The Sheppey Light Railway

30 years after the opening of the Sittingbourne to Sheerness railway there was a need for another link connecting Leysdown and other outlying villages on the Isle of Sheppey to the main line at Queenborough, the majority of the roads on the island were primitive dirt tracks that were dry and dusty in the summer and clogged with wet mud in the winter, greatly hindering the transportation of produce and other goods to the farming communities and villagers on the island. At the time there were two van services providing the islanders with transportation, they ran once a day (except for Sundays) from Eastchurch. They were owned by John Pankhurst and William Grant.

The construction of the railway from Queenborough to Leysdown was estimated at a cost of £43,852. This was advertised in the Sheerness Guardian and soon after Mr John Copland, representing the Rural District Council, suggested a slight change to the plans. He suggested the original positioning of the junction of the LC & DR railway at Queenborough was moved to the North of the station before heading close to Sheerness and off towards Minster. The plan was approved and another £8,571 was added to the estimate.

A public enquiry was held on the 21st April 1898 at Queenborough Town Hall, Holman Stephens, the Engineer in charge of the building of the railway gave a description of the proposed construction.

“The line at present will have a junction on the East side of the Queenborough goods station; then run North-East towards a house called Sheppey Court, where it will cross a road leading from Sheerness to Minster. We hope to have a gate-house and a station there. The line will run under the hill and cross the road at a point below Harp’s Farm. The train can be seen coming within half-a-mile within each corner. A station will be on the road near Borstal Hall, this being the nearest spot to the village of Minster. We then go on to Brambledown, New Hook, Stamford Hill, White House, New Rides and terminate at a point close to Leysdown Coastguard station. The line will be laid to enable the ordinary traffic to pass over. I may add that we intend to provide shelter at all the stations”.

Mr Penney from Sheerness and Isle of Sheppey Chamber of Commerce voiced another suggestion regarding the proposals, he argued that the line should run to Sheerness Dockyard Station. This point was argued and it was agreed that the proposals would remain as they were. Mr Stephens then went on to explain the intended speed of the train was to be 35mph with the gate-houses to be attended by the wives of the men employed on the light railway. During the time of the proposals a man named MR Barton Hallett spoke of his intention to transform Leysdown into a seaside resort, but this transformation never happened during the light railway’s lifetime. Lord Jersey, during the summing up, accepted there was an evident desire for the service and that the Commissioners would recommend the works to be ordered by the Board of Trade. Authorisation was given the following year on the 3rd May 1899 although there were a few amendments to the proposals. The trains were not to exceed 25mph and slow down to 10mph at crossings, with fares to be not more than 3d per mile for first class, 2d a mile for second class and a penny per mile for third class.

“The Sheppey Light Railway when first projected, was hardly taken seriously in some quarters, but it will soon be an accomplished fact. A start has been made, and as the line is expected to progress at the rate of a mile per month, there is every reason to believe that before the new century appears the railway will be in working order. The effect of the line on the prospect of rural Sheppey will be watched with interest. We hope there are better times in store for the hardly-hit agricultural community. If the development of Leysdown as a watering place is one result of the light railway, the farmers will find a market close at hand for some of their produce”.

An inaugural supper was held in celebration of the commencement of the new line on 10th January at Halfway House Inn. A good spread was provided for around 30 guests, followed by a toast and the singing of the National Anthem. At the beginning of 1901 claims were being made that the new light railway would soon be open to the public, there were already goods trains running as far as Eastchurch as was reported by Mr Horspool at a Sheerness Rural District Council meeting. He stated with some satisfaction that in the first week of January sixteen tonnes of coal had already been transported to Eastchurch station and delivered in the space of three-quarters of an hour. During April it was stated that the opening of the railway would take place on the 1st June, however the works were further delayed and the opening date was postponed until 21st June. A report by Major Pringles stated:

“I have the honour to report for the information of the Board of Trade, that in compliance with the instructions contained in your minute of the 12th inst., I made an inspection today of the Sheppey Light Railway.

This light railway, constructed under the order of 1898, commences at Queenborough Station on the Sittingbourne & Sheerness Branch of the SE & C Railway, and traverses the parishes of Minster, Eastchurch and Leysdown within the limits of deviation shown on the deposited plans and diversion. It terminates near Leysdown coastguard Station.

The total length of route is eight miles fifty two chains. The railway has a single line throughout except at three points, Queenborough, Eastchurch and Leysdown where there are loops, but none of these at present, are anticipated to be used for passing passengers trains”.

The line was still closed at the beginning of July and was expected to remain so for the following month. The line finally opened on the 1st August 1901. An account of the days events were recorded by the Sheerness Times:

“Opening of the Sheppey Light Railway.
The first train starts amidst cheering and a salute of Fog Signals. The first train started from Queenborough at 9.05 on Thursday morning, and a goodly gathering assembled on the bridge which crosses the railway to witness its departure, while not a few took their seats for the initial voyage. The train was made up of six coaches - first and third class, there being no second class on the line-and a luggage van. It was drawn by one of the small locomotives, which had been allotted for regular duty upon the line. Mr Howland, station-master at Queenborough, had gaily decorated the station with flags in honour of the auspicious event. Two or three officials made the first journey-Mr Smith, Assistant Superintendent of the SE & CR Company and Mr Durrant, Superintendent for the Faversham District accompanying whom was Alderman W. Pannell, of Queenborough who retired from the companies service a few years since. Several local agriculturalists made the first journey, including Mr Clifford of Neat’s Court, whilst the Union Officials were represented by Mr G. Bligh. Precisely to time, the passengers having taken their seats, the train steamed out of the station amidst hearty cheers, the waving of handkerchiefs, and the firing of fog signals, which had been placed long the line. All along the route bunting was liberally displayed on the farms and also at the stations at Sheerness East, Minster, Eastchurch and Leysdown. There were several passengers waiting at Sheerness East, and on the arrival of the train at Minster, Mr Charles Ingleton JP and a number of residents were in waiting to welcome the first passenger train and to proceed in it to the terminus. Mr Thomas Horspool, who had made quite a brave show with bunting, met the train at Eastchurch, and at Leysdown Mr C. A. Till and other residents were present to greet the passengers by the pioneer train. Altogether it was a memorable day for Sheppey”.

The regular service started the following day, this was a special day for the children at the Union Workhouse in Minster as they were taken on the light railway to Leysdown for a day out. Mrs Ingleton paid for the trip while her husband Mr Charles Ingleton accompanied the children.

A grand luncheon was arranged for Friday 16th August at the Co-operative Hall in Sheerness to celebrate the official opening of the light railway. Nearly 160 guests arrived at Sheerness East station at 12.15 for a ride to Leysdown on a special train. It returned from Leysdown to Sheerness East where the guests boarded some traps that would take them into Sheerness and to the hall. With the celebrations out of the way the day-to-day running of the line was arranged. There were four trains running each way for seven days of the week. The first left Queenborough at 9.05am and travelled through to Leysdown stopping at each stop. The journey took thirty-five minutes, after a twenty-minute wait at Leysdown it would return to Queenborough, again stopping at each stop. The timetable was altered in October as was stated in the Sheerness Times:

“Only two trains are running to and from Leysdown daily during the present month but the service of four trains daily is maintained between Eastchurch and Queenborough. The times, however, have been altered, a train running earlier in the day to meet the generally expressed wish of the leading residents that a train should run from the island in connection with the 8.45am train from Sheerness. The timetable provides for a goods and passenger train to leave Queenborough at 7 o’clock, returning from Eastchurch at 8.18am, Minster 8.30am and Sheerness East at 8.39am. The SE &CR announce that after October 31st Leysdown Station will be closed for passenger traffic until April 1st”.

On 9th February 1902 one of the trains became stranded at Queenborough as reported:

“Engine off the Line”
“On Sunday evening last the engine employed on the Sheppey Light Railway got off the line at Queenborough Station. A telephone message was sent to Eastchurch Station, giving intimation that the train due at 6.56pm would not arrive until about 12.30am. This was very unfortunate for some passengers who wished to return at 7.03pm to travel to London by the 8.20pm train from Queenborough. Some others who intended returning to Sheerness East by rail had to walk back to Sheerness”.

During the seasonal opening of the Leysdown station another train was added in July 1902, it left Queenborough at 2.20pm and returned from Leysdown at 3.10pm. This train took a leisurely forty minutes to travel between the stations, which gave time to enjoy the island’s beautiful scenery.

On Thursday 23rd April 1903 a serious accident took place on the light railway at the Sheerness East station. A car with military personnel was speeding towards the train crossing that had the gates closed against traffic when the driver mistook the entrance to the tram shed as the main road, he swerved left and somebody shouted “No, go to the right”. The driver swerved towards the right and knocked over Mr Thomas, the stationmaster, who was waiting to close the gates once the train had crossed the road. The car ran over Mr Thomas before smashing through the gates and stopping on the tracks, in the path of the oncoming train. Luckily the engine driver managed to stop the train within inches of the car, averting more damage and the probable death of the car’s occupants. The stationmaster was taken to the local hospital in Minster where he had suffered a serious cut to the back of his head and concussion. He regained consciousness later that evening and made a full recovery.

The railway proved very popular with 1,350 people using the service on Whitsun Monday. Every seat was reportedly occupied on the train. In 1903 the SE & CR extended the sidings at Harty Road and Brambledown due to many complaints, they also replaced the old wooden trellis fencing with iron railings and wooden sleeper facings were replaced with concrete at the stations. Iron lampposts were also added.

The SE & CR applied to parliament to buy the Sheppey Light Railway in 1904, as reported in the Sheerness Times:

“We take it from their action that the line is proving a success and hope it will continue to prosper”.

SE & CR had already signed an agreement in 1902 to buy the light railway for £65,000, so had expected the line to be popular.

Due to the extreme decrease in passengers during the last year (down by 2,178,475) it was proposed to replace the steam locomotives with railcars, or railmotors as they were sometimes known. Prelimerary runs had been made on the Sheppey Light Railway during September 1903 with two small petrol-electric railcars that were borrowed from Dick, Kerr & Co. They were not very successful though, especially on frosty mornings when the familiar ignition problems with internal combustion engines were experienced. Hot water for the radiators had to be obtained from standby steam locomotives. MR H. S. Wainwright, the SE & CR’s locomotive superintendent, decided that orders were to be placed with Messrs Kitson & Co Ltd of the Airdale Foundry in Leeds for two steam driven railmotors. Trials were held between Dover - Deal and Ashford - New Romney. Railcar No.1 was sent to Queenborough for the Leysdown services - the Sheerness Times reported in February 1905 that:

“Queenborough: - Steam motor car:
On Tuesday (14th) the ordinary train was withdrawn from the Sheppey Light Railway and replaced by a steam motor car, which is 56ft in length and is capable of travelling at a speed of 30 miles an hour. The car, which is very comfortable has accommodation for fifty passengers and another fifty can be accommodated in the trailer, which will be stored at Queenborough and will only be used when required. The motor was constructed (partly) at Ashford and Mr Thompson, the superintendent of the line, travelled in it on Monday on the trial run from Ashford to Leysdown. First class fares on the Light Railway are now abolished, only third class tickets being issued”.

The rail cars were divided into two compartments with 32 seats for smoking passengers and 24 seats for non-smoking passengers and they all had electric lighting. Due to the new rail cars being brought in to save money a test was set up with Engine No. 523 and a train of three six wheeled carriages, and a railcar being sent to Leysdown and back to compare the logs. The results are as follows:

  Cost per mile Coal burnt per mile
No.523 & train £2, 1s, 6d 26 ¾ lbs
Railcar £1, 5s, 0d 15 ¼ lbs

With the introduction of the railcars there was a need for more freight trains as the service was very popular. The SE & CR contacted the neighbouring rail company, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, on the 5th July 1904 to enquire if they had any steam locomotives that they could buy. A 0-6-0 tank, No.54, engine was offered, the engine, originally named Waddon, was renumbered to 751 and begun working freight on 12th February 1905, it soon became known as “Little Tich”. Little Tich would leave Queenborough at ten to four in the afternoon, calling at all stations except Minster On Sea until arriving at Leysdown and ten minutes past five. It would spend twenty minutes at Leysdown where the yard was shunted before leaving at 5.35pm and returning to Queenborough fifty five minutes later. Occasionally Little Tich would replace a railcar or go on shunting duties to Sheerness Dockyard.

March 1905 saw two new stops opened on the light railway, Harty Road Halt, between Eastchurch and Leysdown, and the other being Brambledown Halt, between Eastchurch and Minster on Sea.

With the lack of facilities at Leysdown to fill the locomotives with water it was decided to drill down for a suitable supply. A contract was drawn up with J. Warner & Son for £625 after authorisation was given in July 1904. The contract was to erect a windmill with pumping apparatus and pipes. A tale has been told that during the drilling of the borehole the bit hit hard rock and instead of going through it it bent the bit, the bit then drilled in the wrong direction and appeared behind the workmen where they finally realised what had happened. A further £300 was added to the bill in July 1906 that may give evidence that the story was true. In total the cost of the works was £1,295 that was double the estimate of the original plans. In spite of the well being drilled here there was still a shortage of water for the locomotives, due to this Little Tich was sent away a few years later and a Stirling ‘O’ Class 0-6-0 tender engine was put to work on the line. This engine could hold 2000 gallons of water, four times the amount Little Tich could.

The railcars had been withdrawn from line a few times by this point due to one problem or another and in 1910 there was considerable relief when they were withdrawn and people no longer had to use the “Bone Shaker”. A replacement was brought to the island in September 1910 and was a new ‘P’ Class 0-6-0 locomotive. The carriages were separate to the engine and the ride was a lot smoother that the railcars.

At the beginning of WWI the Sheerness on Sea station was closed to passengers and only goods trains were allowed to use the line, however the Sheppey Light Railway would be kept open for passengers for as long as was possible but the public were warned:

“Owing to the military requirements the company may find it necessary to cancel any train at short notice”.

The railway was taken over by the government during the war and they added more sidings to help transport goods, at the end of 1916 engineers were working at Eastchurch station to lay a siding that ran into the Royal Naval Aviation School. Once the sidings were complete arrangements were made for Colonel Pringle to inspect the work, his report reads:

“I have the honour to report for the information of the Board of Trade, that in compliance with the instructions contained in your minute of the 12th December 1916, I made an inspection of the new works at Eastchurch station on the South eastern & Chatham Railway.

“A new siding for Admiralty purposes has been laid south of the railway at the Queenborough end of the station. The points on the single line are worked from an old ground frame “A” which contains 5 working and 1 spare lever. The points have an economical facing point lock, and an entrance ground signal for the siding has been provided. The interlocking frame is correct.

“The general arrangements of the station yard are not very satisfactory. The loop points are now worked by separate ground frames and the distance apart of these frames results in irregularity of signal working. I also observed that the goods loop – which, I understand, is not used for passenger services – is not equipped with catch points at either end. I inspected the Sheppey Light Railway in the year 1901, but can find no reason for the omission of catch points other than the possibility that the loop was intended for use by passenger trains. The working of the station yard should be controlled by a single ground frame, centrally situated. This would obviate irregularities in signal working which, I understand, now exist.

“Subject to the consideration of these matters at no distant date and to some satisfactory conclusion by the Committee, I recommend the Board of Trade to approve the new works.
I have the honour etc.
J. W. Pringle, Colonel”.

Due to the new requirements the work was not completed for another nine months at a cost of £208.

On 29th September 1917 a bomb landed on the light railway, it hit at Sheerness East on the Leysdown side of the station. It is assumed the bomb was destined for the Royal Dockyard at Sheerness but missed, causing the rails to be blown off the track. Repairs were undertaken immediately and the line was operational again the following day. The trains ran six times a day each way during the war years with a late run on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Sunday saw two trips each way. one at midday and one in the evening.

After the war there were more problems for the light railway. Buses became a popular form of transport as they were not restricted to the stations and people could travel into Sheerness without changing trains at Queenborough, and with the tram gone there was no direct link into the town for passengers. However, as each year passed, the number of passengers increased with day-trippers and holidaymakers returning to the island. Saturdays now had seven trains per day each way to Leysdown with four on Sundays during the summer months, reduced to two in the winter. There was also a relief train on standby during the busiest periods.

With the problems caused by the buses, increased popularity and the increased use of the motorcar, the light railway soon became to lose its passengers. The first service to suffer was the Sunday service which was stopped altogether - however the outcry from the holidaymakers caused the service to be reinstated although the trains only ran between Leysdown and Eastchurch during July, August and September. The increase of cars on the roads soon began to cause other problems for the railway, collisions with the level crossings were on the increase. A serious accident occurred in January 1929 at the Scraps Gate crossing. The trains still had to slow to 10mph at crossings and this particular crossing had gates to close off the road although they were not manned. At about 9.25am the train was approaching the crossing, the driver sounded his whistle while noticing a lorry speeding towards the crossing. The lorry was owned by Messrs Clay & Sons and was carrying asbestos roofing tiles, it didn’t slow down for the crossing and drove straight in front of the train. The train smashed into the lorry and the force was great enough to wrench the steering wheel from the lorry driver’s hands, it pushed the vehicle aside and the driver was thrown from the lorry and into a ditch. Having stopped the train the crew rushed to help the injured man, the driver suffered cuts and bruises to his neck, hands and head. Following this accident it was decided the gates at the Scraps Gate crossing should swing inwards to close the railway track and force the train drivers to stop. One engine driver must have forgotten this and ran straight through the gates, smashing them to pieces on 4th May 1933.

With the approach of the Second World War the service carried on running with six trains running each way. The abolition of tolls on the Kingsferry Bridge in 1929 caused an increase in road traffic, this in turn reduced the amount of train passengers. Once war was declared the SR introduced emergency reduced railway services. August 13th 1940 saw the Germans announce Eagle Day, the day they were to attack the RAF Aerodromes. Due to extreme fog the attack was cancelled however some crews hadn’t heard and flew over to commence the raid. A group of Dorniers, determined to attack Eastchurch, flew around the coast and up the Thames Estuary. They were intercepted by the RAF at 7.07am but had already dropped a bomb. It exploded on the railway track near Eastchurch Station. The repairs were completed by 4.50pm that evening and one of the bombers that attacked was damaged by the RAF and crashed into the Elham Valley Line, the crew survived and were immediately arrested. Two days later another attack was attempted, this time the bomb over flew its mark and blew another hole in the track near Eastchurch Station, and again the track was repaired quickly. Two weeks later, on the 28th , another bomb landed on the track, this time near Old Rides farm and crossing. This bomb didn’t explode and nobody realised it was there until the train came thundering along and the driver saw it. Luckily he had time to stop the train before colliding with it. The line was closed until the bomb disposal team could deal with it. To end this terrible month another attack was planned on the Aerodrome, again bombs missed their mark and landed on the light railway. This time unfortunately there were people walking the line, four men, they dived for cover but were injured in the blast. Lengthman Hayward was killed, lengthman Austin only suffered slight injuries, lengthman Fifield and relayer Waters were both badly injured in the blast and were taken to hospital where they stayed until their wounds healed. The line was again quickly repaired and this was the last time it was damaged during the war.

Eighteen months after the SR refused to update the signalling system along the railway a near disaster happened, forcing them to reconsider their original decision. On the 17th February 1944, at 10.55am a passenger train left Queenborough Station, 10 minutes later a goods train was to follow along the line. Up until Brambledown Halt everything as running smoothly with the passenger train and following goods train, as the passenger train left Brambledown and approached the Newhook, the crossing was clear and the train carried on, but upon reaching the Old Hook Farm, where there was an occupation crossing, the train struck something. A motorcar had driven onto the crossing with neither driver seeing the other’s vehicle. The train driver stopped the train as fast as he could and the fireman and guard rushed to check the driver of the car and to remove him from the wreckage. During the panic the guard forgot to place the detonators on the track to warn the following train there was a problem, the engine driver heard the train approaching and rushed to place the detonators and give the hand signals that there was a problem, hoping they were not too late. Luckily the driver of the goods train had seen the train up ahead and managed to stop in time and prevented crashing into the passenger train. An internal inquiry was undertaken by SR and it was established that after helping the goods train the porter went off to telephone Eastchurch to check the line was clear for the goods train to proceed. Eastchurch informed the porter that the passenger train had yet to arrive, when the porter went to inform the driver of the goods train that there was a delay he found the train had already left on its way to Eastchurch. The guard of the goods train was reprimanded for not waiting for the porter to inform them it was safe to proceed and new signals were placed costing £418.

As the war ended it was expected that holidaymakers and day-trippers would again use the light railway. This was to make up for the loss of military personnel that stayed at Eastchurch during the war years. Unfortunately the expected rise in passengers was not to happen, Sunday services were cancelled altogether and only four trains ran on the line each way. The buses however were thriving with many passengers preferring the option of being dropped nearer their destinations. The gross receipts of 1949 showed a total income of £5,753. Only £106 had come from passengers, showing that the goods service was the only thing keeping the railway open. The accounts showed that the profit made on the line would not amount to enough to keep the railway open for much longer. The decision was finally made in the early part of 1950, after establishing that to keep the track open SR would have to spend £28,000 to construct permanent way renewals along the track, to close the line.

On the 3rd November 1950 the railway executive announced that the line was to close entirely on Monday 4th December 1950, the last train to run was to be on Saturday 2nd December leaving Queenborough at 4.27pm. The stations were crowded with people wanting to bid goodbye to the last train. A reporter from the Sheerness Times was there and reported:

Local celebrities stage exciting mock ceremonies.

Old railway friend buried with ‘honours’ People come from all parts of Britain.

“By the time these lines appear in print the Sheppey Light Railway to many people will only be a memory.
But to those who took part in the final eventful trip on Saturday last, there was a feeling of suspense and animation – like a kettle boiling fiercely with the lid about to burst off – for the farewell scenes touched new heights of excitement. Intermingling with all the festive masquerading and mock ceremonial, some present felt an atmosphere of sadness in the thought that Sheppey, at the moment, was losing something, even if it was the infuriating, slow and easy light railway. However, if the railway executive had seen all that was taking place and the interest and enthusiasm aroused amongst the inhabitants, it might have influenced them to have granted a ‘reprieve’ for a period – a kind of second chance for an old friend, the light railway.
Well done, good and faithful servant,’ was suggested as an appropriate epitaph. The scenes on the train on this last journey from Queenborough to Leysdown and back again recalled those bygone days, when a relief train had to run to accommodate the number of passengers wishing to travel on the light railway, particularly at week-ends.
At each station people were waiting to board the train for the last time, and this desire spread like ‘wildfire’ throughout the area served by the railway”.

Among the last passengers was Miss Olive Hooker who was in charge of some excited children that were to take their last ride on the train, also Mr A. H. R. Copland. Mr Copland’s grandfather, the late John Copland, had been involved in promoting the railway during it’s construction. Some of the railways last passengers were from all over Britain, there were some from Manchester, London and other places, there were members from Light Railway Leagues, Spotters Leagues and many more. The driver of the last train was Mr Tom Birchall with guard, Edward Cacket, fireman R. Pilcher and Mr Edward gill was the assistant guard. The driver of the very first train that ran along this line, Mr Jack Buddle, was also onboard for the last journey.

Part of the celebrations was a procession to be held at Leysdown. A coffin had been made for the occasion and was carried by four ‘mourners’, Messrs F. J. Purvis, J. Purvis, W. T. Rule and Sutchbury. The coffin held a miniature engine on its top, a guards cap, and a wreath of cabbages and mixed flowers. It was inscribed:

“In memory of the Sheppey Light that died through lack of puff!”.

Another wreath was placed on the engine, it bore the words:

“I did my job for fifty years and can’t get no extension; I’d like to have done it for fifty-one to have drawn the old age pension”.

All along the journey back there were crowds, bands playing, letting off foghorns and beeping motorcar horns. A second coffin was placed on the train at Minster, this one polished and with more floral tributes. At the final stop of Queenborough there were funeral parties, official photographs and a short burial service conducted by Cllr. F. J. Purvis and Mayor Bigg. S. J. A. B. Cadet trumpeters, under Band-master Cadet Officer D. Howard, sounded the ‘Last Post'.

The following Monday the island’s traffic was at a standstill with 4 inches of snow, people were unable to travel to work and goods vans were stationary. The train would have easily travelled the line in these conditions, it was surely missed at times like these.

All rails and buildings were pulled up and demolished in the following years, the only remnant being the track bed in some areas.

A big thankyou to David Brown for donating the picture of the track between Soccles Road and Elm Lane

Designed & built by - Kevin Ali