A short survey of railways in the Manor of Yardley, by Anthony John Lambert, Publicity Officer, Standard Gauge Steam Trust
This was produced for the Millenary Celebrations in 1972. It is reproduced here without updating, as we have been unable to contact Mr. Lambert. We request the author to contact us concerning updating, copyright and acknowledgment.
In the early 18th century, two and a half days was considered an unusually short time for the stage-coach journey between Birmingham and London. The first mail-coach to Birmingham from the metropolis ran in the summer of 1785 and an average travelling time was 12 hours. When the "Independent Tally-ho" performed the journey on May-Day, 1830 in only seven hours and ten minutes, the feat received tremendous acclamation.
Although stage-coach owners were constantly endeavouring to improve upon their times, it must be remembered that speed was unnecessary, even undesirable, to the majority of those few who had occasion to travel long distances. In the same year as this record run, a gentleman writing on the prospect of a rail-road between London and Birmingham commented that "it is not one traveller out of a thousand to whom an arrival in Birmingham or London three hours sooner would be of the slightest consequence". The pace of life was leisurely and dignified and devoid of the sense of urgency with which city and town life has become imbued.
With this in mind, it is not to be wondered at that the early railways and the idea of a "Puffing Billy" were received with scorn and incredulity. The concept of travelling at more than eight miles an hour was beyond the imagination of most. One writer warned that "the solitary stranger, who had nobody to tell him better, would go swinging at the tail of the engine, bumping first on the iron-plates on this side, and then on the iron-plates on that side; and if he escaped being scalded to death by the bursting of his own engine, or having all his bones broken by the collision of another, he would be fain to rest for the night within some four bare walls, and gnaw a mouldy crust which he had brought in his pocket. .", etc. Fears were not only expressed for the passengers but also for sheep lest their fleeces would be injured by the smoke of the "iron horse" and for buildings which might be ignited by the sparks of passing trains.
But the benefits to be derived from railways proved too great an incentive and the early railway pioneers showed by example that their proposals were no "dupe of quackery" as one opponent expressed it. The success of the Stockton & Darlington Railway and the Liverpool & Manchester Railway encouraged the promotion of further lines and it was not long before Birmingham figured in these schemes.
A Bill for the construction of a line from London to Birmingham was put before the House of Commons in 1832 and was accepted but rejected by the Lords. A further application in 1833 proved successful and construction work commenced in June of that year. Contemporary chroniclers seemed to enjoy making peculiar comparisons to give the public some idea of the magnitude of the railway construction works. One calculated that the London & Birmingham Railway necessitated the excavation of enough material to "encompass the earth more than three times with a band one foot high and three feet broad". The line was completed in the remarkably short time of four years when one considers not only the scale of the engineering works, such as the deep cutting at Tring and the tunnel at Kilsby, over two miles long, but also that nearly all the work was done with a pick and shovel.
The London & Birmingham was not the first railway to enter the town, the Grand Junction line from Warrington having been opened to a temporary terminus in Vauxhall in July, 1837, but it was the first line to pass through the old Manor of Yardley, crossing the northern part of the parish at Stechford and Kitts Green. The line was opened from Curzon Street as far as Rugby in April 1838 and on the morning of 17th September 1838, through trains began running between Curzon Street in Birmingham and London Euston bringing the capital within six hours of Birmingham.
The beginnings of what later became the Great Western Railway line to Birmingham from the metropolis are more involved, partly due to the number of railway companies vying with each other for the most lucrative routes and partly because of the question of gauge. The standard gauge of 4ft 8½ in., which was favoured by most companies except the Great Western, was said to have been arrived at by George Stephenson who took the average width of cart wheels around his home at Killingworth. The Great Western was encouraged by its remarkable engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to adopt a larger gauge of 7 foot to give greater stability, and therefore comfort and safety, at speed. The problems encountered in the transfer of goods and passengers where the two gauges met, as at Gloucester, can be imagined and in a Parliamentary Inquiry, the narrow gauge was favoured although it was not until 1892 that the last broad gauge train ran.
It was the broad gauge Birmingham & Oxford Junction Railway which built the railway through the southern part of Yardley Manor by way of Acocks Green, Tyseley, and Small Heath. This line was authorised in 1846 and was to connect up with the Oxford & Rugby Railway at a junction in the parish of Fenny Compton. This would connect Birmingham with London as the Great Western line from London (Paddington) to Oxford was already in use. Construction began in early 1847 and two years later it was reported that the viaduct into Birmingham (from Bordesley to Moor Street) was completed and the line as far as Warwick was in an advanced state. Construction of Snow Hill station itself was not begun until January 1852 because of the problems involved in the purchase and clearance of property. It is interesting to note that the section of line between Moor Street and Snow Hill station was largely made as an open cutting and then covered, the land on top being sold.
By the time work on Snow Hill had commenced, the relevant section of the Oxford & Rugby Railway from the junction at Fenny Compton to Oxford was nearing completion. The line from Fenny Compton to Rugby was later abandoned but the earth works can still be seen from the train today. By September 1852, the line was ready for inspection by the Board of Trade except for the final mile into Snow Hill. The engineering works of particular interest are the high and long embankment near Acocks Green and a 400 foot long timber viaduct over the reservoir at Olton which would then be comparatively new having been built, it is thought, by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.
On Friday, 1st October 1852, the line was opened for passengers between Paddington and Snow Hill via Oxford, the expresses being allowed only 2¾ hours for the 129 miles which would have to be covered at an average speed of 47mph. Goods traffic commenced in the following year but was limited until the opening of the railway through to Wolverhampton, Snow Hill being a terminus in 1852. The original stations north of Warwick were Hatton, Knowle, Solihull, Acocks Green, and Birmingham. Lapworth (which was named Kingswood until 1902) and Bordesley were added in 1854 and 1855 respectively, Small Heath and Sparkbrook in 1863, Olton in 1864, and Widney Manor in 1899. It is interesting to note that a station was not provided at Tyseley until 1906, by which time the line to Stratford-upon-Avon was under construction. From contemporary accounts, Tyseley was an area of green fields and country lanes even as late as 1906, after which development began.
The final railway construction within the old Manor of Yardley was the line from Tyseley down to Bearley to join the Hatton to Stratford branch. The importance of this 17¾ mile line was that it completed the Great Western Railway's short route between Bristol and Birmingham via Gloucester, Honeybourne and Stratford. Eleven steam navvies (comparable to today's excavators) and twenty-three locomotives were employed in construction of the line which began in September 1905. The opening for goods took place in December 1907 but it was not until 1st July 1908 that the line was opened for passengers. On the opening day, an express from Wolverhampton to Bristol and back used the line. This type of traffic developed to such an extent that by 1939, twelve long-distance expresses each way used the line on Summer Saturdays and it was not until 1962 that "The Cornishman" was re-routed over the Lickey Hills.
This brief account of the history of railway development in relation to Yardley has not been brought up to date as subsequent events are better known.
See also our page on railways around Acocks Green