1920s mixed trains were run, usually mid morning and late evening. A daily pick up goods service supplemented the mixed trains, and by the mid 1920s, replaced them. For some years mixed and goods trains were run concurrently as traffic demanded. The goods service operated on an as required basis and some goods trains ran only to Stratton, the first (and busiest) station on the line (4). Photographs show this train sometimes comprised only 1 or 2 vehicles.

A milk train ran twice on Sundays, in the morning to drop off empty churns at each station and in the evening to collect them when full. This was normally an extra milk siphon or two added to a passenger train but occasionally it was a dedicated service consisting of two or three such vehicles sometimes strengthened by a converted passenger brake van.

There were two or three Saturday trains for Swindon workmen or shoppers, and for part of our period, a late night Swindon departure for theatre goers went to Highworth around 23:00, returning as an empty stock working.

During the Great War an ammonium nitrate works was built on the west side of the line just north of Highworth Junction (5). GWR locomotives worked trains in and out of the plant but it apparently also had it's own shunting engines that broke down incoming trains, moved wagons around the extensive site and assembled outbound trains. The plant closed in 1919 but it's sidings and buildings were re-used by more than one industry for many years. In the 1920s a dairy occupied part of the site, in the 1940s it became War Department Number Four Supply Reserve Depot, with part of the land used by the electronics and engineering company Plessey. Part of the site is in use by Cooper Bros. scrap metal dealers today.

Electric Train Token working was introduced in 1916 with a small "Stratton Factory Box" being set up to control the entrances to the ammonium nitrate works. This allowed two trains onto the branch for the first time, the relatively intense powder works traffic being able to enter and leave without having to wait for the regular branch train to trundle up and down the line.

In 1917 a siding was laid near Stanton Great Wood and timber was felled and sawn here to aid the war effort. This siding was served by special trains that were first drawn to Stratton. Here the locomotive ran around its train and then propelled the wagons to the siding which had only an up facing connection. This siding was lifted after the war (6).

In 1941 a longer siding was laid that left the branch at Kingsdown Road. This siding was in effect a branch off a branch. In 1942 it gained it's own signal box at what became known as Kingsdown Road Junction (7). The siding was officially named South Marston Siding but was more commonly known as the Vickers Branch. It served the Vickers Armstrong Aircraft Factory in South Marston where Spitfires were built (8). The branch terminated in three run-round loops and a series of sidings into the factory. There was a platform with an art deco style concrete shelter that was served by workers trains. Although this addition to the Highworth Branch falls outside our modelled period, we have included it as it adds operating interest.

With the extension to the Vickers Factory ETT working was re-introduced for the first time since 1919. Unlike the previous arrangement that provided only for access to the works at the lower end of the line, the creation of two block posts between Highworth Junction and Kingsdown and from Kingsdown to Highworth station allowed proper multi-train working over the branch.

All freight turns on the line commenced and ended at Swindon Transfer Yard which was sited on the south side of the main line just west of Highworth Junction (9). All goods trains gained access to the branch across both London to Bristol main lines. In normal circumstances this was not a problem but in the Second World War, and particularly in the summer of 1944 when military traffic on the railways was at it's most intense, Highworth trains could be delayed for up to an hour coming off the branch. During this period the disruption to services was so bad that train crews more or less disregarded the timetable and as a result many passengers sought alternative means of travel, never to return.

Passenger and workmen's trains ran to number seven bay platform at the east end of Swindon Junction station (10). The position of this bay is still discernible today. For a period prior to the Great War some workmen's trains ran to and from a temporary wooden platform west of Swindon station called Loco Yard Platform from which the men could disperse to the various parts of the works by the internal subways (11). This practice was discontinued during the war.

There were four stations on the line. In the order in which a train reached them from Swindon, these were Stratton, Stanton, Hannington (12) and Highworth. Each had a passing loop and two sidings, except Hannington which had a single siding, and Stanton which had no loop at all. It's two sidings faced in the down direction and were shunted by Highworth bound trains.

The line was never prosperous. Traffic levels remained relatively constant, with even some slight growth from the 1890s to the 1920s. In the early 1930s competition from road transport, particularly buses, was first felt. The General Strike of May 1926 hit the line hard and no trains ran for ten days. This was enough for some local businesses to seek alternative means of transport and some traffic never returned to the line. After the Second World War the rise in more efficient road transport, particularly private motor cars, spelled the effective end of the line. Paradoxically while the line's original intent was to bring trade to Highworth, in fact it took it away as the local men mostly worked at Swindon Works and the main direction of passenger traffic was to Swindon, for workmen, shoppers, entertainment and Swindon market. Few came to Highworth to shop or do trade and so the line injected little capital into the town.

Freight was mostly incoming, principally household coal with some general goods. Most goods wagons were empty on the run back to Swindon. The biggest outgoing traffic generated by the line was milk. A number of specific industries at Highworth and Stratton brought traffic to the line and these are discussed in the Traffic Section. Occasional livestock was shipped out from the market at Highworth. The Highworth monthly livestock market was the most ancient in Wiltshire, having been granted a charter by King Henry III in 1257 (13). The market suffered greatly in the Civil War and had been in decline since the 1650s. There was a minor revival in the last decade of the nineteenth century that lasted until the Great War and the railway provided a market train that ran once a month on Wednesdays.

After the brief Indian summer of the war period, the 1920s saw the market decline. A foot and mouth outbreak in 1923 and the sale for the first time of a Ford motor car at the February market (for the princely sum of 40) indicated two potentially fatal future trends. The market was held intermittently until September 1926. In December that year a further and more serious outbreak of foot and mouth prevented all livestock movement in north Wiltshire and Berkshire and the market closed for good.

Due to the prosperity just prior to the Great War, plans were drawn up to lay a third siding at Highworth that ran to the south of and parallel to the coal siding that would have had a capacity of 16 wagons. This work was apparently cancelled after the war began. Hannington did however have it's single siding extended to 350 yards length. Since the buffer stop end of the siding was against the embankment that carried Snell Bridge across the line, this extension involved lengthening the platform loop road and relaying the siding turnout further east. The small station at Stanton had one of its sidings lifted in September 1926 and was downgraded to an unstaffed halt in 1949. Hannington too became unstaffed at the same time.

British Railways: Decline and Closure

After World War Two, passenger and freight traffic other than the workmen's trains declined steadily. At the end of the war the Vickers factory cut back it's workforce and workmen's trains ceased to serve the plant although freight trains continued. Advertised public passenger services were withdrawn in February 1953. Only small numbers of local people turned out in the evening of Saturday 28th to wave farewell to the last train. This was more pathetic than moving and the quiet way in which the public turned it's back on the line said more about their attitude to their local railway than to any faceless cost cutting by British Railways. One cannot help wondering how the line's promoters would have reacted to this news, determined and tenacious men every one of them, had they been alive to hear it. The branch continued as a freight-only line plus the twice-daily workmen's trains. Ironically as the upper end of the branch slowly died, its lower end became much more active. The increasing need for siding space at Swindon resulted in several groups of sidings being laid at the old nitrate plant site, where the Plessey company set up a works as well as on the opposite or east side of the line. Here a Leyland Motor Works was built to take advantage of the excellent main line connection (14). Today this is the BMW Group plant, and it still uses its rail connection.

However the cost of services to the upper parts of the branch could no longer be justified. The Swindon workmen travelled free and there was hardly any freight going by rail over such a short distance. The line was closed above Kingsdown Road Junction (about 2 miles along the branch) on 6th August 1962. The final workmen's train had run to Highworth on the rainy evening of the previous Friday, 3rd August. It was hauled by 03 class diesel mechanical locomotive number D2182, the only class of diesel light enough to be permitted along the full length of the branch.

Freight workings at the lower end of the line continued sporadically and there is a photograph showing class 08 diesel electric No. D4112 taking a single van from the Vickers works through Stratton station in 1964.

The Branch Today

The stump of the Highworth Branch still exists to serve fans of storage sidings and the BMW plant that was formerly Rover, formerly British Leyland. Swindon has expanded greatly and the site of Stratton Station, depicted in open fields in our model, has now disappeared under modern light industry and is surrounded by 1930s housing estates. The town has grown north east toward the new A419 Swindon East bypass.

Highworth Station has also disappeared under modern dormitory housing that has swollen the small town three or four-fold in size since the 1920s. The alignment of the station site can still be traced from Station Road down the new development called Windrush. The site of Hannington station is clear of development and the platform is in place. It is now a dump for agricultural refuse but easily accessible and worth a visit. Stanton's site is easily found, the level crossing south of it marking the boundary but the site is now a private house and garden so, unlike Hannington, access is not possible. Most of the line can still be traced, and easily walked, as can part of the Vickers Branch.

The old brick buildings of the nitrate works were demolished in the 1970s when the site was redeveloped as an industrial estate. The site of Swindon Transfer Yard is accessible, the modern brick building on the site of the shed is now a suite of offices and light industries. Immediately south of the Transfer Shed the site of the Imperial Tobacco Factory is now a DIY store.

Notes

The following are Ordnance Survey grid references, all taken from 100,000m grid square SU, and traceable on Landranger 1:50,000 sheet 173 or Explorer / Pathfinder 1:25,000 sheet 169.

  1. Highworth Junction: 164859
  2. Highworth station: 197925
  3. Stanton bridge/level crossing immediately adjacent and south of Stanton station: 174906
  4. Stratton station: 170876
  5. Ammonium nitrate works (1915-1919): 166865
  6. Government timber siding (1917-1919): 173902
  7. Kingsdown Road Junction (laid 1941): 176889
  8. Vickers factory (built 1939): 182892
  9. Swindon Goods Transfer Yard: 160856
  10. Swindon Junction station, no.7 bay platform: 150853
  11. Swindon workmens platform "Loco Yard" (1894-1915): 144851
  12. Hannington station: 183919
  13. Highworth market square: 200925
  14. Leyland motor works: 167864
  15. Imperial Tobacco Factory: 160855