Cambridgeshire, EnglandGenWeb Project - Railways

Cambridgeshire Railways


The county was well provided with railway communication to all parts of England. The lines mostly belonged to the Great Eastern and Great Northern sections of the London and North Eastern, including two trunk lines to London. Cambridge was a great railway centre, and communicated with London via Hitchin, by the Great Northern section, and through Essex and Herts by the Great Eastern section, and northward to Ely and March, which were also centres. The Great Eastern section had the principal lines in the county; one went from Cambridge eastward through Newmarket and Bury St. Edmunds to Haughley junction, where it joined the main line to Norwich and Ipswich; a second line leaving Cambridge ran north-east to Ely and Thetford, with a branch though Fordham and Mildenhall; another line ran from Newmarket to Ely, and thence to St. Ives and to March; and another from Cambridge to St. Ives. where it returned into the county to March and Wisbech; and from March a short line ran to Peterborough, connecting with the London, Midland and Scottish line.

There was a line from Cambridge to Hitchin on the great Northern section, and a line of the London, Midland and Scottish Company crossed the Great Northern section at Sandy, and through Bedford to Bletchley and Oxford.

The Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway ran from Peterborough through Thorney to Wisbech, Sutton Bridge and King's Lynn and then on throughout Norfolk, embracing Cromer, Norwich, Yarmouth and terminating at Lowestoft.

Cambridge Station

Early ideas included a line through to York, with a station on Jesus Green or the Latham Road area of Trumpington Road. The Great Northern wanted a station either near the Botanic Garden (New Museums Site), near Silver Street or in Emmanuel Road (Christ's Pieces). A Railway Act for Cambridge of 1844, 19 years after a line was proposed, established the first line (the Northern & Eastern Railway) and the station. The University ensured the Railway Act of 1844 included clauses granting the University officers powers over University personnel's use of the station and trains. It also banned arrivals between 10am and 5pm on Sundays. It is partly a myth, however, that the University forced the station to be in what was then open countryside, "far" from the centre. Practical engineering factors were at least as important in determining the location and in any case the rapidly-growing town soon reached the station. Siting it there avoided demolishing homes.

After years of wrangling, the Great Northern Railway reached agreement with the Great Eastern in 1864 to share the latter's track around Cambridge and to build a separate platform. By 1865 there were the following lines (as shown on the Ordnance Survey map electrotyped then):


Up to six railway companies operated in Cambridge station, which is why it has the longest platform in the country (twice the length of the longest one in Liverpool Street Station, for instance) and, until British Rail started redeveloping it, what was said to be the largest marshalling yard in East Anglia. Each company needed its own facilities.

A book for further reading is A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain - Volume 5 - Eastern Counties by D I Gordon and published by David & Charles in 1968. Sadly it is now out of print but the Cambridge extract has been copied here.

Great Northern Railway

Plans to build a railway between London and York were first proposed as early as 1827. Progress was slow and it was not until 1846 the campaign led by Edward Denison was successful and the London & York Bill was passed by Parliament.

Edward Denison became chairman of the Great Northern Railway and William Cubitt was appointed chief engineer. Denison's plans included a direct line from London via Peterborough and branches to Sheffield and Wakefield. The first section of the line, Louth to Grimsby, was opened in 1848. The following year services were operating between Peterborough and Doncaster.

The London terminus at King's Cross was completed in 1852 and by the following year the Great Northern Railway had access to Bradford, Cambridge, Leicester and Nottingham. In 1857 the Great Northern Railway began running express trains between London, Sheffield and Manchester. Other branch lines were opened and by 1860 the railway had reached all the main towns in West Yorkshire. The transport of coal from this area to London provided the Great Northern Railway with substantial revenues.

Edward Denison retired in 1864 and was replaced by Henry Oakley. He appointed F. P. Cockshott as his superintendent and under his direction, the railway gained a reputation for providing a very good service. By the early 1870s the Great Northern Railway was running more express trains than any of its main rivals.

Cambridge to Oxford Railway Line - Bedford & Cambridge section

This railway formed one of the few east-west routes across country, with the capability of reaching the east coast ports.

Its origins lie in plans and proposals to build railways between Bletchley and Bedford, Bedford and Cambridge, with the connections eventually being built to link Cambridge with Oxford - hence the "Universities Line". Robert Stephenson surveyed the routes between Bletchley and Bedford, and also between Bedford and Cambridge, in 1844/45. Had his recommendation been followed, the line would have run through Sandy, and then headed north easterly towards Tetworth and Waresley.

However, this scheme was abandoned, and only the Bedford to Bletchley route was built, which opened on November 17th 1846. In the 1850's William Henry Whitbread formed the Bedford & Cambridge Railway Company, and progressed an Act through Parliament.

In the meantime, Captain William Peel RN had already started to build his railway, from Potton to Sandy, in order to join up with the Great Northern Railway. This opened in 1857, and in 1862 was absorbed into the Bedford & Cambridge Railway, who were then able to use Peel's route instead of earlier proposals.

Stations were constructed at Gamlingay, 1 mile from the town, (after objections from the Old North Road's turnpike trustees), Old North Road (on the turnpike) and Lords Bridge (a stop for Lord Oxford, who was lord of the local manor). To the east of Sandy, stations were built at Blunham and Willington, on the way to Bedford.

The railway itself was operated by the London and North Western Railway, who from 1862 ran 5 trains per day each way, between Bedford and Cambridge, and one on Sundays. In 1938, there was an experimental service using the then "new" diesel-electric multiple units between Oxford and Cambridge. The war intervened, and the experiment discontinued.

By 1967, the line was operating diesel hauled trains. The railway survived the "Beeching axe" after the evaluation of Britain's railways in 1961 led to wholesale closure of many rural routes, as the good Dr Beeching (the report's author), recognised the potential growth of an East -West route to the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich. Alas British Railways thought differently, and the line was closed on 31st December 1967.

2nd June 1944 - Train Explosion - Station Road, Soham

On 2nd June 1944 four brave railwaymen saved the town of Soham from virtual destruction. Two died, one was critically injured and the fourth badly wounded in hospital after a successful and totally selfless attempt to save hundreds of lives.

On May 31st 1944 a consignment of bombs and components for the United States Air Force was taken off ship and on to sixty-one railway wagons at Immingham on the Humber, destined for White Colne, in Essex. This long train left Immingham Sidings at 2.55 a.m. On June 1st, travelling so slowly that it took seven hours to cover the eighty-nine miles to March in Cambridgeshire.

It arrived at March Yard, which was a subsiduary to the nearby marshalling yard at Whitemoor (where today stands the high security prison). Here the wagons were, as always, carefully inspected. The ten leading wagons were then detached to be worked forward by convenient services later, leaving the fifty-one wagons and the guard's van in Number One Siding Coal Yard. These remained in the yard for fourteen-and-a-half hours unaltered in formation until they left at 12.15 a.m. On Friday June 2nd as the delayed 11.40 p.m. (June Ist) train from Whitemoor to White Colne.

Forty-four of those wagons were laden with 250-pound and 500-pound bombs, unfused, amounting to approximately four hundred tons in all and another six with detonators and primers, fuses, wire release gear and bomb tail fins, all firmly stacked under tarpaulin sheets of low combustibility with the care that had prevented any major crisis in the transportation of weaponry on British railways throughout the war, one wagon remained empty.

This train was about 390 yards long and there were no gradients between March and Soham to unsettle such loads. For the four-and-three-quarter miles from Ely Dock Junction to Soham the line was, and is, single, while from Soham it was, and remains, double. The train stopped at Ely twice where observers saw nothing unusual aboard. All the Soham signals were clear for the train's approach when it was moving at between fifteen and twenty miles per hour with the engine steaming lightly along the level line. Then, a few yards beyond the Up signal, the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, noticed some steam issuing from the left-hand injector and looked out of his cab window and saw flames rising some eighteen inches from the bottom.

The flames were spread rapidly. The train was stopped some ninety yards short of the station platform ramps where the burning wagon was uncoupled from the rest. The burning wagon was then being towed away from the station into the countryside when it exploded killing jim Nightall, the fireman, and throwing the driver, Ben Gimbert, 200 yards away. This was about 1.43 a.m. Forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, had exploded as one, reducing the station to rubble.

The streets of Soham were littered with glass, shop goods were blown into the streets and the station was replaced by a crater fifteen feet deep and sixty-six feet across. Only a buffer and a socket casting were left of the wagon, the rest being driven downwards, there to stay so that the lines could be restored quickly at that time of acute national emergency. The tender was a twisted mass still attached to the engine which was wholly derailed yet received no serious structural damage other than to the cab, its light platework, boiler and cylinder lagging. The larger part of the train disconnected by Jim Nightall lethal in its content, was hit by no worse than minor splinters and thus the town of Sohain was saved from utter destruction by human courage beyond praise. So many of those who recalled the night for me would have been killed or badly maimed but for the self-sacrifice of those men.

The explosion from the burning truck started fires in the nearby gas holders. Fortunately by now there were many trained units on hand to deal with every problem. The Wardens and Home Guard were swiftly there tending the injured and comforting the rest and it was they who summoned the other services needed, all of them on wartime alert. The National Fire Service soon put out the fire at the gas works and they were soon joined by the Local Rescue and Ambulance Party reinforced by Royal Air Force ambulances, by lsleham Ambulance Party, Burwell Rescue Party, Fordham Red Cross Ambulance and Royal Air Force personnel from Snailwell and Newmarket.

For a more detailed description see the Soham On-line pages.

Railways & Researching - a snippet

Just thought I would pass along a little information about my great grandfather Francis Chapman who died as the result of an accident at Chesterton Station on the 13 November 1892. He had just returned from a special run to London arriving back at Chesterton a little after midnight. He was walking along the top of the coal in the tender car when the coal gave way and he fell to the ground breaking his neck.I received two copies of the inquest from different newspapers which was a great help in my family research. Having the information about the Cambridge railways is greatly appreciated. - Ron Chapman, Ontario, Canada - email: [email protected]

A Fall from an Engine

Early on Sunday morning, a very sad accident occurred in the yard of the Great Eastern Railway, at Cambridge, by which Francis Chapman, of Sedwick - Street, Romsey Town, lost his life. Chapman it appears, had been working a special from Lincoln to Newmarket, and got back again to Cambridge about one o'clock Sunday morning, when the engine was run into the yard. Deceased was proceeding to put some tools in a box on the tender, when it is conjectured he missed his footing by some means or other and fell. A mate of the deceased heard him cry out, and at once jumped from the engine, but found him apparently dead. Medical assistance was obtained, and it was ascertained that the deceased had broken his neck. Deceased, who leaves a widow and seven children was much respected by his fellow workmen.

The inquest was held on Tuesday afternoon, at the Union Workhouse, Mill - Road, before Mr. Gotobed. Mr. Henry Hardy was foreman of the jury. The Great Eastern Railway Company was represented by Mr. Henry Watson, district train inspector; Mr. Bright, stationmaster; and Mr. Mannoch, district locomotive foreman.

William Butler 33, Sturton - street, fireman on the Great Eastern Railway, said he had known the deceased for about 20 years, and thought his age would be 46 or 47. Deceased had been an engine driver for a number of years. On Sunday morning about 1:00 witness was lighting the fire on the engine, after coming in from Lincoln with a Newmarket special, when deceased got on the tender to place some tools in a box at the back. Hearing something fall, witness turned around and called out, "Is that you Frank, that fell ?" Witness got out the engine, as he received no answer, and found deceased bleeding from the nose. He lifted him up, and deceased never moved. In answer to his calls Frank Sheldrick, a coalman, in the employ of the company, came to the spot and he sent him to fetch something on which to carry him away. He left the body in charge of some men, and went for the foreman of the yard. On returning with the foreman, he found Chapman dying, and expired within a minute. He died within six minutes of the accident. Mr. King , surgeon was sent for, and on arriving pronounced life extinct. Witness thought deceased might have slipped on the coal, which wou'd be at height of about 11 feet from the ground. The engine was stationary at the time. It was a daily occurrence for men to go over the coal on the tender in this way. The night was not light, but there was sufficient light from the lamps for him to know where he was going. Deceased was a very temperate man.

Frank Sheldrick, 4 Argyle - Street, labourer on the Great Eastern Railway, stated that he knew Chapman. On Sunday morning, about one o'clock he heard Butler call out for help and he went to his assistance. Chapman was senseless, and made no signs or motions. Witness then went for an ambulance cart. The coals on the engine were not piled to a greater height than usual.

George Gardner, Cavendish - Road, acting shed foreman at the Great Eastern Railway Station said he knew the deceased as a steady, hard working man. He found the face of the deceased covered with blood, which was coming from nose, ears and mouth. Chapman was quite dead.

Simon Barker, coroner's officer, deposed to receiving certain articles found on deceased.


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Last Updated on: 16 March 2001
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