The mid nineteenth century was a time of wild speculation on the railways . Vast sums were made and more commonly lost on grandiose schemes. Railways were transforming the whole structure of society; towns that weren’t on a railway suffered economically. Malmesbury was one of these. Not that there weren’t plans aplenty, (in Gloucester alone 33 railway proposals were deposited in 1845) but somehow they didn’t make progress. One d ifficulty was deciding if Malmesbury, perhaps with Tetbury, should be a branch line or should Malmesbury be part of a grander scheme to link different areas and lines. For example Fowler’s line ran from Chepstow to Wootton Bassett via Malmesbury.
In 1861 the Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Railway Company was formed at a public meeting attended by all the local worthies. The line would run from Stroud to Christian Malford through Tetbury and Malmesbury. The railway was sanctioned by Parliament on 21.6.1864 and on 1.7.1885 the first sod was cut by Lady Suffolk. Great were the celebrations with a banquet for 400 people complete with roast boar’s head and a grand procession through the town down to a field at the foot of Holloway, where the station was to be sited. She was presented with a ceremonial barrow and spade which are now in the museum.
However the euphoria was short lived. The Midland Railway and the Great Western Railway, who were the principle stakeholders could not agree and although matters dragged on for some years on 17.3.1871 the company was wound up.
Malmesbury was determined to have a railway – indeed the economic wealth of the town depended on it – and in October the same year a meeting was held in the Town Hall to sound support for a more modest scheme to run from Malmesbury to Dauntsey. The bill was passed the next year, 1872, and in spite of difficulty in raising the necessary funds work started on 8.7.1874 with 50 navvies digging a cutting to divert the Avon at Cowbridge. This time there were no extravagant celebrations. The station was to be near the Tetbury Road; the site was cheap and it was hoped would lure people from Tetbury. The engineer was Richard Ward, 57 years old and with a wealth of experience. He had been articled to the greatest of all railway engineers – Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself.
There were numerous difficulties to be overcome, both constructive and financial but at last the great day dawned. On 18th December 1877 the Malmesbury railway opened. Now there were celebrations – the day was declared a public holiday, bunting criss-crossed the High Street and Dr Kinnear flew a large Union Jack from the tower of his house in Oxford Street. (The present occupiers continue the tradition – there is always a flag flying.) A large procession was formed which marched to the station to meet the first train. In the evening yet another banquet took place – the vicar is recorded as saying “it was a novel thing to ride by that old Monastic building, the grand and ancient abbey in a railway carriage.”
Alas the railway had really come too late. Although Malmesbury benefited from it, other towns had got there first and so the hoped for boom never arrived. Perhaps 130 years later we can be pleased that the qualities we value were not destroyed by a rash of Victorian development.
The railway was part of town life. A railway hotel was built; a carriage from the King’s Arms, landlord Harry Jones, met every train and there were six or more each day.
The line appears to have been pretty busy with both freight and passengers. The Malmesbury commoners used the line to convey their vegetables far and wide, but after the First World War the profitability seems to have dropped as the GWR board started to look for economies. The General Strike of 1926 affected all railways including Malmesbury; the damage this did to the usage of the service was never completely restored. Each year all the churches combined to send a Sunday school outing to Weston-Super-Mare; in the 1930s over 400 went!
When the Wales and Bristol line, the Badminton line, was built in 1905 this provided an obvious opportunity to shorten the spur. Strangely it was not until 14.7.1933 that the service was changed to terminate at Little Somerford with connections onwards. Although this produced some economies the profitability of the line continued to decline. The station at Great Somerford was closed; it had been averaging one passenger per two trains.
During World War II normal services were greatly reduced although military traffic was important. A possible siding for EKCole was discussed but never put into practice. Trains bearing more than 300 evacuees provided moments of drama.
After the war traffic continued to decline although the dismantling of the airfield gave a brief surge in freight transport including moving live bombs.
In spite of protests from the Borough council and other local interests on 10.9.1951 Malmesbury Railway closed to passenger traffic. Over the previous year only 3 trains had run daily and averaged 5 passengers so perhaps this was not an irrational decision. The goods service continued until 11.11.1962 but then quietly and without fuss was closed, eighty five years after it opened.
A full and interesting account of the Malmesbury Railway with a host of detail and technical information is given in “The Malmesbury Branch” by Mike Fenton.