Railway Preservation – Students show the way

The growth of “Heritage” in Britain is due, says Jodie Lewis of Bangor University, to the British love of nostalgia and the underdog.

Railway Preservation – the preservation of a complete or part of a railway – dates to 4th June 1951 when volunteers under the enthusiastic management of L T C “Tom” Rolt re-opened the Tal y Llyn railway in North Wales for business; the preservation of railway locomotives arguably dates back to the 1860s when the remains of George and Robert Stephenson’s “Rocket” was presented to what is now the Science Museum or to 1926 when the Stephenson Locomotive Society privately purchased the ‘London, Brighton & South Coast Railway’ locomotive “Gladstone” for restoration and preservation.

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Whilst the Tal y Llyn showed the way with narrow gauge railways – narrow gauge being anything less than ‘Standard Gauge’ of 4 feet 8.5 inches (1,435mm) – it was a further decade before moves were made to preserve standard gauge railway infrastructure. The move first came in 1959 when members of the Leeds University Union Railway Society started to formulate plans for the creation of a railway museum for Leeds, celebrating the contribution of Leeds to railway engineering. Leeds was home to several famous engineering companies, including the Hunslet Engine Company Ltd, who in March 1972 supplied the last ever steam locomotive to be built in Britain for commercial purposes for the Trangkil Sugar Plantation in Indonesia. Hunslet ceased trading in 1995 and the Trangkil locomotive was repatriated in 2004.

The idea also included a short running line on which to demonstrate various locomotives and examples of rolling stock; the Tal y Llyn Railway had shown what was possible on a larger scale with a volunteer-led railway company, so a student led or inspired Museum and running track was a possibility, surely?

Christopher Thornburn, an undergraduate at Leeds, informed the Society that the Middleton Railway (opened in 1758) was in the process of being abandoned by the National Coal Board who had acquired it after Nationalisation and that not only would it make an excellent Museum site but giving its age, that it should be saved. Ultimately the railway was acquired by Messrs Clayton, Son & Company of Leeds who used it for transhipment to and from its site at Balm Road Goods Yard. Approaches were made by the LUURS to take over running of the railway, a move which Clayton, Son & Co. were generally in favour of.

The Middleton Railway was opened in 1758; the Leeds Mercury of September 26th 1758 records that “On Wednesday Last the first Waggon Load of Coals was brought from the Pitts of Charles Brandling Esq. down the New Road to his Staithes , near the Bridge in this Town. Agreeable to the Act of Parliament…A scheme of such General Utility, as to comprehend within it, not only our Trade and Poor…but also beneficial to every Individual within this Town and Neighbourhood…”

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Fifty years later however, the colliery had to compete with the Army for the purchase of work-horses and fodder, as the Duke of Wellington pursued Napoleon Bonaparte around Europe. As horses and fodder became scarcer, prices rose at home and colliery owners looked to cheaper modes of transport; in many cases they had the raw materials to hand: coal, iron and engineers experienced with running and maintaining steam pumping engines.

Estate and colliery steward, John Blenkinsop, substantially reduced Middleton’s transport costs by introducing steam locomotives. Blenkinsop invented a rack and pinion system, very similar to that still used on many mountain railways. A large rack wheel at one side of the locomotive connected with cogs cast into the rail at that side, giving substantial assistance to the locomotive’s pulling power without needing to be heavy enough to break its track.

Leeds Mercury carried a description of “Blenkinsop’s Machine” and described the first run of the locomotive in graphic terms:

“At 4 o’clock in the afternoon the machine ran from the coal staith to the top of Hunslet Moor, where six, and afterwards eight, waggons of coal, each weighing 31/4 tons, were hooked to the back part. With this immense weight, to which, as it approached the Town of Leeds was superadded about 50 spectators, it started on its return to the coal staith, and performed a journey of 1 ¼ miles, principally on a dead level, in 23 minutes without the slightest accident.”

The four locomotives built for the colliery by Matthew Murray, designed by him to incorporate John Blenkinsop’s patented rack wheel, were the world’s first commercially viable locomotives. Two were built in 1812 named ‘Prince Regent’ and ‘Salamanca’(after the battle of the same name); a third appeared a year later named ‘Prince Blucher’ and a fourth in 1815 ‘Marquis Wellington’. Robert Dalglish built locomotives of the same design under licence for use at a colliery near Wigan and two were sent to Kenton Colliery near Newcastle in 1813. The introduction of steam locomotion resulted in the laying off of 200 men and 50 horses between 1812 and 1815.

Many foreign visitors tried to interest their own governments and industrialists in the idea of introducing locomotive-worked railways, one of whom was the Grand Duke Nicholas who would later be Tsar Nicholas I. In 1815, the technical design was published in a French science and industry journal, and within the next few years the Prussian government had two locomotives built in Berlin to the Murray-Blenkinsop design: the first locomotives ever constructed on mainland Europe.

Neither of them proved to be successful: one ended its days as a stationary pumping engine, and the other, after a year or so powering a confectioner’s flour mill, was sold to an earthernware works. The last Blenkinsop locomotive ran on the Middleton in 1835 when it reverted to horse traction; amazingly one of the locomotives survived until 1860 when it was cut up for scrap. Fragments of a Blenkinsop engine and the unique rack and pinion rail are on display at the National Railway Museum at York.

The Leeds University Union, however, ruled out the possibility of the LUURS operating a railway. In December 1959 a meeting was chaired by Leeds University lecturer Dr R F “Fred” Youell, which led to the formation of the Middleton Railway Preservation Society whose remit, was to take over operation of the Middleton Railway. This new society was essentially the same as LUURS but without the constriction of being responsible to the Students Union and could operate outside of any involvement of Leeds University. Because of this it enabled members to join who were not connected with the University. The forefront of the societies’ plan was still a Museum rather than a working railway, but this was soon to change. The society ran its first train – a former Tram Car from Swansea hauled by a Leeds-built Hunslet Diesel – driven by Dr Youell on 20th June 1960. During the first week of operation – coincidentally Leeds University Rag Week – some 7,700 passengers were carried.

Two local companies, Clayton, Son & Co and Robinson & Birdsell, agreed to take up the offer of the fledgling Middleton Railway Preservation Society to act as sole carrier on the Railway; the service commenced on 1st September 1960 less than three months after the first train had been run! The Middleton Railway had become a volunteer run freight carrier business, which continued to flourish until the closure of Messrs. Claytons in 1983.

On the other side of the country, however, another group of students were battling to save a Railway.  The Lewes to East Grinstead branch line was faced with closure in 1954, but a strident letter writing campaign led to British Railways running a sole “mandatory parliament train” from August 1956, which kept the railway running until 1958. During 1959, the same year as the Middleton Railway Preservation Society was established, students organised the Lewes & East Grinstead Preservation Society to take over running of that branch line. Through support of key BR official Captain Peter Manisty a lease was signed for the track between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes, which would be the embryo of the “Bluebell Railway”, and the first train was run on August 7th 1960, just two months behind the Middleton.

Enthusiastic, perhaps naïve students took the initiative in kick-starting railway preservation in Britain, and across the globe. It is interesting that out of the four first preserved railways in Britain – the Tal y Llyn, Ffestiniog, Middleton and Bluebell, all but the Tal y Llyn had been student-led ventures. In 1960 it was impossible to think that 50 years later there would be 170 Railway Preservation Centres, with a combined route mileage of 500 miles (and increasing), grossing £75million per annum. Danny Hopkins, editor of “Steam Railway Magazine” states, “What has been achieved in the half-century is nothing short of a miracle…” Without the effort of the LUURS the Railway Heritage movement might never have started or have taken on a different form to the one we know today.


The Leeds Mercury

G. Body-Hope, ‘University Challenge’, 50 Years in Steam: Celebrating Standard Gauge Railway Preservation 1960-2010.

H. Household Narrow Gauge Railways. Wales and the Western Front (London: Alan Sutton, 1988).

P. Johnson, Festiniog 150, the History of the Festiniog Railway (London: Ian Allen, 1986).

L. T. C. Rolt, Railway Adventure, The story of the Tal Y Llyn Railway (Newton Abbott: David & Charles 1961).





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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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